Monday, December 19, 2011

What books do YOU want on your Christmas list?

I like books. I love cookbooks. And I love books about food and cooking. And food production. And the history of food. And food in general.

There are some food books that I own that I love but wll never cook from. I love them for their humor, their science, or their information. Sure, some of them have recipes, but their real value to me is something other than the recipes.

If you read cookbooks like novels, you know what I mean. And if you think that's a bit odd, but you like food-related books that aren't cookbooks, you still know what I mean.

I've got a list of some books that you might be interested in, and if you make it all the way to the bottom, you'll see that I've got something for you, too!

By Mark Bitterman
10 Speed Press

One interesting book on my shelf is Salted by Mark Bitterman. There are some recipes that feature salt, but the real value to this one is the rest of the book. I find it hard to believe there's a question about salt that Mark Bitterman couldn't answer. In this book, he talks about the history of salt, the science of salt, the types of salt, and the methods of harvesting and processing salt.

There's a section with color photos of different kinds of salt, and closeups of salt crystals are kind of pretty. From a distance, salt is salt. Well, you can see the differences when you're looking at a colored salts, but when you look at them close-up, there are some huge differences between the white varieties, too.

I may never get my hands on most of the varieties of salt in this book, but it's still fascinating. And quirky. Bitterman describes the color of one salt as "dawn reflected off wet pavement," and he describes the flavor of another as "volcano; egg; dragon breath." Another salt is the color of "cappuccino sea foam" and its flavor as "chicken-fried ocean." I think I'd like that flavor better than dragon breath, but both sound interesting.

And yes, there are recipes. I will be getting to them soon, but meanwhile I've got a lot of reading to do.

The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking
By the French Culinary Institute
Stewart Tabori & Chang

Quite often, people ask me what one bread-baking book I would recommend. There are a lot of books that I love that have recipes that I use quite often. There are others that I use for references.

But if I was suggesting one bread-baking book for someone to learn from, this book would be high on the list. Because it's more than just a cookbook, it's a textbook. Most cookbooks and most recipes assume that you know some things. Textbooks assume that either you're a blank slate, or you're doing things wrong and need to be re-educated.

When it comes to bread baking, there are a lot of ways to do things. A lot of methods that will result in a good loaf of bread. But there's a difference between a good loaf of bread and a classic loaf of bread. It's like the difference between a pot of random vegetable soup and vichychoisse. That clean-the-refrigerator soup might be great, but it's not a classic recipe.

Working with bread dough has a lot to do with the look and feel of the dough, and that's hard to describe in words. This book has the photos you need. Slashing technique is there, and photos of the finished bread as well. It's all there.

And recipes. Plenty of recipes. I have a few bookmarked for later. I'm sure you'll be reading about those later.

One great thing about this book compared to some other textbook-like books I have is that the recipes are for reasonable amounts of bread - you won't have to make a half-dozen loaves, and you won't have to scale recipes down so you won't have to feed the neighborhood.

The Professional Chef (ninth edition)
By The Culinary Institute of America

Yep, another textbook, but this one is more about cooking than baking. I have an old version of this book that I picked up at a garage sale for cheap, but things have changed a lot in the food world. I mean, okay, methods are still the same and classic recipes are still the same, but do you want to know about today's recipes, or the ones that were popular 20 years ago?

When I found the older book at a garage sale, I sat down with it and read it for days on end. I probably will never work in a restaurant kitchen, but it's still interesting to know how one works. But there's more than just running a restaurant. There's knife sharpening instructions, information about kitchen tools, photos if food, and diagrams meat primals and photos of different cuts of meat.

And yes there are recipes. Plenty of them. This book weighs in at over 1200 pages. Beginning with bouguet garni and progressing to stocks and sauces, it covers just about anything you'd want to cook. Want to make fresh pasta? Yes, you can. Roast some meat? Of course. Pan fry, boil, steam, poach ... even information on how to use a piping bag.

It has to be comprehensive - it's a textbook.

But it's not all standard American fare. There are recipes for ethnic foods of all sorts, from Polish to Irish to Asian. These might not be the same recipes you'd find in books based on those regions, but they're good, solid recipes, with techniques that are well-explained. And you've got to figure that recipes in a textbook will work, no questions asked.

I haven't finished reading this book, and I haven't cooked any recipes from it yet, but I've already used it as a resource when I've wondered about techniques, formulas, and cooking times. I plan on spending a lot more quality time with this one.

I'd recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn the basic foundations of cooking, and who wants to have a comprehensive cookbook. I've been cooking for a long time, and I'm darned happy to have this one in my collection. 

The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria
Ferran Adria
Phaidon Press

You might have noticed the the books I'm writing about here are not cookbooks in the traditional sense. This one is in fact a cookbook. But it's certainly not a traditional cookbook.

I guess that's what's to be expected from Ferran Adria.

But this isn't about molecular gastronomy. This is about family meal. No, not your family meal. In this case, family meal refers to the meals that are served to restaurant staff. But the general idea here is that the family meals served at Adria's restaurant el Bulli are very accessible to home cooks.

While the recipes are home-cook worthy, this is one of the most unusual cookbooks I've seen - because of the way the recipes are formatted. First, recipes are presented as complete meals with a first course, main dish, and dessert.

