Best Cookbooks of 2012

Best Cookbooks 2012

At any given moment, there’s a heap of cookbooks at least three deep—quite often closer to three dozen deep—staring at me from my desk. Taking up space in my closet. Cluttering my kitchen shelves. And littering the hardwood floor of my foyer.

Let me explain. I’m an editor. An editor who reviews books. But it’s not always apparent at first glance whether or not a cookbook is a keeper, so before deciding whether or not to make mention of a new release to you, dear reader, I deliberate, weighing the relative merits according to a sort of indefinable equation in my head—over and over and over again. At breakfast. In the shower. On walks with our four-pawed princess. As my mom natters away. Even during romantic dinners for two (or does that make it three?).

Meanwhile, throughout the teensy Manhattan apartment that I share with my husband, E, the books wait. In stacks. Seussian stacks. Seussian stacks that I’m constantly shuffling and reshuffling as I mull things over. I’m left precious little choice but to defend these defects in our decor, protesting that they make us seem terribly literary and quite like the New Yorkers that we are. (E doesn’t buy it, either.)

What’s worse, thanks to what I suspect is OCD on David’s part, I’m tasked with keeping these books pristine as I peruse them. And so it goes all year long, E tripping over the stacks, our 64-pound princess nosing them curiously, and me frantically shooing them both away. (And you thought an editor’s job was glamorous.) Until late November, when David nudges me for a list of the year’s “best” cookbooks. That’s when I start ducking his phone calls. Evading his emails. Finding excuses to cut our conversations short. You’d think I’d be glad to bid the books good riddance. But the indecisive part of me, the part I indulge all year long, starts over thinking what “the best” means, anyway. Who am I to say what’s best for you? People’s personal cookbook collections are like their lingerie or unmentionables drawer. Different styles, colors, sizes, preferences.

Then David nudges me again. Harder.

And so I extricate those books I’ve been most territorial about these past 12 months—the ones that prompt me to make E pause videos of ’70s guitar heroes on YouTube so I can read him a list of ingredients; the ones that send me scrambling for the back of an envelope and a pencil to scribble a grocery list; the ones whose pages are starting to show signs of gentle wear (shhh!); the ones that “accidentally” fall off a stack and end up with a dented corner or a dinged dust jacket (“Oops! Sorry, David, I guess I better keep that one…”). And within moments, I have my list.

So without further ado, indecision, or ducking David, here’s the eclectic, perhaps unexpected, and, in my opinion, excellent array of the year’s books, the ones that I can’t imagine not telling you about. I’m sure of it. —Renee Schettler Rossi

In his latest book, Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing (W.W. Norton, $39.95), Michael Ruhlman picks up where his previous book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, left off. He’s hit his stride. He’s confident. Authoritative. Unapologetic. This isn’t a book for dilettantes. You’re going to have greasy hands, smoky hair, and a stinky basement as you craft (yes, craft) guanciale, coppa, lardo, prosciutto, and salami. No hardcore salumerist would have it any other way.

There’s nothing hip, trendy, or outré about pizza—or about Jim Lahey’s book My Pizza: The Easy No-Knead Way to Make Spectacular Pizza at Home (Clarkson Potter, $27.50). All he does is bring his signature superb—and simple—style to pizza. That’s more than plenty for us. You’ll find nothing here but crisp crusts so thin as to seemingly defy every law of physics, and toppings so inspired they could have come out of the ovens at Co., Lahey’s pizza joint in Manhattan, or, for that matter, the ovens in Naples, Italy. Nope, not trendy at all. Yet still perfect.

Sinfully Easy Delicious DessertsSometimes you can judge a book by its cover—or at least by its title. Witness Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes (Artisan, $25.95). The seductress of sophisticated desserts, Alice Medrich, has unleashed her creativity on ideas old and new. There’s meringue. Cookies. One-bowl cakes. Beer floats. Chocolate in abundance. And other mind-bending excellence. The only thing the title fails to mention? Just how spectacularly the sassy recipes and copious tutorials express Medrich’s sense of whimsy. As such, we sorta renamed the book, at least when we refer to it, as Sinfully Easy, Savvily Sophisticated, Wackily Whimsical Desserts, with apologies to Ms. Medrich.

