12 days of cookbooks (ho, ho, ho): 2018 favorites, with alexandra stafford

COOKBOOK AUTHOR and food blogger Alexandra Stafford of alexandracooks dot com and I have declared it so: The Twelve Days Of Cookbooks begins now, as in perfect gift picks for holiday giving.

Last year around holiday gifting time, my serious cookbook-collecting friend Ali and I talked about our all-time favorites of the genre. And this time we’re focusing on the latest harvest, cookbooks that caught our attention among the many published this fall–12 of which we’re each giving away a copy of (as in 24 chances to win) in the spirit of the season. More on that at the bottom of the page.

Ali is author 2017’s “Bread Toast Crumbs,” a book I love to give as a gift, by the way.

We’re including recipes to some of the dishes Ali has cooked from the books that caught our attention this year—including the Salted Maple Pie from “Sister Pie,” which would make a great holiday dessert.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 3, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

12 days of cookbooks: 2018 favorites, with ali stafford


Q. I’m so glad you’re making time to go through the piles, because there’s a lot this year, huh?

A. So many. I just added at least 20 to my collection.

Q. All right, so now we need a confessional. How many cookbooks are in your collection?

A. Oh my gosh, I’ve lost count. Honestly I really don’t know, and I had to give some away because it was just too many. And I also had this lending system with my neighbors. They just have sort of free rein to my cookbook library. So, they’re out in the world, but it’s still probably around 550 or so. [Laughter.]

Q. Whoa, whoa. Well interesting you know, so you have a lot, and you are always looking through new possibilities and so forth for keepers. And certain cookbooks appeal to certain people, but it’s kind of not “one size fits all,” and your requirements, and someone else’s—even you and me, I mean we may like different ones. So what does a book have to do to get a second look from you?

A. Right, no. Something I kind of realize more and more is that people not only have different tastes in what they like to eat and cook, but they also learn in different ways. So you and I may have the same tastes and the same preferences, but we may look at the same cookbook and you could find it totally appealing and I may find it unappealing. And the more I talk to people about cookbooks, the more I learn about what are deal breakers for people.

So, I know some serious bakers that if the cookbook does not give weights, they don’t want to bake from it anymore. They have to have a cookbook that offers –

Q. Like from a gram scale.

A. Yes, exactly.

Q. Right.

A. Some people don’t like it when it just says, “Oh, add a glug of olive oil.” They want specific amounts. They want 2 tablespoons of olive oil, a half-teaspoon of salt.

Some people don’t mind the conversational tone. Some people have to have a beautiful full color picture for every recipe. So when you consider giving a book to somebody, it’s helpful to know how they cook, or how they like to learn.

Q. Right, right; good point. So now you don’t just page through the books, like browsing, you try recipes, because that’s a lot of what you do on Alexandra’s Kitchen, alexandracooks dot com. You’ll take the visitor, you’ll say, “Hey I saw this somewhere and I tried it, and this is what I-” you know, and you bring it to life a lot of times. You take inspiration from other people’s work, too, as well as your own recipe development.

A. Yes, and I cooked from a lot of these new books. I haven’t been able to cook from each one, but I’ve made one recipe from a number of them, and I think everything has really, for the most part, been a home run. Things have been coming out really well. And even things that I’m not totally … I haven’t necessarily fully embraced my instant pot, but I totally understand the appeal.

And I, for instance last night, made something from the “Skinnytaste One and Done” cookbook, which is all about one-pot cooking. Whether it’s a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, a skillet, a grill pan, everything is one pan, and I was kind of astonished by how this dinner came together, and I had one pan to clean up at the end of the night.

So, yes, things are coming out well, and I’m excited about this new group.

Q. The new crop. So you just mentioned “Skinnytaste’s One and Done” [from Gina Homolka of the Skinnytaste blog] and you and I have tried to organize some of our thoughts so we can race through a lot of cookbooks. And I should say for 12 Days of Cookbooks, we’re going to have a countdown and we’re each going to give away one of the books that we like every single day, and we’ll tell people about that on Instagram, and Facebook [and at the bottom of this transcript], how people can enter.

weeknight-ish/everyday cookbooks

Q. So you just mentioned one [“Skinnytaste One and Done”] that sort of fits into … we tried to categorize them, and that’s sort of in our weeknight-ish, everyday-ish cookbooks category, right? That’s in that group.

