Read up on some of 2013's most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
I flipped through Mast Brothers Chocolate several times before I decided to buy it. This wasn't from lack of charm, for the book has charm aplenty. Between its sumptuous patterned cover, its subtle, desaturated photography, and recipes that are at once familiar and inventive, this is a cookbook that begs to be flipped through, read, and cooked from.
My reluctance wasn't from lack of familiarity, either. Having nibbled my way through a Mast Brothers chocolate bar or two when I was feeling particularly flush, I know their name is synonymous with excellence. You've never tasted chocolate so sharp, so floral... so wild.
The reason for my hesitation was a bit more prosaic -- $40 is a lot to spend on a cookbook, especially a single-subject charmer like this one. I knew I wanted it, but was it really justifiable? You see, I'm not in the market for coffee table cookbooks or something to sit attractively on my nightstand. While my cookbooks do end up in those two places sometimes, I need them to be most at home where I spend the better part of my days: in the kitchen.
In the end, curiosity got the better of me.
More: You, too? Get a copy of Mast Brothers Chocolate from Provisions.
As I've already mentioned, this book is a beauty to look at and to hold. Its cover mimics the signature wrappers of Mast chocolate bars, printed like a pair of fine silk pajamas. The book has a good weight to it -- not insubstantial, but it still comfortable.
It's also, perhaps more importantly, a great pleasure to read. It's not tiresomely navel-gazing, as are many of the current, nearly autobiographical cookbooks, with scores of pages devoted to memoiresque ramblings and endless photos of people with tattoos. Mast Brothers contains just enough story to keep you enthralled. It's rich with a sense of place -- the brothers' home state of Iowa, a cacao farm in Belize, the Maine coast, a sailboat headed to the Dominican Republic, their factory in Brooklyn. The chapters are divided accordingly. At first, these divisions seem random and disorganized. Those expecting to find recipes grouped according to type will be disappointed. Upon reading the book, however, the structure makes much more sense. It may challenge your ideas of what a cookbook should look like, but you may, as I did, find the narrative approach very much to your liking. Besides, there's always the index to guide your search if you're looking for something specific.
The photos are almost as enticing as the text, and the recipes themselves luxuriate in fields of abundant white space. If Hemingway had delved into recipe writing, it might look something like this. Nearly all the recipes fit neatly onto one page, compressed into sly blocks of un-fussy text with a minimalist style that assumes the reader has some knowledge of cooking.
This, however, is one of the book's few caveats. Those who are comfortable in the kitchen will have great success with these recipes. But a novice will likely be left with a lot of questions, and perhaps even some failures. I do not see this as a strike against the cookbook -- it does not purport to be an instructional text, so there is no unfulfilled promise lurking within. However, it's still worth mentioning that it may not be a good candidate for a fledgling cook.
The first recipe I tested was the Chocolate Chip Cookies, but to say these are not your average chocolate chip cookies is a great understatement. Containing 15 ounces of chopped dark chocolate, they're striated with layer upon layer of chocolate. The inevitable variation in the size of the chocolate chunks means that the tiny chocolate shards melt completely into the dough, while larger chunks create luxurious pockets of gooey chocolate. They were remarkable.
Next came the Chocolate Bread. The loaf came out beautifully -- dark and punctuated with hazelnuts, dark chocolate, and raisins. This bread is excellent served with salted butter or even cheese; I can only imagine how delightful it would be as French toast or in bread pudding. The Chocolate Chip and Ricotta Pancakes were similarly outstanding; nearly perfect, in fact. They were as light as pancakes can get and generously dosed with chocolate. They needed no accompaniment. Maple syrup need not apply.
The Peanut Nib Brittle and Chocolate Granola recipes weren't quite as revelatory, but the brittle attained a nice crunch without corn syrup, and the bitter chocolate hit of the nibs made for a nice contrast to the sugary brittle. The granola lacked salt and crunch, but this is nothing that a couple slight tweaks to the method can't fix.
And herein lies my only complaint about the book. The recipes work and turn out deliciously, but they lack polish in some instances. The stated yield for the chocolate chip cookies was 24 cookies, yet I wound up with 50, using the same "heaping tablespoon" measure indicated in the recipe. I'm not going to complain about having extra cookies around -- I portioned the dough and froze it for later -- and I understand that yields are approximate in most cases. But one test of the recipe should have rectified such a big discrepancy. Similarly, rather than the "1 medium loaf" that the yield specified for the chocolate bread, I wound up with a monster loaf that did not fit in my standard size bread pan -- I could have divided it into two. I knew enough to improvise and turned my loaf into a boule instead, but if I were a novice and hadn't known to check the bread's internal temperature, I might have pulled a thoroughly under-baked loaf out of the oven.
These sorts of small errors may not seem to matter, but as someone who cooks everyday and who values a well-written recipe, they matter to me. I still highly recommend this book -- it is gorgeous, well-written, and the recipes do work if you take them, as you should take all recipes, with a grain of salt.
I can't wait to try the pan-seared Cacao Nib Scallops, the Dark and Stormy Chocolate Cake, and the Orange Nib-Crusted Salmon. This book has already earned a place on my overcrowded shelf, and I look forward to using it for many years to come.