Here's your takeaway at the top: You need these books. Both of them! These two books are completely, fundamentally, never-the-twain-shall-meet different from one another, but they're both must-haves.
Note to the Piglet people: At some point in our lives we may forgive you for assigning us books that are both so good that choosing between them caused family feuds and sleepless nights.
Josh here: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home is both the title of Jeni Britton Bauer's good old-fashioned cookbook and a description of what you get. It's exactly the book I wish we'd had when I was growing up. While we owned an ice cream maker, it sat in a closet in the kitchen playing second fiddle to pints of Frusen Glädjé (remember them?) and Häagen-Dazs, pints that my mom (more from her shortly) always promised I could dip into at breakfast whenever I was too tired to have dessert after dinner. Of course I'd go to sleep dreaming of a chocolate ice cream breakfast…and wake up to find that she'd eaten all of it.
There's no guarantee that owning Bauer's book would have prevented the ice-cream monster from finishing whatever was in the freezer, but it certainly would have allowed me a small measure of delightful payback. Had it been around, I would have shaken my mom awake saying, "You promised me ice cream for breakfast — today I'd like Salty Caramel or Pineapple Piment D'Espelette Sorbet, please." (I was always a polite kid.)
This is a fun book from an ice cream maker who takes her work super seriously. If you've ever wanted to know what each ingredient in ice cream contributes to its texture and why, it's all here. And if you really want to know what makes ice cream ice cream, and what makes the great stuff great, it's here, too. The introduction to the chapter called "The Craft of Ice Cream" says "All those years I'd spent avoiding science classes in high school and college came back to haunt me when I started working with frozen confectionery. Freezing ice cream into a smooth, lickable, delicious mass is a very precise process. Math and science are required."
Mom took "Math and Science for Poets" in college, and she said the info was fascinating. If learning the intricacies of water soluble flavors isn't for you (it wasn't for me), you can skip right to the "Quick Take" and get an overview of Jeni's four-step process for making smooth, creamy ice cream at home. It's this method — you can use it with the least expensive ice cream maker — that makes Jeni's book a must-have: It will change the way you make ice cream forever. Over to Mom:
I love the way the recipes in this book are divided by seasons; I love that there are recipes like the one for French-style macaroons to use for ice cream sandwiches, or for Chocolate Bombshell, a chocolate sauce that turns hard when it hits ice cream (think Dairy Queen's dipped cone, but better); and I love the variety of flavors for ice cream, from traditional flavors like Frozen Lemon Yogurt, Black Coffee Ice Cream, and Maple Ice Cream, to the many more exotic flavors, like Gorgonzola Dolce Ice Cream with Candied Walnuts, Toasted Brioche Ice Cream with Butter and Jam, and Sweet Potato Ice Cream with Torched Marshmallows. But most of all, I love Jeni's technique and the true flavor and lovely texture that you get with it.
Following Jeni's base recipe, which replaces eggs with a cornstarch slurry to thicken the milk-cream foundation and uses cream cheese to create a luxurious texture, I made four ice creams that I'd gladly make again (if I didn't want to make all the others first): The Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream in the World, which was indeed dark, but also coffee-tinged; berry-red Grapefruit Hibiscus Frozen Yogurt; Sweet Corn and Blackberry Ice Cream, which a friend said was the best ice cream he'd ever eaten and then he finished it, leaving none for my breakfast (Josh, I felt your pain); and Honeyed Peanut Ice Cream with Dark Chocolate Freckles. By the time I made the peanut ice cream, I trusted Jeni's recipe completely and pulled out my best chocolate for the freckles.
Jeni's is a model of a single-subject book; Joe Beef is a model of what a new class of cookbooks is striving to become.
Back to Josh: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef calls itself "a cookbook of sorts," and it is, I guess, but it's much more about living and creating a life on your own terms out of the things that interest you. That these things happen to interest enough other people to fill three restaurants daily is a bonus.
It's a gorgeous book and its look and feel are a carefully crafted extension of the carefully crafted ideal that is Joe Beef, the restaurant. It's an ideal and a book that make you want to get out of the kitchen and hop the next fishing trawler, seaplane, or overnight train (trains loom large in the JB story) to the wilds of Canada. Yes, Canada, the place once referred to by Robin Williams as the loft above a really great house party.
Joe Beef's Canada (Montreal, really) is a ruggedly handsome place filled with do-it-yourselfers, the occasional vagabond-cum-oyster-shucking champion, and more atmosphere than you can wave a hockey stick at.
