Even in good years, the sudden appearance of the holidays always seems to take me by surprise.
You’ll find me still lingering in cranberry sauce mode long after everyone else has made that jarring switch to candy canes. But then, in the nick of time, I’m all in because, deep down, I love and fervently believe in rituals. They are, to my mind, the best markers of the passage of time.
And what better ritual is there than the giving of gifts? And I almost always give cookbooks. Yes, as the author of a few of them, I admit to being biased. But, if you’ll forgive me for sounding as corny as a Hallmark card, a cookbook is truly the gift that keeps on giving. A good recipe will last you a lifetime and never go out of style. That, of course, can’t be said for the trendy gift gadgets that make a splash and then inevitably end up in your junk drawer by the end of January.
Here are the five cookbooks I’m giving friends this holiday and why I choose them. And the good news for those of us late to the game—these books are all easy to find, easy to wrap and easy to ship.
This year we’re all spending a little too much time in our kitchens. Most everyone I know, myself included, has hit a few ruts, whether out of dishwashing fatigue or flavor fatigue. (Does pasta five nights a week sound familiar?) Authors Carrie Solomon and Adrian Moore catapulted me back into cooking action with Chefs’ Fridges, an intimate look into the home refrigerators of 35 of the best chefs in the world.
I devoured this book, spending countless hours marveling at the radish kimchi in Dan Barber’s fridge, the bottle of creamy umami sauce in Ivan Orkin’s fridge and the fresh coconut sitting in Dominique Crenn’s perfectly curated refrigerator drawer. I wanted to reach out and pluck the enormous tin of caviar on the bottom shelf of Daniel Boulud’s treasure trove of a fridge, while Pierre Gagnaire’s apparent affection for supermarket applesauce made me feel significantly better about my own predilection for shortcuts. While there are recipes in the book, the true pleasure is in groupie voyeurism it affords. This is the gift for sophisticated food lovers, for whom a private viewing of a chef’s fridge offers the same giddy delight as a tour of Sarah Jessica Parker’s closet would for a fashionista.
A few years ago, my husband’s godmother, Jean Halberstam, died. Jean was the most exquisite home cook I’ve known. Her dinner parties were legendary. Each course was perfectly conceived and executed. At the end of her life, she shared her favorite recipes with me. I knew she was a cookbook cook, not an improvisational cook, but I confess I expected her recipes to be written by the likes of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that two-thirds of them were straight out of The Barefoot Contessa. I immediately bought all of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa books and became a devoted fan. So, of course, I was among the first to order the most recent of Garten’s books, Modern Comfort Food and start cooking my way through it, cover to cover. Not only does it deliver some of the comfort we so desperately need during this nerve-wracking moment in time, it is also full of fail-proof timeless recipes. A few favorites: Baked Raclette, Cacio e Pepe Cheese Puffs, and Shellfish and Chorizo Stew. Her books are not for those seeking esoteric dishes or hoping to discover rarified ingredients, but the pages will be well-worn and earmarked in nearly everyone else’s library. You can’t go wrong giving this one.
Modern Comfort Food
The scent of the holidays may be evergreen and ginger, but come a dark winter’s night, the smell I truly crave is that of Nancy Silverton’s restaurant Chi Spacca in Los Angeles. Enter the restaurant and you’re immediately hit with a pleasant mix of burning wood smoke, rosemary and garlic and—dare I say it—meat grilling—which creates a sort of primal, stomach growling hunger. I’ve been known to walk into the restaurant on some far-fetched pretense just to take a big whiff. Finally, the restaurant has a cookbook, and there’s not a single recipe in it that I don’t want to make. Chi Spacca is known for its carnivorous indulgences—Moorish Lamb Shoulder Chops, Grilled Tomahawk Pork Chops with Fennel Pollen and the best steak in town—but Silverton’s salads and desserts are not to be missed. This is the book for friends who like bold, hearty fare and aren’t afraid of potatoes cooked in whipped lardo or black rice crisped in duck fat.
One of the most inventive books of the year comes from London chef Ravinder Bhogal and is called Jikoni: Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from An Immigrant Kitchen. Jikoni means kitchen in Bhogal’s native Kenyan, but her food also carries the influence of her Indian heritage and her years in London. Recipes for Duck Rendang and for Roast Parsnips with Dates, Tamarind Chutney and for Yogurt Saffron-Roasted Turkey with Freekeh, Pistachio and Preserved Lemon Stuffing are original, bold and vibrant. Give this to your friends with wanderlust. Or, really, to anyone feeling landlocked and dreaming of travels past and future.
Jikoni Proudly Inauthentic Recipes from An Immigrant Kitchen
And let’s not forget dessert! From Baking at the 20th Century Café: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake, I plan to make the Kókusz Torta (a coconut marmalade torte with chocolate glaze) for Christmas and a Chestnut Apple Linzer Torte for New Year’s Day. A word of warning: this stunning book is not for the faint of heart. The recipe for honey cake runs four, text-heavy pages, and the cake is composed of ten fragile layers, but the result is spectacular. This is the book for friends who’ve baked their way through the pandemic and are ready to go pro, or who consider baking a weekend project rather than a quick hit of sugar.
Baking at the 20th Century Café