Part cookbook, part treatise, all recipes.
This is a book that sat on my shelf for two months before I had the guts to crack it open. There’s something so intimidating about this weighty tome, its rejection-pen red color, and the Old English font proclaiming The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century. Penned by former New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser, it’s what many consider her tour de force, a truly seminal work.
This is a book with an indubitably expansive range. It includes recipes beginning from the mid-nineteenth century on up to the present. This isn’t just a cookbook, it’s also part food literature and part food treatise on notable culinary food figures, a chronicle of food trends, and benchmark dishes of every decade. If you’re keen on history and fond of facts, you’ll enjoy this book.
The recipes are culled from the Times’ 150-year archive and though the subject matter is serious, Hesser attempts and succeeds in treating it lightly and clearly. As she describes in the Introduction, “It was going to be an eclectic panorama of both high-toned masterpieces and low-brow grub, a fever chart of culinary passions … a book, I am convinced, [that] will serve your every mood.”
Every chapter begins with a black and white photo (there are no color plates in this book), all of a vintage nature, with lots of stark shadows and expanses of white evoking the halcyon days of foodie yore. Immediately opposite the photo is a timeline of sorts, notable developments in the Chapter of question and interesting, if not chuckle-inducing facts. To wit, in the Potatoes, Corn, and Legumes Chapter for the 1980s entry: “French chef Joel Robuchon beats together 1 part butter to 2 parts mashed potatoes – the recipe becomes famous and keeps cardiologists in business.” Or in the Breads and Baking Chapter for the 1931 entry: “Bisquick is introduced, lowering peoples’ baking IQs.”
For quick reference, each chapter’s recipes are sorted by category and corresponding page number. The Cakes chapter is remarkably specific with categories ranging from Chocolate Cakes, Cakes with Nuts, Vanilla Cakes, Cakes with Fruit, Spice Cakes, Cupcakes, Cheesecakes, and the rather arrestingly named Pancake Cakes (crepe cakes and their ilk). There’s a chapter in the book that one doesn’t see often, if at all: the Sandwiches, Pizza, and Savory Pies chapter that begins with the titillating Foie Gras and Jam Sandwiches. Yes, really.
Recipe writing is an art and Hesser has it down pat. Her headnotes are helpful never domineering, written with the wisdom of having tested over 1,600 recipes for this book alone. The recipes themselves are informed with Yields, Cooking Notes, Period Details (such as apt notes and behind-the-scenes details of the recipe’s evolution, etc.) and serving suggestions. When applicable, a subheading called Readers is included, this being letters from readers reacting to the recipe. Compelling reading all.
I’m especially riveted by the Breakfast and Brunch chapter where recipes to try include David Eyre’s Pancake and the Amazing Overnight Waffles of which I’ve previously blogged about. Also notable are the tweaks on Chocolate Chip Cookies, one that’s Flat and Chewy (Hesser’s choice), the other, the now (in)famous David Leite version.
The book ends with a supremely useful selection of Recommended Menus and an index thick enough to double as an electronic gadget manual.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century
by Amanda Hesser
W. W. Norton & Company (October 2010)
Available at Fully Booked.