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.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
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).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.