So you think you know how to make a first-rate grilled cheese sandwich? Do you thoughtfully combine three types of cheese? Choose bread that heightens the cheese? Select the correct weight of pan? Are you, overall, cheese-savvy? For all of that, and more, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith should rest on your cookbook shelf, if only for the full menu of recipes, then to be educated in the art and science of cheese.
Cowgirl Creamery, in the business of producing artisanal cheeses, turns their collective spirit into a stunning volume of recipes: For the record, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks will have you sighing over and bookmarking the “Simple, Classic Grilled Cheese” (made of Fromage Blanc, Cheddar, and Monterey Jack), Mary Loh’s Cheese Wafers (buttery, flavorful), and “Rustic Cheese and Onion Galettes, Two Ways” (pastry cloaked in an oniony tangle of grated cheese)–as well as upping your selection of cheese at home.
The personal history of how Cowgirl Creamery came to be, discovered in “Go West, Young Cowgirls,” will, at the very least, offer insight into the depth, cooking style, and determination of the individuals. The reader/cook will be fully brought into the picture, from the relationship with the dairy farmers and “milk animals” along with a fascinating understanding about seasonal dairy flavors impacting the resulting cheeses.
At first, you might not get drawn into the story of the synergy of cheesemakers and dairy farmers, because, well, the recipes are so resplendent. Then, having devoured “Cantina Salami Sandwich with Sautéed Greens and Aged Gouda,” surely there will be time to dip into such educating text (equally rich, but in information) as “Understanding Butterfat on Labels.”
Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange, by Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010), $19.95
The two words, “Christmas” and “cookies,” inextricably and so sweetly linked together in the month of December, mean that both occasional and I-bake-all-the-time bakers think about stockpiling the butter, flour, eggs, and assorted embellishments. Collect the cookie tins and baking sheets, rally one or many pairs of hands, let the sugar sprinkle, and turn the cookie-a-thon into a party with the help of Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange.
Embedded in Very Merry Cookie Party you’ll find chapters that cover “Planning and Hosting a Cookie Exchange,” “Cookies to Build a Party Around,” and “Cookies by Technique.” The ways and means of designing a collaborative cookie-sharing party involve learning and setting up your own template for organizing the event, including deciding on the type and number of cookies each participant will provide, the sharing of recipes, packaging for the cookies and, perhaps, a cookie theme. The material then offers recipes inviting all to participate in the act of making Xmas M & M’s Cookies (page 43), Old Salem Molasses Ginger Cookies (page 52), Fudgy Brownie Bites (page 71), and Sugar Pretzels (page 95). Beneath each head note, a recipe contains a “Cookie Exchange Tip“–a dollop of information offering a serving suggestion, watchpoint for success, or tidbit of decorating advice.
While your own favorite recipe–heirloom or brand-new-to-you–is the one you’re most likely to share, many ideas are available for discovery in Very Merry Cookie Party, providing the launching off point for a favorite holiday tradition.
Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours, by Alice Medrich with Maya Klein (New York: Artisan, 2014), $35.00
The calming, subtle-but-persuasive, and thoughtful of guidance of Alice Medrich suffuses the recipes she develops and, by extension, the follow-through contents of the baking cookbooks which embrace them.
Those who admire the creative approach that Medrich has brought to using basic baking ingredients (chocolate, especially, as the main element in previous books) will appreciate her fresh and personally comprehensive exploration of non-wheat flours in Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours. The book houses many recipes arranged by the primary component: rice flour; oat flour; corn flour and cornmeal; buckwheat flour; chestnut flour; teff flour; sorghum flour; and, lastly, nut and coconut flours. Chocolate sablés, for example, eschew cake or all-purpose flour in favor of a combination of teff and white rice flour, in addition to cocoa powder, butter, sugar, and a small amount of leavening; the presence of cream cheese, while something of a surprise in this shortbread-styled dough, purposely keeps the dough manageable while also acting as an enriching, tenderizing agent. In the recipe for oat sablés, cream cheese is repeated, but a mix of oat and white rice flour dominates, producing a slice-and-bake sweet that could possibly rival the traditional sablé made with wheat flour; simple to put together, nicely balanced flavor, lovely to eat, these cookies. Other recipes taunt you with their traditional names, only to surprise later on with unusually delightful results (I’m thinking specifically of the “New Classic Blondies,” “Chocolate Chip Cookies,” and “Chocolate Layer Cake”).
