AUSTIN, Texas – It’s amazing to see the variety of cookbooks and food books that hit my desk each year.
They increasingly seem creative and diverse, from memoirs about life on the farm or in some far-off country to investigative books about food policy to cookbooks for penny-pinching college students to coffee-table tomes filled with stunning photographs and impossible recipes.
I love picking through the stacks of books I’ve held on to all year just for this gift guide. Here are a number that are worthy of a spot under the tree.
Buying a gift for a host who really loves the holidays? “The Good Housekeeping Christmas Cookbook” (Hearst, $30) will tickle the fancy of just about any tinsel-fanatic, but Pioneer Woman fans really will get a kick out of Ree Drummond’s latest, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays” (William Morrow, $29.99). Like her other projects, the book makes you feel like you’re in the kitchen of the blogging queen’s Oklahoma ranch.
Of all the celebrity entertaining books I’ve seen come out this year, however, none can top Daphne Oz’s newest book, “Relish: An Adventure in Food, Style, and Everyday Fun” (William Morrow, $27.50). The co-host of “The Chew” offers advice and insight on everything from what to serve at a party and how to keep the conversations going to how to take care of yourself mentally and physically so you’re ready for everyday challenges.
For the person in your life who is homesick for the Deep South, you have several options. “Southern Casseroles: Comforting Pot-Lucky Dishes” by Denise Gee (Chronicle, $24.95) features recipes for updated classics such as baked spaghetti, chicken pot pie, bread pudding, cheese grits and, of course, cornbread. Gena Knox’s second book, “Southern My Way: Food & Family,” puts a Garden & Gun magazine-style spin on life in the South, a decidedly more luxurious version than what you’ll find in Gee’s book.
As a Midwesterner, I’m particularly excited to see some attention directed at foodways from the middle of the country, and Minnesota native Amy Thielen’s “The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes” (Clarkson Potter, $35) came out just as her Food Network show, “Heartland Table,” debuted earlier this fall.
So, what is Midwestern food? Food that reflects the kind of ingredients that grow well from Ohio to Nebraska and the style of cooking of the people who settled the land: pickled everything, butters made out of fruit, slaws, krauts, milk-braised vegetables, Ritz cracker-crusted panfish, barbecue spareribs, pot roasts, meat-filled pastries and lots and lots of variations on potatoes. Thielen likely won’t ever gain the kind of fame that her celebrity peers from the South have, but she’s a pioneering woman of a different sorst.
Kinfolk is a new food periodical that takes food (and itself) pretty seriously, and this year, founder Nathan Williams published a cookbook, “The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings” (Artisan, $35), which has the same softly lit, rural dinner party feel of the magazine. It’s perfect for the Pinterest-loving hipster in your family.
We all know someone who is as much a scientist in the kitchen as a cook, and unlike several other books on molecular gastronomy, Jozef Youssef’s “Molecular Gastronomy at Home: Taking Culinary Physics Out of the Lab and Into Your Kitchen” (Firefly, $29.95) won’t set you back a few car payments. After all, once he or she masters sous-vide and spherification, you might get an invitation to a dinner that otherwise would cost the price of a plane ticket to Chicago or New York.
Finally, it’s been more than five years since Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François published their bestselling “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” and fans will flock to the completely revised edition “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking” (Thomas Dunne, $29.99).
Mushroom, Tomato And White Bean Stew
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
Pinch of dried sage
12 ounces cremini or baby bella mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
1/4 cup chicken stock, homemade or store-bought
15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, fennel seed and sage and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes or until the onion is soft and starting to brown.
Stir in the mushrooms and stock and simmer, covered, for 5 to 6 minutes or until the mushrooms have shrunk and released their juices. Add the beans, tomatoes and parsley, then cover and return to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer for 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot over brown rice or whole wheat pasta, or just in a bowl as a meatless stew. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.
Yields 4 servings.
Recipe from “The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings” by Nathan Williams (Artisan, $35).
Classic Sweet Potato Casserole
5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes, or five 16-ounce cans unseasoned mashed sweet potatoes (see cook’s note)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground sea or kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups minimarshmallows
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Lightly grease a 13-by-9-inch or 3-quart casserole dish.
If using peeled, cubed sweet potatoes, put them in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until very tender. Drain the potatoes in a colander and let them cool slightly. In a large bowl, mash the sweet potatoes until smooth (you can do this with a hand mixer or food processor, if desired).
Add both sugars, the half-and-half, butter, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to the mashed sweet potatoes and stir well to combine; adjust the seasonings as desired. Add the eggs and mix well.
Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 40 minutes, until heated through.
Remove the casserole from the oven and gently stir the mixture to ensure even cooking. Sprinkle the marshmallows atop the casserole and return it to the oven, uncovered, to bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until the marshmallows are golden brown.