It's the atmosphere — perfectly evoked in the photographs — the stories and characters, and Meredith Erickson's funny, muscular, irreverent writing that kept me reading from cover to cover, sometimes guffawing and sometimes just shaking my head at the team's outrageousness. It almost goes without saying that the crew is brash. If they weren't, and if their cooking wasn't as good as their stories, would David Chang have written the book's intro? And would Bourdain, Zimmern, The Frankies guys, and the chefs from Animal have written quotes on the back cover?
Co-owners/chefs Frederic Moran and David McMillan are 19th century guys: hard-drinking, tough-talking, super-sensitive artists who are thoroughly committed to everything they do. Of course, they only do what they like, whether it's welding a marjolaine mold (step-by-step photos included, as well as a diagram for subbing a milk carton), planting a garden in an abandoned lot (ie, a "crack den"), constructing a smoker from scratch (complete DIY instructions, blueprints, and how-tos for welding included), or laying out the perfect Montreal weekend getaway (handy address book included). This book is their life guide.
And it's also a cookbook, of sorts, as Mom will tell you. Take it Mom:
If I showed you my copy of Joe Beef, you wouldn't be able to see the pages through the post-its. I didn't get around to the Marrowbones Cultivateur, described as thick French peasant vegetable soup with marrow and beautifully photographed, but I'll make it now that the weather has changed. Nor did I make the Smoked Cheddar with Doughnuts, but I will because the idea of glazing homemade doughnuts in a skillet full of maple syrup and then serving them with cheese is irresistible. I didn't make any of the cocktails — not Gin'n'Jews (made with Manischewitz), not the Vijay Singh (their alternative to Arnold Palmer), and not the Joe Beef Cesar (made with Clamato juice and finished with shucked oysters and a lobster claw), even though I wanted it the instant I saw the picture — but I did read every word of the 14-page I-don't-know-what-to-call-it, maybe an essay (probably not), on wine and booze, which includes this quote from David McMillan: "I love red Burgundy wine so much I want to pour it into my eyes." I get that.
I did make Pickled Rhubarb, which I've served with charcuterie (that wasn't homemade — sorry, fellas), but that I think would be extra-good with the same smoked cheese I'd use for the doughnuts. I made O+G's Cardamom Banana Bread (I'm a sucker for anything with cardamom), a recipe that came from a nearby luncheonette, and which called for every bowl I owned, produced a baker's dozen of "muffin-size loaves" instead of the indicated 10 and, while tasty enough, was more notable for the odd technique of nuking and draining the bananas then reducing their liquid than for the promised lusciousness of the bread. I made the pulled pork that was meant to accompany scallops with hollandaise and I made the pork's BBQ sauce and served the two on soft buns with coleslaw, and then I made it all again because it was so good. That the BBQ sauce, made with Coke, molasses, ketchup, vinegar, coffee, and sriracha, was one of my faves from Joe Beef probably says more about me than it does about the book.
And I made the ridiculously named Spaghetti Homard-Lobster and laughed my way through the recipe. After explaining that lobster should boil in water as salty as the sea, the authors say: "If you don't want to look at the live lobster as it boils, you are probably someone who likes to have sex with the light off. That's okay." Who wouldn't love non-judgmental chefs?
They're reassuring about the pasta, too: "We don't make our own spaghetti, so we don't expect you to, either. Drain it, then disregard the "canons of pasta" and go ahead and rinse it under cold water."
The end of the recipe reads: "Garnish with the parsley and serve family style (turn on the TV and start arguing)."
Comments like these are sprinkled throughout the recipes and the headnotes have the same cheeky tone. I thought I'd get annoyed or bored or both, but I didn't — the team is too smart and too honest; you just end up liking them tremendously.
However, I think they might give some consideration to a south-of-the-border version of the book: Only lumberjacks could take their serving sizes seriously. The lobster dish — which called for a 2 1/2-pound lobster to be cooked in 2 cups of cream and be finished with bacon and served with spaghetti — was meant to serve 2! I served 4 New Yorkers and no one went home hungry. (I also didn't tell them how much cream I used.)
Josh and Mom, together at last: We loved both of these books. And while we know we'll be churning our way through Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream until we've made every last recipe, and we'll be using her base to make our own flavors, we're calling Joe Beef the winner. A book like this is rare. The writing is too good to miss, the people in the book are too deeply interesting not to spend time with, and the food is too lusty not to revel in the indulgence. It's not a perfect book — the recipes work, though some of them are a little less polished than the prose used to write them — but it's an exciting book, an inspiration and a bright star for other talented cooks and writers to follow.