People look forward to fall for all kinds of reasons. Suede boots. Pumpkin recipes. Apple picking. Some can’t wait for the September issue of Vogue; I can’t wait for the release of fall cookbooks. And this year is a special year. From baking books that highlight cookies contributed by New York restaurants and chefs to a young Southern renegade chef making truly exciting food — there’s something for everyone. Last year, some of my favorite baking books of all time were released. I’ve baked from them all year, used them for inspiration for Marge, and continue to bookmark and dog-ear their pages. This year is a little more well-rounded with a few wonderful Southern cookbooks, beautiful baking books, and a few that have quickly become good go-to, all-around references for everyday cooking. I’m excited to share my favorites this season with you.
Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: I include Cook’s Illustrated not because it’s an exciting or unusual cookbook or that it necessarily keeps me up at night thinking about which recipe I’ll make next. The reason it’s on this list is its impressive scope of 2000 recipes that will all work. Each one, each time. These are heavily-tested recipes and the Cook’s Illustrated folks work to show you how to make your favorite dishes and why they work. They discuss which ingredients to use to get the best results, and what tools work well. You get the smallest dose of food science along with your tomato sauce. And a tome of classic recipes for those days when you’re in a bind and need a Bolognese recipe or a solid chocolate cake. Recipes to try: Roasted Smashed Potatoes, French Chicken in a Pot, Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Desserts From the Famous Loveless Cafe: Nashville, Tennessee’s Loveless Cafe is on my Southern Bakery Road Trip-list. It began in the early 1950’s on Highway 100 and they’re known for their buttermilk biscuits and country ham. In 2004, everything got ratcheted up just a notch when pastry chef Alisa Huntsman came in and started pumping out authentic Southern desserts that the lunch and dinner crowd just couldn’t resist. Now people come just for pie. And stay awhile. Recipes to try: Honey Chess Pie, Tipsy Cake, and Big Mama’s Blackberry Jam Cake.
Momofuku Milk Bar: It’s time to come clean. I have a pastry chef crush on Christina Tosi. The woman is brilliant. Think about your own career for a second. Then think about someone who does the same thing but is really, really good at it –incredibly innovative, creative, just makes you kind of stand in wonder. For me, this is Christina. The woman does things with relatively simple American desserts (cookies, cakes, ice creams) that blows my mind. She plays with the nuance of flavors in her ice creams like no one else, experiments with ingredients that most people walk by in gas stations and convenience stores (corn chips, pretzels), and uses food science to her benefit to play with the texture of each dessert–testing recipes beyond an inch of their life. She doesn’t follow anyone else’s rules. I love this about her. Recipes to try: Banana Layer Cake, Blondie Pie, Cheesecake Ice Cream.
Basic to Brilliant Ya’ll I’ll admit it. When this one showed up in the mail, I wasn’t too sure. The name screamed Paula Deen and “Brilliant” isn’t usually an adjective I like to use for the food that I cook. But after a few pages turns, you realize you’re in good hands with Virginia Willis. She is from a Southern family but is a classically-trained French cook; she takes down-home Southern recipes and refines them just a bit. Reworks them for the modern palate. Beloved food-blogger Helene Dujardin did the food photography and, in typical Helene style, a beautiful place at the table is captured. If you have yet to do much Southern cooking, this is a wonderful place to start because Willis covers everything from stocks to mayonnaise to vinaigrette, pie crust, and pastry cream and moves on to more advanced dishes like Spicy Carolina Pork Shoulder and Wild Mushroom Ragout. Recipes to try: Kale Omelette, Sweet Potato Biscuits with Apple Mash, Skillet Blondie,
Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food: A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking, and Creating Community Through Food If you live in the Bay Area, you’re lucky to have Bi-Rite in your backyard. For such a small grocery store, the place has soul. So what about the book? At first, you’ll notice photos and profiles of local food producers and farmers along with their stories. Then you’ll notice it’s organized in broad sections that correspond to grocery store departments: Community, Grocery, Deli, Produce Department, Butcher Counter, Dairy Case, Cheese Department, Bakery, and Wine and Beer. Within these sections are recipes, information on How to Buy, How to Store, and How to Use. In all honesty, cookbook aside, this is a solidly informative food resource. I will use it often. Bring the cookbook element back into the picture and you’ve got a book that will carve out a place on your shelves for a long, long time. Recipes to try: Citrus Olive Oil Cake, Apricot Ginger Scones, Pear Skillet Cake, Cardamom Rice Pudding with Golden Raisins.