Reaching out to the new/old world of highly nuanced flours requires significant adaptation and a revised mental adjustment to taste and texture. No matter, Medrich and Klein have figured out what has surely puzzled loads of bakers aiming to reconfigure a formula to a finish of overall goodness while developing it as gluten-free: that is, recipes can derive their excellence from the properties of the flours, not by “…treating them as wheat flour substitutes” and demonstrate it all beautifully within the pages of Flavor Flours.
Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty, Inside and Out, by Jolene Hart, CHC, AADP (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), $16.95
In the personal lifestyle arena of material (the plethora of books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and such) that works inwardly to arrive at outward manifestations of goodness, Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty, Inside and Out is a gentle, thoughtful, and inspirational (without the lecture!) guide for ladies to retrieve their collective “glow.”
Eat Pretty, in three major sections and 208 tidy pages, sets out a big grocery cart of ingredients (and some recipes) that, while outfitting your refrigerator and pantry, might help to “…spark a major change in the way you look and feel.” In Part 2, “Four Seasons to Eat Pretty,” Hart reveals the (edible) elements to turn to for becoming a “beautiful eater.” Even if you pick and choose among the food suggestions, you will have successfully rethought adding (or subtracting) certain components from your meal plan. According to the author, coconut oil is a “metabolism booster,” popcorn an “antioxidant-rich snack,” arugula “a spicy sexy green,” and cherries an “inflammation defender.” In Part 3, “Beauty Beyond Your Plate,” the author explores proper digestion, the dynamics of stress, “food combining,” balance, and exercise. A list of “intentions” for each of the four seasons assists with a bits of advice which help to set goals.
The overall tone of this book is at once caring and instructional and, like all guidebooks, should be used according to one’s own well-being needs (personal health concerns should be addressed by a medical professional). A kind of beauty nutrition advice, not a dictum for a strict overall per se, is the feeling you’ll get from this volume.
Bottom line: Prepare to dine well and thrive.
Clean Slate: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best, by the editors of Martha Stewart Living (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2014), $26.00
What do the recipes for “Cardamom Quinoa Porridge with Pear,” “Beet, Avocado, and Arugula Salad with Sunflower Seeds,” “Poached Chicken with Bok Choy in Ginger Broth,” and “Citrus Salad with Pomegranate” have in common? Collectively, they represent delicious ways to rethink and recalibrate your meal planning (and market shopping).
Clean Slate: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best is an encouraging, informative volume that will have you fine-tune a food plan–snacks included!–to suit certain goals, whether it is to add more whole grains to your diet, reconfigure or (attempt to) eliminate certain food habits, or add homemade liquids (such as smoothies and juices) to the daily rotation for that feel-good boost.
The recipes, mentioned above, formed the basis for a few of my weekday meals, in addition to “Roasted Edamame and Cranberries” as a snack. All were somewhat spare, in a pleasant way, and simple to execute. The book presents the ideas and concepts, as well as the food, in a clear setting, making it seem approachable and satisfying. The volume is divided into two parts, “Reset” and “Recipes.” The former offers advice for stocking up the pantry with grains, legumes, and such, understanding nutrients, and ways for clearing the body of toxins. The later presents recipes which tie into the premise of the approach.
Clean Slate nudges the reader/cook into thinking about the virtues of eating “clean” and charts its follow-through. The overall plan has options and is fairly preach-free. While I won’t give up a brownie bar or slice of butter cake (not that the book requires that total a commitment), I will continue to add a round-robin of light main courses to the roster of items appearing at my table.
Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2015), $17.99
The Swedish tradition of fika, described as the cultural custom of taking a break in the a.m. or p.m. to enjoy coffee and a sweet (or, occasionally savory) accompaniment singly or with friends, is a tradition worth embracing. This is not an on-the-run, grab-and-go event, but one which encompasses more than a few minutes to savor the present. I believe this to be an essential element of life, especially now, in this uncertain world.
In Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, authors Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall reveal the way to relax and enjoy–by learning about the history and recipes that support the occasion of sharing food and drink. What a delight it is to be reminded of this simple pleasure and, most of all, learn that one of the cornerstones of the experience evolves from a goody you bake yourself (very wise).
In five charming chapters (“a history of Swedish coffee,” “modern-day fika,” “the outdoor season,” “celebrating more than the everyday,” and “bread, sandwiches, and fika as a snack”) Fika points the way and, in short order, will have you assembling ingredients and setting out the china coffee cups. Of particular interest is the recipe for semlor, the luscious Swedish cream buns–cardamon-scented and almondy, and sure to set the mood to celebrate the spirit of the day.
The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook: Recipes and Pairings for the Perfect Glass of Wine, by Mary Cech and Jennie Schacht (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005), $24.95
The flavors and ingredients of baked goods are explored and paired with dessert wines in this modern cookbook, as recipes include explanatory matches with dessert wines (noted within the all-important “making the match” section). For example, a lovely recipe for Cocoa Walnut Biscotti yields a fine batch of dipping cookies, ready to be mated with, say, an orange muscat, ruby port, or cream sherry. Who would argue with having cookies and a matching wine on the end table after dinner?
In all, the confections and their corresponding pours in The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook provide interesting reading, in addition to nibbling-and-sipping (and all of you bakers out there will learn how to take the dessert course to the next and most elegant level). Specifically, the splendid sections on caramel, honey, and spice; dried fruits; nuts; and cream draw me in most of all for their luscious, thoughtful pairings.
Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, by Cheryl Sternman Rule (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), $22.00
Historically, the substance we know as yogurt–that is, the unadulterated fermented and softly thickened milky matter–likely appeared in ancient times (recorded, for instance, by Pliny the Elder during his life in the 1st century A.D., and well before that), and by the author of Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, Cheryl Sternman Rule, while working as an educator (with her husband) in the Peace Corps circa “mid-1990s.” Sternman Rule pushed the pause button in the ritual preparation of the ingredient at home, but revived it some years later. The result? A kind of renewed sweet and savory look at yogurt’s elemental goodness wrapped up in a book of 352 pages.
While the focus of the text revolves around plenty of interesting recipes that drive yogurt into a culinary composition either as a dairy ingredient or accompaniment (see, for example, “Burnt Sugar-Apricot Halves,” “Overnight Challah French Toast,” “Pomegranate Raita,” “Ginger-Vanilla Lassi,” “Yogurt-Plumped Lamb Kebabs,” “Mixed Fruit and Yogurt Sheet Cake for a Crowd,” and “Blackberry-Lavender Frozen Yogurt”), other portions of the book present useful at-a-glance information on such areas as nutrients, choice of milks, the “fat” element, and so on. But equally important for consumers, you’ll find an exceptionally helpful section titled “How To Read a Yogurt Label.”
Yogurt Culture finishes with instructions on making yogurt at home. The recipe for “Homemade Yogurt” provided a reasonably simple procedure for two different base amounts of milk (1/2 gallon and 1 gallon) and culture (2 tablespoons and 1/4 cup), plus specific thermometer readings and timing. My first batch using the 1/2 gallon milk/2 tablespoons culture produced lightly thickened yogurt (after the requisite refrigeration); for the second batch, I increased the culture to 1/4 cup (using the same 1/2 gallon-quantity of milk), and preferred it for its denser texture and tarter flavor.
With yogurt as a four-season recipe component, Yogurt Culture offers the cook/baker ways to whisk and blend it into regional favorites no matter its provenance.
Ciao Biscotti: Sweet and Savory Recipes Celebrating Italy’s Favorite Cookie, by Domenica Marchetti (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015), $18.95
One afternoon not very long ago, I turned my kitchen into Biscotti Central by dipping into Ciao Biscotti: Sweet and Savory Recipes Celebrating Italy’s Favorite Cookie by Domenica Marchetti. Marchetti, describing the way through her tidy new cookbook, is responsible for a lot of mixing, baking and, finally, crunching going on–not to mention big tins of the cookie logs piled up on the counter top.
