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npr best cookbooks 2012, susan changHold on to your hats!  The NPR holiday cookbook roundup, my go-to guide for the overlooked gems, rightfully-hyped showstoppers, and perfect steals of the cookbook world is now out!

In addition to the top 10 I chose for NPR, you’ll find here all the ones that I loved for one reason or another but couldn’t fit in the top ten.  It’s a glorious jumble, and there’s something for every cook on your list. (If you want to learn more about how these books are chosen, you can check out the  7-point rating system.)

The 2012 NPR top 10 (in no particular order):
1.  The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods by Sara Forte and Hugh Forte
2.  Modern Sauces: More than 150 Recipes for Every Cook, Every Day, by Martha Holmberg
3.  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman
4.  The Science of Good Cooking (Cook’s Illustrated Cookbooks) by The Editors of America’s Test Kitchen
5.  Susan Feniger’s Street Food: Irresistibly Crispy, Creamy, Crunchy, Spicy, Sticky, Sweet Recipes by Susan Feniger, Kajsa Alger and Liz Lachman
6.  Hiroko’s American Kitchen: Cooking with Japanese Flavors by Hiroko Shimbo
7.  Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
8.  Canal House Cooks Every Day by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
9.  The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook: Sweetness in Seattle by Tom Douglas and Shelley Lance
10.  Simply Sensational Cookies by Nancy Baggett

…and now, it’s on to THE SHORTLIST.

Best Cookbook for After the End of Civilization
The America’s Test Kitchen D.I.Y. Do It Yourself Cookbook: Can It, Cure It, Churn It, Brew It by America’s Test Kitchen Editors

Best Travelogue Cookbook
Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid

Best Ambitious Kitchen Primer
Keys to the Kitchen: The Essential Reference for Becoming a More Accomplished, Adventurous Cook by Aida Mollenkamp

Best Gift for Your Most Intrepid Food Friends
Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Best Cookbook to End Up Using One Recipe Over and Over From
Crêpes: 50 Savory and Sweet Recipes by Martha Holmberg (I’m thinking of the basic crêpes recipe.)

Best Reason to buy a Proportional-Integral-Derivative Controller (or Other Control Loop Feedback Mechanism)
Modernist Cuisine at Home, by Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet

Best Round-the-World Sweets Book
Sugar & Spice: Sweets and Treats from Around the World by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra

Best Round-the-World Bread Book
All You Knead is Bread by Jane Mason

Love-Your-Veggies Expansion Kit
Wild About Greens: 125 Delectable Vegan Recipes for Kale, Collards, Arugula, Bok Choy, and Other Leafy Veggies Everyone Loves by Nava Atlas

Carnivore’s Bible
The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today’s Meat by Bruce Aidells

Regional Magnum Opus
Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Stevens Graubart

Most Satisfying Way to Blow 400 Calories a Pop
Baked Elements: The Importance of Being Baked in 10 Favorite Ingredients by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

Retro Indulgence for the Nostalgic and the Hip
Vintage Cakes: Timeless Recipes for Cupcakes, Flips, Rolls, Layer, Angel, Bundt, Chiffon, and Icebox Cakes for Today’s Sweet Tooth by Julie Richardson

Anglophile’s  Delight
The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast: Authentic Pub Food, Restaurant Fare, and Home Cooking from Small Towns, Big Cities, and Country Villages Across the British Isles by Brian Yarvin

Most Thoughtful Contribution to a Fast-Growing Category
Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays: 60 Recipes for Traditional Festive Treats by Jeanne Sauvage

Mighty Reckoning with an Important Overlooked Cuisine
Gran Cocina Latina:  The Food of Latin America, by Maricel E. Presilla

Surprisingly Gifty Single-Subject Paperback
Garlic: The Mighty Bulb by Natasha Edwards

Pleasure-oriented Gluten-Free Book
Small Plates & Sweet Treats: My Family’s Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking, by Aran Goyoaga

Refreshing Discovery in What I Thought Was a Played-Out Category
Mike Isabella’s Crazy Good Italian by Mike Isabella

Pain-Free Introduction to Whole Grains
Grain Mains: 101 Surprising and Satisfying Whole Grain Recipes for Every Meal of the Day by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough

Also, Three Terrific Series Worth Exploring More Deeply.

