Last year, rather than crowning a single cookbook the Best Of title, we simply settled on an entire category that was consistently great — baking. This year, the most prominent publishing category of the year, media cookbooks, also by coincidence is home to several interesting cookbooks. Recently, we've selected our favorite cookbooks of 2010 in various categories, but we have yet to crown a winner. Until today. No cookbook, media or otherwise, is as engaging and practical for the home cook as Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook.
A lazy choice for Best Cookbook of 2010, one might accuse, as it is a compendium of recipes updated by Hesser that have been published by the newspaper since the 1850s, with most of the emphasis on recipes spanning the past forty years. With such lofty names behind it (both the newspaper and Hesser), if this cookbook were simply adequate it would no doubt sell fine. Just fine.
Yet this cookbook is superb. Entirely on its own merit. Dare we even say it may just be the best cookbook (meaning the most useful for a home cook) that we've seen cross our desk in years?
To get there, you must strip away your preconceived notions of the quality of the New York Times Food section, or should you be a Food52 fan, your exclamation points of excitement over Hesser's latest blog post. This cookbook deserves an unbiased look, not one riding the wave of the popularity of its components. It is destined to become a gravy-worn classic, the Joy of Cooking of the 21st century.
The idea for this cookbook hails from 2004, when Hesser was food editor of the New York Times Magazine. She asked readers to send in their favorite sauce-stained recipes from the New York Times food section over the years. After thousands of recipes poured in, Hesser whittled them down to several hundred, then excavated the Times' archives to find older recipes dating to the 1850s. She and Merrill Stubbs, her partner at Food52, tested more than 1,400 recipes for this cookbook. Multiple times. If you've ever professionally tested a recipe, a cumbersome process that involves at least double the time you always anticipate, you're fully aware what an astounding number that is.
Most of the recipes that made the cut are from the past forty years, and flipping through that edible history — a flourless chocolate cake from the 1960s (it's that old?), fried corn from the 1940s — is half the fun. Hesser includes notes on the writers and stories that originally sandwiched each recipe, which makes those everyday Boston baked beans all the more interesting and justly gives the recipe originator credit where it is rightly due (an egregious omission in Bon Appétit Desserts, also published last year, from a well-respected media outlet that should know better).
The cookbook is divided into eighteen chapters, too many to name here. But suffice it to say it begins with beverages (cocktails, punches and glögg) and wraps up with pies and tarts (after three chapters on other dessert categories). But what makes this book so unique is the approach Hesser takes with the recipes. She is a newspaper journalist first and foremost, and as such, each recipe has been thoroughly researched, tested and commented upon. She adds cooking notes in the recipe headers that are both expected in cookbooks these days (why a hazelnut cheesecake is really, texture wise, more like a cream cheese flan) and purely personal (her husband always requests a particular white bolognese sauce on his birthday). How she artfully combines that precision with personalization is what makes this book so clever. That, of course, and access to the stellar recipe archives from the New York Times.
Hesser adds footnotes of her own at the end of each recipe telling us what she did and did not follow, be it for flavor reasons (no MSG in several recipes that originally called for it) or real-life refrigerator challenges (when she runs out of thyme, she substitutes another herb). You know, the sort of things real home cooks do, just as we added a few dark chocolate chunks to those “buttery French TV snack” cookies (a fantastic addition to already great cookies).
Yet Hesser leaves the personal notes just this side of professional. There are no cutesy cooking revelations with too many exclamation points so often screaming on the pages of blogger cookbooks today. She simply summarizes the reason she doesn't like many roasted squash soups (too sweet), but really likes one with cumin that is included in the book. And why she included a second squash soup with apple cider (the first is from Thomas Keller, thus it is “dinner party” complicated fare), then decided to swap the Red Rome apples in the original recipe for Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious (she preferred their tang).
By essentially leaving her notes in each recipe — including, albeit in a very organized manner, her margin scribbles during recipe testing — Hesser allows us to do as she has done. To make that roast chicken and bread salad with somewhat less of the Champagne-Dijon dressing than Judy Rodgers originally called for, or to pour it on as Rodgers prescribed. In other words, Hesser encourages us to use this book as a guidebook, yet remember cooking is still a personal endeavor. Such a deliciously simple, yet deceptively complex, endeavor.