Cook’s note: Sweet potatoes also can be cleaned, pierced several times on each side with a fork, and baked on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 1 hour. Or they can be boiled whole for about 45 minutes, or until tender; remove the skins and mash the potatoes as directed in the recipe. Five 16-ounce cans of candied yams can be used instead of the unsweetened mashed sweet potatoes, but you will need to omit the brown sugar and adjust the granulated sugar to taste.
Yields 10 to 12 servings.
Recipe from “Southern Casseroles: Comforting Pot-Luck Dishes” by Denise Gee (Chronicle, $24.95).
Spiced Raw Chocolate Mousse
1/4 cup hemp seeds (see cook’s note)
2 heaping tablespoons raw cacao powder
1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1 large banana, frozen and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons raw honey, agave or pure maple syrup
Pinch of cayenne
Pinch of ground ginger
Pinch of sea salt
Cold water, as needed
Blend the hemp seeds, cacao, avocado, banana, honey, cayenne, ginger and salt in a blender until smooth. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time to adjust the consistency to taste. Serve immediately.
Cook’s note: The hemp seeds may be replaced by raw almonds, raw cashews or raw sunflower seeds. Soak the nuts or seeds in water for about 10 minutes or until softened prior to proceeding with the recipe.
Yields 2 servings.
Recipe from “The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings” by Nathan Williams (Artisan, $35).
Orange Custard Tart
For the vanilla tart crust
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, chilled and cut up
1 large egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 3 tablespoons ice water (or more as needed)
For the orange custard filling
3/4 cup plus 6 tablespoons whole milk
2 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium navel oranges (1 1/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons apple jelly
2 teaspoons triple sec
Red currants for garnish
To make the crust, using a food processor with knife blade attached, pulse flour, sugar and salt until blended. Add butter. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add egg yolk and vanilla; pulse until combined. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing until mixture holds together when pinched. Gather dough into ball; flatten into disk, wrap disk in plastic, and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On lightly floured surface, with floured rolling pin, roll disk into 12-inch round. Gently roll dough to drape over rolling pin to transfer to 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Gently press dough onto bottom and side of pan. Run rolling pin along top of tart pan to trim away excess dough. Freeze 30 minutes or until very firm.
With fork, pierce dough all over. Line tart shell with foil and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Remove foil and weights. Bake crust another 15 to 20 minutes or until golden. Cover rim with foil if browning too quickly. Cool in pan on wire rack.
While crust cools, make the filling. In 2-quart saucepan, heat 3/4 cup milk to simmering on medium. In heatproof medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, remaining 6 tablespoons milk, and sugar until blended; whisk in cornstarch and flour until smooth. Slowly whisk hot milk into egg mixture. Return to same saucepan.
Cook mixture on medium 4 minutes or until very thick, whisking constantly. Remove from heat. Whisk in butter and salt until smooth. With knife, cut vanilla bean lengthwise in half; scrape out seeds and whisk into milk mixture (or whisk in vanilla extract). Transfer mixture to small bowl. Place plastic wrap directly on surface to prevent skin from forming. Refrigerate until cool, about 45 minutes. (Can be refrigerated up to 1 day; remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before using.)
With sharp paring knife, cut peel and white pith from oranges. Thinly slice crosswise. Spread pastry cream evenly in cooled tart shell. Arrange orange slices in one layer on pastry cream, overlapping slightly. Can be refrigerated, covered, up to 2 hours.
In 1-quart saucepan, combine jelly and triple sec. Heat on medium until melted, whisking. Cool slightly and brush fruit with jelly. Garnish with currants.
Yields 8 servings.
Recipe from “The Good Housekeeping Christmas Cookbook” (Hearst, $30).
Dulce De Leche Brownies
Nonstick baking spray
5 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
7 ounces (about 1/2 can) dulce de leche
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously spray an 8-inch square baking pan or an 8-by-10-inch baking pan with nonstick baking spray.
Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave it in about 45-second intervals, stirring each time, until it’s completely melted. Set it aside to cool for 20 minutes or so.
Add the butter and the sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream them together until they’re light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. With the mixer on low, slowly drizzle in the chocolate until it’s all combined. Add the flour and vanilla, and mix it until it’s all combined, scraping the sides of the bowl halfway through. Spread the batter into the greased pan.
Next, crack open the can of dulce de leche, and place half of it in a glass bowl. Warm it in the microwave for 30 to 45 seconds, just to make it a little more stirrable.
Drop large dollops of dulce de leche on the surface of the batter, then use a knife to slowly swirl it through the brownie batter. Don’t drag the knife sideways through the batter; hold it so the thin side of the knife leads the way.
Bake the brownies for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is almost totally set. Let the brownies cool in the pan for 15 minutes, and then carefully turn them out of the pan and let them cool completely. Use a very sharp serrated knife to cut the brownies into squares, and place them on a pretty cake stand.
Yields 16 brownies.
Recipe from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays” by Ree Drummond (William Morrow, $29.99).