Michael Pollan famously lamented, earlier this year, that cooking has become a spectator sport. Not if this year's cookbooks have anything to do with it! Traditional cuisines get broken down and re-introduced, ingredients that have become familiar only recently get recombined as casually as speed-daters. Meanwhile, the bakers outdid themselves this year, clarifying flavors and streamlining their methods until they fit snugly in anybody's kitchen. This year's cookbook instructions are detailed and sure-handed, so you'll feel confident even taking on those fiddly little jobs you usually leave to your good friend Joe, the Trader.
If you're the kind of person who's believed all along that a book can teach you to do anything, congratulations! You were right. With these books you can, if you want, make your own bread, your own pasta, even your own dumplings. If, on the other hand, you thought you were the kind of person who could never produce a picture-perfect mushroom tart, guess again. That competent soul is only a few well-described pages away.
The Pleasures of Cooking for One
The Pleasures of Cooking for One, by Judith Jones, hardcover, 288 pages, Knopf, list price: $27.95
Cooking when you're on your own can be a challenge. Who wants to slave over a single serving? And guess who's going to do the dishes? Often we just solve the problem with takeout or pizza. Thank goodness for Judith Jones! Widowed 13 years ago, the redoubtable magazine editor conclusively demonstrates that the joie de manger belongs to everyone, not just breeders, honeymooners and clans.
There are easy recipes, like Linguine with Smoked Salmon Sauce for nights when you come home late to a dark apartment and a howling cat. And there are slower recipes — even "A Small Cassoulet" — for lazy Saturdays when you are the envy of soccer moms everywhere and have all the time in the world to browse at the farmers market. Jones has a sure sense of portioning, and she provides recipes for leftovers. She labels them "Second Round" or even "Third Round" — mashups that can make too much of a good thing, well, still a good thing. Warning: Jones' lovingly photographed collection of single-serving gratin dishes and adorable lidded casseroles will have you nursing a cookware jones even if you're feeding a family of five. Ask me how I know.
Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More, by Andrea Nguyen, hardcover, 240 pages, Ten Speed Press, list price: $30.00
Dumplings are temptation in a wrapper. They're the snack that makes countless well-meaning people ignore diets, cultural restrictions and the limits of their own appetites. This season, dumpling fever has exceeded itself: There's not one but two books devoted to the cult of Something Wrapped in Something Else. This one is for those of you who, no matter whether you're in Chinatown or Little Korea or the corner Nepalese, always order a side of spring rolls or chicken buns or momo. Some are simple and familiar (Fried Wontons); others are neither (Tibetan Beef and Sichuan Peppercorn Dumplings) but still irresistible.
What really intimidates people about dumplings is the wrapping. Guess what, guys! It's not that bad. Nguyen has great little illustrations that make the folds easy and straightforward. The instructions are wordy, like a friend who tells you every landmark to look out for on a 5-mile drive. But you won't get lost. Personally, I have always strictly believed that the effort of making dumplings yourself magically negates the calories you might accrue by eating them. With the help of this book, you may find yourself reaching the same conclusion.
Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source with More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You, by Terry Walters, hardcover, 304 pages, Sterling Epicure, list price: $30.00
Recent years have seen more and more vegan cookbooks hitting the mainstream, and this one bristles with crossover charisma. Sure, there are a few ingredients your average omnivore will never buy — the ume plum vinegar, the agar powder, to name two — but in a year when there was no other significant vegetable book, Clean Food excels: You could call it a graduate course in meatlessness. The book celebrates the once-obscure, now-popular heirlooms, like Roasted Kabocha Squash and Creminis with Fresh Herbs. There are also minimalist luxuries, like Winter Green Salad with Sugared Walnuts, Crispy Pears and Pomegranates.
Despite its name (which may have you wondering, with a frown, what you've been eating up until now), Clean Food is a gateway book for the vegan lifestyle, not a hard sell. Who knows, it may end up on your kitchen shelf right next to your copy of The Meat Bible. But with its open, appealing design and rosy sense that anything is possible within the plant kingdom, Clean Food might just win you over.
Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen, by Ruth Reichl, hardcover, 1,024 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $40.00
Gourmet Magazine, that recently extinguished flame, was many things to many people: For some, it was a cheap ticket to faraway food cultures, a menu for special occasions; for others it was pure food porn. But one of the things Gourmet did best can be found in what turns out to be the magazine's valedictory cookbook: weeknight dishes with an international flair. The magazine's correspondents may have roamed far and wide in search of culinary stimuli, but its kitchens had a knack for scaling and converting the recipes they brought back till they slid comfortably into the weeknight rotation back home. If dishes like Israeli Couscous with Mixed Mushrooms or Japanese Sesame Spinach are becoming household standbys in kitchens from Secaucus to Milwaukee, I dare say we have Gourmet to thank for it.
Like the 2004 Gourmet Cookbook, Gourmet Today is a good go-to reference for basic matters of technique, like making fresh pasta or how to make a roux. Though its slick, bright food fantasies may no longer arrive in the mailbox each month, Gourmet has found a way to deliver every night — a guarantee that though it may be gone, it won't be forgotten.
Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition, by Barbara Lynch, hardcover, 352 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $35.00
It can be nervewracking when a well-known restaurant chef issues a first cookbook. So often they're flashy, ambitious and about as useful to your home cook as, say, a biplane, which is why so few of them end up on my top 10 lists. But Lynch's recipes, while elegantly composed, are never overengineered. Lynch uses classic Italian structures — pastas, pizzas, roasted vegetables and fritti — and turns them sideways with flavors that are unexpected but never jarring. Why wouldn't you give polenta a silky cream infusion with mascarpone? Why not steam mussels with saffron? What are you, square?
