Tim Mazurek's been publishing gorgeous food photos and his favorite recipes at Lottie + Doof since 2008. (You may have also seen him on the pages of Bon Appetit, Saveur, Real Simple, and ReadyMade.) Like many food bloggers, he has something of a crazy cookbook collection—339 volumes, all stored in his one-bedroom Chicago apartment. These days he holds himself to a strict rule: "I recently bought a couple of bookshelves for the dining room and have limited myself to keeping the number of books that fit on those shelves. They're full. Now if I want something new, I have to get rid of something. These are not easy decisions," Mazurek says.
Which cookbooks make the cut? I asked Mazurek about his favorites.
What sorts of cookbooks do you love? What do you look for in a cookbook? Cookbooks tell a story that can then actually come to life in your kitchen. It is one of the rare pieces of literature where the fantasy becomes a reality. That being said, great cookbooks are hard to find. The cookbooks I like best are ones that give us a glimpse into a world, whether that world is a professional or a home kitchen. I like books that are written for home cooks with an understanding of the differences between a home and a restaurant kitchen.
I like specificity in a cookbook. I want you to tell me exactly why and how we are doing things. A huge pet peeve of mine is recipes that encourage you to "just improvise!" This at first seems agreeable—very liberal and free-spirited—but I don't need a recipe to tell me I can throw whatever I want into my salad. I want recipes that contain secrets. I also would prefer that cookbooks be beautiful. I am more likely to spend time with them if they are well designed.
What was the first cookbook that really spoke to you? As a kid, I really liked the original Martha Stewart Entertaining book. At the time I assumed I'd one day have have a butler's pantry full of antique serving pieces and would routinely throw clam bakes for 30 people. It hasn't turned out that way (yet?), but Martha is still my hero. But since that was more aspirational, I'll also say that the first book that actually got me excited about food and cooking was the original Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa book. That thing is amazing. Those recipes work, and it's the kind of food I always want to eat.
What cookbooks do you turn to when you're planning a dinner party? Lately, I have been turning to all of my Mediterranean/Middle Eastern heroes: Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the Moro and Morito books by Sam and Sam Clark, and Spice by Ana Sortun. I like that a lot of the salads and spreads can be prepped before guests arrive. It's easy to make the menu vegetarian, and to improvise. It's also my favorite cuisine to cook—if I am going to put the work into a dinner party, I want to enjoy the results.
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? It's sometimes hard for me to tell what is lesser-known because I spend so much time thinking about cookbooks. The Saltie cookbook is a perfect little book and exactly what I want all restaurant books to feel like. I mentioned this already, but Spice by Ana Sortun is one of my favorite cookbooks and one that I cook from regularly. I love older books by people like Lee Bailey, Sarah Lee Chase, and Jeremiah Tower. I think Diana Henry should be more popular in the States.
Favorite books for baking: I have many more baking books than any other category, making this question both fun and difficult. My signed copy of The Last Course by Claudia Fleming is a cherished possession and perhaps my favorite cookbook. Fleming beautifully translates what pastry chefs do for the home cook. It is a masterpiece, and I really don't understand why nobody is reprinting that book.
Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert is inspiring, the recipes continue to feel as fresh as the day it was published. The labne tart is a longtime favorite, as are the twice-baked shortbread cookies. Dolce Italiano by Gina DePalma is a wonderful education in Italian pastry. The Sweet Life by Kate Zuckerman is worth having for the walnut cream cheese sandwich cookies alone. Carole Walter is great, I especially like her coffee cake book. I would never part with any of Nancy Silverton's books. And really anything by Dorie Greenspan. Nobody writes a recipe better than Dorie. She makes you want to bake and encourages you to tackle even the most difficult kitchen projects. I love Dorie.
Favorite books for vegetable inspiration: Enough has been said about Plenty, but it is indeed exceptional and really changed the way I cook. I like The Vegetarian Option by Simon Hopkinson a lot, and all of Nigel Slater's books. I guess I like what British men have to say about vegetables? But I also find that some of the best recipes for vegetables are not in books geared toward vegetarians. It's funny because I think this is true for restaurants, too. In Chicago, The Publican is famous for their meat and fish, but every time I eat there the dishes that stand out are the vegetables.
What book taught you something completely new? Kim Boyce's beautiful Good to the Grain turned my attention to whole grains in baking. She is one of those contemporary bakers that have become iconic for me, I really admire her work. I like that her goal with that book was to highlight the wonderful flavors of grains rather than the nutritional benefits. There are so many flavors we are missing by only using all-purpose wheat flour. That book and those recipes will always be an important part of my kitchen.
What cookbook do you recommend for beginner cooks? I think One Good Dish by David Tanis is a good choice for a beginning cook. The recipes are simple and satisfying, but can make you feel like a sophisticated cook. The garlic soup has only a handful of ingredients but is revelatory.
What's your go-to cookbook gift? I often give The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham or The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis as gifts. No cookbook collection is complete without those two. This year I think I might be giving people Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts, which is absolutely brilliant. The book manages to not take itself too seriously while being totally earnest—this is the ideal tone but is sometimes difficult to execute. The book is intelligent, genuinely funny, and full of passion. It's also about more than just food (punk!), which is always a plus. It was probably the book published this year that got me the most excited about the future of cookbooks.
If you could have dinner with any cookbook author, who would it be and what would you cook? I'd like to have dinner with Gwyneth Paltrow. I'd make us fried chicken.
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