It’s with great pleasure that I give you my annual cookbook roundup; for the third year running, these are my favorite tried-and-true cookbook releases from the United States, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand. I generally wait to read other “Best of…” cookbook roundups after completing my own so my choices are not potentially biased. Also, these are all cookbooks I personally own and have cooked from: I am not one of those reviewers who simply slaps a review up without in-depth testing, reading, and hopefully photographing dishes that I’ve tried. Each review that I write takes several weeks from start to finish, and these are some of the many fantastic releases of this year that really captured my interest and whispered to me to cook and bake my way cover to cover. I count myself as incredibly fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to live in five countries (US, Canada x 2, Spain x 2, Taiwan, Japan x 2), travel in several others, and have taught students from over 100 countries, so I love cookbooks that (re)kindle my wanderlust and have the power to transport me to the far-flung places my students hail from. As an experienced baker, I also love baking books that challenge my skills (I work primarily with yeast breads) and find new uses for familiar spices and ingredients.
I find it nearly impossible to choose a “best” cookbook for an entire year’s worth of releases, so instead I offer a carefully culminated collection of favorites. Some of my criteria to make this list include readability (easy-to-read font, clear organization, illustrations and/or photos), reliability, and the true test is if I would rush to make a recipe (ideally many of the recipes) again. Also (and most importantly), the book had to have been published in 2016 (books from 2015 are included on last year’s list here). Here are my favorite releases from 2016 arranged by category:
“Sweet Mornings,” (Patty Pinner)
Mornings have always been my favorite time of the day – sitting down enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and a freshly baked treat as the sun streams across the kitchen table is the perfect way to start the day. I have and cherish both of Patty Pinner’s memoir cookbooks, Sweets: Soul Food Desserts and Memories and Sweety Pies: An Uncommon Collection of Womanish Observations, with Pie, and was excited to see that she had a new cookbook coming out that focused on breakfast and brunch recipes. Patty, a fellow native of Michigan, collected wonderful soul food recipes and stories in her two previous cookbooks, and “Sweet Mornings” is no exception. Each of the 125 recipes is peppered with memories of friends, family and neighbors in Michigan, visiting family in Tennessee, and the larger-than-life personalities of the strong women that surrounded her. No matter your favorite breakfast vice (biscuits, quick breads, pancakes, muffins, bars, waffles, cinnamon rolls, French toast), all are amply represented in the 125 recipes. I loved that some fall into the quick and easy category (including a handful that use pie filling or pudding mix, such as the pistachio coffee cake and Ava Joy’s Lemon Streusel), while others like the orange-filled rolls are perfect for more leisurely mornings. Although most of the book is devoted to baked goods, you’ll also find more substantial brunch offerings including chicken and waffles, chicken salad, hash browns, steak and eggs.
“The Cardamom Trail” (Chetna Makan)
A semi-finalist on the Great British Baking Show 2014, Chetna’s baking book fuses Eastern flavors like cardamom, coriander and cinnamon into familiar comfort bakes like . Fans of “The New Sugar and Spice” will definitely want to add this to their collection. This was my cookbook drama of 2016 as my first copy never arrived, my second was stolen in the mail enroute to Japan and replaced with a used book, and the third time was the charm!
“Traditional Jewish Baking: Retro Recipes Your Grandma Would Make if She Had a Mixer” (Carine Goren). Carine (“The Baking Guru of Israel”) is a self-taught baker, successful TV host and blogger in her native Israel, where her retro fashion and vintage treats are a huge hit. This is her first major cookbook release that’s been translated into English for the US market, and it’s fantastic fun from start to finish. Carine has taken Bubbe’s classics and updated them for modern kitchens, from old-fashioned creamy desserts and whipped cream cakes to semolina coconut cake, fluffy chocolate marble lekach, and coffee cakes to roulades, cheesecake, babkas, cookies, candy and holiday dishes (including Passover desserts). You’ll find cream puffs, malabi, and kataifi rubbing elbows with Gerbaud, apricot bow ties, poppyseed roulade, and gorgeous breads and baked goods. Recipes are in US and metric and come with handy “Grandma Knows Best” tips and tricks and step-by-step photos to ensure you get the best result each and every time. For example, the trick to soak poppyseeds in boiling water first to ensure they don’t absorb the liquid from the cake is essential to avoid a too-dry result.
