Sunday, November 29, 2020

Best Cookbooks of 2020

What a year. Maybe we—and when I say “we”, I mean The Whole World—can dare to hope for a safe, sane and boring 2021. We shall see. In the meantime, I carry on with my routines, which include sharing my year-end picks for 2020’s five best cookbooks. In alphabetical order, here’s my list.


Baking at the 20th Century Cafe; Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake by Michelle Polzine, Artisan Books.


Chaat; Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets and Railways of India by Maneet Chauhan and Jody Eddy, Clarkson Potter.


A Good Bake; The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and Breads at Home by Melissa Weller with Carolynn Carreño, Knopf.


The Good Book of Southern Baking; A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings, Lorena Jones Books / Ten Speed Press.


The Pasta Codex; 1001 Recipes by Vincenzo Buonassisi, translated by Natalie Danford, Rizzoli.


Why did I pick these cookbooks?


Michelle Polzine’s outstanding Baking at the 20th Century Café pays homage to Austro-Hungarian desserts. Located in San Francisco, Polzine’s 20th Century Cafe often showcases West Coast produce like Meyer lemons and other seasonal fruits. Polzine shares recipes for Streuselkuchen (Viennese Coffee Cake with Raspberries) and a Huckleberry-Pecan Upside-Down Cake, which strikes me as being uniquely American. Although Honey Cake is probably Polzine’s claim to fame, it’s her Kókusz Torta (Coconut-Marmalade Torte with Chocolate Glaze) that I really want to try. Baking at the 20th Century Cafe is a well-executed, smart cookbook destined to become a baking classic.


I bought my copy of Maneet Chauhan’s Chaat from Spicewalla, an awesome spice merchant located in Asheville, North Carolina. Chauhan defines chaat as “…the iconic snacks of Indian cuisine. A literal translation of the Hindi word chaat is ‘to lick,’ and chaat have therefore come to describe almost anything that is so good you find yourself licking the palm leaf or banana leaf that it was served on.” Chauhan organizes her cookbook by dividing India into compass points. Under the chapter entitled “The North”, she includes a recipe for Green Chutney made with pan roasted chana dal, that tastes bright, hot, minty, smoky and delicious. Chauhan often ties her recipes to stops along India’s railroad lines. For example, her introduction to a recipe for Ros Omelette (Omelet with Tomato Gravy) begins: “Upon disembarking from the train and entering the Vasco da Gama train station, the ros omelette prepared near the station entrance are too enticing to pass up. The aroma of the omelet begins to waft through the air from the vendor stalls throughout Goa when the sun begins to set and doesn’t stop until well after midnight, after the tourists and locals alike have satisfied their cravings.” Chauhan has penned a unique, entertaining guide to authentic Indian comfort food.


Melissa Weller’s A Good Bake gets my nod as the best cookbook of 2020. Weller, who served as head baker at Roberta’s in Brooklyn and at Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Bouchon Bakery in NYC, brings her professional expertise to this thick, well-organized cookbook. I particularly like her eclectic mix of recipes. The Savory Bread chapter includes two recipes for Khachapuri, a traditional yeasted flatbread from Eurasian Georgia, and recipes for Hot Dog Buns and Soft Pretzels. In the Laminated Pastries chapter, Weller shares recipes for Salted Caramel Sticky Buns, Kouign Amann and New York Cheese Danishes. The first recipe I tried, Spelt Bull’s-Eye Scones with Raspberry Jam, turned out tender and flavorful. My family baked Weller’s Sweet Potato Pie for Thanksgiving. The pie had a creamy and light—yet not too soft—texture.  Weller uses orange juice and zest to brighten a perfectly-spiced, rich Garnet yam filling. What a great tasting holiday (or breakfast) pie!


I prefer cookbooks that use metric weights rather than volume measurements, especially in baking recipes. So when I received Kelly Fields’s The Good Book of Southern Baking, I felt a little letdown because Fields only includes volume measurements. I know: Millions of glorious bakers got on and get on perfectly well with teaspoons, tablespoons and cups. I, however, generally value precision over tradition. But once I started flipping through Fields’s cookbook, her recipes won me over. She includes classics, like cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet, and more modern bakes like a Glazed Lemon-Cornmeal Cake that is both simple to make and delicious.  Fields shares her secrets for making great biscuits in her Baker’s Biscuits recipe, then goes on to include six other biscuit variations: Rolled; Angel; Drop; Beaten; Sweet Potato; and, finally, Dog Biscuits. If you like hand pies, The Good Book of Southern Baking contains recipes for three different types of hand pies (blueberry, apple, and strawberry-rhubarb) and for peach turnovers (plus cheese turnovers!).


I wrote about The Pasta Codex (here). In a nutshell: Published in Italy in 1973, the Codex contains 1,001 pasta recipes collected by the late Vincenzo Buonassisi, a lawyer, journalist and passionate food writer who authored over 40 cookbooks. Natalie Danford translated Buonassisi’s tome into English for Rizzoli, a publishing house that excels at bringing important Italian cookbooks to an English-speaking audience. If you love Italian cooking, especially pasta, I highly recommend Buonassisi’s The Pasta Codex.


I bought a lot of cookbooks this crummy year because I found them a source of solace and I wanted to support my favorite independent booksellers, like Seattle’s Book Larder and New York City’s Kitchen Arts & Letters. A number of welcome cookbook acquisitions in no particular order: Olia Hercules’s Summer Kitchens; Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken; Cortney Burns’s Nourish Me Home;Blaine Wetzel’s Lummi Island Cooking; Nancy Silverton’s Chi Spacca; Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky’s Koji Alchemy; Evan Bloom and Rachel Levin’s Eat Something; and Jason Wang’s Xi’an Famous Foods.


What looks exciting in 2021, cookbook-wise? I already placed my pre-order for Brandon Jew’s Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown. Tom Kerridge’s The Hand and the Flowers arrives Stateside in the first part of the year. Eric Ripert’s Vegetable Simple comes out in April. And, hopefully, the pasta fairies will sprinkle some magic Tipo 00 flour on us and we will enjoy one or two good pasta-centric cookbooks. Rachel Roddy's An A-Z of Pasta looks promising. I hear from my grapevine that another good pasta cookbook might arrive in 2021.


And, of course, here’s really hoping that 2021 offers us a respite from the dangerous craziness of 2020. Stay safe and well, everyone!