I’ve been working on a second edition of my cookbook for a while and had hoped to have it ready for the holiday season. Alas, no—but hopefully it will be out in the early spring.
In the meantime, here are some cookbook suggestions for everybody on your holiday gift shopping list. Well, almost everybody. I can think of one person who would interpret a gift of a cookbook as veiled criticism. But for the rest of the world, a cookbook is a gift that keeps on giving—often right back to you, the giver.
If I could own only three cookbooks (other than mine), they would be:
Julia Child’s The Way to Cook
If I could take only one cookbook with me to live on a desert island, this would be it. The inimitable Child is best known for her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking (featured in the film Julie and Julia), but The Way to Cook is more accessible for the more inexperienced among us. I’ve been using it since very early in my marriage, and I love how it’s arranged. Child organizes recipes around a technique, such as braising, which encourages experimentation once the basics have been mastered. Favorite recipes include Butterflied Leg of Lamb, Designer Duck, and Mousse au Chocolat.
Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab
A former member of the Cook’s Illustrated lab, Kenji struck out on his own years ago and now helms the invaluable website Serious Eats. This book is for the aspiring scientist/chef who wants to know why and how the Maillard reaction and transglutaminase work—but the recipes rock, too.
Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat
Have you watched her lovely and all-too-short series on Netflix? Samin seems delightful, and I basically want to be her best friend. Her prose is an engaging as she is, and her no-nonsense, joyful, sensory approach to cooking will invigorate even the most jaded cook.
All three of the above are comprehensive collections of peerless recipes, but maybe your people have these already. Or maybe they’re interested in a specific cuisine or recipe category. Despair not. Locate your potential recipients by their descriptions below and act accordingly.
The Farm-to-Table Devotée
They join CSAs and never miss the local farmers market:
French Roots, by Jean-Pierre and Denise Moullé
Jean-Pierre was executive chef at Chez Panisse for many years, and though he and his wife Denise are both French, they met on a street corner in Berkeley in 1980. Straightforward, classic French recipes are interspersed with warmly-recalled stories from their respective childhoods in France and their careers (he as a chef, she as a wine merchant) in California. Favorite recipes include Lemon Verbena Ice Cream and Green Bean Salad with Smoked Duck Breast.
Vegetable Literacy, by Deborah Madison
Attention, vegetarians! This is another beautiful yet technique-heavy tome full of great information. Madison groups vegetables according to genus to illustrate that similar recipes can work well across vegetables with similar characteristics. It comes in handy when your CSA sends you a squash or green you’ve never seen or heard of before.
The Complete Nose-to-Tail, by Fergus Henderson
Attention, carnivores! Patrick and I got to eat at Henderson’s amazing London bistro St. John many years ago, and it was a meal we’ll never forget. Once we got home, I promptly bought his first cookbook and then his second as soon as it came out. You can now buy them as a collection. I share Henderson’s belief that if you’re going to eat animals, you should make sure they’re killed humanely and that you then use every bit of them.
The Italian Food Junkie
They have an intimate relationship with lasagna:
Essentials of Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan
When I was a young married person, my grandmothers lived far away, so Marcella became my virtual nonna. Her books guided me to many a success as I sought to impress a discerning man who had lived in Italy for years. He’s still hanging around, FYI. If you want actual Italian food (not American-Italian food), Marcella Hazan is the guru you’ve always wanted.
They value form as highly as function, style as much as substance:
Kitchen Alchemy, by Jana Winters Parkin
Full disclosure: Jana is a close friend, and several of her beautiful paintings grace our walls. Jana is a true renaissance woman: an insanely gifted artist, writer, musician, and cook who can do it all. This book is as aesthetically pleasing as it is useful, and Jana’s favorite recipes will quickly become your own.
The Château-Shopping Escapist
They want to flee into a more perfect world:
A Kitchen in France, French Country Cooking, or Old World Italian, all by Mimi Thorisson
You can’t go wrong with Mimi. Her three cookbooks are beautiful enough to live on your coffee table, but don’t be fooled by the splendid photography into thinking that the Thorisson family’s fairytale life is too good to be true. The recipes are fantastic.
The French Foodie
They have an intimate relationship with cassoulet:
Techniques, by Jacques Pépin
This book, written by a veteran French chef and endorsed by everyone from Julia Child to Anthony Bourdain, is invaluable for visual learners. No technique is too basic, and every single one is copiously illustrated; it’s as close as you can come to reading a how-to video. This doorstop is worth its weight. Favorite recipes include Oeufs Brouillés (Scrambled Eggs), Croissants, and Steak au Poivre.
My Paris Kitchen, by David Lebovitz
Lebovitz, who trained in Alice Waters’s kitchen at Chez Panisse, is living the francophile’s dream. He moved to Paris in 2004, fell in love, and created a new life and career for himself. In the process, he renovated an apartment (chronicled in his captivating memoir L’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home) with his adorable partner, Romain. Lebovitz, a veteran blogger, is an excellent storyteller, and his lovingly created recipes are well organized and easy to follow. Favorites include Merveilleux (meringues coated in whipped cream and shaved chocolate) and Coq au Vin.
