I share with you here some of the cookbooks, blogs, food memoirs, and other culinary writings I have found most delicious, intriguing, and helpful over the years. (A bibliography can be found at the bottom of this page; the date of first publication is mentioned in my descriptions; the date of the edition I use is cited in the bibliography.)
Some are chosen because of the writing; some for the reliability and usefulness of the recipes; some for the romance of time and/or place; some for beautiful illustrations and/or photography; some for all of these.
I have always wanted to gather in one place my favourites from culinary literature. That is part of what this blog is about: pulling together treasures to share, both with those who recognise them and may find pleasure in that recognition, and with those who may discover them for the first time.
I hope you will enjoy these and introduce some of your own best friends. I’d love to meet them.
Madeleine Kamman (see also “Slumped dumplings, and other lessons from the kitchen”)
The Making of a Cook (1971) was my first, and remains my favourite, cook’s bible for intelligent explanations on the science of cooking, and the basics you need to refer to again and again, such as the internal temperatures for cooking meat, as well as some of the best recipes in French cooking I know. I adore Madeleine Kamman’s utter dedication to excellence as a teacher as well as a cook. She provides original research and empirically tested foundation recipes: not a repeat of superficial received wisdom, but a challenge to them, an interrogation of them, a breaking-down of all the steps, so you can be absolutely confident when you rely on Madeleine Kamman’s guidelines to get, for example, pork that is safely cooked but not overcooked to meet some archaic food safety standard.
She will tell you, for another example, the basic proportions and techniques to use for any kind of bavarois you wish to make, or soufflé, or ice cream, so that equipped with those formulae and the reasons for them, you can create whatever you dream of and greet many cooking situations with confidence. Her recipes are firmly rooted in the French tradition, but translated for American cooks (she lived in Boston where she ran a restaurant and taught) and the ingredients available to them. They are such evocative recipes, redolent of place, of realness, of honest food home-made from scratch by women who were still expected to produce the family’s meals everyday. Madeleine Kamman was a feminist writing at a time when sexual politics were in foment, when being in the kitchen became a symbol of oppression. She reclaimed it for women who wanted to be feminists and to cook, and to do so professionally as well as at home. While some of the commentary may be a little outdated, her recipes and techniques are so classically useful and clearly explained that they hold up to time in all the ways one could wish, and equip one to innovate to one’s heart’s content. Her chicken bonne maman is what I want for my last meal — it sums up all of life’s generosity in a simple dish of garlic, potato, onion, excellent stock and an honest bird.
Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook (1976) is a masterpiece of another kind, as beautiful in its prose as in the recipes, which are based around eight women, all superb cooks, who were formative in Kamman’s life: all from different regions of France, all bringing their regional recipes and ingredients into her life along with wisdom and affection. Kamman is a scholar (she studied languages at the Sorbonne) and she has captured in these poignant pages the tastes and stories of places and times past, written down for the first time from her memories of being at the elbow of her Aunt Claire Robert, or Grandmother Eugénie. The recipes will produce tastes you may never have experienced: pigeon with prune farze, for example, a kind of Yorkshire pudding; and they also give the gift of discovering how to recreate traditional tastes encountered on travels throughout France. I use her recipe for Flammkuche, or Tarte Flambé, a kind of onion and bacon pizza, which we first encountered in Alsace. Hers, made with freshly harvested onions in early autumn, is so, so much better even than the good ones we had on holiday, at the source.
In the classical mode you can’t do better for step-by-step visual instructions than those to be found in his two major tomes, La Technique (1976), and La Méthode (1979). They provide photographic illustrations for every basic foundation skill a serious chef or home cook needs, starting with how to hold a knife, or tie a roast. I use him for this technical purpose more than the actual recipes, because the operating philosophy for Pépin, as for Madeleine Kamman, is to learn techniques and methods, not recipes, because then you can apply your skills and knowledge to everything you cook. His recipe for pastry cream, cream puffs, and all its pâte au choux variants, are foolproof. My husband David has followed Pepin’s instructions at Christmas for the most magnificent Paris Brest — an extravaganza of praline crème pâtissière and crème chantilly in an almond-sprinkled pâte au choux ring, to symbolise the famous bicycle race from Paris to the city of Brest. David had never even made cream puffs before, but following the well-illustrated and clear instructions, broken down one by one into manageable stages, he produced a masterpiece first time. David’s Paris Brest always receives rapturous reviews from all assembled whenever he manages to find the full day required to make it, and it is what I look forward to most of all the baked treats of the season. Our nephew James, when he was about 14, claimed he could “eat it forever”. I echo the sentiment.
