NOVEMBER 30, 1998: Taking their cue from the major motion picture studios, cookbook publishers have begun to debut what they consider their top quality wares (read: award contenders) just in time for the holiday season. This year's fall cookbook releases are positively dazzling, making it almost impossible to know which ones to choose for the cookbook lover on your holiday list without some professional guidance. To simplify your shopping dilemma, members of the Chronicle food staff have recently spent some time on the range and at the keyboard evaluating the new releases. Think Siskel and Ebert in the kitchen. These are the books to which we give our enthusiastic "whisks up." --Virginia B. Wood
The Way To Cookby Julia Child
(Knopf $35, paper)
Even though I've been obsessed with food all my life and cooking for years, I'm always on the lookout for good "beginner's" cookbooks. Part of the attraction is purely selfish; as a "learn on the job" cook, there's always some basic technique that I could stand to learn (or relearn). But a good chunk of my attraction to the basics comes from my friends, family members, and other novice cooks looking for the best place to start their kitchen education.
My knee-jerk endorsement used to go to the immortal The Joy Of Cooking, a clear, comprehensive text and standard of American cookery. But for the true beginner, raised on microwave entrees and other convenience foods, The Joy's text-heavy format skimps on an important teaching tool: pictures. A picture may be worth a thousand words on the open market, but from the novice cook's perspective, a picture can mean the difference between success and yet another greasy value meal.
So in the past few years, I've started pointing people toward a bigger, more beautiful encyclopedia: Julia Child's The Way to Cook -- with great results. Weighing in at over 500 pages, The Way focuses on elementary kitchen techniques and (most importantly for the beginner) doesn't skimp on the visual aids. It is probably the most exhaustive picture book of its kind, and is by far the best written.
Written in 1989, The Way to Cook showcases Child -- arguably the most recognized and respected icon of American home/gourmet cuisine -- at her peak as both culinary teacher and food writer. Over the course of 11 lengthy chapters, Child leads her readers through classical culinary technique adapted for the contemporary American kitchen, all with the casual, accessible tone that made her TV's first multimedia superchef. "The more one knows about [good cooking]," she writes in her introduction, "the less mystery there is, the faster cooking becomes, and ... the more pleasure one has in the kitchen."
Child builds foundations of good technique using "Master Recipes," which explain the basics of everything from roasting chicken to making traditional puff pastry. Her conversational descriptions of the individual steps, from quick-blanching fresh asparagus to making homemade sausage, are accompanied by illustrative photos whenever a recipe deviates from basic techniques. Once you feel comfortable with the Master Recipe, Dame Julia lists several variations to magically expand any cook's repertoire. She also makes excellent use of sidebars for handy tips on everyday kitchen storage, preparation, or experimental issues.
As you might expect from a founder of the old school of American gourmet cooking, recipes in The Way lean heavily toward French-influenced dishes, with a good balance of fancy and plain dishes. And being Gallic in nature, it emphasizes the preparation of traditional meat and fish dishes while the vegetable chapter covers mainly simple preparations. Dessert fanatics and aspiring pastry chefs, though, will be amply inspired by the lengthy discussions and finer points of mile-high layer cakes, delicate puff pastry doughs, and sweet treats of every description. And, as always, the photos lead the reader through the tough parts step by intricate step.
The Way to Cook also gets high marks as an all-around reference work. Julia's descriptions can make even the most complex or unorthodox dishes seem plausible and accessible. Sure, there are recipes and techniques that a beginner won't likely use, but if you've ever wondered how to roast duck pâté in its own skin or the proper way to make a gelatinous Mediterranean fish aspic, the info's all here.
