A cookbook changed Kathleen Weber's life. As she writes in Della Fattoria Bread, some friends gave her a copy of The Italian Baker by Carol Field, and Weber "had never seen a baking book like it before." She immediately started making her first biga, a starter commonly used in Italian breads. "From that moment on," she writes, she "baked day and night, reading through The Italian Baker as if it were a novel [she] couldn't put down." Now Weber runs Della Fattoria bakery and café in Sonoma County with her husband and children. One of her first clients was Thomas Keller's French Laundry.
I asked Weber a bit about her vast cookbook collection and her favorite books for bread baking, planning a dinner party, and giving as gifts. Here's what she had to say.
You wrote in your book that "cookbooks have been the textbooks of [your] life." What do you mean by that? What better way is there to learn about other cultures than through their food? Cookbooks are not just about cooking; they're often about lifestyle, traditions, and history. I am certainly not a world traveler, but I've absorbed intimate glimpses of regional cultures by understanding what people put on their tables.
When did you start collecting cookbooks, and what do you look for in a cookbook? My grandmother bought me a Native Daughters of the Golden West cookbook when I was 12, and I still use some of the homey recipes out of it today. My first books were true Americana: the ring-binder Betty Crocker, Fannie Farmer, and a few Better Homes and Gardens books—all wedding presents.
The first one I bought for myself was The Joy of Cooking, and I quickly moved on to the "life-changing" books by authors Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Craig Claiborne, Paula Wolfert, and James Beard. Today, I have hundreds of cookbooks, and the main thing I look for when choosing a cookbook is inspiration. If I come across a book with compelling stories and photos too beautiful to resist, that will always propel me to the cash register.
What books did you turn to when you were first learning to bake bread? Any more recent bread books you recommend? The Sunset Cook Book of Breads book was my original resource for baking bread. The steps were clear and included photos (very helpful for any new baker), and the recipes were adventurous and global. I remember an Easter bread baked around an egg in its shell—I just couldn't resist that. Carol Field's The Italian Baker really changed how I think about bread. I fell under a spell reading the personal stories of the bakers and the history behind their specialty breads, and I just had to try them all.
There's a vast array of excellent bread books out now, and some of my favorites include: Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman, Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller, and Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish.
What books do you turn to when you're hosting a big dinner party? For me, it depends on the time of year. In winter, I may look for a nice long braise from Julia Child or Madeleine Kamman, or I'll turn to Paula Wolfert for more exotic slow-cooked dishes. A lot of Patricia Wells's first course nibbles are constants in my repertoire.
I still like some of the old standbys from Martha Stewart's Entertaining—there were so many clever ideas in that book. I love Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann, because his elemental cooking style feels very compatible with our bread making.
And I turn to lots of other cookbooks for answers or inspiration: Marcella Hazan for Italian, Alice Waters for vegetables, Deborah Madison for vegetarian, Thomas Keller for sauces or simple and perfect preparations from Ad Hoc at Home, Jacques Pepin or Ina Garten for unusual cuts of meat, and Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, when I'm confused about a technique or a temperature. I have been cooking for 50 years at this point, so I'm mostly just looking for fresh inspiration or a reminder of something I've forgotten.
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? The late Judy Rodgers's Zuni Cafe Cookbook is a cover-to-cover read that has taught me techniques I use so much I can't remember a time before I knew them. She had an amazing and honest philosophy about food, and she had more recipes using leftover bread than anyone. In the San Francisco Bay Area, everyone has her book, but I'm not sure she is as well-known throughout the country.
Favorite dessert/pastry books: My mother introduced me to Flo Braker's Sweet Miniatures by surprising us with trays of delicious tiny tarts and pastries one Christmas Eve. She had severe rheumatoid arthritis, but she adored these miniatures and found that she could do the major part of the work sitting at her kitchen table, with my father serving as sous chef, manning the oven and doing his best not to drop or burn the precious creations. I think they had a lot of laughs as well as some serious battles making these sweets together, and it became their holiday tradition.
All of Rose Levy Beranbaum's 'bibles' are well-worn friends on my shelf, and I am always happy with any recipe from David Lebovitz. Alice Medrich is another of my favorite resources. Her relationship with chocolate is legendary, but her cookbooks teach us so much more, including confidence in cooking.
Favorite cookbook to give as a gift: Well, right now I would have to answer my own, Della Fattoria Bread! Otherwise, it really depends on the person. If they like cooking outside, I would give them Seven Fires, because it's so liberating. To a new bride and groom, I would give The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, because Judy's recipes and techniques will teach anyone to become a good cook. All of Ina Garten's recipes are so thoroughly tested, as well as delicious, that I think her books would be another perfect bridal gift. For someone more advanced in their tastes, I have often given The French Laundry Cookbook because it is just so beautiful and an exciting challenge for a home chef.
Favorite books for cooking with vegetables: Anything by Deborah Madison, Alice Waters, or David Tanis, because vegetables are never an afterthought for them.
Favorite newer cookbooks: Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty is a beautiful and inspiring book. Francis Mallmann's new book, Mallmann on Fire. Charles Phan's The Slanted Door. Coi: Stories and Recipes by Daniel Patterson. Morito by Samuel and Samantha Clark. My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz.
If you could invite one cookbook author to dinner, who would it be and what would you serve them? Only one? It would be like choosing my favorite grandchild! Whomever I invited, I know I would make something very simple—maybe a fish stew, a green salad with a simple citronette dressing, and crusty bread. Otherwise, I would be too nervous. I find the trick with hosting is to not overextend yourself: complicated menus are best saved for restaurants.