A. Right.

Q. And what else is in that group this year?

A. Right. So that one, and just so people know, I made the easy spaghetti, and I forget what she calls it, her spaghetti and meat sauce, but essentially you throw the linguini, or the spaghetti, with the water and the sauce all in the pan, all in the instant pot at once.

Q. Oh. [Laughter.]

A. You don’t have to boil the water separately, just add it all together. First you brown the meat, but anyway that was really fast, and really good. So in that same category, “Everyday Dorie,” which is great. I made the Spatchcocked Chicken with zaatar, cumin, sumac. It’s really, really good. It just comes together really quickly. There’s a little bit of wine, a little bit of stock, you could definitely use water. There’s this nice broth. The garlic and the onions get just soft and delicious as the chicken cooks. That was another hit.

Q. We should say that that’s Dorie Greenspan.

A. Oh yes, sorry. Dorie Greenspan, yes, yes.

Q. That’s O.K., and I think it’s funny. That book, for me, even this back section–speaking of how people learn and whatever–there’s a back section that has no photos, and has little extras. Like ways to use Greek yogurt, which she calls “an all-around teammate.” [Laughter.] And she has an add-on like flavored with harissa, and cumin, and sumac, and zaatar. Or another version with honey, and smoked paprika, and cayenne. So she’s got like all these extras, not just the main recipes, which I really appreciated.

A. Definitely, I love that kind of thing.

Q. Yes, so what else is in that group?

A. Well, let’s see. There’s “Ottolenghi Simple,” and I have not cooked anything from that one yet, but I’m really loving the look of it. There’s a nice kind of graphic look. It’s very heavily vegetarian, but it’s not vegetarian. Some of his most recent books, like “Plenty,” and “Plenty More,” have been exclusively vegetarian.

Q. Yes.

A. This has a little bit of meat, but for me it’s almost the perfect balance of, it’s like a lot of vegetable recipes, and grain recipes, and then a few meat recipes. And there’s one that looked really good. I think it was like Scrambled Harissa Tofu. It just looks delicious.

Q. Is harissa the thing –

A. I have a bunch of recipes bookmarked in that one.

Q. Harissa, harissa, harissa. I keep seeing –

A. I know, exactly.

Q. It’s a thing. I actually love to put it in at the end, when I make butternut squash soup, I’ll sometimes just make it really simple with just sauteed onion and the squash, and puree it really thick and freeze it, and then when I eat a different batch, you know a different bowlful, sometimes I just use some of the harissa in it, because you want a spicy bowl, and sometimes I don’t.  And I’ll use coconut milk in it, you know, when I make it.

So an add-on. So harissa, harissa, and what else is in the group of sort of weeknight-ish books?

A. O.K. well there’s this “Milk Street Tuesday Nights,” is by Christopher Kimball, who was formerly with America’s Test Kitchen. And this is another one I have not had a chance to make anything from yet, but what I really like is that there’s a lot of really global flavors. And what he says in his intro, which I thought was really interesting, is just that in most parts of the world that aren’t heavily influenced by French cuisine, which relies a lot on time and heat, in most parts of the world they use things like spices and herbs, and flavor pastes, and fermented sauces, and all these things to create flavor quickly.

So this one is organized by fast, faster, fastest.

Q. Oh, I like that. [Laughter.]

A. Yes.

Q. That’s a good one; that’s good.

A. I know, and there’s a section for pizza nights, and it’s just really … everything looks really flavorful. There’s a big beautiful photo for every single recipe, which I know some people really like. I mean there’s this Thai Spinach that looks really delicious. There’s a Sesame Peanut Noodle with Miso that looked really good. White Balsamic Chicken, I mean so many recipes in that book I have bookmarked as well.

Q. And so like Yotam Ottolenghi, who we just talked about with his new “Simple” cookbook, and Dorie Greenspan, you know, Christopher Kimball—I mean these are powerhouse people with longevity, with long years of influence in the culinary world, yes?

