“Please don’t make me choose.”
This was the plaintive request I almost sent the Piglet organizers after reading both cookbooks and testing the recipes I’d chosen. I couldn’t possibly choose a winner. I felt like I was being made to select between two good friends, one of whom had ebony hair and sang flawless renditions of Broadway show tunes, and the other of whom had chestnut hair and strummed peaceful, mellow John Denver songs on her acoustic guitar. At the end of my judging period, I couldn’t have parted with either cookbook…and I shan’t! (Amanda, you don’t want the books back, do you? Wait…don’t answer that.)
In the end, I did weigh both cookbooks exhaustively (this is not to be confused with weighing myself exhaustively, which was something I chose not to continue during the testing process) and declared a winner.
But I didn’t want to.
Can you tell I’m a middle child?
The first book I perused was Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours by pastry chef Kim Boyce, and for the first thirty minutes of our new relationship, I didn’t read one word inside. Instead, I flipped slowly through the pages and inhaled the gorgeously-shot full-bleed photos of the most alluring pancakes, waffles, wafers, and breads I’d ever seen. As a lifelong cookbook buyer and self-taught food photographer, I remain in the category of home cooks who desire (and require) photos -- preferably with shallow depth of field and beautiful natural light -- of the finished recipes. The photographs by Quentin Bacon satisfied my soul.
And made me really hungry.
Once I determined that the photos thrilled me, I dug into the heart of the cookbook: scrumptious baked goods made with twelve different kinds of whole-grain flours, most of which I did not have in my kitchen pantry. Curiously, this excited me. As a woman inextricably attached to butter and cream (with zero plans to break from them at any point in my life), I’ve never felt necessarily loyal to enriched white flour as an ingredient. It’s just that the time and commitment it would take for me to educate myself as to how different flours and grains worked -- and how to successfully integrate them into my own favorite baked goods, like cinnamon rolls, scones, crusts, and cakes -- has always proved to be a deterrent for me. In terms of the timing and the willingness for me to learn something new that truly could transform the way my family and I eat, the book’s concept couldn’t have been more perfect. Ingredients -- everything from amaranth to teff -- are explained. Equipment needed to execute the recipes -- from a rasp to an ice cream scoop -- is recommended.
Deciding which recipes to test was an exercise in indecision, made worse by the wicked carb craving I was experiencing during the time I read the book. For both books, I decided to go with one standby -- a common baked good many Americans enjoy -- and two outside-the-norm recipes.
The standby for this cookbook, Buttermilk Pancakes (because I’m a pancake freak), was appealing to me because it uses Boyce’s recipe for a multi-grain flour mix, a blend of whole wheat flour, oat flour, barley flour, millet flour, and rye flour. I was able to find all of these ingredients within an hour and a half from my house, which is more than I can say, sadly, for ingredients in many highbrow cookbooks -- some of which I’d have to purchase a plane ticket to procure. (Don’t blame the cookbooks; it’s my rural geography that trips me up.) These pancakes, which also call for unsulphured molasses, were utterly divine, with a scrumptious grainy taste that my favorite all-purpose version will never have. I immediately made plans to whip up a larger batch of the flour mix and store it in an airtight container in my pantry. I’m currently making my way through the other recipes in the book that use the same mix.
The other two recipes, Poppy Seed Wafers (deeply colored, thin cookies with poppy seeds around the edge; yum!) and the more ambitious Ginger Peach Muffins (peach slices are cooked in syrup beforehand) were out-of-this-world. I felt good eating them. I ate too many. The second roll of the former, still wrapped in waxed paper in my fridge, is calling out my name as I write this, as are the recipes in the book that I haven’t tried, among them another pancake made bright red by the addition of beets, an oatmeal cookie iced with a cinnamon glaze, and -- help me -- Gruyere and corn muffins.
When I sat down with the second book, My Sweet Mexico: Recipes for Authentic Pastries, Breads, Candies, Beverages, and Frozen Treats by Fany Gerson, I immediately knew I was going to love it. The cover is bright and happy, and from what I could tell from the collage of cover shots, the photography would be right up my alley.
And it was. I spent my obligatory twenty to thirty minutes flipping through and sizing up the gorgeous photos of both beautiful recipes and vignettes from Mexican street fairs and festivals, and found them to be brighter and higher in contrast and saturation than those in the whole grain cookbook, whose photos were decidedly more ethereal and “grown-up.” I loved the photos of both books equally, but while I’d pour the whole grain photos a glass of Pinot Noir, I’d whip up the photos in the Mexico book a big, fat Margarita. They oozed life.
