Every well-used kitchen has at least one favorite cookbook, its pages spattered with oil and stuck together by the mortar of long-risen dough.
Like a song that resonates in time, reminding us of where we were when we first heard it played, a treasured recipe book brings us back to a delicious memory.
Whether it was mastering a dish to impress a prospective suitor, or experimenting with exotic ingredients in the world of ethnic cuisine, the sense of exhilarating accomplishment and discovery rushes back every time we take the book off the shelf.
Despite the downturn in publishing overall, cookbooks are still going strong, charting a 68 percent growth in sales from 2002 to 2008, when more than 3,200 titles were released, according to Bowker, a New Jersey-based publishing research firm.
With so many new books flooding the market, what makes a book a classic?
Straightforward, delicious recipes that don't involve a lot of fancy equipment are what Laurie Linn Huggins, a home cook from Bala Cynwyd, looks for in a cookbook. Huggins, who still has a book of handwritten recipes from her maternal grandmother, likes to experiment in the kitchen.
One of her go-to books is The New York Times 60-Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey, from which she mastered paella, a dinner party standby.
"The recipes are sophisticated simplicity - and rather quick to prepare," she says, allowing her to create "interesting combinations with complexity of flavor" without spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
The most bedraggled book on her shelf is The Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman, $19.95), a seminal work published in 1982 that introduced a generation of cooks to raspberry vinegar and ratatouille and has sold more than 21/2 million copies. "The sour cream coffee cake from that book is always a hit," said Huggins.
Local caterer Steve Poses believes a successful classic cookbook must have a "point of view." And he should know. Poses formerly ran both the Frog and the Commissary restaurants here in town, and his first book, The Frog Commissary Cookbook, published in 1985 by Doubleday, is still a hometown favorite that has sold more than 150,000 copies.
"A book can be about sandwiches or about the complexity of food and exciting flavors, says Poses. "But it can't be vanilla."
Poses is about to release his second, self-published book, At Home by Steve Poses, A Caterer's Guide to Cooking & Entertaining.
Both his books, he says, are built around inviting dishes with a "multi-ethnic palate of flavors" that are interesting, but not overly exotic, and most importantly, the recipes are accessible.
"I have to feel as though I can do this," he says, "that the book was written just for me."
In a world where chefs sizzle with celebrity on cable stations like the Food Network, the Travel Channel and Bravo, a great cookbook shouldn't be about making the chef/author look good. "I want my book to make the reader look good," says Poses. "Other than that it's just so much food porn."
Poses admires The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (Norton & Co. $35), by Judy Rodgers, chef-owner of the San Francisco restaurant of the same name. "Judy explains sophisticated and technical aspects of cooking in a way that can significantly improve the readers' skill level."
Jennifer Pitt, a Queen Village resident who calls herself a daring yet practical cook, admits to having a problem with cookbooks: "I can't stop buying them," says the administrator for Communities in Schools of Philadelphia.
Despite her undependable oven, Pitt cooks all the time, often for friends in their kitchens. "I like to cook new things every time I cook, which is why I always go back to Joy of Cooking ($35 Bobbs-Merrill Co.). It teaches me something new with every recipe."
In her second year with a CSA (community-supported agriculture program), Pitt turns to Joy of Cooking when faced with seasonal vegetables that she's not used to cooking. "I never used to touch beets; now I know what to do with them."
Growing up in an Italian family, Diana Cercone was very familiar with homestyle Italian cooking. But it took Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook (Ballantine Books, $25) to teach her the breadth and richness of regional Italian cuisine. Cercone, a Bucks County writer and self-described cookbook maven, credits Hazan's warm, conversational voice for inspiring her to make everything from cannelloni to gnocchi.
"She taught me that Italian food can be both simple and labor- and ingredient-intensive." Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (Wiley, $24.95) is another one that she refers to often.
At more than 300, Julia Marsella's cookbook collection became so unwieldy she had to move it out of the kitchen. The Cedarville, N.J., homemaker also has folders of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines, organized into manila folders labeled Italian, Polish, Muffins, Cakes, and so on.
Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking (J.G. Ferguson, $45), a hefty two-volume set first published in 1959, has guided her through many a meal. "The new Fannie Farmer - which I guess is old now - is one I really love. As I get older, I hate to see a recipe with so many complications and ingredients and steps. I don't feel like doing that."
Lynda Barness admits to devouring cookbooks like other readers consume a good novel. The Upper Dublin wedding planner, whose son-in-law is chef Daniel Stern, has between 300 and 400 books in her collection. An avid baker, Barness adores everything ever written by Maida Heatter, including Cakes, Pies and Tarts and Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts. (Andrews McMeel, $34.99).
