The book:  Gloriously Gluten-Free, by Susannah Booth (Hamlyn Books, $29.99)

The recipe:  Coffee & walnut cake

Why I tried itApparently, last year –  I didn’t realize this until I had already made up this year’s Best Recipe list – I also featured a walnut cake.  (It seems walnut cake is yet one more thing I can’t resist.)  I didn’t go hunting for walnut cake when testing a brace of gluten-free books this year, yet there it was.  As soon as I saw this was a coffee-flavored walnut cake, as opposed to a walnut coffee cake, I was lost.  As Superman before Kryptonite, I am powerless before the flavor of coffee, although alas I cannot take much caffeine.

Why I loved it:  This was not a straightforward test. Gloriously Gluten-Free is a buy-in, presumably converted from metric, and something is a bit off about the water measurements for dissolving the confectioner’s sugar. I’ve tried to update the measurements for both buttercream and icing, but do use your judgement. Anyway, despite a bit of hair-pulling and concern about the crumb (with no gluten, it’s a fall-apart interior, which will be divine on the tongue if you can keep it together till serving time), this turned into a tender, coffee-scented, fantastically alluring confection. It was, in fact, my daughter’s favorite dessert of the year. And this is a house where desserts happen with clocklike regularity.  I warn you, it’s not pretty.  But given it is unlikely to survive more than 10 minutes after the first bite, that hardly seems to matter.

Estimated preparation time:  About an hour, as long as you don’t run into issues with the confectioner’s sugar-based components.

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Bruta, ma buona. I decided that adding the decorative walnut halves would only make it look sadder.

Coffee & Walnut Cake
I’m sorry to say that this cake is rather hideously unphotogenic. But I urge you to try it anyway, even if you are the kind of old-school baker who ordinarily shies away from anything labeled “gluten-free”. It may well convert you to the cause, at least in this one instance. I used espresso powder, by the way, not having any instant coffee on hand.

About 10 slices
2 tablespoons sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing
1 1/2 cups walnut pieces, plus walnut halves to decorate
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons instant coffee
3 teaspoons boiling water
2 teaspoons baking power

Buttercream
1 teaspoon instant coffee
2 teaspoons boiling water
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Icing
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
2 tablespoons boiling water
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees. Lightly oil a 9 inch loaf pan with sunflower oil.

Place 1 cup of the walnut pieces and the rice flour in a food processor and process until the mixture is the texture of coffee grinds. Add the brown sugar, milk, oil, eggs, and vanilla extract. Stir together the instant coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a small cup until the coffee dissolves. Pour into the food processor and blend for 1 minute until the mixture is thick and creamy. Let stand for 15 minutes.

Add the baking powder to the cake batter and blend for a couple of seconds. Fold in the remaining walnut pieces, then pour into the prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. Bake for 30 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.

To make the buttercream filling, mix together the coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a large bowl, then stir in the confectioners’ sugar. Add the butter and beat until well combined.

Cut the cooled cake in half horizontally using a sharp knife (a bread knife works well). Evenly spread the base with the buttercream, then sandwich together with the top.

To make the icing, mix together the coffee and the measurement of boiling water in a bowl until completely dissolved (or you’ll get dark flecks in your icing.) Stir in the confectioners’ sugar to form a thick mixture. Spread across the top of the cake using a palette knife, then decorate with the walnut halves. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

From Gloriously Gluten Free by Susannah Booth, Hamlyn 2015

The book:  Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Xinjiang lamb skewers

Why I tried itCumin and lamb is nothing new; it’s one of the signature flavor combinations of Xinjiang, near the Kazakh and Mongolian borders.  But I have a weakness for chili bean paste (how many weaknesses have I confessed to in this series?!), and it was summer, which meant grabbing any opportunity whatsoever to light the grill.

Why I loved it:  It’s funny, this turns out to be all about the ma la (“numbing and hot”) , which I think of as more of a Szechuan thing. There’s the sizzle of the lamb fat, and the sweetness of the meat and the savory plumb line of the bean paste…and that addictive numbing buzz from the Szechuan peppercorns.  And then there are those grilled scallions, still a bit pungent, flame-and-charcoal-kissed and sweetly blistered.   You’ll likely find yourself licking the skewers, so take a tip from me and watch out for the pointy end.

