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If you want to see what unadulterated joy looks like, tell your children you’re going to be testing baking books for the next two weeks.  Be prepared for lip prints on the ceiling.  (If you want the opposite effect, substitute “vegan” for “baking”.)    Even the ominous notion that these would be “healthier” sweets – with less sugar, or different sugars – did little to dampen their enthusiasm.

There’s definitely something a little overwhelming about having 3 or 4 desserts in the house at a time.   I called friends over for emergency sampling. When we were invited to dinner, I brought the testing results with me.  Still, sweets piled on sweets, and by the end of the testing period – as you’ll see – I felt a bit like The Hungry Caterpillar (“The next day was Sunday again.  The caterpillar chewed through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.”)  Fortunately, my next testing is a vegetable book.

Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Baking with Less Sugar’ and ‘Real Sweet’ in the Washington Post. 

Testing Milk Bar Life was an education for me –  and completely unlike any testing I can remember.  Over the years I’ve had to hunt down all manner of seasonally ephemeral produce, little-known condiments from the back shelves of the Asian market, xanthan gum and carbonators from online sites.

But never before have I been asked to buy cake mix.  Or pre-made crescent rolls.  Or Ritz crackers and bread crumbs with “Italian seasoning”.  I got a little lost in the supermarket looking for them, to tell you the truth.

Was it worth it?  the crazy mix of highbrow and lowbrow baking?  The packaged hot dogs wrapped in the homemade buns? The Ritz crackers baked into fresh cookie dough? I’m still working that out.  But you can decide for yourself.

Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Milk Bar Life’ in the Washington Post. 

It was almost 9 months ago that I first tested Recipes from my French Grandmother.  In the interval since, New England’s been locked in winter(and now, just barely unlocked), my son’s grown 3 inches (not kidding), and half a dozen more French cookbooks have come and gone.

Yet for all that, this one’s worth a second look.  It’s not showy and not particularly new, but there’s good value to be had in this small, attractive package.  At least one recipe – the vegetable soup with basil pistou – has made it to the favorites list.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Recipes from my French Grandmother’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘French Grandmother’ review

Just in time for what I call Fatstember and Carbuary – my two favorite baking months – the unapologetic and seductive new baking book from Dorie Greenspan.  It’s French home baking, and a sight easier than the high-flying pastries you may think of when you consider French desserts.  While there is one suitably neurotic macaron recipe, nearly everything in here is doable with the confectionery skills of a mortal.

This also marks my first collaboration ever with the Washington Post‘s terrific food section.  I hope there will be more to come.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Baking Chez Moi’ in the Washington Post. 

The wind was so strong last night I dreamed a tree fell in our driveway, and the woodstove’s been going for a week.  October has us in its teeth, and it’s strange to think back to the green, tropical flavors – coconut, banana, heaps of herbs and ginger – I tested this past summer.

The week we ate from Caribbean Potluck was a satisfying one.  The thing that most surprised me was the authors’ liberal way with thyme, which I’d never thought of as particularly island-y.

Yet I came away from the book feeling like I’d missed a learning opportunity.  When it comes to ethnically or regionally organized cookbooks, I’m always looking for something that will teach me something fundamental I can apply elsewhere in my food (the way Simple Thai Food, from last week, did).  If not, I’ll take a book with two or three swooners for recipes.  This, though, is nothing more nor less than a collection of pretty good work – fun in July, forgotten by October.

What is foremost in my mind this fall, though, is the annual CiderDays festival here in western Massachusetts.  More varieties of apples and hard cider than you’ve ever tasted, as the orchard fling wide their gates for an end-of-season celebration.  All the deets here in my Globe post and here at their website.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Caribbean Potluck’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Caribbean Potluck’ review

I always thought the problem was me.

I love Thai food.  I have ever since my college roommate Christina (who had lived in Thailand as a teen) and I used to splurge on lunches at the Thai restaurant across the street from our dorm.  But every time I got a Thai cookbook – and all of them were colorful, inspiring productions you could almost taste – I just couldn’t get through them.

I could get the lemongrass and galangal and the kaffir lime leaf.  But there was always something: gaeng hang lae powder, green tamarind pods, dried salted radishes, one particular kind of fish.  I wanted to do it right! and so the best became the enemy of the good, and I never made those recipes.

Every so often I would get an “easy” Thai book.  But it would turn out to be all soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger and garlic – pretty much like an “easy” Chinese book.  Where was the easy Thai book that actually tasted Thai?

So here at last it is.  It’s not *totally* easy.  But it’s not dump-a-Maesri-curry-paste-in-some-coconut-milk either.   The writing’s entertaining, the recipes work, and the flavors will knock your socks off.  What more could you ask? (other than slightly larger print, as usual.)

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Simple Thai Food’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Simple Thai Food’ review

Spice books – I almost never review them, because they tend not to teach me what I really want to learn.  I’m interested in Grand Unified Theories of spice – in botanical relationships and historically documented foodways.  More often, the message of spice books is more “This is how I use spices” or “Everyone should use more spices!”

But this book, which hails from Seattle’s World Spice Merchants at Pike Place, is smartly organized and thoroughly informative.  And I finally got the full benefit of the magnetic spice organization system I put in last year!  It took 22 tins to make ras el hanout, and it was worth it just to find out how (relatively) easy it was compared to the furtive, frantic searches in dark cabinets of years past.

spice tins

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘World Spice at Home’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘World Spice at Home’ review

A Susie Middleton cookbook is always an occasion for celebration.  As she demonstrated in Fast, Fresh & Green and The Fresh & Green Table, the former cooking magazine editor turned small farm owner has a feel for finely tuned, robustly flavored food using the freshest ingredients.

I tested this book at the beginning of the growing season, when few crops besides arugula and radishes were ready.  Now, at the end of the season, there have been the usual garden heartaches (fingerlings and tomatoes lost to blight, poor output from the new strawberries) but a few proud stands of greens and beans remain.  No matter how hard-won and scant your own end-of summer kitchen garden may look, you’ll find a fitting way to enjoy the last of it in these pages.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Fresh from the Farm’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Fresh from the Farm’ review

I’m sure there are those who can resist a Southern cookbook, but I am not one of them.  With his 2009 Real Cajun, Donald Link had already convinced me that he was the rare restaurant chef whose recipes could translate effortlessly to the home kitchen (though in this I’m sure his co-author, Paula Disbrowe, should also be given credit).

Southern cookbooks often make me cry for the ingredients I can’t easily get here in New England – the tasso ham, the lady peas, the crayfish – and this one was no exception.  Still, I found enough doable recipes to make for one flavor-forward, porky, and very satisfying week of testing.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Down South’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Down South’ review

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find write-ups of 250+ of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Charm.  It’s an elusive quality in cookbooks – and when it works, it’s a heady combination of good storytelling, intriguing recipes, and great book design.

Kim Sunée’s new book exudes charm – great, billowing waves of charm that overwhelm your senses and hijack your judgement.  It’s the kind of book you fall in love with in the store; when you bring it home, you make the recipe that looks most mouthwatering to you, and you love it.  From that point on, the book holds a cherished place in your heart – even if you try another recipe and it fails (it must be my fault! you think), or if you try no more recipes and it becomes one of those one-dish books we all have.

But when you test a book for a week and live with it, you get a slightly different perspective.  And after that dazzling first date, you may find a different personality hovers just beyond view.  And for me, A Mouthful of Stars turned out to be a book of many faces – a true mixed bag.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘A Mouthful of Stars’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Mouthful of Stars’ review

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find write-ups of 250+ of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

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