August 3, 2021
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What’s the best cookbook? Do you prefer one that covers all the bases, or do you like specialized cookbooks, one for bread, one for desserts, one for appetizers? Do you like cuisine-specific cookbooks, one for Greek food and a different one for Italian?
I confess, I’m all of the above. I love cookbooks. Even though I, like most people, find a lot of recipes online (heck, I post a ton of recipes online!), I still love a real cookbook. Hardcover, paperback, spiral-bound: there is something wonderful about browsing through the pages and looking at the pictures that you just can’t mimic on your phone or laptop.
One small, hand-written recipe is like a time machine to my childhood, evoking years of family meals and memories of loved ones.
So what are my favorite cookbooks, and why do I love them? There are a lot of answers to that. Most of the cookbooks I love are ones that have a specific memory or person associated with them. For instance, the old classic, The Escoffier Cookbook, is one of my favorites because my Dad gave it to me years ago. Why was it on his shelf? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure he knew either, he was no great cook. But now that he is gone it’s just another small reminder of him. It’s not my most used cookbook, although it is a great resource for sauces in particular, as well as for a wealth of techniques.
Another classic, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, is one of my favorites as well. I was hired as a private chef for a family in Southhampton, Long Island, one summer during college. I had worked in restaurants by then, but mostly in the front of house and serving roles, and basically got the job because I was living in Southampton with a job placement agency and known to do a lot of cooking. Cooking professionally? The thought was daunting, so I headed to the local bookstore and bought Joy of Cooking. This was before the internet, remember, and I cannot tell you how much I learned that summer about food, cooking, meal planning, and troubleshooting other people’s diets and schedules, simply by constantly referring to this classic cookbook.
Of course, the ultimate sentimental cookbooks are ones that others give you, and even better, make for you. My sister-in-law gave me a cookbook years ago featuring some of the dishes we had enjoyed together, as well as plenty of favorites from her childhood and room for me to add my own. And years later, my Mom gave my sisters and me the ultimate family cookbook, not only featuring the recipes that we had grown up loving, but written carefully in her own, beautiful hand. She was inspired to make us these by browsing through her own mother’s old, page-worn cookbook, which was full of hand-written notes in the margins. One small, hand-written recipe is like a time machine to my childhood, evoking years of family meals and memories of loved ones.
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Of course, some of my favorite specialty cookbooks are from my culinary travels with The International Kitchen. Many of our chefs have recipe packets, and if you get enough recipes in them they are ready for their place on the shelf. The benefit of these is that they invariably feature local cuisine: Tuscan or Sicilian, Provencal or Catalan, they are reminders of my travels and also wonderful sources for authentic local recipes.
I find that specialty cookbooks are particularly useful for baking. My favorite bread cookbook is undoubtedly Peter Rienhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. I loved bread making before then, and for years never bought bread but only made it from scratch. But Reinhart’s lessons on delayed fermentation and on simulating a steam injection oven were, it is safe to safe, life changing!
A new favorite thanks to my kids are Mary Berry’s baking cookbooks. Having watched her on TV, my kids wanted to start recreating her dishes at home. Now that they are old enough to bake themselves, we’ve found a wonderful trove of recipes for things like lemon curd, Victorian sponge, Bakewell tarts, scones, and more.
And of course, then there are the really specialized cookbooks. I have ones dedicated exclusively to such delectable dishes as risotto, hot chocolate, salsa, and even hand-held pies!
I think that my love of cooking grew out of my love of reading about cooking. When I was a kid, we had a bookcase in the kitchen filled with cookbooks. I would eat all my meals reading about meals I could have been having.
– Samantha Bee
A beautiful, hardbound cookbook is, to me, just as gorgeous as a coffee table art book, and frequently more fun to pour over. There are many of these that are are special to me. The French Laundry, of course, gifted to me years ago by a dear friend (fellow foodie and travel planner of Aga Travel), and of course my beautiful cookbook from Don Alfonso 1890, which is not only gorgeous but boasts a personal dedication to me from the family matriarch, Livia Iaccarino. (Read more about my experience at Don Alfonso).
I asked my colleagues what their favorite cookbooks are and why, curious whether they would choose something general, specialized, or sentimental. Richard replied that his favorites are two: The Doubleday Cookbook: Complete Contemporary Cooking by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna published in 1975, which is his go-to “bible” for general techniques and cooking methods for every food group; and From Julia Child’s Kitchen by Julia Child published in 1977. Richard, like so many Americans, found Julia Child’s cooking shows to be the spark that ignited his interest in food and taught him how to cook. “I have a number of her cookbooks but this one, based on 25 years of experience, is great. New viewpoints on classic recipes, new recipes, illustrated “how-to” recipes. Julia at her best.”
Sharon’s favorite? Joy of Cooking, and for similar reasons to mine! “My first grown-up cookbook, given to me as a present when I moved to my first apartment. Tattered cover, still bookmarked recipes I refer to.”
And Adrian’s favorite? The Great British Puddings Cookbook by Nancy Lambert. Why? “Reminds me of my grandmother.”
What is your favorite cookbook? Have you thought about why you love it? Is it tied to memories of a person or trip? Is it simply that it’s the most useful? Do you find all your recipes online now, or do you still appreciate a bound, physical book?
By Peg Kern
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