Our judgment wasn’t supposed to happen like this. All three of us anticipated the alternative conclusion and pre-judged these books not the by their covers “per se” (nudge, nudge) but by the overall Davey vs. Goliath vibe. We made a preconceived assumption, and it was wrong.
But let’s get down to it:
Canal House Cooks Every Day is a seasonal compendium of a year at the Canal House. This gem of a space is where the two Ms. H’s cook, make art, shoot photos of said food and art, drink booze and all in all, appear to have a great time. We’ve been fans of these women since receiving their first volume (or maybe it was just our first?) of recipes: a small orange gem of summer recipes that the Joe Beef staff ooh-ed and ahh-ed over.
The pages of this book are warm, simple and down-home. This book makes us want to hang out at the Canal House, get drunk with these ladies, jump in the canal, and then cook and eat their food.
Their mantra “home cooking by home cooks for home cooks” is reflected in their recipes, none of which are too daunting. In the spirit of the book, the recipes tested were all from the "Autumn" chapter: Chicken Broth with Spinach and Little Meatballs, Agee’s Pecan Pies, Butternut Squash and Candied Bacon on Fresh Pasta, and Milk Punch. We had no trouble and all of the recipes worked per their instructions 100%. Everything was tasty (especially the milk punch) and we’re already eyeing up Sister Frances’s Potatoes and looking forward to our own Northern version of The Garden Giveth.
The design of this book is the similar to the smaller volumes: it’s very pretty and approachable. If there was one thing we hoped for, it was a bit more voice, and more stories -- The Canal House After Hours, if you will -- to give us even more of feel for who these women are. Still, there is no doubt that Canal-ians far and wide will eat this book up.
And now we move from “for the people, by the people” to a different plane altogether.
When Bouchon Bakery book arrived, we began to flip through the pristine, white, glossy pages and our first reaction was that it made us feel very very dirty. Our fingers looked grimy on the white gloss, on the clean lines of brown text, and on the pages among pages of perfect photos of perfect food (Sebastien Rouxel in the kitchen in Napa, Keller piping butter nutters, or Cygnes a la Chantilly -- even the pictures of “Keller the cow” made us feel backwater and a bit shameful of how we spend our time.) Bakery is in the same visual vein as Bouchon and The French Laundry Cookbook. Design-wise they’re all stunners, but for us, it’s in the same sort of formulaic way.
But then there are the recipes. Good god, those recipes.
These recipes are so well practiced, so well considered, so thorough and yes, so technical, that they make you sit down and softly say “holy shit” over and over. From beginning to end, this book is a complete master class in baking -- we see it perched on the shelves between Traité de Patisserie Moderne and Le Compagnon Pâtissier.
We tested the croissants, the Devil’s Food Cake, the Toasted Almond Streusel, and the Sugared Doughnuts. As expected, everything worked (of course everything worked!).
And though it’s not a book you can really read cover to cover, there are notes like "The Vagaries of Dough" by Rouxel that wax poetic about the alchemy of dough, and almost all of Keller’s openers are impassioned. His words on the baguette speak for themselves: “You can’t hide anything about the bread [or yourself] when you’re making a baguette. Every aspect of bread baking is represented in the baguette…I love that. The baguette speaks clearly and it never lies.”
To hit you with the climax: we chose Bouchon Bakery as our winner.
What sums up our decision is really something Keller says: “We need to consider what we may be losing in our perpetual quest for convenience. Once we lose the knowledge of something learned and refined over centuries, it’s gone for good.”
Bouchon Bakery will be a reference book not only for ambitious home cooks, but for restaurants too. It’s the kind of book that will take everyday bakers, B&B owners, cooks and pastry chefs to a heightened level. And we’ll all be the better for it.