Estimated preparation time:  15 minutes prep, several hours to marinate, maybe 45 minutes for preheating and grilling
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Xinjiang Lamb Skewers

This is all about the chili bean paste (doubanjiang) so get a good one, ruddy and thick. Personally, I prefer the ones made from broad beans to the ones made from soy beans.
serves 4

1 lb 7 oz boneless lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 fat garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons ground cumin
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons chili bean paste
4 scallions

Chop the lamb shoulder into cubes and put into a bowl.
Toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet on medium heat for a couple of minutes until you can smell their aroma, shaking the pan often to stop them from burning. Let cool, then grind in a mortar and pestle, or a spice or coffee grinder if you have one. Do the same with the Sichuan peppercorns.
Add both spices to the lamb along with the ginger, garlic, cumin, and salt and mix well, then add the chili bean paste. Cut the scallions into pieces 1 inch long, add them to the lamb, and mix together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let marinate in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, if you don’t have metal skewers, presoak some wooden ones in water for a good 30 minutes (but even so, beware of them catching fire; metal are better).

Take the lamb out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking so that it comes up to room temperature. Thread the lamb onto your skewers, alternating with the scallion. Cook on a hot barbecue, or a smoking hot ridged grill pan on the stove, for a few minutes each side so that they are charred and cooked through but not burned. Serve with a cooling salad.

From Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (Mitchell Beazley, 2015)

Welcome, NPR listeners, chowhounds and recipe hunters Whether you’re here because you’ve just run across the “Best Cookbooks of 2015” feature at NPR.org or because you heard there’s a “Best Recipes of 2015” countdown going on, you’ve come to the right place.

Just want the list?  OK!  NPR’s Top 11 Cookbooks of 2015 (in no particular order)

Every year brings a plethora of fascinating new titles that are equally notable in one way or another.  Although I can’t, of course,  fully test and feature every one, what follows is my shortlist of titles I thought worth a second look.

Most Intriguing First Book from a Cute & Cosmopolitan Baking Blogger
Baklava to Tarte Tatin, by Bernard Laurance

For Cooks Who Utterly Repudiate the ‘Quick & Easy’
Slow Fires, by Justin Smillie

This Year’s Most Authentic Book Written By a Supermodel
True Thai, by Hong Thaimee

For Cooks Who Are Already Too Clever For Their Own Good
Cook’s Illustrated Kitchen Hacks

For Those Still Sitting Shiva for Gourmet Magazine
My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl

For Those Who Love to Eat Vegetables, and Those Who Only Love to Look at Them
V is for Vegetables, by Michael Anthony

Most Intriguing Small-Bites Book for When You’re Not Cooking for 12
Mezze, by Ghillie Basan

For Pizza Lovers Who Have Considered a Side Salad When the $2.50 Slice Is Not Enuf
United States of Pizza, by Craig Priebe

Effective At-Home Remedy for Culinary Wanderlust
Eat Istanbul, by Andy Harris

Several Dozen Vegetarian Ways to Use Up Those Spices That Have Just Been Sitting There for Years
Indian Harvest, by Vikas Khanna

For Palates Too Jaded for Hershey’s
Theo Chocolate, by Debra Music

Because, Don’t Deny It, You Know You Love Those Meatballs at Ikea
The Scandi Kitchen, by Bronte Aurell

Wings So Interesting You’d Enjoy Them Even Without the Game On
Chicken Wings, by Carol Hilker

For Church-of-Kenji Initiates, and Wannabes
The Food Lab, by Kenji López-Alt

For Those Who Feel Recipes Work Better In a Chart Format
Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix, by Mark Bittman

The book:  At Home with Umami, by Laura Santtini (Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95)

The recipe:  Sunshine laksa with crab & snow peas

Why I tried itLaksa is not something one finds in New England.  It’s a Southeast Asian dish that’s about as easy to pin down as a curry, which is to say not at all.  There are probably as many laksas as there are cooks.  It could be a coconut-based curry soup, or a sour one, and it could have nearly any kind of protein imaginable; it probably has noodles.  There isn’t a whole lot of orthodoxy.  And yet for much of this year I, stranded in the laksa-less Northeast, endured mouthwatering laksa narratives from a friend in Australia without ever considering I might just make it myself.  At Home with Umami (rather brilliant concept for a book) put an end to this extended phase of laksa-related self-pity.

