People start good new food blogs every day, but I have a soft spot for the sites that have been around awhile, like Molly Wizenberg's Orangette, David Lebovitz's site, Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen, and The Wednesday Chef by Luisa Weiss. I've chatted about cookbooks with Deb, David, and Molly, and now it's Luisa's turn.
In addition to the blog, Luisa Weiss is the author of My Berlin Kitchen, and is busy writing a new cookbook featuring German desserts. Before moving to Berlin, she worked as a cookbook editor at at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. I asked her a bit about her favorite cookbooks for inspiration, for quick weeknight meals, and for giving as gifts.
"Home cooks really want to be challenged, not coddled, and I think contemporary cookbook publishing understands that."
How do you think the cookbook scene has changed since you started working in the world of cookbook publishing? It's changed in so many ways; first of all, the pool of potential authors has grown so much larger since cookbook editors started realizing that there is a huge amount of talent online that comes complete with loyal readers (read: sales!). Second, I think cookbook publishing has gotten far more daring and brave when it comes to book design—cookbooks being published today are so arrestingly good-looking that you want to own them as objects as well as manuals. Third, I think most cookbook publishers understand the level of sophistication of home cooks these days and are offering recipes that really go above and beyond the regular old stuff. The success of Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation, for example, or of April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig are emblematic of this. Home cooks really want to be challenged, not coddled, and I think contemporary cookbook publishing understands that.
How many cookbooks do you own? How do you organize them? I just counted—I have about 170 cookbooks and food narratives (I counted anything with recipes). I'm allergic to clutter and things that don't feel useful to me, but I get sent lots of cookbooks to review and am constantly acquiring new ones on my own, so I try to rotate cookbooks out as soon as I realize that they're not really being used. I'm pretty ruthless about it (this extends to clothes and other objects, too), which means that sometimes, six months later, I go crazy trying to find that one recipe in that one book only to realize that I no longer own it. But on the whole, this method of housekeeping keeps me sane. I keep the cookbooks in bookshelves and on side tables in my living room and there are always one or two by my bedside and on my desk. I don't have much of an organizational policy when it comes to them—the only thing right now is that the German cookbooks are all clustered together since I'm working on a German baking book.
Ooh! Can you give us any sneak peaks into the new book? I'm currently in the thick of writing it and testing. Some recipes that will be included are a red-currant meringue cake from southwestern Germany, a torte made of puff pastry, whipped cream and roasted plum jam from the north of Germany, flaky quark-plum strudel, rum-raisin Kugelhupf...and there will be an entire chapter devoted to Christmas (think Lebkuchen, Zimtsterne, Stollen, the works).
Fantastic! (I love Stollen.) Back to your collection: what's your most treasured cookbook? You know, I can't really single out one book; there is no one book that does it all for me. But I'm very attached to Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice, which demystified Chinese home cooking for me, and is one of the simplest, most satisfying books I own; Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cookbook, because after a decade of obsessive recipe clipping and the genesis of my blog, it feels like the collection was made for me; and Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries, which is as inspiring as it is comforting.
What cookbook has taught you the most? I'd have to say Ada Boni's Il Talismano della Felicità; it's the encyclopedic Italian cookbook that all the women in my family use.
What cookbooks do you reach for for easy weeknight meals? Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food, which feels like the most efficient little cookbook ever written; the salad chapter of Gwyneth Paltrow's It's All Good, which is full of genius stuff; and Liana Krissoff's Vegetarian Cooking for a New Generation, for everything from potato tacos to slow-fried sweet potatoes.
What cookbook would you pick as a gift to give a friend? It really depends on the recipient, I think. I love giving Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain to friends who are bakers, because people never cease to be blown away by the brilliant whole grain recipes she's created. I love giving Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen to friends who are serious cooks—the collection is just so solid and full of stand-alone gems (the herb jam, the avocado-sardine toast, the poached quince!). And Jenny Rosenstrach's Dinner: The Playbook is for every frazzled parent I know. Family dinners will save the world!
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? Lora Zarubin's I Am Almost Always Hungry is one of my most beloved cookbooks. It's a gorgeous collection of seasonal menus that are both refined and quirky. Lora's writing is evocative of a pre-9/11 New York that feels nostalgic and cozy (and a little decadent), and it's photographed by fine-art photographer Tessa Traeger, whose photos are devastatingly good. The book tugs at my heartstrings every time I open it; it makes me want to cook, it makes me want to time-travel, it makes me want to be friends with Lora Zarubin or at least be a friend like Lora Zarubin. It's just perfect. I've never understood why the book isn't more widely known. I'll own it forever.