  • The Food and Cooking Of… series from Anness Publishing. Beautifully photographed, slightly hard-to-find introductions to far-flung cuisines. This year’s The Food and Cooking of Scandinavia is particularly lovely.
  • The New Voices in Food series from Globe Pequot. Understated paperbacks featuring up-and-coming young chefs. You might walk right past them if you weren’t particularly looking for them, but some of the recipes are gems.
  • The Savor the South series from UNC Press. Terrific idea, ingredient-focused, attractively and affordably produced. The first two are Pecans and Buttermilk.

And don’t forget some of the wonderful cookbooks we loved this past summer, especially: Asian Tofu, The Fresh and Green Table, Herbivoracious, The Fresh Egg, and The United States of Pie.

Finally, as always, for cooks who love a good food story, there’s my own A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes & Stories from a Well-Tempered Table.

I know I say it every year, but every year it’s true.  The competition in cookbooks gets fiercer and fiercer, and the books get better and better. So it was with a whopping mix of trepidation, affection, and guilt that I made the NPR holiday cookbook roundup selections this month.  (The Weekend Edition Sunday audio link is here.)   The ones I chose are, without exception, remarkable cookbooks.  But this year I wanted to say a word about the rest of the shortlist, too.

Any one of the additional shortlisted books below, which did not make it into this year’s roundup, might have made it into the top 10 a few years ago, and every one of them captured my heart in one way or another.  Many of them were right up there with the finalists in the new rating system.

My hope in including them here is to share the richness and diversity of the cookbook world we live in, to recognize the fantastic contributions of some truly noteworthy authors and cooks, and–of course– to offer you a few more gift ideas.  For more great holiday cookbook ideas, stay tuned for the Boston Globe roundup in a few weeks.

The 2011 NPR top 10:
1.   Cook This Now, by Melissa Clark
2.   The Food of Spain, by Claudia Roden
3.   All About Roasting, by Molly Stevens
4.   Food52 Cookbook,  Amanda Hesser/Merrill Stubbs
5.   What Chefs Feed Their Kids, by Fanae Aaron
6.   The Country Cooking of Italy by Colman Andrews
      Lidia’s Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich
7.   The Food of Morocco, by Paula Wolfert
8.   Ruhlman’s Twenty, by Michael Ruhlman
9.   American Flavor, by Andrew Carmellini
10. The Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book, by Judy Rosenberg

THE SHORTLIST
Outstanding Single-Subject Cookbook
Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, by Jennifer McLagan

Outstanding Savor-and-Read Cookbook
The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends: New Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio’s Award-Winning Food Show,
 by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift

Practical Once-a-Week Cookbook
Sunday Roasts: A Year’s Worth of Mouthwatering Roasts, from Old-Fashioned Pot Roasts to Glorious Turkeys, and Legs of Lambby Betty Rosbottom

Giftworthy-Design Cookbook
One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes, by Tracey Zabar

Ethnic Restaurant Sleeper Hit
Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors,  by Erik Cosselmon and Janet Fletcher with photos by Sara Remington

Best Easy French
The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day, by Wini Moranville 

Hardcore Bread Book
The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking
, by the French Culinary Institute

Special-Dieter’s Boon
The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose, by Barbara Kafka

Innovative Drinks Book
Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz: A Cocktail Lover’s Guide to Mixing Drinks Using New and Classic Liqueurs, by A. J. Rathbun 

Accessible Book from a Modernist Citadel
The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria

