The Cookie Bible, by Rose Levy Biranbaum***

Biranbaum is the author of The Cake Bible, a book that I used to own, never used, and finally handed off to my daughter. Had I realized this at the outset—and I should have, as it was included in the promotional blurb—I probably would have stepped away from this cookbook. However, cookies are generally an approachable baking project, and it didn’t occur to me that this author might provide recipes that are not.

My thanks go to Mariner Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, October 18.

My rating is a compromise, because recipes such as these will elicit a variety of responses, none more valid than another, and so I can see this collection as two stars for unpretentious and somewhat lazy souls such as me, and four stars for those looking for a tremendous challenge, or an opportunity to impress.

I was on a weight loss regimen during the warm months, looking forward to fall and the chance to get back in the kitchen and bake. I held onto this galley as a reward for all the weight lost, and I planned to test a couple of recipes before writing a review. That hasn’t happened, nor will it. I confess I didn’t understand what I was in for. These recipes are the sort one uses for a grand occasion if at all. If there’s a dessert auction on the horizon, or if you are simply looking to flex your baking muscles, or even intimidate other bakers, this book is your book. Be prepared to buy a LOT of ingredients that aren’t standard. Super fine sugar; candied lemon peel; brandy or freshly squeezed orange juice, strained; unbalanced hazelnuts! I believe I’d have to be unbalanced to attempt any of this. Fine sea salt; hulled sesame seeds; Muscovedo light brown sugar; sour cherry preserves. Mine are ordinary cherry preserves. Fail. Crystalized ginger. Oh, and once you procure your super fine sugar, you’ll need to grind it in your spice grinder. You have one of those somewhere, of course.

I found one recipe that I thought I could manage. There were 2.5 pages of densely printed instructions.  I could see that I was supposed to have 60-62% cacao dark chocolate, but after reading the recipe four times, I couldn’t find the place where I was supposed to have added it. I did find the place where I should have added something else on top of it, but as far as I am concerned, if the recipe isn’t clear after four readings, then it’s not clearly written.

Next!

Once again, if you have occasions when you are ready to pull out all the stops, you may like this thing, but do make sure you read your recipe well in advance, as I suspect you will have to special order tools and ingredients.

Not for me.

Enough Already! by Valerie Bertinelli***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Valerie Bertinelli rose to fame as a child actor, and as a child I watched her show, “One Day at a Time,” together with my parents. I admired and envied her, and when my mother enthused how darling, how pretty, how adorable she was, I also resented her just a teeny bit, the way we tended to resent the homecoming queen or student body president. When I saw, recently, that she’d written a memoir, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

For me, this is more of a three star read, but I choose to bump the rating up to four stars because there were several barn-sized hints that I should have noticed before I began reading, yet blew obliviously past. First, I didn’t get the memo that Bertinelli has written diet books and cookbooks, and has won Emmy Awards for a cooking show on the Food Network. All of these things should have given me pause, because although I do like Bertinelli’s earlier work, I never watch food programs on television. If I want to learn more about food, I’ll buy a cookbook or a diet book, but I don’t need it on my TV or any other streaming devices, and I also (giant clue number two) hate mixing recipes and cooking tips into a novel or memoir.

Yikes!

So, whereas I believed I would be reading a memoir suffused with feminist mojo that makes the author ready to turn the page on body shaming and chronic dieting, instead, I got a recipe, right up front. Pffft.  And as a woman who’s lived in plus-sized fashions for decades, I find it hard to get excited about Bertinelli’s brave decision to stop losing the same ten pounds, over and over. Ten pounds? Oh please. I guess maybe actors and models go into crisis over ten extra pounds, and feel tremendously brave about deciding to own them, but where I live, ten pounds is nothing.

When I was in third grade, my teacher said that those of us that roll our eyes stand in danger of having them get stuck up there. Since there’s no way not to do that while reading this thing, we’ll call mine a case study. If they get stuck, I’ll report back. In Braille.

As the memoir continues, I find that more than anything, this is Bertinelli’s grief book. She and her ex-husband, Eddie Van Halen, have remained unusually close in the years since their divorce, and this book is almost more about him and their son Wolfie than it is about her. I never enjoyed Van Halen’s music, which I found to contain more heavy metal than I am geared for; since I have this memoir, I figure I should take myself to cyberspace and find out whether growing older has changed my tastes. As it turns out, nope, it hasn’t. Still not a Van Halen fan.

