Jen Tolley is NOPL’s Outreach Librarian and the show-stopping baker of the staff. If you visit the Brewerton Branch, there is probably a gorgeous cake in the breakroom that she has made. Occasionally she jokes about how terrible a cook she is, but it’s hard to believe when seeing the technical work of her bake goods. Here, Jen recommends her current favorite cookbooks (plus websites) and reviews them in a way we can only forks up appreciate: one for technique, one for frosting, another for taste, etc. She’ll break it down like the honest reader and librarian that she is, in combination with her exceptional experience as an at-home baker. Enjoy!
By Jen Tolley
This year, one of my reading goals was to actually READ cookbooks, not just flip through for the pictures. Today I’m sharing some of my favorite cookbooks (and one website) that I found helpful. I’m still not a great cook, but these titles are definitely helping me get better!
Smitten Kitchen-Every Day by Deb Perelman
I go back to the author’s website and her cookbooks a lot. Every Day is my favorite, and I’ve made a bunch out of it. She makes EVERYTHING feel achievable. If she can make a massive cake, English muffins, or BBQ in her tiny NYC apartment, so I can I!
Recipe to try: Marsala Chicken Meatballs- It’s not very fancy or even that impressive looking, but it’s ultra-comforting and easy for people unused to making meatballs on the stove (You can cook it in the oven, but it loses some flavor). I’ve already made it three times.
Honorable mention from her first cookbook because I can’t help myself: S’mores Cake. It has two cups of graham cracker crumbs, so I didn’t know what to expect from the texture, but GAHHHHHHHH so good and moist and beautiful!!! I love a good excuse to bring out my blow torch too, but I did have trouble making the frosting look good with the plops she used to decorate hers. I might try swirls next time to see if that’s easier.
Half Baked Harvest by Tieghan Gerard
Comforting, easy recipes. This book has gorgeous photos, and there are updates on her website daily with new ideas. I like checking to see what new things she has cooking. I’ve made many of her desserts pretty successfully (Bombed horribly on her coffee caramel, though). I didn’t learn very much from her, if I’m honest with you, but it is easy to change her recipes if you’re missing an ingredient or prefer a different taste.
Recipe to Try: Garlic and Herb Mascarpone Roasted Chicken-I never have mascarpone ever, so I just used butter instead to be lazy, but the rice and potatoes you bake under the chicken ARE SO GOOD. She converted me to wild rice, and now I have a big bag of it in my pantry. It would probably be even better with the ingredient you’re actually supposed to use.
American Cake by Anne Byrn
So interesting! It’s a little slice of American history in cake form. I’ve only made one recipe so far from it, but the book is worth “checking out” just for all the research. She ends up folding a lot of fascinating facts about American life into each section and explains why things like dried fruit were so popular in early cakes, when chocolate came into play, and just how our tastes have changed over time.
Recipe to Try: I haven’t made them yet, but I want to make some famous cakes from colonial America. I think it would be fun to eat the kind of food Washington might have snacked on. (I tried her Tunnel of Fudge cake, and to be honest, I’ve made a way better one from The Perfect Cake (below), so I would skip that.)
The Perfect Cake by America’s Test Kitchen
Anything from America’s Test Kitchen is usually an automatic check-out for me. Their recipes always come out great, and I appreciate their detail about what works and what doesn’t. I always learn something new about cooking.
Recipe to Try: Smith Island Cake-it was a little tough to get the cake layers perfectly spread in the pans when the batter is that thin, but this recipe had one of the BEST ganache’s I’ve ever made. If I tried this again, I might bake the batter in two pans like normal and use a cake saw to cut the layers instead. Either way you try it, it’ll be worth it. It’s so dramatic and impressive to see a cake with eight layers.
Fantastical Cakes by Gesine Bullock-Prado
Honestly, insane recipes, but she has great tips about the actual baking process that I’ve stolen. Author Gesine Bullock-Prado was the first person I’ve ever seen to recommend NOT greasing the sides of the cake pan, but it does seem to make my cake layers straighter. I haven’t had an issue with any cakes getting stuck yet either.
Recipe to Try: Probably none of them unless you’re feeling really ambitious. (She has a 26 egg yolk cake that I want to try someday as soon as I can convince someone else to buy me the eggs) I read this one for the cooking advice. It’s also nice to go through the pictures and daydream about the kind of event you would serve a triangle-shaped cake, though.
Bonus Website Mention: Genius Recipes from Food52
Food52, in general, is full of great recipes, but their Genius Recipes have excellent tricks and help cook a little better. I’ve incorporated so much into my cooking, and I find the videos and the descriptions very helpful. The whole concept is built around the hosts finding a “genius idea” to elevate a dish.
Recipe to Try: Persian-ish Rice from Samin Nosrat
If you’ve never had tahdig before, it’s time to try it! I love the textures of the crispy yet fluffy rice, and it’s so versatile. I pair mine with all kinds of chicken and add-ons, but it’s satisfying even plain. This is a beginner-friendly recipe, and the video will walk you through it. I did horribly screw up my rice the first time, but I’ve made a perfect golden dish every time since. If I can do it, you can too! Samin Nosrat is a big deal in the food world, and I’m so excited to check out her book and Netflix show.