"She gives the most perfect descriptions," Barness says. "She'll tell you what something is supposed to look like, what it should taste like, how long each step takes. That kind of clarity and precision is so important in baking."
While some cookbooks are encyclopedic, others offer a window into a particular place and time. That's why Susan Shain loves The Settlement Cookbook (Applewood), a gift to her mother from one of her sorority sisters back in the '50s. Subtitled The Way to a Man's Heart, the collectible book, available from Amazon used starting at $30, was first published in 1901 by Mrs. Simon Kander and features American recipes, European cooking and Jewish favorites, as put together by the cooking students at the Milwaukee Settlement House.
"I'm one of those people who use a cookbook as a starting point," says Shain, who hosts a dinner party at her Center City house almost every Wednesday night. Shain also keeps files of recipes she's mined from Web sites like Epicurious. "I try to keep track of my friends' favorite dishes. If I feed you on a regular basis, I'll look at the file and see I haven't served you your favorite pasta or whatever in a while, so I'll make it," she says.
Cerone, the Bucks County writer, finds cooking another form of expression: "It's a way to be creative and show people you love them at the same time."
And that's a point of view that the very best cookbook authors understand.
Makes 4-6 servings
1 pound zucchini
Vegetable oil, enough to come 1/2 inch up the side of a medium skillet
1 pound fusilli (spiral spaghetti)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour, dissolved in 1/3 cup milk
2/3 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
1 egg yolk, beaten lightly with a fork
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (see note below)
1. Wash the zucchini well to remove any dirt and cut into sticks about 3 inches long and 1/8 inch thick.
2. Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the zucchini sticks, a few at a time, so that they are not crowded. Fry them until they are a light-brown, not too dark, turning them occasionally. As each batch is done, transfer to paper towels to drain.
3. Drop the fusilli into 4 quarts of boiling salted water, stirring with a wooden spoon. It will cook while you prepare the sauce.
4. In another skillet, melt half the butter and add all the olive oil. When the butter begins to foam, turn the heat down to medium low, and stir in the flour-and-milk mixture, a little at a time. Cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add the fried zucchini sticks, turning them two or three times, then add 1/4 teaspoon salt and the chopped basil. Cook long enough to turn everything once or twice. Off the heat, swirl in the remaining butter. Rapidly mix in the egg yolk, then all the grated cheese. Taste and correct for salt.
5. Cook the fusilli until al dente, firm to the bite. Drain, transfer to a warm serving bowl, toss with all the sauce, and serve immediately.
Note: You may increase the quantity of Romano and decrease the Parmesan if you prefer a more piquant cheese flavor.
Per serving (based on 6): 523 calories, 17 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 26 grams fat, 63 milligrams cholesterol, 327 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 sweet Italian sausages
2 small chicken thighs & 2 small legs
1 green pepper cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon saffron
1 large bay leaf
1 sprig or 1/2 teaspoon thyme
1 cup canned, undrained tomatoes
1 cup rice, uncooked
3/4 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
8 littleneck clams
8 shrimp, peeled & deveined
8 mussels cleaned
Finely chopped parsley
1. Heat oil in a large skillet. Prick sausages with a fork and add them. Cook, turning often, about 5 minutes.
2. Add chicken pieces, skin side down, and continue cooking sausages and chicken until chicken skin is browned, about 5 minutes. Turn the pieces often and continue cooking about 10 minutes or until the sausages have cooked a total of 20 minutes and the chicken 15 minutes.
3. As the sausages and chicken cook, prepare the pepper, onion, and garlic. Add these to skillet.
4. Add the saffron, bay leaf, and thyme. Stir.
5. Add the tomatoes, rice, water, salt, and pepper. Cover closely. Cook 15 minutes. As the mixture cooks, rinse and drain the clams. Peel and devein the shrimp. Clean and debeard the mussels.
6. Add seafood to the rice mixture. Cover and let cook about 8 minutes longer. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.
Per serving (based on 6): 587 calories, 38 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 153 milligrams cholesterol, 763 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
31/2 to 4 pounds apples (crisp varieties like Braeburn, Golden Delicious or Gala work well)
Pinch of salt
Up to 2 teaspoons sugar, as needed
About 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A splash of cider vinegar, as needed
4 straight-sided 6-ounce ramekins or custard cups
A chunk of day-old chewy, peasant-style bread (4 ounces or more - you won't use more than 2 ounces but you need plenty to work with to get the right shapes)
About 2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1. To make the applesauce, peel, core, and quarter the apples. Toss with a little salt and, unless they are very sweet, a bit of sugar to taste. If they are tart enough to make you squint, add the full measure of sugar.
