Classic Cookbooks

by Robert Lauriston

Every year, in preparation for the consumer orgy in which our great nation celebrates the winter solstice, newspapers and magazines publish reviews of the latest crop of cookbooks. When the next year rolls around, those books are out of print and forgotten, and a new crop has arrived to take their place.

Now, there's nothing wrong with checking out the new stuff--after all, every book was new once. But the really great cookbooks are the ones you're still using, dogeared and soup-stained, years after they were published. Unless they're issued in a new edition (which as often as not ruins them), these books, despite their worth, seldom get much public recognition beyond word of mouth. In a modest effort to correct that state of affairs, I hereby offer this very personal guide to classic cookbooks.

If there's one book that belongs in every kitchen and is a must-have for every beginning cook, it's Joy of Cooking. The book has been continuously in print since it was written by Irma Rombauer in 1931; recent editions are by her daughter, Marion Becker. This encyclopedia of the kitchen may not have the best recipes, but it certainly includes the widest range of information: how to boil an egg, skin a squirrel, eat a lotus seed, bake a cake at 10,000 feet, puree akee without poisoning yourself, make puff paste ("a cold, windy day is best"). The many reference sections are particularly valuable as a companion to other cookbooks that give instructions like "beat until light" or "cook to soft ball stage" without defining them. The book includes recipes for just about everything: homemade Worcestershire sauce, cream of purslane, roasted coots, kreplach, gin fizz, tomato soup cake. The recipes are by no means uniformly good, but the "Cockaigne" recipes (the tag marks the authors' favorite) are worth seeking out, particularly the brownies and devil's food cake.

A similarly encyclopedic tome is The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, originally published as The Boston Cooking School Cook Book in 1896. It concentrates less on reference material and more on recipes, and foregos exotica in favor of covering mainstream American cooking in more depth. For example, FF offers three recipes for mincemeat vs. Joy's one. Another worthy entry in the one-big-book category is Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cook Book, which compensates for its lack of reference sections by offering recipes with a bit more style and personality. Personally I think the well-known Larousse Gastronomique focuses too much on the professional restaurant or hotel kitchen to be of much use to the home cook.

My longtime favorite cookbooks are Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cook Book and its sequel, More Classic Italian Cooking. These books capture perfectly the essence of la cucina italiana tradizionale: choose the best seasonal ingredients, then prepare them in simple ways that maximize their unique flavors. Unlike most authors, Hazan starts at the very beginning, devoting long passages (particularly in the second book) to discussing basic ingredients like flour, pasta, cheese, garlic, tomatoes, salt, and olive oil; fundamental techniques like boiling, sauteing, pan-roasting, making broth, and salting; and discussing the several pieces of equipment essential to a proper Italian kitchen. I don't know of a better book for a beginner: Hazan explains each step in great detail, and even the simplest recipes produce delicious results. (The two books were recently combined into the single-volume Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, but this book is less than the sum of its parts. It has not been significantly updated, butter and oil amounts have been reduced arbitrarily and apparently without retesting, and some of my favorite recipes from the originals are missing.)

Another Italian cookbook worth seeking out is Elizabeth David's Italian Food, the first English-language book to explore Italian regional cuisine in depth. I've often used it as a check against Hazan's recipes--as a Bolognese, Mrs. H. has a tendency to mess with southern recipes, substituting butter for olive oil and reducing quantities of garlic and hot pepper. Unfortunately, Italian Food is currently in print in the U.S. only in the form of an expensive coffee-table book inappropriate for kitchen use. Look for the U.K. Penguin paperback instead.

Another Italian cookbook I depend on is that nation's answer to Joy of Cooking, La Cucina Rustica Regionale by Carnacina and Veronelli (Rizzoli, Milan). It's well worth ordering from a specialty bookstore if you read Italian. (So far as I know it has never been translated into English.) I'm also very fond of Mimmetta Lo Monte's Classic Sicilian Cookbook, a fond and scholarly take on the island's unique hybrid of Italian, North African, and Spanish cuisines.

Second on my list of all-time favorites is Richard Olney's Simple French Food, the oft-uncredited original source of that infamous dish, 40-clove garlic chicken. By "simple," Olney sure doesn't mean fast or easy; some of his recipes are five pages long and take several days' work. He means that his book focuses not on the haute cuisine of three-star restaurants, but instead on the comparatively simple provincial traditions, particularly the dishes of his adopted home, Provence. The great thing about Olney is that his recipes are really essays. Instead of directing you step by step in how to do things his way, he describes a model or process and helps you figure out how to do it your way. Consequently this is an intimidating book for a beginner, but a fabulous one for more experienced cooks seeking to broaden their skills.

For more conventional recipes, Cuisine Nicoise by Jacques Medecin, former mayor of Nice, is a treasure. This is the best source I've found for the Mediterranean specialties like pissaladiere, ratatouille, soupe au pistou, and aioli that were a primary inspiration for the California-Mediterranean cuisine of Chez Panisse and its descendants. (It's almost impossible to find in this country, but the U.K. Penguin edition is still in print.) Two more wonderful regional French books are Foie Gras, Magret, and Other Good Food from Gascony by André Daguin and Anne de Ravel, and Madeline Kamman's Savoie. For the rest of France, look for Elizabeth David's classic French Provincial Cooking. If you read French, the tiny paperback "Les Grands Plats Regionaux" is a real gem, as are most of the other entries in Le Livre de Poche's "la cuisine de A à Z" series.

