When it came to Mother’s Day gifts, there was always a popular item we never gave our mother and grandmother: a cookbook.
They had no need for them and I rarely saw either of them use one. Yes, there were special occasions when they had to check ingredients, but it was always on a recipe they’d made before: Was that 1/4 cup of sugar or a half-cup?
I always thought my grandmother was the highest authority when it came to cooking, so why would she need a new cookbook? (A new plant for her thriving garden was the perfect gift.)
I look at the notion now and realize that both of them had a medium-size repertoire of recipes that they were really good at — from pot roast and corn pudding to strawberry-rhubarb pie and cream puffs. And when I think about it, I’m pretty much the same way. Aren’t we all?
I suppose it comes down to attitude: Just how willing are we to go outside our comfort zone and try new things? I knew Mom and Grandma were very comfortable with the comfort food they made, especially in an era when Italian food was considered exotic to them! But, I also know that if I’d been old enough to think more carefully about it, I would have recognized how much my grandmother loved to bake. She religiously clipped dessert recipes from the paper — and there was always something homemade and sweet in the house. And, she and my aunts and her neighbors swapped pie and cake recipes often. She very well might have enjoyed a baking book.
I am an enthusiastic dabbler with slightly above-average skills who likes to try new recipes, as long as they’re not too complicated. I think I know my limits. Of course, I know some wildly confident home cooks who are ready to tackle anything that strikes their fancy.
Given that, I’ve pulled together a handful of recipes from cookbook authors, along with an idea or two for buying 2017 cookbooks for someone who just might appreciate them.
A perfect first example comes from Samin Nosrat, writer, former chef at Chez Panisse, teacher and author of “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,” an excellent cookbook and culinary resource that pares down the idea that it only takes four ingredients to make food taste amazing.
Here’s her recipe/method for make oven-dried tomatoes: “I took some shortcuts and just cut (the tomatoes) in half, removing any suspect bits as I went along, then sprinkled them with salt and a slight rumor of sugar. I packed them snugly onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and stuck them in my oven at 200 (degrees) for about 12 hours. At that point, some were a bit drier than others, but I like a little variety. None of the tomatoes seemed soupy or wet, which is how I knew they were done. I let the trays cool before sticking them in the freezer. Once the tomatoes were solid, I peeled them off the paper and packed them into zip-lock bags and returned them to the freezer. That way ... I can just pull out a couple at a time as I need them. If you prefer, you can pack them into jars and cover with olive oil.”
Second on my list is “A New Way to Bake: Classic Recipes Updated with Better-For-You Ingredients from the Modern Pantry” from the kitchens of Martha Stewart. It includes 130 recipes “featuring bold new flavors that make some of your favorite, most indulgent treats more healthy,” she writes.
In the No. 3 spot is “Feeding a Family: A Real-Life Plan for Making Dinner Work” by Sarah Waldman, a nutritionist and mother of two young boys. Learning how to cook for children is a big challenge for many young mothers, says Dana Velden of thekitchn.com. “Balancing nutrition, picky appetites, and busy schedules is no small task. If you know of a mom who might need some solid advice and inspiration for feeding her family, this is the book for her.” Arranged by season with 10 complete meal plans for each season, the recipes are the author’s family favorites and have been field tested in her own kitchen. wrote Velden.
To round out the quartet, I picked Jami Curl’s book “Candy is Magic.” She is the founder (in 2016) of Quin, a small-batch, handmade candy company headquartered in Portland, Oregon. The great thing about the cookbook is that while someone who makes luscious caramels and wouldn’t blink at creating homemade marshmallows would love this book, it’s also for that person who thinks candymaking is too scary or too hard. Curl makes it clear that the opposite is true: Candy is fun, creative, easy, and yes, magical. You’ll find more than 200 recipes using real, natural ingredients to make lollipops, caramels, marshmallows, chews, sauces and gumdrops. Practical things like flavorings and tools are covered too, as well as a source guide for ingredients and equipment.
Chocolate Beet Cake
4 medium beets, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups pure cane sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs
3/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup safflower oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Vegetable oil cooking spray
Cover beets with 2 inches water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer until very tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp paring knife, about 30 minutes. Drain. Puree beets in a food processor until smooth.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Whisk in eggs, water, oil, vanilla and 1 1/4 cups beet puree (reserve remaining puree for another use).
Coat a 9-inch round cake pan (3 inches deep) with cooking spray. Line bottom with parchment and then coat with spray.
Pour batter into pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Turn out cake from pan, and discard parchment. Let cool completely, right side up.
Trim top of cake using a serrated knife to create a level surface. Transfer cake, cut side down, to a platter. Pour chocolate glaze over the top, and let set, about 30 minutes.
Storage: Unglazed cake can be stored at room temperature (wrapped in plastic) for up to 2 days. Glazed cake can be stored at room temperature for up to 1 day.
Chocolate Glaze: Bring 1/2 cup heavy cream and 3/4 teaspoon light corn syrup to a gentle simmer in a small saucepan. Pour over 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate in a bowl, and let stand for 1 minute. Stir until chocolate melts and mixture is shiny and smooth. Let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Use immediately. Makes 1 cup.
Glaze note: To create pretty, slow drips down the side of a cake, let the glaze cool slightly so it thickens a bit. This glaze would complement any cake.
Spring Roast Chicken
1 four- to five-pound chicken
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds
1 onion, peeled and cut into quarters
Small bunch scallions, ends trimmed
1 lemon, sliced into rounds
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees and toss all the vegetables, sliced lemon, a few glugs of olive oil, salt and pepper in the bottom of a roasting pan. Put the chicken on top of the vegetables, tie the legs together, fold in the wings, and rub the skin with olive oil. Sprinkle over salt and pepper.
Roast 1 1/2 hours, rotating the pan half way through. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: I know the edges of the vegetables look burned, but I promise they don’t taste that way.
Thirty 4-inch lollipop sticks
(1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon) light corn syrup
(1 cup) sugar
(1/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons) water
(1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon) finely grated lemon, lime, tangerine or grapefruit zest
(1/2 teaspoon) citric acid
2 to 3 drops of natural food coloring, plus more as needed
5-inch squares of cellophane and twist ties, for wrapping
Lightly grease thirty 1 1/2-inch plastic or silicone lollipop molds with canola oil. Place a lollipop stick in each indentation, with 3/4 inch of the stick inside the round mold. Alternatively, line a large baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.
In a small saucepan, bring the corn syrup, sugar and water to a boil. Do not stir. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 300 degrees on a candy thermometer, 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the citrus zest, citric acid and food coloring. Spoon some of the syrup onto a white plate to check the color. Add more food coloring if needed.
Working quickly, spoon 1 teaspoon of the syrup into each mold. Alternatively, spoon teaspoonfuls of the syrup onto the prepared baking sheet, 2 inches apart, and place a stick in each lollipop, turning it to cover with syrup. Let the lollipops harden at room temperature for 30 minutes. Wrap in cellophane and secure with a twist tie.
The wrapped lollipops can be stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place for up to 1 month.
Note: To make these bright citrus lollipops, look for a natural food dye that is high-heat stable so that it maintains its color when added to the hot sugar. If you prefer to use artificial food coloring, start with 1 drop and then add gradually. Alternatively, you can skip the food coloring all together for a more muted color with flecks of fresh citrus zest.