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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.