Each year, the new crop of cookbooks planted on bookshelves for the holiday season seems to have its own sensibility. Our favorites from this year’s bunch are marked by a sense of substance (they certainly don’t skimp on flavor) and a leaning toward traditional cooking.
French food, overlooked recently, is well represented by an impressive trio. Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets (Broadway, $26) almost whispers the secrets you’d want to hear from somebody who has slipped into that city’s most acclaimed pâtisseries and taken notes. Surprisingly, many of the recipes, delectable choices like Fauchon’s Fig & Citrus Tart or La Maison du Chocolat’s Creamy Chocolate Cake, are easy to prepare, with clear instructions for bakers of all levels. Glorious French Food (Wiley, $45), by Fine Cooking contributing editor James Peterson, breaks down traditional French dishes into their basic techniques and ingredients. Serious cooks looking to hone their French repertoire will love the detailed instructions for favorites like sole meunière and Moules à la Mariènere. Another book for dedicated cooks is Daniel Young’s Made in Marseille (Harper Collins, $32.50), which examines the rich cuisine of the multi-cultural port city in France’s south. Dishes like Roasted Fig Dumplings with a Red Wine Caramel Sauce show off Marseille’s innovative cuisine and penchant for cooking with spices.
There’s never any shortage of Italian cookbooks, and this year is no different. Nancy Verde Barr aims Make It Italian (Knopf, $29.95) at cooks searching for authentic but approachable Italian recipes. The chapters are framed around a primary base recipe, for instance a marinara sauce, from which Barr creates four or five variations; the marinara can segue into a puttanesca or Bolognese sauce. Micol Negrin’s Rustico (Clarkson Potter, $35) examines Italian cuisine through the country’s twenty different regions and each area’s particular specialties. Negrin’s recipes from Campania and Tuscany cover mostly familiar territory, but Deep-Fried Cauliflower from the Marches or Butternut Squash Gnocchi in Rosemary Butter from Lombardy should satisfy the curious cook.
Real Stew (Harvard Common, $18.95), by Clifford A. Wright, provides recipes for every type of stew imaginable and from all around the world. Whether it’s a Beef Stroganoff or a Beef, Peanut & Yam Stew with West African Spices, Wright introduces creative but authentic ingredient pairings and provides a detailed history of each dish’s origin. Greg Patent canvases this country’s rich culinary history in Baking in America (Houghton Mifflin, $35) with similarly well-researched recipes for bakers of all levels. Patent alternates tasty recipes like Brown-Eyed-Susan Peanut Butter Cupcakes and Banana Split Layer Cake with Chocolate Frosting with colorful historical baking tidbits.
Perhaps more valuable than anything else in Judy Rodgers’s impressive Zuni Café Cookbook (W. W. Norton, $35) is the wisdom of her detailed writings, present in recipes from a simple crostini to an elaborate multi-step braise or roast. Rodgers’s understated sensibilities, borne of many years of cooking, illuminate the book’s creative compositions and leave the reader with not just a great set of recipes, but with an education, too. Though only a handful of ingredients are needed to make Zuni’s signature dish, a roast chicken with bread salad, Rodgers takes five pages to explain the little tricks that make her restaurant version so noteworthy. All our other tests—including a Salad of Bosc Pears with Fennel, Walnuts & Parmigiano and a Monkfish Braise with White Beans, Fennel & Tomato—were delicious and reinforced our admiration for this thoughtful 547-page book.