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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
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.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)