The crackle of the twice-baked is, in truth, irresistible.
Throughout each of the recipe chapters in Ciao Biscotti (“Classic Flavors,” “Chocolate and Spice,” “Biscotti with Fruit,” “Fantasy Flavors,” “The Savory Side,” and “Beyond Biscotti”) the author gently steers the reader/baker into learning the skills to prepare a slew of cookies. The recipe for the “Olive Oil and Citrus” version (page 36, and following page) turned out a lightly crispy and aromatic (thanks to the zest of both an orange and a lemon) load of biscotti, with the recommended accompanying beverage of chamomile tea (perfect!). The “Smoky Gouda” biscotti (page 117, and following page), made of a cheese dough tinged with a mix of smoked paprika and sweet Hungarian paprika, were gently zesty–I’m imagining them as a plate-mate to a composed salad in summer and with soup (hot or cold) throughout the year.
Unmistakably, biscotti are both rugged and charming, appealing for their sometimes sturdy, sometimes tender texture. Marchetti presents you with a plateful of ideas and the wise cook should follow her lead to transform basic pantry staples (plus a few specialty items, as needed, depending on the recipe) into a batch of cookies with only the loveliest form of staying power.
Bouchon Bakery, by Thomas Keller and Sabastien Rouxel, with Susie Heller, Matthew McDonald, Michael Ruhlman, and Amy Vegler (New York: Artisan, 2012), $50.00
If you are a casual baker, spending kitchen time with Bouchon Bakery, the book that represents the outpouring of the establishment itself (the bakery exists in multiple locations, but the first was set in motion in Yountville, California), will rearrange your skills and deeply challenge any knockabout behavior. If baking is a powerful mainstay of your life (either professionally or avocationally), Bouchon Bakery will require you to rethink techniques and, along the way, likely adopt new strategies.
And, I say this as a compliment to the heavy-weight (literally and figuratively) book, the work will shift you from a speed-reader to one who turns pages at glacier speed. Truly. This is what happened to me.
Initially, the chapter divisions (“Cookies,” “Scones and Muffins,” “Cakes,” “Tarts,” Pâte à Choux,” “Brioche & Doughnuts,” “Puff Pastry & Croissants,” “Breads,” “Confections,” and “Basics”) seem simple enough. Once into a recipe, say for “Chocolate Chunk and Chip Cookies,” the concepts within will refashion the thought process of baking. It’s a lot to absorb, but the hows and whys are thoroughly explained. One perfect example can be found in the preparation of the dough for the cookies where the attention to adding eggs is critical: “Add the eggs and mix on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until just combined. Scrape the bowl again. The mixture may look broken, but that is fine (overwhipping the eggs could cause the cookies to expand too much during baking and then deflate).” The resulting cookie dough balls are arranged on prepared sheet pans and you are told precisely where to place them. I advise you not swerve from this direction. All of this technical hand-holding will not be lost, but instead, make you a better, more accomplished baker and allow you to implement the procedures elsewhere.
Deep within Bouchon Bakery, “Devil’s Food Cake” appears in the same section as “Palet d’Or.” “Lemon Meringue Tarts” appear a page before “ Spiced Caramel Chiboust with Hazelnut Streusel and Peaches.” In “Basics,” look out for the likes of “Chocolate Glaze,” a flurry of pastry creams, and “Caramel Jam.” The jam is a thick, somewhat creamy substance–not a jam proper, but more like a condiment deployed within a recipe (a small amount is poured over mixed nuts in the “Caramel Nut Tart”). The fact that “Caramel Jam” appears in “Basics” should give the reader/baker some idea about the level of excellence Bouchon Bakery sets forth. You’ll acquire knowledge, be challenged (a positive) and, finally, have something remarkable on the cooling rack. (One last, and critical, shopping note: Buy a nest of strainers. You’ll need them.)