2. Spread in a shallow baking dish that crowds the apples in a single layer. Drape with slivers of the butter, cover tightly and bake until the apples start to soften, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your apples.
3. Uncover, raise the heat to 500 degrees and return the pan to the oven. Leave the apples to dry out and color slightly, about 10 minutes.
4. When the tips of the apples have become golden and the fruit is tender, scrape them into a bowl and stir into a chunky "mash." Season with salt and sugar to taste, then consider a splash of apple cider vinegar to brighten the flavor. (Try a drop on a spoonful to see if you like it.)
5. When you're ready to prepare the savory apple charlotte, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the bread 1/8 inch thick. (Partially freeze it if necessary to get even slices.) Avoiding the crust, cut 8 circles sized to fit the bottom of your custard cups, then cut 4 long rectangles to line the sides. The side piece should rise about 1/8 inch above the rims. (Cut paper templates first to make this easy.) A snug fit and even edges will make your charlottes prettiest. Save scraps and rejects for bread crumbs.
6. Brush the bread evenly, one side only, with the melted butter. Line the custard cups with the bread, pressing the buttered faces against the dishes. Set the 4 extra circles aside. Fill each cup with roasted applesauce. Set the remaining bread circles, buttered side up, on top, held in place by the surrounding bread. Press down lightly. Bake until golden brown on top, about 30 minutes.
7. To serve, slide a knife around the edge of each charlotte, then turn out onto a warm plate. If the bottom circles stick to the dish, loosen them by sliding a salad fork under the edges. The charlottes should be golden all over, with tasty caramelized spots where the applesauce bled through the coarse-textured bread.
Per serving: 360 calories, 2 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 32 milligrams cholesterol, 147 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 16-20 servings
Pecan Cream Filling
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
6 ounces unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups chopped pecans
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups corn oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups grated carrots
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup raisins
Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 pound soft unsalted butter
8 ounces soft cream cheese
1-pound box of powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 ounces shredded, sweetened coconut (1 1/2 cups)
1. To prepare the pecan cream filling, in a heavy saucepan, blend well the sugar, flour and salt. Gradually stir in the cream. Add the butter. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat until the butter has melted, then let simmer 20-30 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Cool to lukewarm. Stir in the nuts and vanilla. Let cool completely and then refrigerate, preferably overnight. If too thick to spread, bring to room temperature before using.
2. To make the carrot cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have ready a greased and floured 10-inch tube cake pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the corn oil and sugar. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift half the dry ingredients into the sugar-oil mixture and blend. Alternately sift in the rest of the dry ingredients while adding the eggs, one by one. Combine well. Add the carrots, raisins, and pecans. Pour into the prepared tube pan and bake for 70 minutes. Cool upright in the pan on a cooling rack. If you are not using the cake that day, it can be removed from the pan, wrapped well in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature.
3. To prepare the cream cheese frosting, cream the butter well. Add the cream cheese and beat until blended. Sift in the sugar and add the vanilla. If too soft to spread, chill a bit. Refrigerate if not using immediately, but bring to a spreadable temperature before using.
4. To assemble, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the coconut on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes until it colors lightly. Toss the coconut occasionally while it is baking so that it browns evenly. Cool completely. Have the filling and frosting at a spreadable consistency.
Loosen the cake in its pan and invert onto a plate. With a long serrated knife, carefully split the cake into 3 horizontal layers. Spread the filling between the layers. Spread the frosting over the top and sides. Pat the toasted coconut onto the sides of the cake. If desired, reserved 1/2 cup of frosting and color half with green and half with orange food coloring. Then decorate the top of the cake with green and orange icing piped through a 1/16-inch-wide, plain pastry tube to resemble little carrots. Serve the cake at room temperature.
Note: This cake is most easily made if you start it at least a day ahead, since the filling is best left to chill overnight. In fact, the different components can all be made even several days in advance and stored separately until you are ready to assemble the cake. The assembled cake can be refrigerated for up to 28 hours. It also freezes very well.
Four cups unpeeled, grated apples or zucchini may be substituted for the carrots. Batter can also be baked as cupcakes, loaves, sheet cake or petit fours. Any leftover filling makes a wonderful ice cream topping if you warm it slightly first.
Per serving (based on 20): 773 calories, 5 grams protein, 80 grams carbohydrates, 65 grams sugar, 50 grams fat, 110 milligrams cholesterol, 345 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.