A. Right, yes, exactly.

Q. And speaking of which I think there’s another one in this category that’s like that, too.

A. Yes, I mean a couple more. Ina Garten’s “Cook like a Pro.” So for Ina fans, they’ll love this one. I’ve only made one thing. I made the Charlie Bird Farro Salad [with beets, scallions and pistachios]. You cook farro in apple cider, and it was really delicious, really flavorful, something I feel you could adapt, you know, you could bulk it up with winter squash if you wanted to make it throughout the winter. So lots of good things in there.

And then Melissa Clark also has an instant pot, or I guess just an electric pressure cooker cookbook, but it’s called “Comfort in an Instant,” so it’s all about comfort foods. So for anybody who loves their instant pot, this would be a good addition.

Q. And she’s so great. I mean I think she’s, again, another person that we turn to again and again, in contemporary culinary matters.

A. Yes, totally, and I guess one more in that category, and I don’t exactly know how to categorize it, because I haven’t studied it enough, but Cal Peternell’s “Almonds, Anchovies and Pancetta.”

Q. [Laughter.]

A. And it says a vegetarian cookbook, kind of. He’s really trying to cook, and I guess he says it’s the way he cooks, which is vegetable-driven but not vegetarian. But things like anchovies and pancetta can add a lot of flavor without it being a really meaty sort of dish. And I made the Saffron-Carrot Soup from the first chapter, which is “Almonds.” It was delicious, made with water, really simple.  And then I topped it with his Almond Dukkah recipe, which is sesame seeds, cumin, coriander, and crushed almonds, and it’s just delicious, vegetarian. It’s really nice.

Q. So Cal Peternell was, for many years, the chef at Chez Panisse, yes?

A. Correct, yes.

Q. And he has that … last year when we were doing some of our favorites from any old year, yours and my cookbooks, he has that “12 Recipes” cookbook that I think you like a lot. So it’s funny, this one had the word anchovies in the title, and I have a friend who’s a great cook and a garden mentor, Marco, and as soon as I saw this book I sent him a copy sight unseen. I just sort of sent it from youknowwhere dot com. [Laughter.]

A. Yes.

Q. Because he’s an anchovy person. I hate anchovies, so it was a giggle between us, you know what I mean? But he’s loving the book, so yes.

A. I love it. That’s so funny. That’s great.

Q. [A P.S. on this “everyday” cookbook category that didn’t make the show: A new book from “Epicurious” called “Cook 90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals,” is due out Dec. 11, so we didn’t get time to really look at it closely before taping time.]

global flavors cookbooks

Q. Yes so, another category that I identified was global flavors, yes?

A. Yes, yes, definitely.

Q. And there’s lots going on there again. I’m teasing about the harissa all the time, but yes. There’s a lot going on there.

A. No, there is. There’s lots of harissa, and throughout all the books; that’s definitely, you know, a common theme, but yes, let’s see. There’s Nik Sharma. He’s the blogger behind “A Brown Table,” and his book is called “Season.” And he was born in India, but I think has lived most of his life in America. And I have not tested anything from this book yet, but I’m a big fan of his blog and his work in general. But he says it’s not a traditional Indian cookbook. It’s his influences from growing up in Bombay, and then also acclimating to America.

Q. And he writes for “The San Francisco Chronicle;” his column there I think is called “A Brown Kitchen?”

A. Yes, exactly.

Q. I mean what interested me about this book, it’s a beautiful book, but that familiar dishes, like frittata, were totally changed in a way that … you know I’ve made a million frittatas, as we all have, right? And every cuisine seems to have one, but what he put like cilantro, and garam masala, and turmeric, and red chili flakes, besides the usual garlic and onions. And then some paneer, or feta, instead of the cheese we might be using, you know? I might have used Parmesan or something in a more Italian influence.

And I thought “Wow. I’ve never thought to put those with eggs,” but of course, of course, right?

A. Right. No, I thought there’s one other recipe that I bookmarked in there, it had paneer in it. I think it may have had lentils also. I think it was roasted cauliflower, lentils, and paneer, and it had all these just flavors that I would never think to put in, and it just looks and sounds so delicious.

