It’s a funny thing to be passing judgment upon two excellent cookbooks by four extremely competent chefs and writers and two skilled photographers when one is so deep in the throes of one’s own cookbook that it’s hard to separate the two roles: Why wasn’t this recipe tested better?! Wait, which recipe tester did they use? Was it mine? Why is this photo so blah? Oh god, my last photo is blah! And so on. But I’ve been asked to be opinionated and it turns out, I really am.
The Perfect Finish is a pretty book. With a popular 10.5x8.5 trim size, full-bleed, almost minimalist photos, clever organization (“I’ll Bring Dessert” highlights easily transportable desserts, which I imagine would be a relief to anyone who’s volunteered to bring something sweet to a potluck and realized it didn’t travel well; “Straight from the Oven” is just that, and a warning that this is not the kind of baking you can start three weeks ahead of Christmas), and promise that the dishes within are winners that will wildly exceed expectations, there’s little not to like. It’s the first cookbook from a clearly skilled team: Bill Yosses, who has apprenticed with everyone from Daniel Boulud to Thomas Keller and cooked everywhere from Citarella to Bouley and now this little old place called the White House (that’s right, he’s the guy who bakes pie for our pie-obsessed president), and Melissa Clark, a food writer who has worked on more than 26 cookbooks, several of which, most likely, are on your bookshelves.
And yet, few of the photos jumped off the page for me. I’m obviously too jaded, because I had to thumb through several times before I found three recipes I wanted to test, as so many were for items like chocolate cookies that I’m not sure anyone needs another recipe for.
And perhaps not this one, either. I found the Double Chocolate Cookies exceedingly sweet (as did my other testers) and the dough you’re supposed to scoop, a pourable batter. Halfway through and quite frustrated, I had a moment of déjà-vu and realized I’d made a cookie just like this before. Scouring my old notes, I discovered my other recipe has you chill the batter until it is scoopable (absolutely necessary) and I’d gone one step further to form the dough into a sliceable log, for easier-to-manage cookies. I feel empathy for any home cook who coughs up for two pounds of top-notch chocolate for a recipe with several kinks.
I had trouble with the Upside-Down Cranberry-Caramel Cake too. In my calibrated oven, the cake was fully baked in two-thirds of the suggested time, nearly overflowed in the suggested baking pan, tasted strongly of molasses (fine with us, but I know the flavor is a divider among others) and didn't have a single other flavoring (vanilla, almond, orange zest or even cinnamon) to make it more... interesting. The crumb of the cake was a bit sturdy and shortcake-like. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this wouldn’t be welcome on a Thanksgiving table, but I’d tweak it quite a bit before making it again.
If only the Apple and White Cheddar Scones were the only recipe I had to base my judgment upon, as they blew my mind. I have never gotten into the apple and cheddar thing, but I adore a good scone, which I can assure you, has about as much to do with that nonsense most coffee shops sell as I do with balanced checkbooks. But this scone was flawless; the perfect cheddary background with pockets of baked apple throughout. These are the kinds of show-stopping baked goods you’re hoping for when you buy a cookbook blurbed on the back by Thomas Keller, Dan Barber and Alice Waters. I only wish I’d run into more recipes like it.
I liked Good to the Grain immediately for its fresh aesthetics (I’ve got a thing for 9x9 books, really, I do), the beautiful typesetting, the softly lit, under-saturated full-bleed photography by Quentin Bacon, the nontraditional chapter organization (by grain, not course) but most of all, the recipes themselves. Clearly written, there was just enough detail that I knew, for example, that if I wanted my oatmeal pancakes crisp, I needed to generously butter my pan (not that I had to be asked twice) but not so much that the recipes seemed unmanageable, stretched out and weighed down with “and don’t forget to”s.
I dare anyone to look at the rustic free-form rhubarb tartlets on the cover, with their petal-like edges flopped this way and that, and not immediately want to make them at home (and you should; they were phenomenal) or the iced oatmeal cookies, reminiscent of Mother’s brand if Mother’s brand contained a multi-grain mix with whole wheat, oat, barley, millet and rye flours that could also be used to make biscuits, buttermilk pancakes, cream waffles, popovers and baguettes and was notably absent in such ingredients as “raisin paste”.
Above all else, what stood out to me about Good to the Grain was its outlook. The world of multigrain cooking is usually limited to the dieting and health food shelves of a bookstore’s cookbook nook, the rationale being that nobody would bake with barley flour unless under doctor’s orders or the threat of having to upsize one’s entire wardrobe. And while these are noble reasons to buy a cookbook, they undermine the value of these grains, and what they can bring to baking. What if you began using rye flour in your soft pretzels not because it was good for you, but because its “trace of maltiness and even caramel in the background” made pretzels taste better? What if you made oatmeal pancakes because they were the best pancakes you’d ever eaten, and not just because of some promise of thinness and lower cholesterol stamped on the outside of the canister?
For me, that’s what it comes down to and the reason the clear winner was Good to the Grain. Cookbooks these days seem full of promises: that they will make your life easier, your jeans size smaller, your time in the kitchen shorter and the earth a better place through a blend of fresh/organic/local/free-range ingredients and I am delighted, because these things are important to me, too. But in the end, I am a glutton and if a recipe doesn’t work well and the food does not taste good, I don’t want to eat it. Whole grains or not, the recipes in Good to the Grain will go on repeat in your kitchen, not because they are chock full of ingredients we should have more of in our diets, but because they work, and they are delicious. It’s revolutionary, I tell you.
Apple and White Cheddar Scones from The Perfect Finish
(See a photo slideshow of the rest of Deb's cooking adventures here.)