I cook an awful lot. That said, I don't bake very often, and I don't really do the pioneer-girl DIY thing outside of annual epic batches of preserved lemons, and this is less out of the joy of creation than it is because the store-bought variety tends to taste like lemon Pledge. So anointing a winner between Erin McKenna's vegan cupcake bible, Babycakes, and Well-Preserved, Eugenia Bone's ode to the homemade pantry, is for me the culinary equivalent of judging show dogs or weighing in on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Luckily for me both books are for beginners, though each approaches the dissemination of its particular art in its own way.
In Well-Preserved, Bone writes — and I mean this as a compliment — like an elementary school teacher. She radiates affection for both her subject matter and her students, coming off equal parts hand-holder, cheerleader, and DIY-pantry role model. She's present throughout, painting herself as a virtuous (though, occasionally, more virtuous than thou) farmers market habitue with the kind of voice that promises that you, too, can throw together effortless, indulgent dinners, if you only follow these canning instructions and stock the larder.
And oh, God, those canning instructions. I'll readily admit to abject terror at the prospect of pressure canning, but there's more here than just that. After all, preserving food can be done in any number of ways: freezable sauces, oil-sealed confits, pickling, the pressure-canning-adjacent water bath. But this isn't just a book of technique: not only are Bone's projects delectable (plans to freeze the saffron-laced zucchini-flower sauce were thwarted by a risotto; at least four batches of her garlicky olive tapenade were made and devoured), but she smartly appends three our four actual recipes onto each preservation project, so once it's November and your asparagus is done pickling you know what the hell it is you're supposed to do with it.
Babycakes couldn't be more different. Gluten-free vegan baking incites a very different fear in me than canning does, largely because while I had previously encountered the ingredients for preserved tuna in my kitchen (tuna, salt, olive oil), I had never encountered xanthan gum, garbanzo-fava flour, coconut oil, or dry soy milk powder. I don't know how these ingredients work. But Babycakes (pastel, retro-tinged, beautifully photographed) promised to teach me all that. It would be easy, the book promised, to inculcate me into the world of celebrity vegan cupake aficionados like Zooey Deschanel and Mary-Louise Parker, who contribute interstitial endorsements of McKenna's New York bakery and its dairy-, egg-, and gluten-free fruits.
As it happens, I've been to the brick-and-mortar Babycakes. To all those folks who declare its cupcake the best in New York, I say to you: quite possibly. It's a killer cupcake by any measure, airy and moist with a giddy sweetness and perfectly creamy frosting — you wouldn't know it was vegan unless someone smugly informed you. But that's the professional version. My attempts at replicating it at home were, to put it mildly, less successful, due in part to maddeningly vague ingredient lists (who knew coconut oil came in both "scented" and "unscented varieties? Or that it needed to melt before being incorporated into the batter?), inconvenient timelines (frosting needs to be started a spontaneity-killing 24 hours ahead; dry soy milk powder had to be ordered online), and surprising expense (all told, I spent close to $100 to whip up a batch of a dozen intensely mediocre cupcakes).
Neither Babycakes nor Well-Preserved is a cookbook for everyday use, and they preach very different gospels to very different congregations. I imagine it is far more likely that more people will consider Babycakes to be a bible — it's well-designed, tied to a hip brand, and so very on-trend — but for sheer functionality, not to mention the edibility of the results, in the matter of the Piglet my vote goes to Well-Preserved.
Helen Rosner is the books editor for the group blog Eat Me Daily, where she covers the world of food publishing and writes regular book reviews. When she's not wearing that hat, she is the editor of Grub Street Chicago.
I love that Eugenia Bone's preserves don't feel like esoteric science experiments but like food you would make to eat fresh, and then decide to store for a while. Her figs in brandy is a dessert I've made many times -- and she simply explains how you can take that dish and can it.
You don't have to be a to love the treats at Babycakes (especially the frosting). That said, if you're not in the habit of baking for the dairy- or gluten-free set, some advice: make double or triple the recipe. Otherwise, your cupboards will be crowded with items like xanthan gum, which, in all likelihood, you won't be using on a regular basis.
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 2010 Judges
How you eat is how you live.
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