Loveliest Ode to a Fruit
The Apple Lover’s Cookbookby Amy Traverso

Everyday Food from a Celebrity Hotshot
Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours, by Mario Batali 

Inspiring Trip Down Memory Lane 
Cooking My Way Back Home: Recipes from San Francisco’s Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House, by Mitchell Rosenthal 

Irresistible Book for the Crafty Baker
Julia M Usher’s Ultimate Cookies 

Best Chef-at-Home Book
Home Cooking with Jean-Georges: My Favorite Simple Recipes

And no, of course it’s not on the shortlist, but for the very most heartwarming gift you can give readers who love food, don’t forget my own
A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes from a Well-Tempered Table!
They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, they’ll probably end up hungry…the perfect gift for all the cooks in your family who don’t need another cookbook or kitchen gadget but could definitely use a good story.

 You know how you’re standing in front of the cookbook shelves at the store, leafing through cookbooks and trying to figure out which one to take home, and you feel paralyzed and uncertain, and you question yourself, and then when you finally make up your mind you’re sure you made the wrong choice?  That’s my life as a cookbook reviewer.  The subjective nature of choosing the best cookbooks can be overwhelming.  Sometimes I question myself into oblivion.  (It doesn’t help knowing that my picks will move the market. They always do. No pressure or anything!)

But this time, I paid very close attention to my questions, and I realized that they basically boiled down to a manageable number.  In fact, just seven.  I was so happy to realize that these could be named that I printed up little cards to score the books and stuck them to all my shortlisted candidates.  Here’s my questions–who knows, maybe they’ll help you the next time you’re having brain freeze in the Cookbooks section.

Question 1:  Is it useful?  This means, would an enthusiastic home cook (anyone ranging from a fast weeknight cook to a thoughtful gourmand) be able to find recipes in this book that would satisfy them for a week straight of cooking?

Question 2:  Is it thoughtful? This means, has the author thought of the reader’s needs? Are there hard-to-find ingredients and if so, is there guidance as to where to find them? Are there multiple sub-recipes you have to hunt around for?  Are there clarifying tips in the instructions?  Are there side essays, helpful sidebars and charts?  Do the headnotes help you cook the recipe?

Question 3:  Is it new?  Are at least a majority of the recipes really new?–i.e. not just another recipe for roast chicken or meatballs or insalata caprese with the exact ingredients you’ve always made them with in more or less the same proportions.

If I can’t say at least a partial yes to all three of those first questions, I don’t get to choose it for the shortlist.  After that we get into the refinements.

Question 4: Does it tell a story?  Not everyone likes a story in their cookbooks, but I do.  I like colorful headnotes, reminiscences, and anecdotes–they show me that the author has really put their heart and soul into the book.

Question 5: Is it well-designed?  Design is so important that a lack of it can ruin a cookbook that is otherwise useful, thoughtful and new.  Cookbooks are working books, and they should look like they’re meant to help you, not like a postmodern art installation.

Question 6: Is it focused?  A lot of cookbooks are simply collections of everything the author has ever cooked, or cooked in the last year.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and this concern can be overridden by awesome design or thoughtfulness or usefulness.  But in such an overcrowded market, focus is important.

Question 7: Is it the best of its kind?  Or at least, the best that I’ve seen.  What a hard question this is to answer!  The answer is almost never Yes.  But asking it helps me sort out my thinking.  If the answer is, “It just might be…” that’s a huge endorsement right there.

I also have known biases, which I have to be on rigorous watch for: 1) I’m a total sucker for great design, even in a bad cookbook.  2) I get annoyed when there are 2 systems of measurement in a book.  3) I am happiest when I see a wide variety of publishers, including underdogs.  These I consider unreasonable biases, and much of my time goes into re-weighting my judgements to counter those biases.

I have this grandiose sort of suspicion that the publishers are paying attention to my preferences, because the cookbooks just keep getting better and better with each year.  They may be paying attention, or they may not be,  but it’s still a win for everyone.

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