I defy anyone to resist the Truffled Gnocchi with Peas and Mushrooms (made with truffle oil so they don't break the bank), unfolding layer after mushroomy layer in your mouth like the 400-thread-count sheets in a really good hotel. Lynch, who's never forgotten her famously working-class roots in South Boston, has mastered the trick of going upscale without talking down to people. Roasted Fennel and Green Beans may dress up for dinner with tarragon, currants and shallots, but at heart, they're still just hard-working weeknight veg.
Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking
Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, hardcover, 384 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $50.00
Ever since Fuchsia Dunlop starting publishing her regional Chinese books a few years ago, it's been heady times for Chinese cookbooks. This year's offering is a doozy: a showstopping mix of the authentic, the ambitious and the accessible by veteran teacher and cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's book. No more dumbed-down broccoli and beef! Even the easy recipes, like Hunan Hot-and-Spicy Shrimp have smart little secrets — in this case, a crisp egg-white coat and a surprisingly complex-tasting blend of ketchup and oyster sauce.
You're in the hands of a pro, so don't be afraid to make the famous char siu, or Barbecued Pork. You could wrap it into a pork bun — it's really not that hard — but if that's way too much authenticity to tackle in one go, you could just eat it with some noodles (say, eggless noodles with barbecued pork) and call it a day. An unforgettable, very delicious day.
Savory Baking, by Mary Cech, paperback, 168 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $24.95
This book claims it is the only book devoted to nonsweet baking, which I know for a fact to be untrue. However, the recipes are right on the mark. It's not that baking without sugar is anything new — can you imagine the world of hors d'oeuvres without a small army of salty little puff-pastry bites? Cech has plenty of those savory little sideshows, like Potato and Scallion Biscuits and Roasted Red Pepper Creme Fraiche Quiche. But not content just to open for the main act, Cech marches straight on through to dinner and dessert. There is something perversely satisfying about a cookie that refuses to play nice, like Thyme, Lemon and Sea-Salt Shortbread, or Black-Rimmed Pistachio Wafers.
You could think of this book as a United Nations of crustdom. Every dough that can conceivably be used as a container shows up here: puff pastry, phyllo, pate brisee (that's "pie crust" to us unwashed masses), pate a choux. They're marbled, flecked with tiny spices or seeds; they're sharp and cheesy or buttery and flaky. They're tender, they're crumbly, they're layered or leavened. The only thing they're not is sweet.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, by Peter Reinhart, hardcover, 224 pages, Ten Speed Press, list price: $30.00
When it comes to not leaving well enough alone, there's no one quite like Peter Reinhart.
Unsatisfied with having produced one perfect wholegrain bread after another in last year's book, the restless, bread-obsessed former monk is off again, refining and streamlining his techniques to make them yet more home-baker-friendly.
This year's book is a smartly collated grab bag of breads for the curious baker. There are sandwich loaves that are perfect for the lunchbox, classic baguettes, and many sourdoughs for those who enjoy keeping a pet starter culture. But there's also Crispy Rye and Seed Crackers, English muffins, and the kind of sweet, rich breads you don't expect to see in a book of austere artisanal loaves — the coffee cakes, the sticky buns, the babkas.
As luscious and worldly as his breads can be, Reinhart's devotion to the baker's art continues to have a monkish, even a self-sacrificing quality. The man spends every waking moment thinking about bread — and because he does, we don't have to.
The Craft of Baking
The Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox, hardcover, 256 pages, Clarkson Potter, list price: $35.00
I love to read books by pastry chefs at famous restaurants, but I don't always love to use them — the day I make spun sugar and a gelatin mousse and puff pastry for one dessert is the day the kids get hot dogs for dinner. But The Craft of Baking is different. These are for the most part classic, homey treats; some are no-brainers, like make-your-own graham crackers and sugar cookies (vanilla and chocolate). Others hint at their restaurant roots with savory ingredients: Pine Nut Tart with Rosemary Cream packs a smart herbal punch; Gingerbread Cupcakes with Candied Ginger flirt with the dark side with beer, molasses, coffee and ginger you candy yourself (not that hard, actually!).
DeMasco and Fox are careful technicians — they tell you when to watch out for boiling-over syrups, how thickly the egg mixture should ribbon when you lift the whisk, and why you have to bounce the brioche dough from hand to hand 30 times. Exerting just a little extra effort is a hallmark of this book, and since I gained 5 pounds just reading it, I figure that's probably a good thing.
Rose's Heavenly Cakes
Rose's Heavenly Cakes, by Rose Levy Beranbaum, hardcover, 512 pages, Wiley, list price: $39.95
Rose Beranbaum has more cake knowhow in her little finger than you will find in the entire Baking Needs aisle at your local supermarket, which is probably why you bought The Cake Bible 20 years ago and never felt the need for another cake book. Rose's new book is for the palate that wants to take a step beyond the pound cakes and yellow sponges and chocolate roulades of yesteryear. Graced with red currants, Seville oranges, pineapple caramel or blackberry mousse, these are cakes that trot down the runway with a sly, secret smile.
Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake is the sophisticated heir of angel food cake, its sweetness arrested and tamed by flecks of bitter chocolate. More exotic but just as grownup is the Sicilian Pistachio Cake, brilliant green blanched pistachios scattered over a golden buttercream. After a couple of years of less ambitious books devoted to cupcakes and quick breads for weekend bakers, it's nice to see that the Cake Queen's still willing to luxe it up.