Why I loved it: I’m really not sure millet in place of noodles would be sanctioned in the Holy Book of Laksa, but no matter.  You’ve only to look at the list of ingredients for the laksa paste to know that a bowl of highly concentrated delicious lies ahead – shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, ginger, curry…need I go on?  I challenge anyone to maintain their reserve as the aromatics hit the pan.  The only real difficulty here is what to do when it’s all over and, in your foolishness, you didn’t think to make twice the amount of laksa paste with an eye to tomorrow.

(And if you want noodles, by all means use noodles.  I applied the laksa paste to some fresh thick udon one night and I honestly thought I’d died and gone to Elysium, my sins improbably forgiven.)

Estimated preparation time:  45 minutes, if you can find the shrimp paste.
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38_Laksa_019

Photo credit: Photography by Con Poulos

SUNSHINE LAKSA WITH CRAB & SNOW PEAS

200 g/1 cup millet
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 x 400-ml/14-oz. cans coconut milk
500 ml/2 cups chicken stock
500 ml/2 cups water
2 tablespoons fish sauce
5 kaffir lime leaves
1 lemongrass stalk, crushed
freshly squeezed juice of 3 limes
250 g/9 oz. white crab meat
200 g/3 small handfuls mangetout/snow peas, cut on the diagonal into 1-cm/1⁄2-in pieces
4 spring onions/scallions, finely chopped

TO SERVE
2 red chillies/chiles, deseeded and finely chopped
1 handful of coriander/ cilantro, chopped
lime wedges

LAKSA PASTE
3 shallots, cut in half 3 garlic cloves
3 red chillies/chiles, (1 with the seeds left in and 2 deseeded; or leave more with seeds in if you want it hotter)
2 lemongrass stalks, chopped
2.5-cm/1-in. square piece of ginger, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons any nut or seed butter
2 teaspoons shrimp paste
2 teaspoons curry powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

SERVES 4

Place all the laksa paste ingredients in a small food processor and blitz to a paste.

Place the millet in 2 cups of water, bring to a boil and cook till most of the liquid’s been absorbed and the millet is tender, about 10-15 minutes. Set aside and leave covered to stay warm.

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a high heat. Add the laksa paste and cook for 1 minute to release all the aromatics.

Add the coconut milk, chicken stock, water, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass to the pot and bring to the boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice.

Take some warm serving bowls and in the base put 1 1⁄2 tablespoons of millet, 1 1⁄2 tablespoons crab meat, one-quarter of the snow peas and some scallions and ladle over the piping hot broth. Serve with the red chiles, cilantro and lime wedges.

From At Home with Umami by Laura Santtini
Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95; http://www.rylandpeters.com

The book:  The Broad Fork, by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35.00 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Leek fonduta

Why I tried itOne word, really – leeks.  I really think leeks are my favorite allium, if you don’t count sliced and sizzled garlic (which is not so much a favorite as an existential necessity) or crisp fried shallots (which really belong in the fried-food family).  This year, owing to a chronic fetish for this baked eggs in cream breakfast, I was never without leeks in the house, and that meant that leeks were bound to feature in a weeknight, emergency, no-idea-what-to-make-for-dinner-in-half-an-hour, pasta-type meal before long.

Why I loved it:  It doesn’t take much to take a leek from raw, crunchy, and vegetal to sweet, soft, and seductive – just 20 minutes of gentle heat and a modest quantity of butter. On its own leek will founder and practically melt, a plant that longs to lose its identity in cream.  But in this recipe, it’s helped along by some decadent accomplices – cream and crème fraîche and grated Parmesan.  Oh, it’s so terribly naughty, and embarrassingly easy too.  It’s good on a bit of toasted baguette, or on some fresh pasta.  And I’d be lying if I said I’d never eaten it straight out of the pan with a spoon.

Estimated preparation time: 30 minutes, tops?

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Leek fonduta
Serves 4

4 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, washed and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup creme fraiche
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Grated rind of ½ lemon

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the leeks, garlic, butter, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, or until the leeks are translucent but not brown.

