Cookbooks: Two Cups of Joy and a Pinch of ComfortHowever you feed your soul, this season's crop of cookbooks, crafted by big-name chefs, food personalities, and just plain good cooks, is sure to please those on your holiday list who take pleasure in preparing good things to eat.
Cookbooks are gifts that keep on giving all year long.
Few would contest the notion that mashed potatoes topped with a pat of butter represent the essence of comfort in a dish. But solace and good cheer come in many forms of food, be it the perfect chewy brownie, a simple picnic with friends or a tomato plucked from the vine at the peak of its ripeness.
However you feed your soul, this season's crop of cookbooks, crafted by big-name chefs, food personalities and just plain good cooks, is sure to please those on your holiday list who take pleasure in preparing good things to eat. (You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.)
Savoring Sweet Somethings
Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin, $40)
We all know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it's hard not to get out a fork when you see the billowy Devil's Food White-Out Cake on the front of this tome, written by the author of Cooking with Julia (Child, that is). Happily, what you see is what you get to eat. The more-than-300 recipes inside for cakes, cookies, pies and tarts, and any sweet you can slurp up with a spoon, are just as tempting -- not least because of Greenspan's firm and friendly voice.
Blanched on the Ranch
Big Sky Cooking by Meredith Brokaw and Ellen Wright (Artisan, $35)
"When you're seventeen miles from the nearest town, you tend not to forget that quart of milk," writes Meredith Brokaw, wife of Tom, and a co-author of this photography-laden book. Big Sky Cooking offers a personal -- and personable -- glimpse into the relaxed rhythms of the Brokaws' life out West. Structured like a day on the ranch from "Sunrise" to "Under the Stars," the book demands a leisurely ramble, especially if you pause to read essays by writers such as Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison. You'll find recipes for hearty fare like bison osso bucco and pork tenderloin with native chokecherry glaze. But you don't have to be a ranch hand to tuck into Big Sky Cooking's earthly delights. (Related Story: 'Dive into a Sea of Good Summer Food')
Dishing Up Nostalgia
Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories by Bonny Wolf (St. Martin's Press, $24.95)
If you're looking for tips on how to use the latest cooking gadgets -- nonstick silicone baking mats, say -- Bonny Wolf is not your gal. What you'll get instead is Wolf's thoughts on her prized "ratty" cookie pans. This collection of essays and recipes by NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday food commentator addresses the question at the heart of every American meal: why we eat what we eat. And the answer has a lot to do with nostalgia for friends and family, Fourth of July picnics and state fairs. Culling through the recipes she has amassed, Wolf writes, "I realized that I remember most life events by what I ate." If her recipes for Chocolate Pistachio Cake and Real Texas Barbecue are any indication, Wolf's life is a good one. (Related Story: 'Writer Explores Comforts, Community of Food')
His Daily Bread
The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater (Gotham Books, $40)
"Right food, right place, right time" is how British journalist and food writer Nigel Slater sums up his theory on eating. After all, Slater asks, who "wants a slice of watermelon on a cold March evening, or a plate of asparagus in January?" A chronicle of what he ate and when he ate it, Kitchen Diaries is a paean to fresh, local ingredients, including fava beans and tomatoes he grew in his own urban garden. But there's no pretense. The April 24 entry, "A rummage through the fridge," elevates a piece of toast, a jar of mustard and an old rind of cheese into an enviable meal. His recipes, such as Christmas Day instructions for roast goose, are nearly as simple. "Real-time" photos taken while the food is still hot help make the book a mouthwatering read even if it never makes its way into the kitchen.
Naked Chef, Italian-Style
Jamie's Italy by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion, $34.95)
Unlike your mother, Naked Chef Jamie Oliver is hard to resist when he tells you to eat your veggies. "Listen up," he writes. "Let's be like [the Italians] and big up the greens." This chipper brand of energy infuses the British hipster's latest book detailing his gastronomical romp through the boot country. Oliver, whose nickname comes from his dedication to recipes that use the bare essentials, meets fishermen, bakers and "mamas," learning along the way that dishes not only vary by region but even from village to village -- "villagional," he calls it. Arranging recipes like a trattoria menu -- from bruschette and pasta e ceci (pasta with chickpeas) to tiramisu -- Oliver simplifies the information he gleans, all but guaranteeing that any copy of Jamie's Italy you give will soon be stained with olive-oil fingerprints.