But no matter what one's level of kitchen expertise, it's highly unlikely that any cook will ever outgrow this beautiful beast of a book. --Pableaux Johnson
Seductions of Riceby Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
(Workman/Artisan, $35 hard)
Seductions of Rice is brought to you by Alford and Duguid, the dynamic duo that produced Flatbreads and Flavors -- dealing with low-altitude breads of the world -- which was a winner of both the James Beard Award and the IACP Julia Child Award. You would think that would be a hard act to follow -- but think again. Seductions deals with rice, in all its forms: how it is planted, cultivated, cleaned, husked, milled, but most importantly, how it is cooked. The book contains hundreds of recipes that deal with rice alone, rice mixed with things, things to go over (or next to) rice, and rice condiments (salads, pickles, chile pastes, sauces). These recipes were gleaned from the authors' extensive travels abroad, both researching the flatbreads book and traveling for their other company, which produces Asian stock photos.
Seductions takes us on a journey around the Rice Belt, following the ancient Silk Road, from west to east; it is part entertaining travelogue, part horticultural treatise, and very much a compendium of ethnic foods, both high- and low-brow. Foods of China, Thailand, Japan, India, Central Asia and Persia (very fascinating), the Mediterranean, Senegal and West Africa, and North America are represented. Rice grows in every continent of the world except Antarctica, and most is produced in tropical and subtropical climates (90% of the world's rice is still grown in Asia).
The book opens with a helpful index of different uses for the recipes: Transforming Leftover Rice, For Guests Younger Than 10 Years Old, What To Make When You're Too Tired To Cook, etc. This index is followed by all the information you would ever need about rice production (being a horticulturist in my other life, I found this riveting). Following that is the Rice Dictionary/Rice Terms/Glossary. Included are lengthy descriptions of the 48 main types of rice (who'd-a thunk it?): Chinese Black, Gobingdovag, Jasmine, California Wehani, etc. Also included is a definition of the parboiling process that produces "converted" rice (à la Uncle Ben's). I had no idea that this process actually increases the nutritional content of the rice or that it was developed in southern India and dates back more than 2,000 years.
Seductions features much similar educational information. Alford and Duguid relate how rice was first cultivated from its wilder forms in southern China, Thailand, Burma, and Assam about 7,000 years ago, and how since that time it has developed into the major food source for the world's peoples. This book taught me that the rice plant is much more adaptable than I previously thought; it can grow from dry hillsides all the way to deep river waters and can be planted directly by seed.
The recipes are, for the most part, simple and easy to prepare, using ingredients that should be locally available. They follow the path of the sun, from west to east. Each chapter is loaded with sidebars recounting special people the authors met along the way, plus tidbits and snippets of interest about each particular region. Given the authors' other occupation, one would expect the book to be full of spectacular photos -- and they don't disappoint. The photos almost seem like part of an anthropological study instead of a cookbook. They really help put the reader into the area being read about.
Now for the food its ownself: Yunan Spicy Ground Pork was the first dish I made from the book and it proved the most heavenly, yet devilish, sloppy joe ever to meet my lips. Nam Prik Num, a Thai chile salsa made from blackened chiles and spices, had a wonderful smoky flavor, meant to be eaten with sticky rice, but great on tortilla chips. Uzbekistanian Lamb Kebabs flavored with wine vinegar, onion, coriander, and cumin were rich in depth, probably as good over propane as over a fire of donkey dung. Cardamom and Rosewater Rice Pudding -- the Persian equivalent to Mexican Arroz con Leche but with secret layers of taste from the rosewater -- was a real comfort-style treat. Risotto alla Telefono, fried croquettes of leftover risotto filled with chunks of mozzarella that make "telephone lines" of stringy cheese when pulled apart, was most enjoyable, messy, and yummy. Why didn't the Pilgrims think up stuff like this? I have 195 more recipes to cook, and if they're all this good, I'm in big trouble.
Alford and Duguid have hit a grand slam with this new release. Seductions completely covers every aspect of the world's most popular staple. --Mick Vann
The Complete Meat Cookbookby Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly
(Houghton Mifflin, $35 hard)
Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly don't make any bones about it; they, like any self-respecting cooks will readily admit, are fatophiles, and they are also fleshophiles. Fat, like salt, is a middleman we can't do without. It's what communicates flavor from the food to the palate, and it's glorious. It's also, of course, what gives many Americans heart disease and big swingy jowls. We as a nation have picked up on this and become, in name at least, health-conscious. But instead of adopting reasonably rigid exercise routines and continuing to eat the good food we love in moderation, we've accomplished something very sneaky: We get the animals we eat to exercise, so we don't get as fat when we eat them.
