When I was a little girl, we cooked from two places: the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook, and my mom’s recipe box. With five little kids in the family, we weren’t the most sophisticated diners, although we did eat together at the dinner table every single night. We’d help Mom peruse The Cookbook, begging her to try new recipes like One-Pot Spaghetti, Cheesy Potato Bread, and Cowboy Caviar. But usually she’d cook something from her recipe box: German Meatballs, Creamy Broccoli Chicken, Homemade Macaroni and Cheese. My Norwegian grandmother lived in our basement, and occasionally she would whip up an exotic feast to nourish the whole family: Lefse, Potato Balls, Flötegröt. She died nearly 20 years ago, but I still cherish her handwritten recipe cards, tucked away in my own tiny collection of recipes. And on Saturday mornings, it was my dad’s turn to cook. He made truly bizarre Wholewheat Pineapple Pancakes, but I loved them, although my favorite Saturday morning breakfasts were (and still are) Popovers, and Poached Eggs.
As I’ve matured, so has my palate, and throughout this past decade I’ve accrued a small collection of cookbooks to buttress my tastes. When my oldest brother Dan returned home for Thanksgiving after he’d grown up and moved away to Vermont, he brought home The Joy of Cooking and set out to brine a turkey. I made a Cranberry Conserve: “This is a luxurious form of cranberry sauce, with uncommon beauty, texture, and flavor,” writes the authoress, Irma Rombauer. It was a revelation.
Cooking adventures ensued! I lived in Rome one Spring, and became obsessed with The Silver Spoon and Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. That was the Spring I made hand-made ravioli with friends for the first time, and my roommate Alexis showed me how to sear and then slowcook a rump roast with nothing but salt & pepper, oil, and red wine. Later in my twenties, I relocated to Vermont, too, and met my dear friend Cory who approached cooking like others approach extreme sports. We got our hands on a copy of Le Cordon Bleu’s Complete Cooking Techniques and attempted to make a Croquembouche. Our architectural “pyramid” of individually piped cream puffs ended up more like a sad pile — it was in fact hideous — but we ate it anyway. Cory gave me a Madeleine pan for Christmas that year, and I used the recipe from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook to make my very first batch.
Now that I’m nearing my thirties, my cooking style has become a bit more digital. There are a few cooking blogs that I like to skim for ideas — SmittenKitchen, Orangette, Culinate — and I’ll head over to Epicurious if I need a recipe for something specific. My computer is almost always with me in the kitchen; I save a small clean corner of the counter for it so it doesn’t get caked in flour. And although I have a terrible habit of getting rid of things I don’t use every day — a byproduct of years spent living in tiny spaces — I do keep a handful of best-loved cookbooks around that have stood the test of time and digitization. Here they are:
|The Joy of Cooking
My go-to volume for special occasion cooking, or whenever I feel like fancying up one of my regular dishes. I love the recipe for Cranberry Conserve, and all the insane brined turkeys and crown roasts. The author also includes really lovely descriptions of all sorts of fruits.
|The Art of Simple Food
I was first turned on to this book when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago. Alice Waters makes the simplest things, like herbed butter or salad greens, taste amazing. None of the ingredients are too fussy, rich, or sweet, the basic premise being that less is more; I especially love her recipe for Gingersnaps.
|Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Disclaimer: I don’t actually own this one yet, but I’d really like to (hint, hint!). I checked this out from my library after hearing it called “The Joy of Cooking for Vegetarians.” Since my recent foray into vegetarian eating, I’ve been looking for a resource that’s comprehensive without being stodgy… and I think this one is it! I’m really excited about the Spinach & Ricotta Fritters.
|Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Probably the most fussy cookbook I own, but Julia really knows her stuff. My husband and I love making quiche, and Julia Child always has just the right trick to ramp up our mushrooms or caramelized leeks. FYI: it usually involves a lot of butter.
|Beard on Bread
When it comes to baking bread, James Beard is the only guy I need. This book seems so cozy and fatherly to me. I’ve made his Banana-Nut Bread a thousand times, although my absolute favorite recipe in here is the one for Persimmon Bread.
|King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking
I love breakfast — pancakes, waffles, muffins, scones — but I think a lot of baking recipes err on the side of being too sweet & bland. I don’t want to eat dessert for breakfast! After living and eating in Vermont, I found myself on a mission to discover good, hearty, whole-grain quick breads. This is my favorite so far — I just had a Wholewheat Blueberry Muffin this morning.
|The Spice Cookbook
Published in 1964, this vintage cookbook is completely charming. Almost every recipe calls for cream cheese or onion soup mix, or both! This cookbook was given to me by a wonderful friend as a wedding gift; it was the cookbook her grandmother always used. I’m looking forward to debuting some of the recipes for the retro holiday party we’re going to next week.
|The Picnic Book
This is less useful as a cookbook, and more useful as a time capsule of 1969, replete with fabulous psychedelic illustrations. The narrative chapters, with titles like “Picnic a Deux in a Graveyard,” mostly reminisce about the author’s exploits picnicking all over Europe, and just happen to include recipes for things like cream cheese sandwiches as an afterthought.
|The Sushi Experience
I really love sushi, and when I decided to go all bento last spring, I found this great reference by Hiroko Shimbo. She’s really thorough and accessible for beginning sushi makers, and I especially love her recipes for Simmered Mushrooms and Inari Zushi.
Aaron’s mom gave us this little book after hearing about our favorite restaurant in Iowa City, a sweet little tapas place called Devotay. I am crazy about the Romesco sauce! I admire that not everything in here is a true “recipe” — sometimes the author just says, “Look, go pick these things up from the store, give them a good sprinkle of coarse salt, and viola: Tapas.”
These are my self-appointed modern cooking classics. Meanwhile, my amazing and multi-faceted friend Julia has been cooking her way through Gervase Markham’s 17th century recipes from The English Housewife. What about you — what are your indispensable and best-loved cookbooks?
I also love Mark Bittman’s cookbook How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It is great for someone like me who really hates to cook and a lot of his recipes are printed in his NYT column.
Thanks for the recommendation, V — I just put this book on hold at my library! I’ve flipped through his book “How to Cook Everything” before, and I’m excited to see how his easy style translates to vegetarian cooking.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart was instrumental in getting me excited about baking bread (which I now do almost daily). I especially recommend the formulas for multigrain bread and pizza dough.