You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, in Books We Love, we'll talk about our favorites.
There are a few ways in which a cookbook can stand out from the pack. A big name helps. Clear, inviting photography is very successful in yanking our eyes away from other titles. Personality, though, might be the most compelling reason to love and pay for a cookbook right now, especially when it will be joining the ranks of your existing collection.
I am not talking about TV personality-personality. I am talking about the way that reading a person’s story endears you to their book and their food, and makes the idea of cooking feel new. It’s like going to a dinner party and being smitten with the way a person cooks: how they quietly serve salads that make your eyes wide or slyly set a bottle of amaro on the table when bellies are full but nobody is ready to leave. Or maybe they just have a kicky apron and they wear it well.
Such is Zoe Nathan’s Huckleberry, a breakfast book that has you cheering for Nathan and her story and her food before its first recipe; you’ll be hugging it, unironically, by the end. It’s full of photos that toe the food porn-line but dismount squarely on the classy side, Mary Lou Retton-Style. Her recipes feel familiar (many a muffin, scone, cake, fruity baked thing, and brunchy egg dish), but they’re somehow more. They are unfussy but still special, still at home in a book whose fore-edge design is a bright canary yellow with white polka dots. “It’s like the food you make at home, but better,” Nathan recently told me.
The ideas of “home” and “family” are themes that weave through the entire book: Nathan’s father was one of her first line cooks; she owns Huckleberry with her husband, Josh Loeb; she has a very nurturing streak though she’s not afraid to yell at unruly customers or at bakers who show up late. “Writing the book kind of coincided with me starting to have a family and wanting to create a home beyond my restaurant,” she says. “I love the idea of kids growing up with it.”
The introductions to each chapter follow the progress of a morning at Huckleberry: First up come muffins at 3:30, then biscuits and scones at 4, and so on. It walks us through what the early morning of a baker looks like, which is especially illuminating for those of us who have always fantasized about the job, about being awake before the rest of the world and starting our days shaping and mixing and smelling the sweet smell of dough turning into loaves. Nathan encourages that fantasy -- she loves this life, despite its toils -- but also explains that driving past “rosy girls and guys my age who are wrapping up their nights while I’m beginning my morning…can honestly make [me] feel like a real dork sometimes.”
Nathan and her whole staff take that start of the day very seriously: “I hope to start people’s days with this sense of absolute abundance -- with too much color, a little too loud, a little too much -- to make people feel loved and cared for and go out in the world,” she explained.
Many cookbooks born out of recipes or cafés feel like an act of preservation, first and foremost: “This is the food I serve; people like it; here are my recipes.” But the purpose of Huckleberry is more benevolent, and more earnest. Just as Nathan wants her customers to leave satisfied and happy and high on Blueberry Cornmeal Cake (one of the most-requested recipes in the book, she says), she wants bakers to feel empowered:
"I would love to, like, demystify baking a little bit and take the pressure off and just have people enjoy themselves and get messy. Entertaining and baking have become so pressure-filled -- I would much rather have people feed themselves and enjoy themselves and have a sense of humor, to throw away their kitchen timers and smell their cookies and smell their pies [to know that they’re done]. It makes you much more present. For me, it’s like yoga."
Whether you call it yoga or a morning fix or an act of love, you’ll find yourself covered in flour more frequently after picking up this book, in pursuit of Maple Bacon Biscuits or Walnut-Jam Scones or Nathan’s dad’s famous pancakes. And that’s exactly how she wants things. “I just hope that the book is a mess -- there’s no better compliment than picking up [your book] at someone's house and it’s covered in stuff and your kid has spilled hot chocolate all over it.”
More: Read Alice Medrich's 3 tips for chocolate ganache success. Then pour ganache all over your favorite book!
That beautiful mess is something that Nathan embraces both at home and at her bakery, and now, in her book. Her son, Milo, is already an avid cook, willing to peel carrots and eager to bake muffins for garbage men and then hand them out on chilly early mornings. Her bakers blast Dolly Parton; she’s a fan of old-school hip hop. The Fresh Blueberry Brioche -- whose maw you see gaping on Huckleberry’s cover -- spills out of itself, abundant in all the best ways. “I wanted that on the cover because I wanted people to know that that sexy, imperfect look is what you’re gonna find in this book,” explains Nathan. Her food is “super approachable and really delicious first, before trying to look stuffy and perfect.”
The headnote for that brioche ends:
“Don’t slice it, just drop it in the middle of your table and have people rip it apart right from the oven. That’s love.”
We have one very beautiful copy of Huckleberry to give away! To enter, tell us in the comments: What is your favorite breakfast to make for other people? We'll pick a winner next Monday, September 15th.
Update: Sheila Litman is our winner! We hope you enjoy your copy of Huckleberry.
Biscuit photo by James Ransom; all other photos by Matt Armendariz