“Breaking Breads” (Uri Scheft): I’d long awaited the release of Uri Scheft’s bread book, based on his Breads Bakery in NYC, and it is one of my favorite baking books of 2016. Right out of the gate, Uri includes step-by-step photo guidance to things I haven’t run across in other baking books, such as the windowpane test, photos of the stages of proofing, helpful cutting and shaping, etc. Beginning with a basic challah dough, you’ll also find ideas for intricate shaped challah as well as sweet variations (chocolate and orange confit, marzipan, sticky pull-apart cinnamon challah). Breads’ babka, its claim to fame, also makes an appearance, with basic and advanced babkas, cinnamon raisin walnut babka, rum raisin and cheese babka, ricotta streusel babka, poppy seed babka, and chocolate kugelhopf. You’ll find numerous flatbreads perfect for soaking up hummus and dips (there are recipes included for hummus, Kalamata tapenade, babaghanouj and salads), new discoveries like Kalamata tapenade brioche snails, dill bread, and classic Israeli / Jewish cookies like hamantaschen, rugelach, mamoul, apple strudel, sufganiyot, macaroons, Krembos, and savory snacks.
“Gennaro’s Italian Bakery” (Gennaro Contaldo):
Gennaro Contaldo, Italian chef and restauranteur who mentored Jamie Oliver, grew up surrounded by a family of bakers, from spending hours in his uncle’s bakery to waking up to his mother’s home baking. As a baker at The Neal Street Restaurant, he was responsible for making the bread, focaccia, torte salate, pastry and seasonal bakes. As he mentioned in the foreword, bread and baked goods mean tradition, and you’ll find various bakes from across Italy and in honor of various seasons and holidays. I tested several of the breads from “Gennaro’s Italian Bakery,” and all were definite repeats. Personal favorite: the aniseed currant ring.
“The Great New Zealand Baking Book”: This outstanding companion to the “Great New Zealand Cookbook” collects a wide range of recipes from 60 of New Zealand’s best bakers. From classic comfort bakes to some fun new twists on regional staples like Lamingtons (chocolate Lamington mud pies), tropical fruit desserts (passionfruit pudding and truffles, crunchy-topped feijoa and walnut cake, pineapple cake), a surprisingly decadent chapter of “not-so-naughty” creations (including raw) such as beetroot chocolate loaf cake, raw raspberry brownies, chocolate, orange, and fig buckwheat bars, and apricot, ginger, and pistachio balls in toasted coconut) and internationally-influence pies and nibbles (leek and cheese tarts, spanakopita, Chinese steamed pork buns, lavosh). Gorgeous photos make this a delight to read through as well as cook from. They also recently published their third book, The Great New Zealand Birthday Cake Book, in the fall of 2016.
“Classic German Baking” (Luisa Weiss): From familiar tastes like Black Forest Cake and apple strudel to various yeasted cakes and breads dense with poppyseed, almond paste, rum-soaked fruits and nuts, these beautiful Old World treats have been lovingly preserved and updated for modern kitchens. Personal favorites include the yeasted gugelhopf, poppyseed braid, and sweet raisin loaf, but I’m looking forward to baking my way through the entire book!
“Scandikitchen Fika and Hygge” (Bronte Aurell): “Fika” means to meet up for a chat over a cup of coffee, while “Hygge” means a state of inner warmth or satisfaction felt spending time with loved ones. A collection of over 60 recipes for cakes, bakes and treats from all over Scandinavia ranging from saffron Bundt cake with pears and gingerbread with lingonberries to hazelnut and mocha squares from Denmark, rye bread layer cake with cherries, Princess cake, Danish ebleskivers, and modern creations like blondies with lavender and lemon and baked cheesecake with cloudberries, you can cultivate your very own hygge at home.
