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The gifts that keep on cooking

Our favorite cookbooks may be just the dish for someone on your holiday list.

An assortment of recommended cookbooks for the chef on your holiday gift list.
An assortment of recommended cookbooks for the chef on your holiday gift list.Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

Which book to buy for the cook on your list?

For me, I want simple, homey recipes, maybe updated with a fresh ingredient, just like the ones in Twelve Recipes by Cal Peternell, of Chez Panisse. The same rustic credo goes for my baking, and I found lovely and doable recipes for baked classics in Ovenly, from the duo behind the New York bakery of that name. Beautiful photos always draw me in, as do recipes for vegetables that I never would have dreamed of. So I'm sold on the latest installment from London chef Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty More.

Craig LaBan, on the other hand, wants a challenge and the latest, greatest chef cookbooks of the season. For him that means Heritage, the ode to new Southern cooking from Sean Brock, and the pastry magic of Dominique Ansel. For a chaser, he recommends a deep, boozy draft of Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey.

Samantha Melamed loves traveling and trying ethnic foods, and is always looking for ways to add new flavor profiles to her everyday home cooking. Some great offerings for weeknight meals as well as dinner-party fare were found in The Vietnamese Market Cookbook and Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.

Robin Currie, a consummate baker, found Baking Chez Moi, Dorie Greenspan's French baking tome, to be refreshingly approachable and useful. And because she's cooking for a hungry and busy family, she enjoyed the array of impressive dishes that could be cobbled together from the pantry in Geoffrey Zakarian's My Perfect Pantry.

So we hope there is something on our list that will appeal to someone on yours. Here is our roundup.

- Maureen Fitzgerald

Twelve Recipes

By Cal Peternell (William Morrow, $26.99)

Of course the premise of this cookbook appeals to me, and may touch many a parent with grown-up kids: Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell realizes his college-age son is not adequately prepared to cook for himself. The book is a loving, charming primer that is so much more engaging than the learn-to-cook genre. It offers just the kind of food my family wants to eat, with exacting instructions for things that may seem simple, like scrambled eggs and omelets, even the foolproof hard-boiled egg. (Nine minutes in boiling water, perfect!) It covers all the basics, like tomato sauce and roasted chicken, but also offers appealing but still manageable variations like puttanesca sauce, spaghetti and Syrian meatballs, and braised chicken legs, even an easy one-pan cake, for days when you or someone you love just needs cake. Page by page, it offers instructions (keep tasting, try adding ingredients to a small portion) on not just how to cook the recipes, but how to become a cook.

- M.F.

Plenty More

By Yotam Ottolenghi (Ten Speed Press, $35)

How is it possible that this chef can fill yet another 300 pages with inventive, amazing vegetarian recipes that make me say, wow! After his best-selling vegetarian cookbook Plenty and his two previous meat and vegetable books, Ottolenghi and Jerusalem, it is impressive that the hits just keep coming. The photos are flat-out gorgeous, and the flavors are ones that just pop. Tomato and pomegranate salad with fresh oregano, anyone? It was terrific, even with out-of-season grape tomatoes from the grocery store. Same for the fennel with capers and olives, with a useful substitution of lemon juice and red wine vinegar for the hard-to-find ingredient verjuice (the juice of semi-ripe wine grapes). I know my husband and I will be sustained through the winter with repeated makings of his crushed puy lentils with tahini and cumin, served over pita bread. Just the ticket for a gray day.

- M.F.


By Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin (Harlequin, $29.95)

I was intrigued from the start with the promise of salty and sweet recipes from this cookbook from the latest "it" bakery, Ovenly, in Brooklyn. I was won over with the success of their recipe for gluten-free peanut butter cookies, sprinkled with sea salt. And then their salty super-dark chocolate brownies, so rich and indulgent, with a kick from espresso, that they are decidedly not brownies for the pre-school set. But then I tried the scone recipe. It should come with a warning: You will not be able to stop eating these. I made the cherry vanilla variation late one night and had to freeze them before my husband and I ate the whole tray. "These may be the best thing you've ever made," he said. This from a man who doesn't eat anything baked that isn't chocolate.

- M.F.

Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes

By Dominique Ansel (Simon & Schuster, $35)

Any pastry fanatic who has endured the insane predawn lines in SoHo for the original Cronut at Dominique Ansel's eponymous pastry shop knows good things require fortitude and patience. That lesson applies to the "secret recipes" that Ansel reveals in his cookbook, too. Divided into chapters for beginner, intermediate, and advanced bakers, most still require many hours (in some cases days) of careful prep and communing with your Silpat, candy thermometer, and piping bags.