Q. So, other ones in that sort of global flavors group?

A. Yes, “Israeli Soul,” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook from Zahav in Philadelphia, and a number of other restaurants now. They have, I think, three or four. I forget all their names. One is called Goldie. It’s more like a fast, causal thing in Philadelphia. But I want to make every single thing in this book.

Q. This is the problem with this one. It’s a big, colorful, flashy, in-your-face kind of a cookbook, right? And I mean there was like, what do they say, “the reveal”–is that what they say in reality shows? The reveal.

A. Yes.

Q. Like there was this grid of pictures of how falafel comes together … like one of my favorite foods, being a vegetarian, and there it was. It was like, you throw it all in the Cuisinart. You chop it up a little bit, you throw it in the Cuisinart, and it becomes the dough, and you … I didn’t even practically have to read the recipe to get it, you know? And it was great, and it looked so beautiful and doable.

A. Yes, and I made their quick tahina recipe, and their Five-Minute Hummus recipe, which first you make the quick tahina and then you make the hummus, and it was delicious. And side note: I made this the day before the big tahini recall happened, or whatever you call it.

Q. Oh, sorry. Oops. [Laughter.]

A. And I’ve survived, so I think I’m O.K. But, yes just a note, maybe don’t make the tahina right away.

Q. Oh my. So “Israeli Soul,’ looking good, as a choice, and what about “Together,” the cookbook “Together”?

A. Yes, I have not had a chance to make anything from this, but it looks really beautiful.

Q. And it has a tender story, right?

A. Yes.

Q. I mean, this features like I think it’s like 50 recipes from women whose community was effected by the Grenfell Tower fire, that killed so many people, so I think this, the Royal Foundation in the UK, has supported them coming together and created this book. So it’s kind of this beautiful community of healing.

A. Yes.

Q. And the recipes look delicious, so yes.

A. They do.

Q. Yes, yes. Other choices?

A. Another one in that category is “A Common Table” by Cynthia McTernan. She’s the blogger behind Two Red Bowls. She’s Korean. I think her husband’s Chinese; I’m forgetting now. And they’ve lived all over … oh, he was born in Hawaii. They’ve lived everywhere. The East Coast, West Coast, and it’s just a book about … you know, again, it’s not a traditional Korean book, but it’s all about her shared cultures, and it’s really beautiful. I made her Steamed Scallion Buns and they were just delicious.

Q. And I think she calls it Two Red Bowls, and I think that’s like as in two red bowls on the table for them, and I think there’s a third [or fourth?] red bowl coming soon. She’s having another baby, or a baby, or…it’s funny. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, yes. Yes she names all her family member by bowls. Her husband is Bowl #2, and then her first son is #3, and then I think she has, yes the fourth is on the way.

Q. Yes, it’s tworedbowls dot com. It’s beautiful. Yes, so those are some of the global flavors, and we mentioned we didn’t know quite were to put “Almonds, Anchovies and Pancetta,” the Cal Peternell one, but that sort of you know has some of those kinds of flavor, but isn’t that, exactly.

A. Right.

dessert cookbooks

Q. And then we head into desserts.

A. Desserts, yes, yes.

Q. There’s a lot this year, right?

A. Yes. So many great dessert books. I mean, earlier in the fall Kristen Miglore’s “Genius Desserts” came out, and you know I will buy anything Kristen Miglore writes, because I love her writing so much, and –

Q. Tell us a little bit about her, a little backstory.

A. Oh, she’s with Food 52, and her column is she writes the Genius Recipes column, and her first book was just called “Genius Recipes.”

And every recipe that she writes, she just finds some sort of trick, or there’s something unusual about it, or something that saves time, or sort of bucks tradition, you know. It’s things that you say like there are all these rules with like making biscuits, or something like that. She’ll find some way that’s like, “No actually, you don’t have to do all that. Here’s an easier way, or simpler way.”