If your tastes run more toward old-school French, you can't beat the original, two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and Simone Beck, the book that added "quiche" to the American vocabulary. None of Child's later books offers such a comprehensive introduction to the complexities of traditional French cuisine. My sometimes coauthor Naomi Wise, the best home-haute cook I know, also recommends Madeline Kamman's The Making of a Cook. However, if you want to cook like Naomi without years of practice, you'd probably be better off with Patricia Wells's Simply French, a beautifully written and illustrated guide to the cooking of France's current culinary king, Joel Robuchon. Wells's Bistro Cooking is also quite good.

When I crave the flavors of the south shore of the Mediterranean, I reach for Irene Day's The Moroccan Cookbook. This book offers multiple variations on classic North African dishes like couscous and pigeon pie, plus a wealth of unusual lamb and chicken dishes. Of my many Middle Eastern cookbooks, the best and most reliable is Food from the Arab World by Marie Khayat and Margaret Keatinge. This is the only book I've found that recognizes that the best hummus comes from using an extravagant amount of tahini. My longtime favorite Indian cookbook is Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cookery, which thoughtfully includes detailed tutorials on Indian spices and cooking techniques. Though the book has been out in the U.S. for some time, I'm still waiting for the BBC program that spawned it to show up on my TV.

With so many great cheap restaurants to choose from I almost never make Chinese or Mexican food at home. Homebody Naomi, who cooks Chinese almost as often as she cooks French, highly recommends Ken Hom's Fragrant Harbor Taste. (The unappetizing name comes from the literal translation of Hong Kong.) She's found his recipes a little unreliable, though, so she usually checks method and proportions in her other favorite, Barbara Tropp's The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Out of her large collection of Mexican cookbooks, Naomi considers Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz's Complete Book of Mexican Cooking the most authentic.

In general, I find the many vegetable dishes in the Hazan and Olney books far more interesting than the overly fussy recipes found in most popular vegetarian cookbooks. There is one book worth seeking out, though--Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. This fat volume includes dishes from all over Asia, from Turkey to Japan, and is a great source of recipes for exotic produce. Another underappreciated vegetarian classic is Janet Ross's Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen, or how to cook vegetables, published in Britain in 1899. Out of print for decades, it was revised and reissued in 1973 by Ross's great-great-nephew Michael Waterfield.

No cookbook collection would be complete without an old edition of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book. Flipping through it at a used book store or garage sale, you might think the book was good only for laughs. The "guacamole dip" is half mayonnaise, it tells you to boil asparagus for 20 minutes, and there are lots of scary color photos of jello salads and candy-covered meat. My edition, printed in 1950, offers some surreal housekeeping hints: "Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup, a dash of cologne, and perhaps some simple earrings ... harbor pleasant thoughts will working ... get outdoors every day ... remember sitting uses much less energy than standing ... if you feel tired, lie down on the floor ..." Still, for homey baked goods old Betty can't be beat. The bulk of the book is devoted to hundreds of often great recipes for cakes, pies, cookies, quick breads, and pastries. Step-by-step photos show you how to handle tricky tasks like beating butter cake batter, assembling a two-crust pie, or making your pancakes light and fluffy (beat the egg whites separately and fold them in). Years ago, I entered Betty's Burnt Sugar Cake ("always a prize winner at State and County Fairs") in a contest put on by Just Desserts, and took seventh place.

Another wonderful dessert resource is Lindsey Shere's Chez Panisse Desserts. This book is particularly strong on fruit desserts--tarts, crisps, ice creams, sherbets, Bavarians--and rich, sophisticated compositions like Dobos Torte and hazelnut soufflés. It also includes Chez P. favorites like almond tart and Sauternes cake, and the best marble cake and raspberry cobbler recipes in the universe. In the same vein is Emily Luchetti's Stars Desserts. Her recipes are often quite complicated, but the extraordinary results are worth the time. Even the easy stuff is wonderful, like the killer oatmeal scone recipe (contributed by her assistant Hollyce Snyder).

A few miscellaneous items before I sign off: Barbara Kafka's Microwave Gourmet tells you how to make amazing things with your nuker, like sweet potato french fries, caramelized onions, and risotto. (Avoid the sequels, which aren't as good.) Many of the recipes in Alice Waters's The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook are impractical for all but the most fanatical home cook, but the book is a great source of ideas for composing seasonal menus, or just to work up an appetite. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking isn't a cookbook at all, but an exploration of the physics, chemistry, and history of food, diet, and cooking. If you've ever wondered what makes cookies crunchy or sauces thick, you'll find an explanation here.

Though you may not see copies in the stores, most of these books are still in print, so you can special-order them from any good bookstore. The rest turn up more or less frequently in used bookstores. You can special-order new copies of the foreign-language books and U.K. editions through some specialty bookshops. Note that in the rest of the world recipe measurements are usually given by weight, so if want to use foreign cookbooks a good kitchen scale is required equipment.