And lastly, the narrative comes with all sorts of red flags when she talks about the warm relationship she and Eddie have continued to share—because, you know, they are both (full grown) Wolfie’s parents. When it becomes clear that he will lose his fight with cancer, she and he nip out of whatever family party they are attending to go sit in someone’s car and confess their love to one another—despite the fact that they have both remarried. (Imagine I’ve written that last bit in 24 point font, bolded, red.) The hell? I know that Hollywood types sometimes do things a bit differently, but…? And so, once more I travel through cyberspace to track down Bertinelli’s current husband, who is scarcely even mentioned in this emo memoir. I find an image; oh, so that’s him! And yup, at just about the same time the book was in the publication pipeline, the marriage crashed to a halt, with Bertinelli fuming about how she refuses to be “shamed” for how she grieves. Uh, okay. Her grief is her grief, but if I was that fellow, I’d feel as if my marriage was a party to which I hadn’t been invited. And if it was hard to play second fiddle to the famed guitarist when he was alive, I can’t even imagine how anybody can compete with him now that he’s dead. So. For those diehard fans of hers, of Van Halen’s, or of the food programming to which her career has been directed in recent years, this might be a great read for you. As for me, I came away feeling awkward and uncomfortable. If, knowing all these things, you are still interested, then go for it; but if you’re not so sure, either give it a miss, or read it cheap or free.

Let’s Do Dinner, by Antoni Porowski

I’ve got a soft spot for cookbooks. Some are useful, and some are less practical, but fun to read anyway. Fans of Antoni’s television programs can hardly go wrong with Let’s Do Dinner, but his work is new to me. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The promotional blurb for this cookbook tells us that some of these recipes will be decadent, whereas others are designed for weekday dining. Apart from a couple of nice egg dishes (omelet, scramble,) I don’t see anything here that I would make. Some involve great loads of dishes, and others involve unusual flavor combinations, and I am a coward. That being said, I am plainly not his target audience. I suspect that his cooking tips are geared toward the young and childless; I, on the other hand, am a Grammy. For me, this cookbook is more of a three star read—the sort of thing I’d browse through, but wouldn’t spend money on. However, for twenty-and-thirty-somethings, I suspect the appeal will be greater, perhaps a four star read, and for his loyal fans, five stars.

I recommend this cookbook to Antoni’s fans, and to the young and adventurous cook that wants to try new things.

Bare Minimum Dinners, by Jenna Helwig****

What a good idea! Helwig’s approachable, practical guide is one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve seen in recent years. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

One of the drawbacks to growing up with easily available readymade meals, as most Americans have done, is that nobody has to learn to cook anymore. It’s optional, the way that baking elaborate meals and desserts used to be. But it’s always more expensive to order take-out food than to make it yourself; it has to be, since you are essentially paying them for not just ingredients, but also the labor costs, utility and rent, and other expenses associated with producing it. The meal that you pull out of your freezer is a bit cheaper, and so is the ubiquitous ramen, but neither is useful nutritionally. A lot of people have become born-again cooks over the course of the pandemic, and after all we have been through, it’s nice that at least some of us have benefited in small ways.

Most cookbooks—and I love the things, even the useless ones—aren’t especially helpful. They call for elaborate preparation; tools you probably don’t own; unusual ingredients that have to be hunted down; and then in some cases, produce far more food than a single person or couple can make use of. Helwig’s is different. Her recipes call for ordinary, inexpensive ingredients, and most of them require only basic kitchen equipment. Right up front she explains what pans, machinery, cutlery and other tools she recommends we buy, and although this chapter looks like the one that a lot of people will skip on their way to find a recipe for tonight’s dinner, I recommend you read it when you purchase the book. This reviewer is a Boomer, and I was thirty before I had a microwave oven. I know how to cook and am fairly good at it. Nevertheless, reading this chapter persuaded me to add one more item to my collection. Her practicality is undeniable.

The recipes that look the most tempting to me also require the largest number of dishes to be washed. That’s the way it goes, right? Chilaquiles; Apple Dutch Baby; Mushroom and Gruyere Quesadillas; yum! But she also has an entire chapter titled “Bare Minimum Cleanup” which faithfully adheres to a rule of one pot or pan, period. Because some nights we don’t care to be creative. We just want to grab the food, fix it, and get dinner out of the way so we can move forward with our evening. Helwig gets that.

The sole complaint that prevents my fifth star for jumping on board is that there are certain ingredients and flavors that appear too frequently. Not everybody loves cabbage, for example. Helwig rhapsodizes about its taste, low price, and versatility, and whereas the latter two claims are obviously true, the first is subject to the cook’s preferences. As for me, I do like cabbage once in awhile, but I don’t want it all the time. There are also a few other places where I would have preferred some more versatility.

Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and every recipe in this cookbook has more appeal than that freezer-burnt burrito you bought last March. If you are a newbie with a limited income and not much kitchen experience, you should get this book now. If you are more seasoned, you might want it anyway. And as a bonus feature, I notice that although almost every cookbook is frustrating to read digitally, this one is better than most. If you can get it in print, I still advise doing so, but if your budget only runs to digital versions, that shouldn’t stop you. Someday you’ll wonder how you got by without it.

