My mother taught herself to cook.
Newly married, she embraced the life of a homemaker and set about mastering a domain her own mother kept tightly sealed. For her guide, she turned to the red- and white-plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. Within its three-ring-notebook style, she found tutorials in roasting meat, mixing pie doughs and making fast kitchen substitutions. She learned to dress her cole slaws, dice her vegetables and troubleshoot her cakes. To this day, she uses the book as a filing system for recipes she clips from newspapers and magazines (a rather retro trait she has passed on to me):
When I graduated from college, my mom gave me my own copy of her beloved cookbook, updated as the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. Years later, I still look to it when I need a quick reminder on roasting times, a foolproof recipe for cupcakes or — yes — a creamy cole slaw dressing.
The red-and-white BHG came to mind this week as I pondered kitchen books for Mother’s Day. I am hopelessly in love with cook books, even though the iPad, the Kindle, the Nook and the Internet are rendering them obsolete (or so I’m told). I love the physicality of them … their weight; their heft; their pages waiting to be dog-eared and spattered. I love the sheer mass of them sitting on my shelves:
So it’s with this bias that I offer these suggestions for Mother’s Day gifts: Five cookbooks I turn to again and again for their breadth, depth and artful writing; and a food-centric work of fiction that describes in achingly beautiful language the way love wends its way through the meals we make.
You can find these online (or so I’m told). But my mom will get a book.
1. Baking, by Dorie Greenspan. The quintessential baking guide for novices and pros alike. As she unspools her favorite recipes for breads, pies, cakes and cookies, Greenspan offers tutorials on rolling sticky doughs, melting finicky chocolate and knowing exactly when that cake is done. Best, she encourages you to play with your food, tossing out additions and substitutions you can make so a baked good is uniquely your own. Try the cocoa-nana bread (page 46), the tarte noir (page 351) or the linzer sables (page 134).
2. Sunday Suppers At Lucques, by Suzanne Goin. Fair warning … many of Goin’s recipes are downright daunting. But her writing is warm and approachable and includes charming stories from her life as a child and professional cook. The introductory sections on seasonal produce and Goin’s creative menu ideas make this book well worth its $35 price tag. And not all of her recipes take three days to create. Try the tomato gazpacho (page 163), the summer squash gratin (page 141) with salsa verde (page 132), and the candied walnut wedge (page 187).
3. The Bon Appetit Cookbook, edited by Barbara Fairchild. Over 700 pages of nuts-and-bolts breakfasts, dinners, lunches and snacks that you’ll turn to again and again. This is a book for the mom who’s looking for familiar standbys as well as brand-new menu items. Each recipe is introduced by a helpful summary; the book is written with a casual, approachable touch that novice cooks will welcome and experienced cooks will value. Try the wild mushroom tart (page 84), the mushroom-artichoke lasagna (page 249) and the Grand Marnier-spiked chocolate pudding (page 621).
4. The Italian Country Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. This is so much more than pasta! Kasper gleaned these authentic recipes during her travels through the Italian countryside. Regional stories and tales of the Italian farmers she met are interspersed throughout the book. The “Cook to Cook” notes are helpful hints that Kasper has discovered over a lifetime of cooking … tips she shares like your best kitchen friend. Try the balsamico roast chicken & potatoes (page 224), the garlic-caper pork chops (page 146) or the chocolate polenta cake (page 360).
5. Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichl. This is Gourmet magazine for cooks who don’t have hours to spend coaxing a showstopping dish from stove to table. Most entrees take 20-30 minutes to prepare but feature innovative ingredients and techniques. Think of this cookbook as the gateway drug to serious chef-ing. Try the roasted grape relish (page 51), the lentil & tomato salad (page 189) and the apricot chicken with almonds (page 396).
6. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. In this gorgeous novel, a young girl is haunted by her ability to discern the innermost feelings of people by eating something that they’ve cooked. After 292 pages, she comes to accept this rather startling character trait as a gift. Bender’s prose gives language to the often elusive feeling we cooks have of translating love and empathy and emotion through our food and onto our loved ones’ plates.
Happy reading, Mom.