The Brown Betty CookbookSecrets. Sentimentality. Strong-willed women. Sweets—lots and lots of sweets. All the essential elements of a best-seller are contained within the warm-the-soul success story of Linda Hinton Brown and Norrinda Brown Hayat, the mother-and-daughter duo behind The Brown Betty Cookbook: Modern Vintage Desserts and Stories from Philadelphia’s Best Bakery (Wiley, $22.99). The book shares tales and recipes passed down through four generations of the Brown family, including perhaps the longest cake chapter ever, with 108 pages of frosted fabulousness with charmingly titled recipes such as “Company’s Comin’” and “Only for Eliza” and “Hattie Don’t Play.” There’s also pie and cupcakes—and, we hope, a sequel. Or maybe even a movie deal?

Canal House Cooks EverydayThere’s a lot to be said for a book that can instantly transport you from your mundane reality (oops, are we projecting?) to a life in which lunch is lingered over each day. The latter is the reality of veteran food editors Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, founders of the well-known Canal House, and we dare say it’ll become your reality, too, as soon as you delve into their cookbook. What began as a daily photo and caption of lunch on their site begat a 360-page book containing kitchen essentials of every sort, such as compound butter and vin santo–roasted pears as well as less-expected pleasures the likes of lemon verbena-inflected bellini and cauliflower with bread crumbs, pancetta, and prunes. We’ve dubbed it The Big Red Book, for reasons that we think are obvious, but you’ll recognize it as Canal House Cooks Every Day (Andrews McMeel, $45).

Parents Need To Eat TooSometimes what you need, especially if you’re new to the parenting gig, is less a cookbook and more a girlfriend. A girlfriend who can commiserate over your sleep-deprived situation; a girlfriend who can see you through every awkward phase with patience, practical advice, and a flask procured from her purse; a girlfriend who can ply you with takeout, cooking tricks, and tried-and-true recipes when you can no longer find the time—or, gack, the will—to cook. A girlfriend like Debbie Koenig, author of Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals, and Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents (William Morrow, $16.99). But, since she already has her own friends, what you need instead is her book. Even if you never make a single recipe—a mistake, mind you—her book is certain to become a dog-eared bible. Reread that title. The book savvily and sassily helps you extend the efficiency of any time spent in the kitchen. It’s sorta the What to Expect After You’re Expecting for those who’ve forsaken duck fat for the moment to finance a college fund.

Home Baked ComfortEver justify the price of a cookbook on the grounds that if it yields even a single reliable recipe, it’s worth its weight in chocolate? Us, too. Although if actual usefulness was the basis of a book’s price, we wouldn’t be able to afford Kim Laidlaw’s Home Baked Comfort (Weldon Owen, $34.95). Her inspired, inventive, and, yes, comfort-food-like concoctions—witness Bite-Size Bacon and Cheese Scones, Toaster Tarts, even S’mores Brownies—are knee-wobblingly, infallibly, unforgettably good. And the wish-you-were-there photos only make these baked beauties all the more enticing. Daily. Doubt us? We’ve the curves on our hips to prove it—including Fatty Daddy, that is, David.

AfieldWe like Bambi. A lot. So any cookbook that can seduce us to tuck into a venison burger commands our respect. Thus far we’ve come across one such book in existence, and it’s Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, by chef and hunter Jesse Griffiths (Welcome Books, $40). You’ll find all the culinista buzzwords here, including local and nose-to-tail and sustainable. There’s also National Geo-worthy journalistic photos that capture moments stolen from a day in the life of a hunter, surprisingly lust-inducing food, and graphic, almost roadkill-like, yet edifying snapshots of how to butcher a [fill in the blank]. And guys, there’s lots and lots of straightforward, non-emasculating advice on everything from roasting a whole hog to grilling venison loin to making a Bambi burger—one that’ll give your usual beef burger a run for its bacon.

Cooking My Way Back HomeSometimes you just want down-home food. Sophisticated, superlative, Southern-inspired, down-home food of the sort not typically encountered in home kitchens (present company excepted, natch). This isn’t nearly as oxymoronic as it sounds, thanks to chef Mitchell Rosenthal and his book Cooking My Way Back Home: Recipes from San Francisco’s Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House (Ten Speed Press, $35). The renowned chef seamlessly melds flawless execution with down-home tastes. Barbecue ribs the way only a handful of gifted humans know how. A tomato tart gussied up with St. George cheese. And mashed potatoes that could make angels weep. Amen.

