True confession: I don't usually cook like this. Everyone has their comfort zone, and mine hews toward The Art of Simple Food, The Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook, and Mad Hungry. If I'm feeling ambitious and have some time on my hands, I'll pull out The Zuni Café Cookbook or Sunday Suppers at Lucques. So when I looked at the recipes in Momofuku Milk Bar, I wanted to cry. Each sugar-charged recipe looked really simple and delicious -- until I realized that most of the ingredients were actually names of other recipes in the book I needed to make first. And most of those called for something difficult, if not impossible, to find. Like "corn powder." (Just try — you'll see). Here's the recipe for "Apple Pie Layer Cake":
1 recipe Barley Brown Butter Cake (recipe follows)
1 recipe Apple Cider Soak (recipe follows)
1 recipe Liquid Cheesecake (page 149)
½ recipe Pie Crumb (page 79)
1 recipe Apple Pie Filling (recipe follows)
½ recipe Pie Crumb Frosting (recipe follows)
For some bakers, this would be a fabulous challenge. For me, it was a reason to get back into bed. I did get up the gumption to make Crack Pie, Christina Tosi's signature dessert, which only called for two other recipes within its own (!). And while it required me to beg for milk powder from a fancy grocery store that only uses it to bake their own confections (not to sell), find a mixer with a paddle attachment (a strict order from Ms. Tosi), and bake with way more butter and sugar than my doctor would ever advise, it came out exactly as it should have. (Tosi is a Southerner, and thus comes wired with a sweet-tooth set about 6 degrees above mine, but according to friends who have actually eaten her version of Crack Pie, mine was an excellent imitation.)
As the owner of a cookbook shop, I would know exactly who to sell this book to. The people who love Martha Stewart's Cupcakes? Probably not. The folks who love Johnny Iuzzini's Dessert Foreplay or Liz Prueitt's Tartine, Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rose's Heavenly Cakes or Pierre Herme's Macaron? Yes, this book is for you! I pride myself on understanding who a cookbook is meant for, and getting it into just the right hands.
Which is why Ferran Adrià's The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià has me lost in a fog of confusion. I'm talking San Francisco fog. From the very title, I had no idea who this book was for. Ferran Adrià = foam, molecular gastronomy, culinary genius who changed the world for the better. Home Cooking = the rest of us. Trying to figure out the audience for this book got even harder as I went inside. Recipes are aimed at those cooking for two, or six, or, if your home happens to be a restaurant, 20, or 75. This makes the accompanying photos of each step of the cooking process — a brilliant concept in and of itself — befuddling. If your recipe portion calls for one clove of garlic, but the photo shows 30 cloves sizzling away in a pan, you think you've made a huge mistake. Now multiply that times all the photos. One recipe called for 1 small cucumber but gave an exact weight of ¾ ounce, and 1 small red bell pepper was equated to 1 ounce. A friend asked if I was cooking for an iguana. Each of the 31 meals in the cookbook consists of three courses, and while some sound harmonious (Gazpacho, Black Rice with Squid, Bread with Chocolate and Olive Oil), others sound downright cacophonous (Tagliatelle Carbonara, Cod and Green Pepper Sandwich, Almond Soup with Ice Cream).
Adding to the perplexity of who I would sell this to is the simplicity versus difficulty aspect of many of the meals. Meal 19 calls for an easy starter of Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil, even giving instructions on how much water to boil for the pasta. But the dessert, Caramel Foam, requires a siphon and 2 to 14 N2O. cartridges, depending on how many servings you're whipping up. A beginner won't go out and buy a siphon and cartridges, an experienced cook won't need a recipe that teaches how to boil water, and a restaurant won't need any of this.
I think the fundamental problem with The Family Meal is that it's trying to be all things to all cooks. But that just isn't possible. Momofuku Milk Bar may be super-sweet and super-complicated, but it knows who it is, and therefore I know who to sell it to.
Celia Sack was born and raised in San Francisco. During her seven-year tenure at Pacific Book Auction, Sack channeled her passion for rare books into a private antiquarian cookbook collection, and then into a bookshop. Since November 2008, when she opened Omnivore Books on Food in Noe Valley, San Francisco's only culinary bookshop, Sack has gotten to know Alice Waters' tastes (books on victory gardens, not surprisingly), has enticed Ruth Reichl into buying a first edition of A.J. Liebling's Between Meals, and has seen her store become the destination for internationally known food writers touring their new books and for collectors expanding their shelves.
The "El Bulli" cookbook made me re-think what constitutes a family meal. Ferran Adrià is looking at his restaurant family and thinking about how its members can apply the same principles used to cook for the El Bulli customer to feeding themselves efficiently — and then, he's extending that to the residential family. It's a premise worth considering, even if his culinary style is a little different from your average home cook's. Christina Tosi may not have been thinking of improving staff meals when she wrote these recipes for Crack Pie (or my personal favorite, the Blueberry and Cream Cookie), but she is raising the bar in home-baking here. The gratification may be prolonged, but it also results in a better baked good. Both books take cookbooks in new directions, and ask us to find the value in abandoning shortcuts.
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 2012 Judges