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.

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.