All right, so the animals don't actually exercise. But for years, scientists and farmers have been breeding cows, sheep, and pigs with far less fat marbled through the flesh. Leaner flesh is healthier, but it's also tougher and more difficult to cook.
Okay, leaner meat. If that's how it's going to be, we may as well learn to cook it in ways that make it just as delicious as it was before. The Complete Meat Cookbook was written in response to the relatively new cuts of meat available to Americans. Instead of taking recipes and attempting to make them low-fat, this book helps a cook choose cuts of meat suitable to what they want to do and helps the cook modify time-honored recipes to a leaner cut of meat. (A recipe handed down through generations would have a much different effect on a 1968 roast beef than it would a 1998 roast beef.) Aidells and Kelly also educate their readers about excellent, often inexpensive cuts that are frequently overlooked. They describe methods of cooking that seal in juices and ways to introduce flavor to most effectively season leaner cuts of meat.
Of particular interest to me was reading about the technique of brining. (Corned beef is probably the best-known recipe.) Brining uses the scientific principle of osmosis: salt in solution will rush from a higher concentration to a lower concentration. Soaking a reasonably priced, normally tough cut of pork in a flavored brine solution will unwind the muscle fibers, leaving a more tender piece of meat with a firm, plump, and juicy texture. Also, the meat absorbs the flavor of the brine (which can include a variety of seasonings in addition to salt).
Each technique and cut of meat is accompanied by easy-to-follow recipes. I tried a classic Bolognese presentation of Pork Braised in Milk and Capers. Preparation was short, cooking took a few hours of minimal attention, and the finished product could have fed about 1,000 gourmands. Overall, it was a great success; the book has clear, informative instructions, and the pork was indeed tender and flavorful.
The heft, presentation, and release date of the book make it an obvious gift for a dedicated cook. "For those who share this carnivorous inclination," here is the book for you. --Meredith Phillips
Rao's Cookbookby Frank Pellegrino
(Random House, $40 hard)
Family-run restaurants are usually models of hard work and, as often, vaults of cultural treasure. With kitchen rearing -- the shared sweat at the stove, the trained eye for ripe produce, the lessons of perfect seasoning -- a family's food traditions are passed on as valued heirlooms; the recipes they preserve drip with ancestral soul.
This is the reason that Rao's Restaurant, a century-old, family-run East Harlem haunt, has long held New York City's rapt attention. This place is always packed. With only 10 always-reserved tables and a single seating per night, you cannot get into Rao's unless a local resident gives up his weekly seat or you're the Pope.
It is for the restaurant's precious inaccessibility -- not to mention its famed homestyle Italian food -- that Rao's Cookbook has received such unanimous, and well-deserved, praise. This book is not about celebrity tribute, although testimonials from Billy Crystal, Nicholas Pileggi, and Dick Clark litter its pages. Nor is it an attempt at culinary history, despite its introductory survey of Italian-American immigration. Rather, it is a local story of a prized community, nourished by great food and sustained by rich characters: the late Aunt Annie, a grande dame of marinara, and aspiring actor Nicky "the Vest," everyone's favorite bar man.
Rao's might be every restaurateur's dream. It subsists on the continued patronage of friends and neighbors, grateful that Rao's has so far resisted expansion and a tempting move downtown. It supports a community of food purveyors in its midst, who have long provided Rao's with unyielding quality of produce, fish, meat, bread, and cheese. And it maintains unprecedented loyalty to its customers, who treasure their tables like subway passes. Plus, it's closed on weekends, a heavenly proposition for a chef.
One read of Rao's Cookbook and I was smitten. Beautiful pictures of simple food and touching anecdotes of memorable dinners endeared this homespun place to me. The famous food, the legendary characters, the family legacies! I was enraptured by the restaurant's charm, swept away on borrowed nostalgia.
