If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember my stocking stuffer post from a few days ago. Today, I’m writing about my favorite cookbooks for holiday giving. The same caveats apply to this post as I wrote for the last one: please don’t hate me for posting about Christmas gifts in early November, and please don’t buy these gifts for the ambivalent or resentful home cook.
One of my favorite activities is looking through cookbooks, even if I’m not cooking or baking anything out of them. I adore new ones with glossy pages and beautiful photographs, but I also love dusty old ones with odd ingredients (what on earth is Kitchen Bouquet?) and vintage ones with stained pages. I love them all. The weirder, the better. I know I’m not alone in this pastime, as visitors to our home sometimes can’t resist running their fingers across the spines of our cookbook shelves, and sometimes taking a peak inside the books. I love it when that happens, especially if we get into a conversation about cooking. A lot of these cookbooks are available electronically (on kindle) or in paperback, but I think part of the pleasure of having a cookbook is paging through beautiful photographs and looking through the (sometimes stained) pages. For gifts, I think hardcover is nice.
You might have guessed that the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks will top the list. There’s a good reason I decided to make all of her recipes, and that’s because most of them are really fantastic. They aren’t too challenging for the novice cook, but they’re interesting enough for someone who has been cooking for years. I would suggest the following order, for someone who is new to Ina’s world:
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, Barefoot Contessa Parties!, and Barefoot Contessa Family Style are her first three cookbooks. These are my favorites for people who have been cooking for a while, because a lot of the recipes make intimidatingly huge quantities. A veteran cook will be able to scale back the recipe without panicking about it, or figure out what to do with vast quantities of food. They would be good for a newbie who isn’t afraid to divide fractions or make a whole mess of food. And, they’re beautiful.
Barefoot in Paris was her fourth cookbook, and while it’s great for francophiles, I think it’s also great for someone who just wants to make something really beautiful or a little bit fancy for dinner. The recipes are not too difficult, but they’re enough different from the first three cookbooks that they’re worth trying. I love this cookbook more than I thought I would. Neil bought it for me for Christmas during the year it was published, along with some French tart pans. I love it.
The next two cookbooks, Barefoot Contessa at Home and Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, are my least favorite of the group. They would make good gifts for the die-hard Ina fanatic who doesn’t have them yet, but they’d be the last ones I would buy. That’s not to say that there aren’t good recipes in them, but they’re just not my favorites.
When I’m not cooking a Barefoot Contessa recipe, I love the recipes from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook (and her website), and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The Slow Cooker Revolution from America’s Test Kitchen, or really anything from America’s Test Kitchen, would be a great gift. I would love a subscription to their digital editions. I’m currently coveting the second volume of the slow cooker cookbook. Other than the slow cooker cookbook, I’m not a big fan of niche genre cookbooks, but I’ve made an exception lately for Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The authors live in Minnesota, and my dad gave me the cookbook a while back when he realized he wasn’t using it, and I was reintroduced to it recently by my friend Kelly, who likes it as much as I do. Because I had whole wheat flour and yeast for other recipes in Make it Ahead, I made this whole wheat bread twice this weekend from that cookbook:
If your gift recipient has a favorite region of the country, or wants to know more about a certain region, there are some excellent cookbooks in that niche. The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen would be wonderful for anyone from the upper Midwest, or new to that region. Her photographs and writing are particularly gorgeous, and her recipes are a perfect mix of old and new. There is no shortage of cookbooks from Texas, but The Homesick Texan has a nice touch for beginners without a specific interest (i.e., it doesn’t focus on only barbecue, Tex-Mex, etc.). From the southeastern United States, especially Charleston, South Carolina and the Low Country, I adore the Lee Brothers cookbooks. The Smitten Kitchen and Mark Bittman, mentioned above, would be great for new or old New Yorkers, but so would The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Of course, for wonderful regional traditions, you can’t beat local Junior League cookbooks or church and synagogue cookbooks. Sometimes, the older, the better, and vintage resale shops and used bookstores usually sell them for a song. For international cookbooks, I’m intrigued by Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cookbooks. I have Jerusalem, and his others are on my wish list. He lives in London but is from the Middle East, and there’s a good reason his cookbooks are so well known. If your gift recipient loves international food or has a yen for travel, I think these would be marvelous gifts.
For classic cookbooks that every cookbook lover would love, Julia Child’s cookbooks are amazing, of course, and especially Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vols. I and II. These can also usually be found used, and if you’re lucky, the previous owners have written in the margins. For some vintage 1980s charm, try the Silver Palate cookbooks. My favorite cookbook from my childhood is the McCall’s Cookbook. I have found used editions all over the country, and it was my mom’s go-to for standard recipes.
There are a few categories of cookbook I would avoid altogether when buying gifts. Anything with “diet” in the title comes to mind, along with anything you can buy at the grocery store checkout lane. Anything that implies that the recipient is an idiot should be avoided at all costs. Pairing a cookbook with a fun tool or accessory is a nice way to dress it up a little.
What are your favorite cookbooks to give and receive? What’s your favorite Barefoot Contessa cookbook?