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Dorie Greenspan is the kind of writer who can convince you that you're capable of tackling a fancy layer cake or complicated pastry project. But she'll also point you toward the most delicious easy dessert recipes, the kind of loaf-pan cakes that are perfect for brunch or snacking throughout the week. Her upcoming book, Baking Chez Moi, is a mix of simple, comfy desserts from France's baking tradition and more ambitious pastry-shop recipes. I'm stocking up on butter to get ready.
I recently had the chance to chat with Dorie about her favorite cookbooks, baking books, and sources for recipe inspiration. Which books are best for baking beginners? Which books can Dorie simply not live without? Here's what she had to say.
What do you look for in a cookbook? When I'm looking at a cookbook for the first time, I'm flipping through the recipes hoping to find a few that call out to me. These can be recipes that riff on classics, they can be ones that use ingredients or spice blends that are new to me—this is what originally drew me to the Ottolenghi cookbooks and to Smashing Plates by Maria Elia—or they might be just so beautiful or just so nicely written that they become instant gotta-haves. I love beautiful pictures, but good writing and intriguing recipes trump photos every time—after the first encounter, they're what keep a book on my shelves.
Oh, and the recipes have to work. Tested recipes that work should be a given... but they're often not.
What do you use cookbooks for? Most frequently I turn to cookbooks for research, reference, and inspiration. I recently donated boxes and boxes of cookbooks to our local libraries and the culling wasn't easy. I didn't have set criteria for what stayed and what went, but if a book had one recipe that I loved, one that I thought I could love or one that was of historical significance to me, I squeezed it back onto the shelf.
Of course I kept the books I cook from. I love cooking from other people's recipes. I don't do it as often as I used to, but I cook from cookbooks for many of the same reasons I did when I first started out in the kitchen, chief among them, to learn.
What was the first cookbook to really inspire you? I was given The New York Times Cookbook when I was married and it became my bible. I hadn't cooked before I got married (I got married when I was in college) and the book not only inspired me, but it taught me how to cook. The recipes for even the most exotic dishes were short and short on helpful hints and explanations—it was a time when authors assumed their readers grew up at the elbow of a good cook—but the range of recipes was so extraordinary that the dishes made me dream. Like the issues of Gourmet magazine at the time, the food came from around the world and making the recipes gave me the chance to taste foods from very foreign lands and cultures I hoped to get to know one day.
What cookbook would you recommend to beginner bakers? I credit Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts for teaching me how to bake. Her instructions are impeccable and she explains how everything is done and very often why, too. Her books are not new, but the recipes have become classics and the satisfaction that you get from succeeding with each sweet is a timeless pleasure.
Other favorite baking books? The books I love and use are all great for all the same reasons: The recipes are inspiring and they work. Among my favorite baking books are: Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, Maida Heatter's cookbooks—all of them, Pierre Hermé's Secrets Gourmands, Gaston Lenotre's Lenotre's Desserts and Pastries, Paula Peck's The Art of Fine Baking, and Richard Sax's Classic Home Desserts.
Essential books for savory cooking:
- Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (I use it today primarily for reference and for the pleasure of hearing Julia's voice through her writing)
- Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cook Book (genuine in every way)
- Richard Olney's Simple French Food (that the recipes are as lush as the writing is the great surprise)
- Jacques Pepin's older La Technique and La Methode and his newer Essential Pepin (even if I never skin a rabbit, I love knowing that I can learn to do it from a master)
- Anne Willan's The Country Cooking of France, actually just about everything Anne Willan has published is worth owning (she's a master of history and technique and her recipes are wonderfully well written)
- Paula Wolfert: anything and everything she's written (for the research, the passion, the authenticity, and the delicious food)
What newer cookbooks do you love?
- Donna Hay's books, particularly her new one, Fresh & Light, for its style, verve, and simplicity.
- Amanda Hesser's The Essential New York Times Cookbook, a brilliant edit of over 1,000 recipes from the newspaper.
- The Yotam Ottolenghi cookbooks, for the taste of another culture and the excitement of new flavors.
- Michael Ruhlman's Egg, for the intelligence and range of the book.
- Joe Yonan's Eat Your Vegetables, for the freshness he brings to vegetarian cooking.
The most prized cookbooks in your collection: I am attached to the collection of French-language cookbooks I've accumulated over the years and to the dozens of small cookbooks that I've bought in out-of-the-way villages in France. The village books are really more like pamphlets—think community cookbooks—and the recipes are often unreliable, but I love them for the memories of place that they evoke.