2. Add the cream and creme fraiche. Bring the liquid to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.

3. Add the Parmesan, parsley, lemon, and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt, if you like.

Adapted from “The Broad Fork”, by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, 2015)

The book:  Crossroads, by Tal Ronnen (Artisan Press, $35.00)

The recipe:  Pasta with roasted balsamic mushrooms

Why I tried itCrossroads is a vegan cookbook.  I am (news flash!) not a vegan. But the book had enough style and promise to tempt me to hunt down recipes that might cross over into our meat-loving household.  When I saw “roasted” and “mushrooms” I instantly thought, like mushrooms, only better.  When I saw “balsamic” I instantly thought, like roasted mushrooms, only better. 

Why I loved it:  It’s not just the balsamic reduction that makes this so so irresistible.  It’s really the tomato-butter sauce too.  Do you have to use Earth Balance instead of butter? Do you have to use, or make, eggless pasta?  Of course not,  unless it’s a matter of principle.  You could make your own pasta and your own marinara sauce if you’re up for throwing a couple more hours at it.  That would make it like what I made, only better.

Estimated preparation time:   1 hour, unless you’re making your own fresh pasta first.  If you’re making your own pasta, give yourself an extra hour.  If you’re me, give yourself two.
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Photograph by Lisa Romerein

Linguine with Balsamic-Roasted Mushrooms and Tomato-Basil Butter Sauce
Serves 4 to 6 (Makes 4 cups sauce)

Homemade, store-bought fresh or store-bought dry linguine

2 pounds mixed mushrooms, such as cremini and shiitake, stemmed, wiped of grit, and quartered
4 large shallots, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise into large slices, plus 1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup Balsamic Reduction (recipe follows)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Nonstick cooking spray
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter or Earth Balance butter stick, cut into chunks
3 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup dry sherry
4 cups homemade or store-bought marinara sauce
8 large fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

1. To prepare the balsamic mushrooms and shallots for the sauce: Preheat the oven to 400°F.

2. Put the mushrooms and sliced shallots in a mixing bowl and drizzle with the oil. Pour in the balsamic reduction, season with salt, black pepper, and ¼ teaspoon of the red pepper flakes, and turn the mushrooms and shallots over so they are well coated. Spread the vegetables out in a single layer on a baking sheet that has been coated with nonstick cooking spray and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender and deep brown. Set aside. (The roasted mushrooms and shallots can be prepared a couple of hours in advance, covered, and held at room temperature.)

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: Put a large sauté pan over medium heat and add 3 tablespoons of the butter or butter substitute. When it has melted, toss in the minced shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 1 minute. Season with salt, black pepper, and the remaining ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, add the roasted balsamic mushrooms and shallots, and toss until well coated. Pour in the sherry and cook for 30 seconds to evaporate some of the alcohol. Stir in the marinara sauce and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes.

5. When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta, give it a couple of good stirs with a wooden spoon, and cook until tender yet firm. Drain the pasta well, reserving ¼ cup of the starchy cooking water to use in the sauce if necessary.

6. Add the linguine to the sauce, tossing with tongs to coat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter or butter substitute and the basil, season with salt and black pepper, and toss to distribute evenly. If the sauce gets too thick, thin it with enough of the reserved pasta water so the linguine is thoroughly coated.

7. Divide the linguine among plates or transfer to a bowl. Serve immediately.

Balsamic Reduction
Makes ½ cup

½ cup agave nectar
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 shallot, halved
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the agave in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until it thins out and is warmed, about 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and shallot and gently simmer, swirling the pan a few times, until the sauce has reduced and thickened to the consistency of maple syrup and coats the back of a spoon, about 50 minutes.

2. Remove the shallot and add a good pinch each of salt and pepper. The reduction can be stored covered at room temperature for up to 3 months.

Adapted from an excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher, from “Crossroads” by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015.

I’m a bit late with it, and everything else this year, but at last it’s time for the Best Recipes of 2015!  And what a wild mélange it is.  Between reviewing for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post and having a big hand in NPR’s year-end cookbook coverage, I’ve seen a huge range of books this year  But as always, there’s just a few memorable recipes that have demanded, and won, a place in my regular repertoire.

The book:  A Bird in the Hand, by Diana Henry (Mitchell Beazley, $29.99)

The recipe:  Bourbon & marmalade drumsticks

Why I tried itI have a thing, sort of, for bourbon.  It’s the only hard liquor I thoroughly enjoy, and I’m willing to try it in just about anything short of an egg salad sandwich.  So I had already experienced the joys of bourbon and orange conjoined in splashy matrimony.  Also, no matter how many great chicken recipes you have, you can always have another.

