December 5, 2011

Top 10 Culinary Books

This may sound odd, but though reading was never one of my strongpoints, I do love buying and collecting books. This may be credited to the fact that I grew up in a house full of them. My mom has two book-loving daughters, one who majored in Literature, and another who is a published editor. And then there is me. I was always so much more into pictures, and creatively doing anything else besides...reading. Which is probably why I love packing my bookshelves with culinary books full of beautiful photos of food that I can prepare myself. 

I was also never a good cook in my single life, although I always tried to prepare something, anything.

{I once ate bread filled with breadcrumbs because I though it was grated parmesan cheese} 

But, I guess, once married, the necessity of learning to cook and work around the kitchen could not be ignored. Though my sisters and I baked a lot when we were all living under one roof, I never really baked on my own until I owned my own kitchen. And since then, I like to think that I have improved a hundred fold (that's how terrible my cooking used to be), but with still much more room to grow. 

My obsession for cookbooks started with small paper-back publications that featured simple recipes and a few ingredients. However, in a short span of time, I began to realize that book titles that usually have "simple", "30 minutes", and "easy" are cover-ups for food that lack character. Though books like these would probably work for the hectic, on-the-go, I-will-not-wait-for-my-steak-to-finish-in-the-oven-types, I love poring over recipes, planning them out, and taking my time to complete them. That's what I love about preparing food: the more you spend time on it, the more it gives back.

{My best friend is my Crockpot}

Because of this, I realize that hardbound, well-edited books with saliva-inducing photographs and moderate to difficult recipes are expensive, but always worth the money. I mean, why would a publisher spend so much on beautiful paper and photos if the recipes are crap, right? And being a self-taught cook/baker, good research material is of utmost importance, and these publications are worth every cent.

So, for all of you, here are (so far) the top 10 cookbooks that changed my life:

1. The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver. Yeah, yeah, I know he's not a real chef, and neither is this book hardbound, but it was the first real cookbook I ever bought. I was so darn proud I even told my good friend (/chef) about it.

Me: "I bought my first cookbook by Jamie Oliver!"
N: "Uh, ok. That's a good place to start." 

Even so, I still love his no-fuss style of cooking.

My favorite recipe in this book is his Roasted Leg of Lamb, my go-to dish for every important family potluck. He lists the exact oven time a certain sized lamb leg needs, and it always comes out perfectly charred on the outside, and nice, juicy, and pink on the inside. He also has a very good homemade pasta recipe--his specialty.

2. The Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking (Two Volumes). I don't know how this ended up in my mom's house, but I do remember how I took it to mine with much opposition from my sister (the Literature major) who read it cover to cover. But I love old books, and this one so endeared me with it's "modern" aesthetic, that leafy smell of crunchy half-a-century old pages, and colored (it's sales pitch) photographs of food styled during a time when food-styling as a profession was practically unheard of. The recipes are simple, and it even has a section that lays out a weekly menu for mothers who prepare food for the family. Can you believe the caloric intake of a regular person in the 50's was 2,500 calories and loaded with carbs? Potatoes are included almost everyday! 

But despite it's outdated-ness, this "encyclopedia" is still very useful for classic recipes and cooking methods, many of which are still necessary today. I use it especially when I need to know the proper way of freezing and storing foods, as well as portioning. Ever wonder why your lola seems to know so much about food? It's probably because she has a copy of this! 

3. How to Cook. I bought this book immediately after taking a 8-day culinary course years ago. It teaches the basics of preparing meats and vegetables. Almost every basic recipe I've ever needed is here: stocks, stews, cakes, crepes, etc. And best of all, most of the recipes feature ingredients that are commonly found. My favorite recipes from this book are the Chicken Tandoor and Shortcrust Pastry.

4. Ready for Dessert by David Leibowitz. I first "met" David online via his blog about life in Paris. His style of documenting everyday Parisian life and food is detailed, humorous, and, at the same time, romantic. When I saw this book on the shelf, the first thing I noticed was the shiny, drool-worthy chocolate ganache in the process of covering, what I would imagine, a luscious, moist (and probably spicy) sponge cake. Yes, David, I AM READY FOR DESSERT! His chocolate chip cookie recipe is purrrfect, and I can't wait to try his spicy cakes.

5. Paris Patisseries. Being the first book I bought off the 'net makes this life changing. No longer do I have to wait for the local release of gems like these! However, this is definitely not a cookbook, but a history of the best Paris has to offer. Well-written is an understatement. Each chapter is so divinely detailed that you either end up with a terrible craving for for something sweet or creamy or chocolate-y, or marvel at how much work goes into a dish that will only be in existence for 15 minutes on a plate (5 in mine). Either way, this book is just more proof that Parisian pastry chefs are in every way the best in the world.  

6. Baking. Technique, technique, technique. When it comes to baking, it is as important as precision. And both are taught in this book. From making your own puff pastry, forming Pate Choux swans, and determining which crust to use for what filling, this has everything any home baker will need to know about anything that goes into the oven. It is full of step-by-step photographs (love!) and very detailed instructions, so much that it has given me the courage to make my own puff pastry. Good luck to me.

7. Food by Alan Davidson. I have a confession. I think I've only opened this book twice (once to double-check a culinary term, and once to browse for a short minute). But like a food processor you hardly use, it's a kitchen essential that is good to have around. One day, I'm sure I'll need it for something!

8. Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme. Called the Father of the Modern Macaron, I am obsessed with Pierre Herme, and I cannot get enough of his Chocolate Mousse recipe! So simple and delicious! I will buy anything written and created by Pierre Herme. Period.

9. The Essential Guide to Cake Decoration. Obviously, this is a used book. I bought this from my cousin-in-law, Pamsy, who makes the most delicious carrot cakes EVER. She was selling it at a fund-raising garage sale, and I think I got it at about 400 bucks only (if my memory serves me right)! It opened my eyes to the world of cake decorating, and has practical tips on recipe calculations, storage, and design.

10. Hors d'Oeuvre at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. I'm such a sucker for reference books by culinary institutes, especially ones with such nice printing. Since I also dabble in hors d'oeuvre catering in events such as art exhibits and corporate launches, this books comes in handy whenever I need new menu items to develop.

Happy reading!

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