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.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.