I love Jane Grigson for bringing the bounty of the English countryside to the table, and her philosophy of putting beautiful ingredients at the centre of ones cooking. In her wonderful Fruit Book (1982), Vegetable Book (1978), and Good Things (1971), you start with your quinces, salsify, lemons, partridges, whatever you have, and she will tell you what to do with them. Her word is reliability and romance both. You know she has done the work for you of considering multiple approaches to an ingredient, and what she has selected to share is going to be both imaginative and simply good. Her collections, if not comprehensive, give you all you need: her suggestions are selective, chosen for quality. Some of the hardest-to-find things can be found in her pages. I went to Grigson for help with medlars when we moved into our home to find it had a mature tree — and I have been following her instructions for jelly ever since, and taking pleasure in her erudite and humorous descriptions of that historical fruit. Her rabbit with calvados, chives and cream, is the best way with rabbit I know. She is not exclusively English, but if I am thinking “English”, I turn to her before anyone else.
Ah, The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook... This is where my heart meets my past. I have cooked with furious passion nearly everything in this inspiring treatise on how to eat since it was first published in 1982, the year I lived in Berkeley and rented a house from Paul Bertolli, the Chez Panisse chef, during his sabbatical in Italy. Two years later I all-too-briefly cooked at Chez Panisse myself, first as a commis in the downstairs kitchen, prepping squid, sweetbreads, and garlic for the celebrated dining room; then moving upstairs to the café, to staff the cold station (the highlight of which was making a cured salmon salad for a San Francisco Chronicle food critic, who praised the dish as “perfectly seasoned” — words that made me glow for years). My copy of the book is the most treasured in my collection, and the most spattered, worn and faded. As a pristine first edition it would be worth a small fortune now. As the messily annotated copy it is, it is worth far more to me. The garlic soufflé, almond tart, olive oil and sauternes cake, and leek and goat’s cheese tart, are amongst my most treasured recipes, and the dishes most remembered by friends and family for whom I’ve cooked. Alice Waters’s philosophy speaks to me everyday, as I learned it from these pages and in her kitchen.
Elizabeth David [to come]
Claudia Roden [to come]
Dan Lepard [to come]
Other cookbook authors notable for their excellent teaching as well as recipes
Maida Heatter is the ultimate chocolate cook. Her Great Chocolate Desserts (1980) is, well, great, and has the distinction in my bookshelves of having the second-most spattered pages, after The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. My all-time favourite chocolate recipes are contained within these pages. Her New Orleans Chocolate Layer cake has a chocolate pudding layer that a few of my friends claim they would die for, and the Dobosh Torte, Chocolate Pots de Cremes, and Flourless Chocolate Rum Cake (more like a soufflé) are exceptional in their class. What is also truly classy about Maida Heatter is the care she takes to tell you, in a likeable, genuine, conversational voice, exactly what to expect; e.g., “This cake sinks in the middle, but don’t worry! It is covered by cream….” She includes difficult challenges and easy recipes. She also offers very useful tips on what and how to freeze, what you can do ahead, and other information I wish more recipe writers would think to include. She is thoughtful as well as brilliant with chocolate. The latest innovations won’t necessarily be found in her pages (which has no photos, only drawings); but if you want a book where chocolate recipes are reliable and good, then look no further.
Maddhur Jaffrey is justly celebrated for her brilliant instructions and perfect spicing for recipes achievable with some effort at home. I love her. I trust her. I admire her hugely for recording with such clarity and accessibility for home cooks one of the richest and most complex cuisines in the world. Her sweet and sour aubergine, lamb on the bone with mint, and mushroom pilaf, are family favourites, along with all the classics, including Rogan Josh, Chicken Madras, pooris, and fresh coriander chutney. Her voice is friendly and intelligent and encouraging. Her stories add to the experience. She takes such care to test and explain, that even the most unfamiliar recipes or ingredients are inviting. As teachers go, she is among the very best, and her recipes are invariably perfectly spiced, soul-satisfying and memorable. I have concluded that these two qualities must go together: those who make the best teachers seem to me also to have the best recipes.
Whimsical and off-beat books on food
I wish I’d written a book on food in children’s literature before Jane Brocket got to it. Her Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer is a generous collection of some classic scenes, such as Lucy’s tea with Mr Tumnus in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (see also my story, Afternoon Tea of a faun), along with her interpretation of some recipes for recreating those meals and treats. She includes many works of children’s literature not familiar to me (and leaves out some of my favourites, so maybe there’s a book left for me after all).
My father was a devotee of Euell Gibbon’s treatise on foraging from nature, and with the guidance of the 1960’s classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, we tried fiddlehead ferns, elderberries, bird cherries and even acorns, but wild asparagus was a true delicacy that we looked forward to every spring almost as much as our Easter baskets. My father’s satisfaction in the results was part of the pleasure for us. (See my story here, with a simple recipe.) We loved to see him rejoice in “eating like a king for the price of a pat of butter.”
Jane Brocket. Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: a golden treasury of classic treats. Hodder and Stoughton, 2008.
Euell Gibbon. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Hood, Alan C & Company, Inc., 1963.
Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. Penguin Books, 1983.
Ibid. Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. Penguin Books, 1980.
Ibid. Jane Grigson’s Good Things. Penguin Books, 1991.
Maida Heatter. Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981.
Maddhur Jaffrey. [to come]
Jacques Pépin. La Methode. Times Books, 1979.
Ibid. La Technique. Times Books, 1976.
Alice Waters. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. Random House, New York, 1982.