The Dessert Aficionado
They believe (rightly) that sugar = love:
Bravetart, by Stella Parks
Stella Parks is a dessert wizard. If you love the idea of reverse engineering (and vastly improving) things like Oreos, Twinkies, and Snickers bars, this is the book for you. Parks has lots more on offer though—classic American desserts of every kind from layer cakes to ice cream.
The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum
Following in one of my grandmother’s footsteps, I used to make cakes for extra money. I made birthday cakes, anniversary cakes, and even a few wedding cakes. This book was my guide through it all. If you’ve ever seen one of my chocolate lace cakes, I owe it all to Rose. She’s all about the most professional-looking creations that taste nothing like the usual heavily engineered, store-bought, cake-shaped-objects, and everything like heaven.
The Vintage Book Lover
They would be touched and honored, not insulted, to receive a rare used book:
Chocolate Never Faileth, by Annette Lyon
Full disclosure: Annette is literally my best friend. BUT she used to help run the Utah Chocolate Show, so she knows her stuff. Also, there was never a better cookbook title, nor ever a better collection of scrumptious recipes for everything chocolate. This book also contains loads of good advice on sources, ingredients, and techniques. Favorite recipes include Crooked Halo Angel Food Cake and Rocky Road Bars.
Cooking for Christ, by Florence S. Berger
Florence was a devout Catholic housewife who believed (rightly) that all our actions can be a prayer. From the preface: “This book is an extension of the Missal, Breviary, and Ritual because…home is an extension of the Mass, choir, and sacramentals.” Amen, Florence. She’ll guide you through the liturgical year with special recipes for every major feast day. Her spiritual insights are as lovely as her recipes for New Year’s Kranz and Fastnacht Doughnuts, among many others.
The Electric Pressure Cooker Fan
They need convenience, but aren’t satisfied with the millions of pedestrian recipes online:
Instantly French, by Ann Mah
I became a fan of Mah after reading her fantastic memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating (see below) when it was first published, so I eagerly snapped this book up the minute it came out. The French have been using the cocotte-minute, or pressure cooker, for decades. When Instant Pots came on the scene, Mah cleverly seized the moment and updated classic French recipes for modern American kitchens. Favorites include Chicken Provençal, French Onion Soup, and Rice Pudding with Salted Butter Caramel.
The Slow Cooker Revolution, by America’s Test Kitchen
When we renovated our kitchen several years ago, I set up shop in the garage and cooked from there for months. I had an induction hot plate, a toaster oven, and a slow cooker. I bought this cookbook, used it several times a week, and the whole family was delighted with the results. Years later, when my slow cooker died, I replaced it with an Instant Pot, but I still make several recipes from this excellent collection (by the team behind Cook’s Illustrated) using the slow cooker function.
They believe (rightly) that bread = love:
Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson
As the pandemic winter drags on, you’ve found you’re bored with sourdough. Not so fast. Chad is a bread fanatic with a deservedly cultish following in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his years-long quest for the perfect traditional French bread, follow his directions, and a whole new world of naturally yeasted treats will unfold for you. I promise: you’ll dog-ear the directions for troubleshooting various types of starters and come back to this book over and over again.
Baking with Julia, by Julia Child
As the pandemic winter drags on, you’ve found you’re bored with sourdough. Congratulations! You can now graduate to the wonderful world of commercial yeast. Whether it’s tarts or baguettes you’re after, Julia will guide you with her sure hand and abundant senses of adventure and humor. Think about it: after the pandemic will you ever have time again to make three-day, intricately laminated croissants, palmiers, and Napoleons? Carpe diem, my friend. And carpe butyrum (seize the butter).
They know the End Times are coming. Or they’re Mormon (same difference, amirite?):
Apocalypse Chow, by Jon Robertson
Another winning cookbook title that delivers. Once you’ve stored all those cans and boxes, it might be good to have some recipes so you can actually enjoy your meals during the aftermath of the tornado/earthquake/breakup. Food is comfort, friends, and you’ll need it. Keep this book next to your 100-hour candle, and you’ll be set.
Kill It & Grill It, by Ted and Shemayne Nugent
Yes, that Ted Nugent. My kids got this for me as a joke (sort of), but it’s actually pretty great. Nugent is an avid hunter and loves to cook what he bags (which I applaud). His techniques for venison are worth the price of the book alone.
Food in Jars, by Marisa McClellan
I love this canning book because Marisa focuses on small batches of amazing jams, jellies, and chutneys. You can spend an hour making a few half-pints of something delicious instead of devoting a whole hot day in the kitchen. Her combinations are winning, and her technique is impeccable. Favorites include Three-Citrus Marmalade and Mixed Stone Fruit Jam.
The Armchair Gourmet
They’d rather read about great food while ordering takeout:
Mastering the Art of French Eating, by Ann Mah
Ann moved to France when her husband took a job there and made it her mission to embrace her new country and its cuisine. Though her title riffs on the classic book by Julia Child, her essays are all her own—vivid, thoughtful, and adventurous. Highly recommended for any francophile.
Dirt, by Bill Buford
This wonderful memoir has a lengthy subtitle: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. Oh, to pick up your accommodating and flexible family and move to a foreign city in search of culinary intrigue. This is a satisfying and inspiring read for any foodie or armchair traveler.
Happy reading, happy eating, and happy holidays, everyone!