How to Grill Vegetables, by Steven Raichlen****

Raichlen is the author of The Barbecue Bible, which won the Julia Child Cookbook Award. I won a copy of that excellent tome in a Goodreads First Reads drawing, and I’ve used it every summer since then. So when I noticed that his guide to vegetables on the grill was available, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Workman Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Summer is the best time of the year to eat healthy foods, and yet when we attend a barbecue, often the only vegetable dish is the potato salad, and possibly an anemic tossed salad or plate of tomatoes. Raichlen proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. This nifty cookbook provides starters, entrees, and includes some ideas I’d never considered, like making bread or pizza on the grill. I made the green bean rafts (stuck together with skewers, cooked on the cooler part of the grill, liberally oiled) and the hobo packs. I think the latter is due for change to a more sensitive name, but Raichlen didn’t invent this category of food preparation, and we cannot hold him responsible for the term. As to the food inside the pack, it was delicious, and has made its way into the regular rotation for summer barbecues at my house.

The sad part here is that for those of us eating vegetables as part of a weight loss regimen, the benefits are limited. Again—not the author’s fault. It’s impossible to cook vegetables on high heat this way without adding a lot of fat into the mix. It’s a matter of physics, and there’s nothing we can do about it; if I surrendered rather easily to the need for gobs of olive oil, surely no one can fault me. I look forward to trying the recipe for Tuscan Edamame next.

One of the things I appreciate most about this author is that he doesn’t use his book as a sales tool. It burns me up when I purchase a cookbook, only to find that many of the writer’s recipes include some secret blend of flavorings that can only be obtained by ordering it from—you guessed it—the author. Raichlen doesn’t stoop to this practice, and his recipe calls for ingredients that are are readily available and reasonably affordable. My one complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that too many of these recipes call for me to do a great deal of kitchen prep, involving many dishes and sometimes a food processor, before venturing out to the barbecue. For me, the joy of barbecuing, apart from its delicious results, is to spare myself all that time in a hot kitchen (or a cool one that results in astronomical energy bills.) I don’t want to come back inside after a barbecue and have to contend with a mountain of bowls and pans that need washing. I like to keep it simple.  However, this can be done by picking and choosing which recipes to try.

Most of these recipes are not vegetarian in nature, so if that’s your wheelhouse, you will be happier looking elsewhere, assuming that someone somewhere has written such a book. I don’t need it, so I haven’t searched. But what you can make here is scrumptious.

I generally like reading digitally, but cookbooks are a pain in the butt to read on a phone or tablet, so for that reason, I suggest you buy this nifty cookbook on paper. Summer isn’t over yet, so get it now!

The Festive Christmas Book, by Norma Jost Voth ****

Where have I been, you may wonder. The truth is, I have been swallowed up not only in the holiday season, but also by the most recent bio of Napoleon, which clocks in at 993 pages, and Elizabeth George’s Just One Evil Act, which is over 700.

Meanwhile, I thought I would take a fond trip down memory lane and tell you about one of my favorite Christmas books. It is not newly published, but a person can get anything on the internet these days, and it makes a wonderful gift also. And hey…you just never know when you may need to make dinner for eighty people! How many cookbooks can tell you how to do that?

This was given to me at Christmas nearly 20 years ago by a really good friend.

thefestivechristmasbookAs a cookbook (or primarily, a baking book) I haven’t found it all that useful. Of course, by the time I got it, I had enough cookbooks, baking books, and related volumes (barbecue, confections, and so on) to fill a six-shelf bookcase. Perhaps if I’d received this one without already knowing what to do over the holidays, I’d have used it more.

The main joys this little treasure represents are the stories that precede each set of recipes. The recipes are broken down according to cakes, cookies, and breads “of Christmas”, and this essentially means that the recipes all come from Europe and the USA, with a couple of brief nods elsewhere. (At least the authors do not claim it represents the whole world, as some Euro-centric compilations have been known to do.)

There are stories that either go with, or precede, many of the recipes. And that is why my friend gave this to me, and why I have kept it over many moves of house since then, paring my cookbook collection down to less than half its former self. When I don’t really feel like hitting the kitchen so much as curling up in a cozy armchair thinking about baking, this is a lovely (and aesthetically rendered) little volume. There’s a lot more chat to it than any ordinary cookbook, and it is just right to fit comfortably in one’s hand.

Charming!

Here’s what is good (to me) about the recipes, just in reading them. NONE of them uses a pre-packaged mix as an “ingredient”. If a person wants to buy cookie dough already in a roll in the supermarket’s refrigerator section, let them go do it, and likewise cake and cookie mixes. These should not form the basis for a scratch recipe, to my way of thinking.

In the end, the part I liked–stories, lore, culture–were the bits that I needed, having already been handed down a score of family recipes that I already love.

For stories and recipes from the Old Order Amish (dinner for 80), the Greeks,Irish,Scandinavians,Germans, Moravians, Polish, and a few from Mexico as well, curl up and enjoy. And a note to those newly in charge of a celebration: don’t try to do everything! A little goes a long way.