The Mile EndFutzing with tradition can be tricky—not to mention contentious. Yet the whippersnappers behind Mile End, a deli in Brooklyn with a devout clientele, managed to do it right, tweaking their grandmothers’ authentic Eastern European recipes with contemporary refinements. Now Noah and Rae Bernamoff are, miraculously, divulging their secrets in The Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen (Clarkson Potter, $27.50). Rest assured, there’s still mention of timeless classics including schmaltz, whitefish salad, pickles, and how to properly slice smoked meats amid all the recipes for rugelach, jelly doughnuts, matzo, and more. We think even Bubbe would approve.

RootsRoots and tubers. Sexy, huh? In the hands of Diane Morgan, they’re that and more thanks to Roots: The Definitive Compendium with More Than 225 Recipes (Chronicle, $40). Trust us, it’s a lot prettier a prospect than you might expect. This primer of epic proportions demystifies every little thing about every underground food thing, from common celery root to trippy crosnes. Morgan’s recipe handiwork runs the gamut, featuring horseradish butter, basic roasted beets, carrot-top pesto, and parsnip cake. There’s even a little candied lotus root tossed in for good measure.

The World's Best Street FoodAmericans’ infatuation with street food—we’re talking actual street food, mind you, not food-truck food—has never been more ardent. While the stunning porn photography in glossy travel magazines and coffee-table tomes is titillating, we crave something we can actually cozy up to at night. Enter The World’s Best Street Food: Where to Find It & How to Make It, by the intrepid folks at Lonely Planet (Lonely Planet Publications, $19.99), an indispensable guidebook that we fancy for its practical know-how concerning foodstuffs like churros, jalebi, oyster cake, and lots, lots more. Each item merits a detailed definition, talk of its origins, insider-y advice on where to find the most inspired rendition, as well as a cheat sheet on how to order it like a local. Oh, and a recipe so you can replicate it at home. A must for armchair as well as adventure travelers—and cooks.

Thanksgiving How to Cook it WellOne day of the year more than any other elicits angst deep in the soul of home cooks. Though others before Sam Sifton have devoted entire tomes to the topic of Thanksgiving, no one else has managed to do so with the eloquence, wit, and thoroughness of the former restaurant critic of The New York Times. In Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well (Random House, $18), he embraces everything about the day—not excluding such matters of import as etiquette, table-setting tactics, and cleanup—with resigned reality, scholarly diligence, and occasional snarkiness. And that’s to say nothing of his deadpan candor. (“Let us speak plainly: You are going to need a lot of butter.”) Lord knows each of us could use all of these things on that day.

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Comments
Comments
  1. Karen says:

    May I just slip this list into Santa’s pocket before he gets the sleigh packed? Any one of these would be just wonderful. And I am sure E is delighted at the thought that some of them may just fall onto your “keeper” shelf in all the holiday hoopla. Starting at the top of the list and cooking our way down the line seems like a great thing to contemplate. Thank you sharing and for the inspiration!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      You are quite welcome, Karen. Glad to hear that it may be of help, if not for your giftees then for yourself!

  2. Renee – BRAVO – this is a great list! We are going to share!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Thank you, Kimberly! (Those two teensy words hardly do justice to the gratitude I feel, both for your kind sentiment and for your generosity in sharing.)

  3. Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

    I admit it, I am intrigued by Afield and those venison burgers.

  4. Kim Venglar says:

    I had the pleasure of working with Jesse Griffiths (author of Afield) when he did a cooking class promoting his cookbook. I wasn’t planning on getting the book but once I looked through it I knew one had to be mine. There are some great sounding recipes in this book and the ones we served were fantastic.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Wonderful, Kim. I envy you that cooking class…and do let us know what you decide to make from the book….

  5. Nisrine says:

    Wonderful list. Roots is on my wishlist!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Lovely to hear, Nisrine, thank you. You know, the list is the result not just of a lot of thinking on my part but a lot of cooking and baking on the part of more than 100 trusted home cooks that we count among our recipe testers. Thanks to them letting me know that they appreciate the attention to detail and general excellence of the recipes, my job was sorta easy.

  6. All of Austin is Abuzz About (that should be a book, no?)…Afield! I’ve dusted off my grandfather’s shotgun, with absolutely no plans to take it to the fields, but it makes me feel a part of things.