Second, recipes are very visually presented. There are photos of ingredients, a list of ingredients required, and a timeline for completion of the recipes. It's genius. Instead of looking at a recipe and trying to judge how early you need to start cooking in order to have it all done for dinner, this one tells you when to start each step.

So you might have to throw a roast in the oven 4 hours before you plan on serving, and then 2 hours before serving you might start some process for the dessert.

When it comes to the actual recipes, there are photos with each step with the text overlaying the photos. If you're a visual cook, this is THE book for you.

While the timeline for the meal includes the steps for the combined meal, each recipe is presented separately. So if you want to serve the Mexican-style chicken with the pina colada or the banana with lime or the chocolate mousse instead of what the menu suggests, you can mix and match as you please.

I'll be back with a recipe from this one later.

Simply Truffles
By Patricia Wells
William Morrow

This is a traditional cookbook, but the featured ingredient isn't so traditional - truffles. And I'm not talking about the chocolate kind.

This is sort of a "wish" book. Unless I win a contest or someone gives me a very generous gift, truffles are pretty much out of my budget. But that doesn't mean I won't be cooking from this book - with variations. I can get my paws on truffle oil and truffle salt ... and maybe some other fancy mushrooms. I can certainly modify these recipes to work with what I've got, and dream about fresh truffles in the meantime.

On the other hand, if you ever have access to fresh truffles, recipes aren't exactly rampant in cookbooks. People might tell you to shave them over eggs or pasta. But is that good enough? Why not use recipes designed for those truffles?

Will I ever cook from this book? Maybe. I hope so. Meanwhile, I'll be reading about truffles, just in case one shows up on my doorstep.

Momofuku Milk Bar
By Christine Tosi
Clarkson Potter

When it comes to dessert cookbooks, this one is definitely innovative. Some crazy, crazy recipes here. These are the ones that make you scratch your head and wonder how they came up with this stuff.

A lot of the recipes build on other recipes. So, you make cereal milk and use it for ice cream, or you make one of the "crunch" recipes and use it in cookies. None of the recipes are overly complicated, as long as you take it one step at a time.

The book includes the recipe for compost cookies and crack pie - I've heard of both of them, even though I'm across the country from the restaurant. I've bookmarked the Brownie Pie for a later indulgence. It looks pretty darned amazing, even without additional garnishes.

Do you love desserts? Do you want to wow people with innovative desserts? Yeah, this is the book for you.

You'll be reading more about this one here, I'm sure.

Sweet Invention
By Michaek Krondl
Chicago Review Press

The first book that isn't any sort of a cookbook, this does include recipes - just a few. This book is a historical look at sweets in different parts of the world.

The love of sweets makes sense. Sugar is energy. Humans like sweets because we need energy. It's a simple need, but how humans have found a huge number of ways to fulfill that need.

I haven't finished this book yet (so much reading to do!) but so far, it's interesting. When I think of dessert, I think about apple pie and chocolate cake, but cultures have been indulging in sweet treats for a long time.

Perhaps at first reserved for the privileged classes or special holidays, now we can have dessert any time we want it. But why not learn a little bit of dessert's history, and celebrate it a little bit.

I'll have a scoop of ice cream with mine, thank you.

Plate to Pixel
Bu Helene Dujardin

If you're a blogger, you know that taking good photos of your photos is a big deal. I've spent a lot of time and wasted a lot of electrons taking bad photos. Plate to Pixel is all about taking better food photos.

From white balance to aperture to ISO to composition, this covers it all. What it tells me is that my next step might be a better camera. I still need to work on things like composition and setting up a better area for photos when natural light isn't optimal. But I'm getting there.

Meanwhile, this is the kind of book that requires quite a bit of studying, and then some fiddling around. Photo-taking, and adjusting and cropping. I have a feeling my photos will be improving because of this book. Wait and see...

Even if you aren't a food blogger, good photos are good photos. With this book, you might surprise yourself by taking better photos.

And now for you.

I've got some books to give away. Yes, more than one. Somehow, I've managed to get duplicates of some books, and it's time to find new homes for them. I'm not going to tell you what they are. Some are cookbooks, and some are food-related books. NONE of them have been mentioned here. It will be a complete surprise.

  • For your first mandatory entry, tell me what your favorite food-related book is, that you discovered this year. It can be an old book or a new one, as long as you discovered it this year.
  • For an optional your entry, tweet a link to this contest. Come back here and tell me that you tweeted.
  • For another entry, tweet this: "Check out these crazy brownies from @dbcurrie and @cookstry at" Come back here and tell me that you tweeted.
  • For one more entry, go comment on those brownies you just tweeted about. Come back here and let me know that you commented.
About the multiple books: I have up to SIX books to give away. For every 25 entries, I will add a book to the giveaway, up to 6 books. So up to 25 entries, there will be one book given away For 26-50 entries, there will be 2 books. For, 51-75 entries, there will be three books ... you get the idea.

Winners will be chosen randomly from among all the entries.

Contest is open to US residents. Contest opens when this posts, and ends at noon on Monday Dec 26. For more contest details, see the Contest tab at the top.

Contest is over - Congrats to Cat, Cathy and Alexis!

Have a great holiday! 

Oh, and if you've got a spare mouse-click, go vote for me in this contest. No extra entries, no special treatment. Karma is good, though, right? Thanks!