So the “Genius Desserts,” there’s some classic recipes like Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies, but there are also some new ones that she kind of unearths, and I made her Apple Cobbler. It’s the apple cobbler with the hot sugar crust, and –

Q. Oh no, no. [Laughter.]

A. It’s so bizarre. Right before you put it in the oven, you pour hot water over the batter, which just feels so counter-intuitive, but it makes this delicious crust. So there’s things like that in the book, that are just –

Q. “Genius Desserts,” O.K.

A. Yes. There are a number of bakery cookbooks which are –

Q. I know, I noticed that. It’s kind of fun, isn’t it?

A. Yes, it is. “Sister Pie,” “Red Truck Bakery,” Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar [with her new book called “All About Cake”]. I love when you can just get like a little peek into somebody else’s world, and you get that with each of these cookbooks, and they’re all very different.

“Sister Pie” [by Lisa Ludwinski] is based on a bakery in Detroit, and it’s just a beautiful story. I love it so much.

Q. Again, another tender story. She started in her parents’ kitchen, I think, and like put out emails saying “I’ve got pies available,” and then it outgrew that, and she crowdfunded, I think. And now I think she’s got a dozen, or 15 or more employees and it’s a real thing. I mean it’s big.

A. Yes, totally. And they have this “Pie it Forward” program, which I think is just so cool. Anybody can buy a piece of pie. They string the piece of paper on a clothesline, and then anybody who needs a piece of pie that comes in, who can’t afford it, or for whatever reason, can cash in one of those pieces, which is just really cool.

Q. And I love the flavors. Like there’s one called Bluebarb, you know, blueberries and rhubarb, and Cardamom Tahini Squash. So I was like, ooh, and again the tahini thing right now, but whatever.

A. Yes, yes.

Q. Cardamom Tahini Squash, and Sweet Potato Coconut Pie. Did you try one?

A. For Thanksgiving I made her Salted Maple Pie, which was just absolutely delicious, and interesting and I didn’t know this before, but she had worked with Christina Tosi, or maybe not directly with her, but had worked at Milk Bar, and that pie was influenced by Christina Tosi’s famous Crack Pie, both of which are like a riff on the classic Chess Pie.

So anybody who is a fan of Christina Tosi, and I recently watched the Netflix episode on her [from “Chef’s Table,” Season 4, Episode 1], which is really good and she’s really just an incredible person. And she’s so creative, and so inventive, and she’s kind of known, she’s known for… I think she’s sort of popularized the naked cakes, which are not frosted on the sides –

Q. Right.

A. … so you see all the beautiful layers. And she’s the one who popularized cereal milk, and there’s mug cakes in this book, crockpot cakes, cake truffles. She gives her formula for how they make the layer cakes at Milk Bar, so and it’s also written in a very professional format. Everything is grams, so for somebody who likes that kind of baking, that’s a good one. [The book is called “All About Cakes.”]

Q. In the name of time, let’s run through quick—like there’s “Red Truck Bakery,” which is a rural Virginia sort of a destination place that “Travel and Leisure” and others have said to go, and they have a great dessert cookbook. And “The Cookie Book,” right?

A. Yes, I love “The Cookie Book.” I made the snickerdoodles with my daughter. She loved them. It’s beautifully photographed.

Q. And that’s from Rebecca Firth of the Displaced Housewife blog.

nose-to-tail cookbooks

Q. Our last real quick category we call nose to tail, because we both noticed a trendlet in waste not, want not, and in fact there’s a cookbook that I did last week on the show, or a week or two ago on the show, “Waste Not” from James Beard Foundation, about really being more conscious about avoiding food waste in the way that we cook. But there’s a couple of others that sort of fit into that a little bit.

A. Yes, two others I would say. “Cooking with Scraps” by Lindsay-Jean Hard, who used to work for I mean among other places, but she spent a lot of time at Food 52.

And then Julia Turshen’s “Now and Again,” which is really cool. It’s organized by menus. So like a brunch, or a dinner, or a lunch, but she not only gives you a timeline, like what you can make ahead, so how you can … from like a month ahead, to a week ahead, to a day before. But she also gives you ways to use the leftovers. So she has a section after each menu called “It’s Me Again,” and then it’s –

Q. I know. I love that, “It’s Me Again.” [Laughter.]

A. Yes, so she offers ways to use up the leftovers, and then in the back she has these seven lists with all these like ideas to use leftovers. Like it could be cooked rice, or it could be takeout leftovers, or not-so-new produce. So, that’s a cool one.