Of course, this enchantment could get me in trouble. I had become personally committed to the treasured cookbook's success and grew overconfident in its recipes before I chose any to test. But what if the recipes didn't pan out? Well, I thought, at least Rao's marinara sauce would be good. It had to be; the emotional stakes were too high. Fortunately, the rewards were great. The marinara sauce is deep and rich, simply the easiest and best red sauce I've ever made. Other recipes also tested well: The Red Onion and Tomato Salad glistens in a pool of olive oil and herbs; the Escarole and Bean Soup expertly marries mild broth with bitterness; the Linguine With Garlic and Olive Oil rewards a heavy hand with each; the Rigatoni al Arrabbiata makes a simple tomato sauce sing; the Fusilli With Fresh Tomatoes and Mozzarella boasts flavor through ripe ingredients; and the Sausage With Peppers and Onions will knock your Sicilian socks off. Also included in this book is Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken recipe, praised in food magazine circles for some time. There are dozens more recipes for seafood, chicken, veal, and beef.
The basic cooking principles at work here are not surprising. Rao's uses top ingredients and implores us to do the same: Buy San Marzano canned tomatoes; choose good, extra virgin olive oil. Preparation is simple: Cook savoy cabbage, broccoli, and escarole with only oil, garlic, and salt. The recipes don't skimp on quantity: Linguine for four calls for a full cup of olive oil, and the sausage with peppers yields enough for two full meals.
Rao's family cooking is not immune to the forces of marketing. A selection of jarred sauces is available for sale at grocery stores and a tape of Rao's famous jukebox hits can be purchased on CD. True, manufactured atmosphere won't transport us to East Harlem, but at least it can help re-create some of Rao's magic. --Ronna N. Welsh
The Elephant Walk Cookbookby Longteine De Monteiro and Katherine Neustadt
(Houghton Mifflin, $35 hard)
Though it happened in 1978, it seems like only yesterday that I made my first extended trip to San Francisco (although the memory is myopic and slightly foggy). I had taken a serious interest in Oriental food and part of my itinerary involved wallowing in the heart of that culinary beast. While strolling down Fulton Street, I stumbled upon a restaurant named Angkor Wat, my first encounter with Cambodian (Khmer) chow. The restaurant's claim to fame, apart from glorious reviews, was that the Pope had eaten there and had asked for seconds. The Duck in Red Curry With Fruits that I ate there was a unique new discovery, and I would almost have turned Catholic for another plate of those sublime flavors -- or at least a recipe for same.
I spent the next 21 years eating in every Cambodian restaurant that crossed my path, at each asking if anyone knew of a cookbook (in English) that I could buy. I e-mailed the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking if anyone there knew of one, but no one did. I even begged Cambodians to direct some of their compatriots to Austin to open a Cambodian restaurant here, telling them Austin was desperate for Khmer cuisine.
Then, this fall, during one of my periodic Net searches for Khmer cookbooks, I almost had to call EMS to bring the heart paddles. There it was, a pre-release notice for The Elephant Walk Cookbook: The Exciting World of Cambodian Cuisine From the Nationally Acclaimed Restaurant, by Longteine "Nyep" De Monteiro and Katherine Neustadt. A huge, goofy grin spread across my face from ear to ear; the world's first Khmer cookbook written in English was finally a reality. I could now at least cook the food that I still can't order at a restaurant in Austin.