    What a wonderful list! I, too, have “Seussian Stacks” about this tiny home of ours, and can’t see the harm in topping a few with some of these new finds. Salumi is at the top of my (Christmas) list, too!

    Ho, ho, ho,
    Maggie

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Maggie, I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be lost without my Seussian stacks! And you protest now, but I’ll be looking to hear that shotgun soon…and thanks, my dear, for your kind words on the list.

  7. Joyce Hanson says:

    I like the sound of The Brown Betty Cookbook: in November, I had a dinner party for 8 and the theme was “Aunt Eithal’s Red Cake.” The party was in honor of my Aunt Eithal, who died at the age of 95 last January. Her vintage red cake recipe with “ermine” frosting of granulated sugar and loads of butter was always in demand with me and my sibs when we were kids. Nowadays, I think it would be called red velvet cake, and I love the idea of a cookbook that celebrates those vintage cake recipes!

    BTW, Renee, I admire you for still stuffing your little apartment with loads of books. Imagine how naked your place would look if everything were on a Kindle.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Joyce, I think you’ve a story to tell there….I also think you are going to love The Brown Betty Cookbook. And shudder, I can’t do books on an electronic device. I need to hold it, I need to be able to flip back and forth between the recipes I’m coveting for the site in an attempt to decide which it will be, I need to be able to linger, and to me, a Kindle just doesn’t encourage lingering. Many thanks for your kind words, and I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the book….

  8. darlene west says:

    Do I REALLY need another cookbook?

    Well…maybe.

    Yes… I think I do.

    I do. For sure I do. But just one more. Well…maybe two.

    Great annual round-up, Renee. I filed it with my shopping list (for gifts, of course).

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Of course you do, darlene. And of course those books are gifts. Ahem. Many thanks for the kind words, do let us know which titles (and accompanying recipes) you decide to keep for yourself….

  9. Jackie G. says:

    I never thought of the foyer. How about the chairs that sit around the kitchen table when no one is using them? Great for books. When we have company over we move those stacks of books into another room because we don’t want people to sit on them. The books that is. They can sit on the chairs. I think that we are looking out for the cookbooks instead of our guests. Then there are other pieces of furniture. Here a sofa, there a chair. And not just cookbooks. And not just books. There are those darn magazines. I commend you on being able to decide which of your children you like the best. I would still be shuffling things around, while other books yell out, “Choose me! Pick me!”

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Heh. The foyer. The chairs at the table. Alongside our bed. Thanks, Jackie, for sharing where you keep your stash of stacks. Quite frankly, the only room in our home not containing cookbooks is the littlest room, to put it politely. And YES, dear me, YES to magazines! Another story completely, though less troublesome now that we are without Gourmet. And Domino. How I miss them….

  10. Jon Parry says:

    “Favekin” Swedish restaurant. Very locally sourced food and amazing pictures. By far the best cookbook this year.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Many thanks, Jon. We’d taken a look and were quite impressed, too. Appreciate you dropping mention of the book—great to hear it.

  11. Jimmy Schwartz says:

    Thanks, Renee, for the heads up on “Afield.” I’m not a hunter but owing to my love of game and a desire to teach my kids that meat doesn’t just come from the grocery store, I have become the beneficiary of other people’s fine marksmanship and have tried to make the most of it. The rewards are profound. This book somehow slipped under my radar, but not for long! Thanks for spying this in your stacks. Wishing you and your family a great holiday season. And you, too, David!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      You’re quite welcome, Jimmy. I love and support what you are doing in terms of educating and setting an example for your kids, I love it. And I love that book, too. Curious to hear what you think of it. Appreciate the kind words.

    • David Leite says:

      Just doing my job, sir.

  12. Sue Epstein says:

    Oh c’mon Renee, there’s always room for another cookbook. Have you tried under your bed? I also keep a few in that smallest room cause I’ve been known to even read them there!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Heh, Sue, I have stacks that topple in the middle of the night, we’re so crowded with books! Have I ever told you about The Great Closet Collapse of 2010?!

  13. Jamie says:

    Naughty, naughty, naughty of you all. Half of my cookbooks are still in packing cartons and not only did I swear I would not buy anymore but someone in my home threatened me. And here you are tempting me with book I didn’t know about and that are each fabulous! I think I just added 5 to my wish-list! Wonderful great list and I am so glad to see some that aren’t on every other!

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