And I’m also like, the “Cooking with Scraps” is really cool. I mean I think of somebody who I feel like I’ve tried to be very economical, but I mean she’s made me realize how much more I could use. Like she makes a banana bread using the banana peels.

Q. Wow.

A. She uses the zucchini … yes, I know. I would have never thought to use that. She uses the zucchini stems, which I always chop off. She uses scraps to infuse vinegars and alcohol.

Q. Oh, I’m going to have to have a look at that and see what that’s about.

A. Yes, she has great ideas for things like frittatas, stratas, great sort of vehicles for cleaning out the fridge. It’s interesting. Things I just never would have thought. I’ve never used the stalk of fennel, and she has ideas for that. It’s really cool.

Q. There’s a lot of good cookbooks, a lot of great gift books. So Ali, as always, now you might have to add another room to your house if you keep all these books.

A. It’s going to become a problem, yes. I need to figure something out.

Q. It might be a problem already, honey. I’ll talk to you soon again. Thank you so much.

still hungry for more?

SOME OF ALI’S AND MY all-time favorites cookbooks (including the ones above), which we chatted about at holiday season 2017, are over at this link.

sample recipes from this year’s cookbooks

SOME OF THE RECIPES Alexandra Stafford has already tried (those are her photos, above) from this year’s top cookbooks:

how to enter the 12 days of cookbooks giveaway

ALEXANDRA’S KITCHEN and I are each giving away 12 Days of Cookbooks. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comment box at the bottom of the page (then double your chances to win by copying your comment into the comment box over at Ali’s website):

Tell us what your favorite cookbook is for gifting (or just your favorite) and a little bit about why.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and we will, but an answer’s even better. We always love to hear about great cookbooks.

Starting Monday Dec. 3, 2018, we’ll each draw one random winner a day through Dec. 14. Meaning: the earlier you enter by commenting, the more chances you have to be selected. Here’s the order of the 12 days of giveaways (links go to Amazon) and the winners of each as they are chosen and notified by email:

One entry per person. Entries end at midnight Thursday, Dec. 13, before the final drawing. U.S. only. Good luck to all.

  1. Vicki Henderson says:

    an old spiral bound church cook book from 1965
    Immanuel Lutheran Cookbook. Minnesota
    Because it has recipes used by the Swedish people who emigrated to Minnesota

  2. terri says:

    So many cookbooks make great gifts that it’s hard to choose one–but for general gifting, anything by Ottolenghi works well; for baking, I’m a fan of giving Rose Levy Beranbaum’s books.

  3. My new favorite is FRENCH VEGETARIAN COOKING by Paola Gavin

    I am not vegetarian but the recipes add a wonderful dimension to side dishes as well as main dishes and there is so much information about the regions in France where so many foods became so popular . As well as great recipes the book is a delightful read.

  4. Jean Glaser says:

    I love cookbooks especially ones that are a great read as well, I have one for you not on your list, ” The Immeasurable Place” food and farming from the edge of the wilderness recipes from Hell”s Backbone Grill, by Blake Spalding & Jennifer Castle Lavinia Spalding.

    Can’t wait to read many of the books you both have been talking about!

  5. Marie says:

    More cook books? Yes, please!! I’m a bit of a cook book collector so I’ve given away many to friends over the years. But since my oldest is going off to college in fall 2019, I gave her The Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book – an old stand by that everyone’s mom has (right?) and whose recipes I have memorized. I intend to give her The Joy of Cooking (an other old stand by) and The New Basics Cook Book. I’d love some more for my collection.

  6. Sarah says:

    So many books out there–it can get paralyzing when you only have a budget to choose one, so it’s great to hear from enthusiasts who have sifted through the batches!

  7. My favourite cookbook for gifting is ANY of Tessa Kiros’s 10 cookbooks. She is fabulous, and her cookbooks are like beautiful travel diaries that whisk one away on a trip through culture and food! The perfect getaway for foodies who can’t actually get away!

  8. Michelle Robinson says:

    I just found out about this giveaway while catching up on your podcasts ? my current fave is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman as I want to cook more vegetarian recipes ☺️

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