Leon Baking and Puddings: This UK release by Claire Ptak (ex-Chez Panisse pastry chef) and Henry Dimbleby excites me in its impossibility to explain. For anyone that’s followed the blog or has spent time talking bakeries with me, you’ll know I’m obsessed with Violet in London although I’ve never actually been. And Claire Ptak is the woman behind the dreamy cakes, seasonal fruit muffins and scones, and plump whoopie pies and cupcakes they do at Violet. This book is wonderful because most of the recipes sound and look absolutely decadent, yet 3/4 of them are wheat, dairy, or sugar-free with plenty of gluten-free options, too. Now I don’t generally look for books with this dietary scope, but you wouldn’t guess this by flipping through Leon. At all. The book contains childhood polaroids, colorful cooking notes, visual sketches and drawings and in-your-face photography. Recipes to try: Elizabeth’s Lemon Bars, Life by Chocolate Cake, and Roasted Quince Compote.
Cook This Now: Oh, Melissa Clark. This is one of those books you’re going to really spend some time with. You may take some notes. You may then transcribe those notes onto your computer. Perhaps then you go back and read the Introduction, wondering how one woman can fit so many darn wonderful recipes into one cookbook. This is your new go-to fall cookbook. If you have any of Clark’s previous books or follow her work with Gilt Taste or The New York Times, you know she can write one heck of a recipe: clear, concise instructions paired with engaging headnotes and impeccable organization. I’ve spent hours with this one. Recipes to try: Baked Apples with Fig and Cardamom Crumble, Homemade Mallobars (!) Bulgar Pilaf with Swiss Chard and Dried Apricots, Figgy Demerra Snacking Cake, and Sticky Cranberry Gingerbread.
One Sweet Cookie: Tracy Zabar has always loved cookies. A lot. With this project, she set out to ask seventy New York chefs, restaurants, bakers, and pastry chefs to provide her with their one very favorite cookie recipe. There are contributions from Babbo, Gramercy Tavern, and City Bakery to name a few. The grand dame of cookies herself, Maida Heatter, even makes an appearance. Personally I love collections that are heavily edited and present an individual’s perspective or point of view. Having a baker that you truly admire choose their very favorite cookie recipe says a lot about them and about that cookie. With the holiday baking season on the horizon, this is a good way to snag now. Recipes to try: Mint Thins, Pistachio Butter Cookies, Fig Squares, Coconut Chocolate Chip Cookies.
A New Turn in the South: I recently wrote a review of this book on The Kitchn, so if you’re interested in a bit more detail, head on over. Author Hugh Acheson is from Canada, he dropped out of school when he was nineteen to work in kitchens, he’s opened a few restaurants of his own now, and he can cook Southern food like a native Southerner. In his introduction, Acheson says, “Southern food presents a special challenge for me: to interpret its nuances, always with respect for the traditions, the land, and the history that fostered it. So this is the food I cook in the South.” He’s respectful of tradition, resourceful with local ingredients, and a bit of a renegade himself. His cooking celebrates produce and seasonal fruit, and is decidedly unfussy. You don’t look at a Hugh Acheson recipe and think, “oh that’s Southern.” You look at a Hugh Acheson recipe and think, “wow, I would’ve never thought to combine those two things!” A good example: Yellow Grits and Sauteed Shitakes, Fried Eggs and Salsa Rossa. This is not traditional Tennessee fare. But it’s intriguing and approachable–all we can really ask for in a good recipe, yes? Recipes to try: Chanterelles on Toast, Braised Red Cabbage, Cornmeal Campfire Tomatoes.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.