The food in My Sweet Mexico is gorgeous: I immediately opened to page 166, which showed a tray full of small pumpkins that had been stewed in a thick, sweet syrup for two hours. That color of orange will stay with me forever.
Deciding which recipes to try proved to be a little more of a challenge for me; while each one sounded and looked delicious, many of the ingredient lists and techniques were slightly beyond the scope of most recipes I’ve encountered. This didn’t deter me, of course; I’ll go to great lengths to eat something I want. It just took a little more time.
I started with a basic: Polvorones, known in our neck of the woods as Wedding Cookies, or Mexican Wedding Cookies. Oh dear. These cookies begin with clarified butter, which you mix with sugar and refrigerate. I could have stopped right there and eaten the cooled mixture with a spoon. The finished cookies aren’t hard, rounded balls as found in American supermarkets (not that I’m above eating twenty at a time if I’m hungry enough) but more of a delicate, melt-in-your mouth delight…and they’re the best Mexican wedding cookies I’ve ever eaten.
My second choice, a double-layered Tres Leches Cake (I’ve only made a single-layered one before) was everything a Tres Leches Cake should be, plus blueberries (though I was tempted to use canned peaches, which, as Gerson explains, are commonly used). I’ve eaten a lot of Tres Leches Cake in my life and it was all I could do not to share this one on my website the second I took my first bite. I used dark rum as the recipe called for (another addition I’ve never used with my own recipe) and it took the cake to another level. I’m still dreaming about it.
I am not a candy maker, so it was unfair to My Sweet Mexico for me to select Pistachio Caramels, one of the many candy recipes in the cookbook. I’m a mess when it comes to using a candy thermometer, or any other cooking technique requiring patience and precision, and while I was happy to eat the sad-looking fruits of my labor, my caramels weren’t fit for sharing with anyone I cared about. They were grainy and not right; and I’m 100% convinced this was my fault.
But I’m not stopping there. I have a list of earmarked pages I’m ready to try, the first of which are churros -- though I think I’ll do the single-strip approach rather than the six-foot coiled snake approach. Baby steps!
Since I agreed to participate in this cookbook judging contest, I selected Good to the Grain to advance to the next round, even though I know neither cookbook will leave my kitchen shelf for a long time to come. In the end, I had to go with the cookbook that I know I will use tomorrow morning, this weekend, next week, etc. Absent a willingness to banish butter or cream from my cooking, I really believe Good to the Grain will help me decrease the amount of white flour I use and, ultimately, alter the way I approach the baked goods I make every day in my life on the ranch: scones, cookies, breads, muffins.
I won’t be able to bake through the book fast enough.
Ree Drummond is the author and creator of the award-winning website, The Pioneer Woman, where she chronicles, through photography, recipes, and prose, her experiences as a ranch wife plowing through life in rural America. Her #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl, contains many of the cowboy- and kid-friendly dishes she's learned to cook through the years, as well as a sprinkling of her favorites from her former life as a vegetarian in Los Angeles. Ree lives in Oklahoma with her husband and four children, and her favorite food group is cream.
Good to the Grain does something that most cookbooks with similar themes don't: it convincingly promotes what would typically be termed "healthy eating" using a rationale based on taste, rather than nutrition. The front flap reads: "Baking with whole-grain flours used to be about making food that was good for you...Kim Boyce has reinvented the wheel...proving that whole-grain baking is more about incredible flavors and textures than anything else." Well said.
When someone says he or she is craving Mexican food, the savory is implied. It's not a cuisine the average eater associates with dessert. Churros, maybe. Cajeta might be pushing it. I didn't know much about the state of sweets over there and found Gerson's book a most glorious (and gorgeous) education. Her goal is to gather "heirloom recipes that are part of an oral tradition," and to "make them more user-friendly while preserving the essence that captures much happiness from my childhood." She succeeds. It's an easy pleaser for food historians and lovers of Mexican culture and cooking, sure; more important, though it appeals to anyone who loves to make dessert. (Hello, corn ice cream! Call me, upside-down plantain cake.)
Inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books, we got together with
our friend Charlotte Druckman and created the Tournament of Cookbooks.
Here on Food52, you can watch the action and weigh in on the results as
the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year vie for the coveted Piglet
trophy. The tournament features top food writers and chefs as judges.
Play will take place over the course of 3 weeks, with a decision
published each weekday.
The 2011 Judges