Why I loved it:  This is one of those recipes that’s so much more than its half-dozen ingredients would suggest.  It reminds me of the first time I made black-currant glazed pork chops a million years ago – it was so shockingly easy, and so shockingly good, I felt like I’d committed a crime.  This is like that.  Most of the work gets done by the marinade (which takes 5 minutes to put together) over a couple of leisurely hours while you surf the internet, paint your nails, and do whatever it is you do when you’re not cooking.  Then a 45-minute (cocktail time!) blast of heat roasts the drumsticks, sets the glaze, and transforms the whole thing into a sticky, gorgeous mess.  You might as well eat it with your fingers, since you’ll be licking them afterward anyway.  Besides, silverware might be too much work.

Estimated preparation time:  Couple hours to marinate, 1 hour to preheat & roast – but seriously, only like 15 minutes active time.
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Photo credit: Laura Edwards

Bourbon and marmalade-glazed drumsticks
serves 4

8 drumsticks
½ cup orange marmalade, divided
4 tsp Dijon mustard, divided
3 tbsp bourbon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 red chiles, halved, seeded, and minced
2 oranges (preferably thin-skinned), halved and cut into ¾-inch thick wedges
salt and pepper

Make small slits in the drumsticks with a sharp knife. In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of the marmalade and 1 teaspoon of the mustard. Set aside. In another bowl, mix the remaining marmalade—squash it down with the back of spoon to break it up—with the remaining mustard, the bourbon, garlic, and chiles. Put the chicken into this and roll it around so it gets well coated. Cover and put in the fridge for a few hours (or leave it all day, or overnight if you prefer). Bring it to room temperature before cooking.

When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 410°F. Put the drumsticks—with all the marinade and any juices—into a roasting pan or gratin dish where they can lie in a single layer. Add the orange wedges. Turn the chicken and oranges over so that the oranges get coated in the marinade, too. Season everything with salt and pepper.

Roast for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the drumsticks are cooked through, glossy, and almost caramelized. In the last 10 minutes of the cooking time, brush the top of the drumsticks with the reserved marmalade and mustard.
Transfer the oranges and drumsticks to a serving platter and spoon some of the juices evenly over the top. You can’t eat the orange skin, but the flesh is nice: sweet and tart.

From A Bird in the Hand: Chicken Recipes for Every Day and Every Mood by Diana Henry/Mitchell Beazley

Since 2013, NPR has been offering its holiday book coverage in the form of the Book Concierge, an interactive tool that lets you filter your selections (want a geeky book that’s also funny?  A comic book about music?  A cookbook for kids? It’s all there, and tag-searchable).  I do a big chunk of the cookbook coverage on the Concierge, and I generally try to find quirky, gifty, interesting books that may not have made their way onto others’ lists.  I think I chose 15 of them this year, and I’d be happy to receive any one of them if I didn’t already have them all.

This is not the same list, however, as NPR’s 10 Best Cookbooks of 2015, which I’m still pulling out my hair over (the deadline’s tomorrow!  plenty of time!)  That will go live next Monday, Dec. 14th, so stay tuned.

NPR Book Concierge shot

A few classy moves translated to the home kitchen – that’s the gist of what I found in The Broad Fork. Some, like the leek fonduta, were good enough to enter the weekly repertoire.  But you’re not going to find me picking the leaves off Brussels sprouts and blanching them for one of many components in a compose- d salad – or boiling and deep-frying grains of farro for a garnish again any time soon.  At least not until my kitchen staff expands from 1 to 2, or 3.

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

It was not without a certain trepidation that I undertook the testing of The Food Lab.  “Kenji,” as so many of us casual cooks and Serious Eats readers adoringly call him, has a devoted following.  Some of us are in it for the exhaustively tested recipes, some of us for the droll wit, and some of us for his pure, joyous geekery.  But – when the rubber hit the road – what if it didn’t work out so well?  What if the recipes didn’t work?  What would that say about our idol? and what would that say about us and our competence as cooks?

Still, there was only one way to find out.  Armed with measuring implements, just-sharpened knives, a pencil, and my friend Mark’s Thermapen, I gave it my best shot.

Click here to read this week’s review of ‘The Food Lab’ in the Washington Post.  

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