Elephant Walk contains 150 recipes that range from palace to peasant fare, utilizing the rich bounty of the Khmer countryside. De Monteiro has put together a masterwork that satisfies my anticipatory glee. The introduction is expansive, covering the little-known (at least to most Westerners) history and culture of this diverse land. It's unfortunate that most Americans are only familiar with Cambodia as the site of "The Killing Fields." Elephant Walk will teach you much more: that the Khmer Empire of Angkor emerged in the ninth century, then hit its peak during the 11th and 12th centuries; that Cambodia's culture, religion, politics, and certainly its food, have been influenced through the years by India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, China, and the colonial occupations of the Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, and French; that one of the biggest flavor influences was borrowed from India, by way of Java: the use of blended spice pastes to flavor soups, stews, and stir fries (much like the Latin sofrito). In India, this paste is known as a masala; in Cambodia, it is almost always made with lemongrass, makroot, chiles, garlic, shallots, galangal, and occasionally turmeric. Khmer food is less sweet than Thai, less salty and more subtle than Vietnamese. It adopted noodles and soy sauce from the Chinese, bread and baking from the French, all producing an amalgam that's delicate yet very flavorful.
Preserved fish in all its forms, especially fish sauce and fermented fish (Prahok) are a vital part of Khmer cuisine. A huge interior lake (Tonle Sap Lake) is a rich source of freshwater fish, lobster, shrimp, crabs, clams, and mussels. Along the Gulf of Siam coast, saltwater species are more common. Salting and preserving allows a constant supply of what can be a seasonal resource. The Khmer make no distinction between veggies and fruits in cooking as Westerners do, and both grow in abundance. The methods of preparation are quite simple yet yield complex, layered, refined flavors.
The recipes are based on the menus of the three restaurants that Nyep's family runs in the Boston area. Getting there was a long, strange journey. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, both Nyep and her husband Ken were serving as diplomats in Taiwan. They found out that both of their extended families had been slaughtered by Pol Pot's troops. They ended up relocating to France, where Ken had attended the Sorbonne (ironically, Pol Pot was one of his classmates). After a 10-year stint in southwest France running the world's first Cambodian restaurant, they left for Boston.
The recipes cover an incredible range of treats, from appetizers to sweets, simple to complex, with clear, concise directions. The components are all easily obtained at local Oriental markets (The Austin Chronicle, Vol. 18, No. 11). A sampling follows: Saik Chrouk Ch'ranouitk are pork brochettes bathed in lemongrass and shredded coconut. Mouan Tum is a whole chicken or game hen rubbed with five-spice, then stuffed with dates, lotus seed, shiitake, bean thread noodles, pork, and shallots. Spey Kadop Nyuot Kroeung are beautiful packages of stuffed cabbage with lemongrass and chiles, ground pork, shimmering in a broth of coconut milk. Trey Trung Kroeung is a palace dish: royal catfish enrobed with lemongrass and coconut milk.
I made the brochettes and the catfish at home to test the recipes, and hotdamn! The brochettes were as simple as skewering the meat and throwing all the spices into a blender to form the marinade, producing a zesty blend of flavors unlike any other Oriental cuisine. The catfish was a simple pan-sauté, combined with a stir fry of the spice paste and reduction of the coconut milk. I was amazed at the alchemy involved -- basic ingredients and method, producing fish with a "robe" of intense, yet sublime flavor -- spicy, rich, sweet, tart, all in the same bite.
Nyep has produced a first rate cookbook, preserving the rich heritage of Khmer cooking. At long last, I can eat Cambodian to my heart's content. Now, if we could just persuade her to open a branch in Austin. --M.V.
Chocolateby Nick Malgieri
(HarperCollins, $35 hard)
'Tis the season to bombard each other with cheap holiday treats, like M&M cookies or ChocoBake cakes. As an annual recipient of such homebaked "goods," I'm encouraged when authoritative dessert sources arrive on the sweets scene. The latest of these is by Peter Kump Cooking School and TV Food Network celebrity chef Nick Malgieri.
Malgieri's book Chocolate is a compendium, 380 recipes all told. It contains many cake recipes you'd want (Chocolate Velvet Cake, Chocolate Banana Layer Cake), along with some you might already have (chocolate chip pound cake, devil's food cake). The cookie chapter itself could fill any holiday collection. Chocolate is not strictly for holiday use, but it contains the usual gift items, like thumbprints and pinwheels, plus chocolate bar, drop, and refrigerator cookies.
