I got a new cookbook in the mail today, and I am absolutely giddy. We all know that food tells a story, and sitting down with a new cookbook is like getting to know a new friend. I have a lot of friends on my bookshelf at the moment, but there’s always room for one more! So, new friend, where are you from? How did you start baking? Tell me your “culinary point of view,” to quote the Food Network. I want to hear the author’s backstory almost as much as I want the recipes.
I’ve been actively collecting for three or four years now, and before that I had a little group of oddball items I picked up here and there. I have a real weakness for terrible vintage cookbooks. I’ve got a recipe book from Benson & Hedges from 1981 that features dishes from famous inns across America, and it is confusing and horrifying. Some things sound decent, like Strawberry Nut Bread, and then some are downright gag-inducing like Arizona Inn Salad, a wedge of cantaloupe topped with a mixture of fruit, mayonnaise, and chilled shrimp (what in the actual hell). The whole thing is spiral-bound so you can have a smoke with one hand while you prepare these, er, conversation-starters, with the other.
My original idea for this article was to highlight a few cookbooks for you, like maybe five, but after several attempts, it’s not possible. I made a different list every time I sat down to write. There are just so many I want to share, so I had to break it down into themes. It’s the only way!
First, the all-stars: the ones I use the most, and this is just how my family eats, so your mileage may vary. The overall most-used cookbook I have is Delish. My boys and I have cooked and baked our way through most of the recipes and we have seldom made something we didn’t like. Runner-up is Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime. There are a bunch of dinners on our regular rotation, including Chicken Mozzarella Pasta and Baked Ziti. Salt Fat Acid Heat has the best chocolate cake recipe I’ve ever made in my life. Robicelli’s is my cupcake inspiration and includes a lot of swearing which I find hilarious. Cookies & Cups is another I’ve made eleventy million recipes from, and she always has ideas I wish were mine (marshmallow treats made with salty snacks – what?). How Can It Be Gluten Free was a lifeline when one of my kids was diagnosed with Celiac Disease last year, and it’s got our all-time favorite Bolognese sauce that tastes like it’s simmered for a week.
Next, books that taught me how to cook or bake. Now, I realize there are a lot of cookbooks that endeavor to do that, but these showed me why recipes work or don’t work, and they’ve made me a better cook because I can spot a good recipe over a bad one. How to Cook Without a Book showed me how to pick a protein, a sauce, how to mix and match no matter what’s in the pantry. The Cook’s Bible was just that, a resource for me as a young newlywed, from how to cook for my first dinner party to what to make for weeknight dinners. I’m Just Here for the Food is of course Alton Brown, who kept me from losing my mind when I had a colicky baby 20 years ago, and in the wee hours of the morning, watching Good Eats taught me the science behind good cooking. Sometimes with puppets. Death by Chocolate Cookies was my first foray into baking, and it’s where I learned all about different types of chocolate and how they melt, helping me decide when I want to use chocolate chips and when I want to chop a bar of chocolate.
My absolute favorite thing is cookbooks written by bakeries themselves. This is the best of all worlds to me: they have a story to tell, they’ve had to perfect their recipes to stay in business, and often times they have a really unique spin on what they’re offering because they’ve needed to stay competitive. Most of us have heard of Magnolia Bakery and Sprinkles, but I’m here to tell you, the best brownie recipes in the entire history of brownies are in the Fat Witch Bake Sale Cookbook. Ample Hills bakes up amazing creations and mixes them into top-notch ice cream, so this is a twofer, you get recipes for baked goods and for ice cream! Zingerman’s Bakehouse has got all the good stuff of my midwestern youth, from deep dish pizza to paczki. Robicelli’s made the list again, but what do you want from me, it’s just FACTS.
Lastly, cookbooks that won the beauty contest. I hate to be shallow, but sometimes I do judge a book by its cover. These were so gorgeous and mesmerizing that I had to own them, there was no other choice. Hey, I’m not saying they don’t have fantastic recipes, Eat Delicious has the only homemade macaroni and cheese recipe I’ve EVER been able to pull off, and Hello, Cookie Dough is made up entirely of cookie dough recipes that are safe to eat raw (umm, wut), I’m just saying that what made me shell out money in the end was that they were so beautiful that I couldn’t walk away.
I’ll probably have to invest in some heavy-duty shelving soon, the little flat packed bookshelf I’ve got now is not really meant to hold this kind of weight in books, and I’m not going to stop collecting anytime soon. Or ever. Maybe I’ll have to spread out the collection all over the house. Some in the kitchen, some in the living room… do you think the kids would mind housing some in their bedrooms? Nah, I’m sure they won’t. After all, more cookbooks means more baking!