In Praise of Pimento Cheese
Deep South Parties: How to Survive the Southern Cocktail Hour without a Box of French Onion Soup Mix, a Block of Processed Cheese, or a Cocktail Weenie by Robert St. John (Hyperion, $19.95)
The Mississippi restaurateur, food columnist and chef treats his subject with humor and a lot of down-home conversation -- in his lexicon, pimento cheese is "the pate of the South." But despite his light touch and a raft of retro photos, St. John is serious about throwing a good party. Recipes for Cajun Spiced Nuts, Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with Avocado Relish and Wonton Chips, Black-Eyed Pea Dip, and Cornmeal Biscuits with Fig Butter" are divided by the kind of category that will help a would-be host organize his thinking: "To Be Passed," "On the Sideboard" and "Out of the Freezer" are a few examples. And the same goes for his entertaining tips. To get the total effect, think Holly Golightly's cocktail party in Breakfast at Tiffany's (with Miniature Strawberry Shortcakes for dessert).
The Noblest of Pastries
King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains(Countryman Press, $35)
At first blush, the idea of whole-grain baking sounds like a gigantic "WHY BOTHER?" If pastries aren't sinful -- or at least flaky, airy and moist -- then what's the point? But with nary a food pyramid or lecture about why whole grains are better for us, the folks at King Arthur get right down to the business of flavor. Conducting blind tastings, they refused to include any recipe that received a left-handed compliment such as "tastes good for whole grain." So the only thing that will land with a thud on the countertop should be this encyclopedic cookbook, not the Banana-Chocolate Chip Squares with 1 3/4 cups of whole spelt flour that you've just pulled hot out of the oven.
Man and Dog Bites
The Dog Ate It: Cooking for Yourself and Your Four-Legged Friends by Linda West Eckhardt and Barbara Bradley with Judy Kern (Gotham Books, $15)
While carefully omitting doggie no-nos such as chocolate (carob is called for, instead), the dual-recipes in The Dog Ate It sacrifice nothing when it comes to the daily human requirement for delicious food. Chicken salad with carrot, yogurt and parsley is served on lettuce and accompanied by bread, wine, cheese and fruit, while the pup in your life is relegated to a bowl of the stuff, "no lettuce, no bread, and no wine, poor thing." Though the simple recipes are hardly gourmet, they're ideal for the cook who wants to spend less time at the stove and more time scratching his best friend behind the ears. And what man, woman or mutt wouldn't drool over North Carolina Pork Sandwiches or Tarte Tatin -- skip the fancy fanned-out apple arrangement on top, of course, because, as the recipe notes, "hey, this one's for you and your dogs."
Advice from Beloved Ah Paw
My Grandmother's Chinese Kitchen: 100 Family Recipes and Life Lessons by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo (A Home Book, $25.95)
Growing up outside Canton, China, the award-winning cookbook author learned how to behave in and out of the kitchen from her beloved grandmother, Ah Paw, who counseled "that vegetables should be chosen with at least the same care given to selecting in-laws." Now a grandmother herself, Lo passes on her culinary heritage. Turnip cake, shrimp balls and taro root pancakes are among the recipes for traditional dishes that mark births, weddings and other festive occasions. As much memoir as cookbook, My Grandmother's Kitchen benefits doubly from Lo's warm voice and her sure hand -- with an all-important glossary in back to guide the uninitiated.
Onions, Tell Me Your Secret
Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard (Artisan, $45)
The high-wattage Washington, D.C., chef talks to his food. "I ask every ingredient, 'What don't I know about you? What secrets have you been keeping about yourself…'" Then the master of California-French cuisine turns to his "toy box," a battery of equipment that includes a mandoline and a meat slicer, to coax the inner goodness and all manner of surprises from his raw material. Who knew onions could be sliced to resemble ribbons of pasta? Though some of the recipes are simple -- "Very French Fries" calls for just three ingredients – spuds, oil for deep frying and sea salt -- they all require the skills of someone who's been around the chopping block a few times. Imbued with Richard's wit and filled with lush photos, Happy in the Kitchen will wow the foodies on your list, even if they never leave the couch.