While Chocolate covers a wide range of desserts, it's not exclusively for the gourmet, nor is it dumbed down for the novice. The most heady recipes, such as Bittersweet Chocolate Sherbet With Coconut Rum Sauce, are remarkably clear and approachable. They should provide a rewarding challenge for most cooks.
And its overall instruction is thorough. The first chapter, called "Basics," includes a section on "Primary Lessons in Working with Chocolate," which, if you've forgotten, warns you about improperly storing chocolate and teaches you how to fix chocolate that "seizes up" in poor conditions. It dutifully tells you how to temper chocolate for molding, coating, or dipping candies, even though most home cooks avoid this project altogether. Each chapter begins with tips for success: don't overmix or fully cook brownie batter, two pitfalls to dry, cakey squares.
Malgieri gives us the good stuff, along with the tollhouse basics. He teams up sophisticated desserts of expensive ingredients and delicate techniques with the likes of Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake. High-brow vs. low-brow isn't at all his issue. In fact, for this book project, chocolate, not skill or refinement, defines a quality dessert.
For staunch chocoholics, at least, dessert without chocolate, let's say a classic fruit tart, is a compromise in moral or aesthetic principle; chocolate is what makes dessert right, what makes it good. Certainly, it's what makes a dessert distinct. Even in sparse amounts, chocolate is potent enough to dominate most desserts. It is the bully of sweets, their most prominent and prized feature.
The book's photography confirms this prejudice: On the inside cover, thick chocolate blocks are stacked high, a confectionary fortress wall to a temple of sweets. The danger of this selective approach to desserts, of course, is that some classic recipes get blatantly revised, or, rather, "chocolatized" for inclusion in the book. Chocolate Rum Raisin Loaf Cake and a Cocoa Angel Food Cake are two examples of this.
One measure of this book's success is in how well chocolate upgrades otherwise humble desserts and, of course, how it fares in more noble sweets. I tested recipes for Chocolate Almond Cookies, Frozen Chocolate Terrine, and a Chocolate Raspberry Bavarian Cake. Each recipe required different levels of commitment, from the simple piping of chocolate paste to the more careful preparation of syrups and mousses, and each was a sure success.
After thorough consideration, I'm convinced this book has all the makings for a long-term relationship: It's attractive and dependable. Plus, it's nearly exhaustive; the section on confections alone includes more recipes than another book I have entirely devoted to the subject. Even for a pro, interested most in sauces or showpieces, this book has lasting value. It helps with both ambitious projects and the occasional quick cookie fix. --R.W.
The Pie and Pastry Bibleby Rose Levy Beranbaum
(Scribnerís, $35 hard)
Being a baker by trade and a fairly accomplished pie maker in my own right, I couldn't wait to get my hands on Beranbaum's latest bible. For the uninitiated, New Yorker Rose Levy Beranbaum is a baker/cookbook author/food scientist who demystified cake baking in her 1994 mega-selling The Cake Bible (Scribner's, $30 hard). Her new work is expected to do the same for pie and pastry making. It's an amazingly thorough book. Who else but Beranbaum would offer recipes for more than 15 different pie crusts, everything from her favorite perfect flaky crust to an excellent one made with cream cheese to crusts made with home-rendered lard, goose fat, or beef suet? This brings me to my one quibble with Beranbaum: The lengths to which she's willing to go for a perfect crust make me feel as though I'm never quite working hard enough. That intimidates me a bit and I'm a professional. Intimidation aside, her recipes are clear, concise, and amazing in their detail. All ingredients are listed by weight and volume, and charts list every conceivable fruit for pie and the ratio of ingredients and thickeners necessary for successful pie making.
