Amanda Hesser's latest and greatest book, The Essential New York Times Cookbook (W.W. Norton, $40) reminded me of that saying about a mullet hairdo: "Business in the front, party in the back." Set against today's glossy celebrity-chef volumes, it looks like the most personality-free cookbook ever -- the perfect size for a doorstop, with a plain red cover that features zero glam pictures of Ms. Hesser and nary a close-up of anything decadently buttery. In other words, a serious book for serious cooks.
And it is that, to a certain extent, but it's also one of the most fun cookbooks I've read in a long time. If you're familiar with Hesser's writing, this won't come as a surprise. Her latest venture is the crowdsourced cooking website Food52, in which she lets her humor and humility show in equal measure, even as she wows you with everything she knows about cooking. The friendly and fun-loving tone she adopts there is also found in the cookbook.
The recipes in the NYT Cookbook were hand-culled by Hesser from issues of the Times dating back to the 1850s. She retooled some for modern kitchens -- explaining, for example, that meat now cooks twice as fast as it used to, due to current farming practices -- but as much as possible has left them intact. That includes sharing some of the original commentary of the recipe writer, as well as historical context. A recipe from 1880 for cherry bounce, an alcoholic beverage, came from a prolific contributor named "Bob the Sea Cook," who included words of seafaring wisdom with his recipes. "I never drink a glass of cherry bounce without thinking of my old granny, as lived at the jumping-off point of Long Island. There used to be a lot of straggling cherry trees that had a hard time to live, that bore a half-wild kind of fruit on them, which was grandmother's cherry-bounce trees -- that is when I did not steal the cherries."
Hesser herself also contributes interesting, funny commentary and cooking notes to the recipes, making this book, even without any color pictures, a great one for just sitting around and reading. "Don't shell and grate your own coconut;" she advises in a note for making mulligatawny soup, "you'll end up hating the recipe, me, Craig Claiborne, and cooking in general."
The recipes themselves span the trends and traditions of a century-and-a-half of American cooking; they include all manner of cuisines (French, Indian, Chinese, British, Japanese, Moroccan, Serbian, Spanish, Greek, and onward) and range from quick to elaborate. However, Hesser makes even the intimidating Gateau de Crepes sound like a whimsical challenge: "My gateau de crepes didn't look quite as neat as the [Lady M Cake Boutique's] Mille Crepes, but it was charming the way the sagging roof of an old cottage is, and darn tasty."
There's something special about realizing that some of these recipes, originally clipped from the pages of the New York Times, have been cooked by folks all around the globe for many decades. Some of them hold a place in American culinary history: the recipe for Lindy's cheesecake (a Times Square landmark in itself); Country Captain, "the Lowcountry's version of chicken cacciatore"; Jim Lahey's no-knead bread recipe, which kicked the no-knead bread craze into high gear; hallowed NYT food writer Craig Claiborne's paella recipe, six years in the tweaking; and the Times' most-published and most-requested recipe, purple plum torte.
In my opinion, buying a cookbook is a decision not to be taken lightly; the food we make is important to good living, and I don't like to keep a cookbook lying around if I can only get one or two good recipes from it. Given those criteria, this book is a steal at $40. It's good reading and good eating, and will keep you happy and busy in the kitchen for years to come.