The good news is that Ansel's instructions are clear. If you're determined, you can absolutely learn (as I did) to "laminate" butter and flour into 20-plus layers of flaky caramelized puff pastry for Dominique's addictive Kouign-Amanns. The real treasure of this book, though, is the inspiring view it offers through essays and photos into one of the most brilliantly creative culinary minds anywhere. From his elegant Paris-New Yorks to the whimsical Angry Egg, you'll see he means it when he says "the real Cronut lesson" is that "we had not only moved on, but moved beyond."

- Craig LaBan


By Sean Brock (Artisan, $40)

Few people have done as much to update Southern cooking and recover its once-endangered history of heritage ingredients as chef Sean Brock. His restaurants in Charleston (and Nashville), Husk and McCrady's, are considered required pilgrimages for anyone in search of convincing takes on New-Old Southern cuisine, from Ossabaw pork bellies with farro and pickled elderberries to pan-fried shad roe with creamed Carolina Gold rice grits.

Brock's first book presents a broad scope of that work, from cheffier fine-dining plates (flounder crudo with buttermilk; crispy pig ear lettuce wraps) to the many homier dishes that I suspect will be the best used. Among my favorites were the buttermilk-marinated pork chops with goat cheese mashed potatoes, and both the bacon-filled "Cracklin' Cornbread" and its clever leftover use as a thickener for buttermilk soup. His technique for par-baking dumplings was also a smart do-ahead move for the rustic rabbit stew, an easy dish that also worked well with chicken. Being so intensely regional, Heritage will have you buying buttermilk by the gallon, rediscovering lard, and sourcing your heritage grits and Sea Island red peas from Anson Mills. (Try Castle Valley Mill in Bucks County for a local source.) But just whip up a batch of Charleston Light Dragoon's Punch 1792, start baking the 12 layers of apple-sorghum stack cake, and enjoy the journey.

- C.L.

Tasting Whiskey

By Lew Bryson (Storey, $18.95)

After nearly falling off the radar during the post-WWII era of vodka and gin, demand for whiskey has suddenly grown so fast that there are fears of a shortage of barrels for aging. Of more pressing concern, though, is the need for someone to make sense of this recent explosion of new options in the whiskey world - from increased variety among the classics (bourbon, Scotch, rye) to the hundreds of craft spirits coming from unlikely new places. Philadelphia is lucky to call one of the world's great booze experts its own: Lew Bryson, managing editor of the Whiskey Advocate. And Bryson's new softcover guide is a must-have resource for anyone trying to get up to whiskey-tasting speed. Far more than the usual encyclopedic survey of labels, Bryson digs smartly into the history, methods, and subtleties that distinguish one brown spirit from another. Why do bourbon and Scotch age differently? What to read from a spirit's color? How do various Islay malts range in peatiness? What's the mash-bill recipe of your favorite bourbon? Why do real tasting pros add water to their whiskey? Because the "just right amount" helps tamp the alcohol's fire and enhance the spirit's flavors. Bryson's new book manages to achieve a similarly rare middle place, making a complicated subject easy to swallow, without diluting its character one bit.

- C.L.

Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts

By Aglaia Kremezi (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $35)

The trouble with vegetarian cookbooks is that, amid the salads, soups, and starches, it can be hard to find a dinner-party-worthy entree. But there are dozens of them in Aglaia Kremezi's book of feasts: stuffed peppers, onions and tomatoes; a savory eggplant "cake" with onion and walnut; and fattet hummus, a dish of layered toasted bread, yogurt, tahini, and chickpeas. I found the recipe for the single-serving yogurt-and-herb pies wrapped in grape leaves to be distinctively tangy (and surprisingly forgiving despite a few hasty substitutions). Even the basic bean soup was elevated with turmeric, orange peel, and mustard. The book also includes chapters on Mediterranean pickling, preserving, and baking, including instructions for homemade phyllo dough.

- Samantha Melamed

The Vietnamese Market Cookbook

By Van Tran and Anh Vu (Running Press, $30)

Much as you might browse at a market in Southeast Asia, sampling a rambutan here or pulling up a stool to slurp some noodles there, that's the best way to enjoy Tran and Vu's approach to everyday Vietnamese cuisine. The Hanoi natives and London-based chefs divide recipes into sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and bitter, and from there into everyday cooking, festive meals, and fun street snacks. I made the braised eggplant with tofu, which packed bold flavor without too much effort. Like this dish, many of the recipes are simple, so you can get started with what's in your pantry rather than making a special trip to an Asian supermarket.