The author shares her early pie-making experiences as a young bride and the secrets she learned about baking apple pies: Success depends on the apples you choose; pre-cooking the fruit caramelizes the sugar somewhat and thickens the juices so they don't make the crust soggy; and frozen fruit pies bake up crisper. Follow her lead and you, too, can make divine apple pies: double crust, open-faced, crumb-topped, rosy with cranberries. You name it, it's here -- and it's wonderful. They all are. In a separate chapter on tarts, we're treated to a variety of indulgences: free-form French galettes and Italian crostatas, linzertortes, chocolate tarts, and Molten Chocolate Souffle Tartlets, which are made of a crisp pastry shell filled with an airy mousse that oozes chocolate with the first forkful. Another chocolate delight I tried from this chapter was the Brownie Puddle, a thin brownie baked in a shallow fluted tart pan. The book says that as soon as the brownie comes out of the oven, we are to poke holes in it and fill the holes with rich chocolate ganache or buttery caramel sauce. I served the chocolate/caramel variation warm with a scoop of Haagen-Daz Dulce de Leche ice cream, and the crowd swooned. When the pre-release publicity packet on this book arrived at summer's end, I used the last of the precious High Rock Ranch peaches to test the recipe for Peaches and Cream Tart in a sweet cookie nut crust and found that elegant, homey dish completely worthy of the sublime fruit.
The pastry section of the book offers excellent formulas for puff pastry and strudel and danish doughs, and the various fillings for pastries to be made with them. There's a chapter on ice creams for those of us who love our pie à la mode and others on fillings and toppings, sauces and glazes. All the recipes have undergone exhaustive testing and, if followed carefully, they work beautifully. Novice and experienced bakers can derive confidence from Rose's all-knowing presence on each page. If you're a pastry and pie lover at heart, buy this book for the passionate baker in your life and many wondrous pies should be in your future. --V.W.
125 Cookies to Bake, Nibble, and Savorby Elinor Klivans
(Broadway Books, $25 hard)
Former restaurant pastry chef and current best-selling cookbook author Elinor Klivans swept through Austin on her book promotion tour Halloween weekend. I was lucky enough to attend her sold-out Central Market cooking classes based on recipes from Bake and Freeze Chocolate Desserts (Broadway Books, $27.50 hard) and her new release, an inviting collection of sweet and savory cookies. Turns out Klivans comes from a family of serious cookie bakers, each with her own cache of signature recipes. She recounts stories of her father's birthday parties where cookies rather than cakes were always the order of the day. She told me that as soon as her friends and family found out that she was working on a cookie book, they deluged her with favorite recipes for her to try. Many of them made their way into the book.
Crisp cookie fanatic that I am, I naturally gravitated to the chapter on shortbreads first thing. I loved the delicate Petticoat Tails, the Scot's Favorite Shortbread, the decadent Millionaire Shortbread, and the Lemon Glazed Shortbread Wedges, each recipe having a distinct character and flavor of its own. From there, I considered the holiday and tested the Cranberry White Chocolate Florentines. I found Klivan's in-class suggestion to add orange zest lifted the already delightful cookies to another level of satisfaction. Eggnog Bars, with a silky cream cheese filling flavored with rum and nutmeg, could end up replacing the punch bowl at the holiday table.
The savory section of the book offers several recipes that should make a great contribution to holiday entertaining. The Sun-Dried Tomato & Chive Cheesecake Bars with a pecan-and-bread-crumb crust that Klivans demonstrated in class were even better at home with Boggy Creek Farm smoke-dried tomatoes, and the Camden Cheese Ribbons with sharp white cheddar cheese turned out to be the perfect complement to drinks at a recent cocktail party. The Basil and Rosemary Tuiles made a great match with a field green salad, and the distinctive Onion Rugelach opened up a whole new avenue of uses of that Eastern European pastry treat.
All of Elinor Klivans' recipes are tested in her home kitchen in Camden, Maine, where she uses homestyle mixers and ovens to assure that home bakers will achieve success when they use her books. Each recipe is followed by a paragraph of the author's "Good Advice," which also includes ideas and instructions for freezing, storing, and serving her yummy cookies. If there is a time-honored cookie tradition in your family, you are bound to find some recipes here to add to it. And if you're eager to establish such a tradition, Elinor Klivans will be glad to help. --V.W.
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