- S.M.

My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients

By Geoffrey Zakarian (Potter, $30)

You may know Geoffrey Zakarian as chef, restaurateur, Food Network star, or cookbook author. In this book, he offers a road map to a well-stocked pantry. With readily available staples from A to Y (Almonds to Yeast and 48 in-between), you can either choose a protein and maybe prepare Grilled Salmon With Almond Tarragon Romesco or Chicken Gumbo, or easily make something using only the ingredients in your pantry.

Putting the book to the test, I tried to make dinner with what I had on hand. I made the Smoky Black Bean Bisque and the All Purpose Fritter, using sunchokes in the fritters (I know, who has sunchokes on hand?). It made a simple and delicious meal on a chilly night.

- Robin Currie

Baking Chez Moi

By Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40

When Dorie Greenspan set out to collect recipes for this cookbook from her French friends, they told her theirs were too simple. But it was these simple treats that called to her - the cakes and tarts of everyday life in France. This book is the fruit (tart) of her labor.

Whether it's Apple Tart Flambe or Tarte Tropezienne, you will find beautiful photographs, well-written and -researched recipes, and something for every baking level. Greenspan has an uncanny way of walking you through the steps of the most daunting dish and giving you confidence to succeed.

The book offers an amazing array of simple to fancy cakes, tarts and galettes, cookies and bars. The recipes include chatty headnotes from the author and some bonnes idees - good ideas to vary the recipe. To me, the whole book is a bonne idée, a welcome addition to any baking library.

- R.C.

Peanut Butter Cookies (gluten free)

Makes 12 large cookies or 24 small cookies


1 3/4 packed cups light brown sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 3/4 cups peanut butter

Coarse-grained sea salt, for garnish


1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, vigorously whisk together the light brown sugar and eggs until incorporated. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Add the peanut butter and mix with a spatula until smooth and completely incorporated, and until no ribbons of peanut butter can be seen. You know the dough is ready when it is the consistency of Play-Doh.

3. Using a scoop or a spoon, form the dough into 12 approximately 2-inch balls and place them on the prepared rimmed sheet pan. For smaller cookies, use a heaping tablespoon.

4. Sprinkle the dough balls lightly with coarse-grained sea salt just before baking. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, turning the rimmed sheet pan once halfway through baking (for smaller cookies, bake for 16 to 18 minutes). When finished, the cookies will be lightly golden and cracked on top. Let cool completely before serving.

5. You can bake these cookies as soon as the dough is prepared, but they will retain their shape better if you freeze them for 15 minutes before baking.

- From Ovenly: Sweet & Salty Recipes From New York's Most Creative Bakery, by Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin

Per serving (per cookie based on 12): 325 calories; 11 grams protein; 31 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 31 milligrams cholesterol; 288 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.

Grape Leaf-Wrapped Pies With Yogurt and Herb Filling (Asmapita)

Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText

About 1/3 cup olive oil, as needed

15 to 20 grapevine leaves, fresh or frozen, or brine-packed grape leaves, drained and rinsed with boiling water

3 cups thick, full-fat Greek-style yogurt

1/3 cup cornmeal

2/3 cup finely chopped scallions

2/3 cup finely chopped fresh dill

2/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves

Salt to taste

1/2 to 1 teaspoon minced jalapeno or other fresh chile, or freshly ground black pepper, to taste


1. Preheat the oven to 375. Oil six 4-inch mini tartlet pans or shallow muffin tins. Line each pan or tin with 1 large or 2 small grape leaves, making sure they amply cover the bottom and sides. Brush liberally with olive oil.

2. In a bowl, combine the yogurt and the cornmeal; add the scallions, herbs, salt, and jalapeno to taste and stir well.

3. Divide the yogurt mixture among the prepared pans. Top each with a leaf, tucking the edges inside to make a neat package, and brush liberally with olive oil. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is set and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

4. Preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and invert the pans onto it. Place the pies under the broiler for a few seconds to caramelize the leaves.

5. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

- From Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts, by Aglaia Kremezi (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014)

Per serving: 231 calories; 11 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; 13 grams fat; 4 milligrams cholesterol; 47 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.