“The Vanilla Bean Baking Book” (Sarah Kieffer): Thanks to my friend Zoe Francois for calling this one out as it had slipped under my radar! Sarah Kieffer (self-taught baker and blogger behind The Vanilla Bean Blog) has been featured in The New York Times, SAVEUR, Pure Green Magazine, Food 52, The Today Show, Mashable, The Kitchn, America’s Test Kitchen, Huffington Post, and Food + Wine for good reason, and her creations fuse complementing flavors and textures beautifully (blackberry white chocolate cake, toasted sesame caramel sauce, chocolate cardamom cookies, chocolate ganache cupcakes with basil buttercream, pumpkin pound cake with chocolate). Helpful step-by-step photos will also help novice bakers gain confidence and turn out delicious baked goods.
“Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen” (Yasmin Khan). This beautifully-photographed collection of Persian recipes captures the contrast between rural and urban Iran, with fantastic recipes such as date and cinnamon omelette, olives marinated with walnuts and pomegranates, saffron, potato and barberry kuku, jeweled salads and pilafs, roast chicken with pomegranate and za’atar glaze, chocolate and pistachio torte, and orange blossom and date pudding. Sample menus will allow you to assemble your own menus for a Persian picnic, holiday menus, and quick and easy weeknight suppers.
“Summers Under the Tamarind Tree” (Sumayya Usmani). This gorgeous memoir-slash-cookbook recaptures the author’s memories of growing up in Pakistan (her father was a merchant navy officer, and as such, the family traveled extensively and Sumayya spent her formative years on her father’s cargo ship). The beautifully photographed recipes capture Pakistan’s regional cuisines as well as dishes introduced by immigrants (Afghani lamb pulao, Parsi green masala fish in banana leaves), celebratory meals (mutton biryani with sour plums and dried pomegranate), desserts and a wide variety of refreshing cool drinks perfect to take the edge off hot, humid summers.
“Sirocco,” Sabrina Ghayour. Sabrina’s “Persiana” was my top cookbook of 2014, and “Sirocco” is a proud successor. Highlighting the use of simple pantry staples and striking flavor combinations, this is another go-to in my kitchen. Fans of “Le Comptoir Libanais Express,” another of my top picks of 2014 for its speedy Middle-Eastern inspired dinners, will appreciate the speedy, healthful recipes in Sirocco like vinegrilled feta, chargrilled courgettes, colorful salads like the cantaloupe, feta, Greek basil and pumpkinseed salad, and quick snacks like pear, feta and honey toasts, za’atar and goat cheese puffs. The book is a vegetarian’s paradise, with numerous dishes showcasing seasonal veggies with Persian and Middle Eastern twists.
“Cooking with Loula” Alexandra Stratou):
“Cooking with Loula” is the beautiful cookbook-slash-memoir of Alexandra Stratou, Athens native and classically trained chef, that centers on the recipes of Kyria (Mrs.) Loula, her grandmother’s cook. Kyria Loula had worked for several generations of the Stratou family, creating dishes that nourished the physical body as well as sustained family traditions and memories. Recipes are arranged with the home cook in mind; weekday recipes are specifically geared towards the harried modern cook, featuring dishes that can be on the table in half an hour or less. These include spanakopita, gemista, pastitsio, tomato-stewed chicken with orzo, stuffed zucchini, and oven-baked sea bass. “Sundays” includes more ambitious recipes with longer cook times, designed to let you linger over the table with family. Standouts include Hunkiar Beyendi (beef stew with smoked eggplant puree), chicken pie, stuffed cabbage leaves, beef stifado, roast pork with apple and onion, and galaktoboureko.
“Samarkand” (Caroline Eden and Elenor Ford). I’ve taught dozens of students from Central Asia (including Kurdistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), and this gorgeous travelogue and recipes hold a special place in my heart. I even purchased an Uzbek chekich to make stamped flatbreads after seeing the gorgeous patterns in the book!
Taste of Persia (Naomi Duguid): Collecting the best of regional recipes from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan, like Samarkand, these are regions I have personal connection to. Building on base flavors like tart-sweet apricot and raisin relish (Azerbaijan), Georgian walnut and sour plum sauce, you’ll find a wide array of vegetables (the humble eggplant is a particular favorite in the region and appears in a variety of guises, from grilled eggplant puree and grilled eggplant with pomegranate seeds to fried eggplant rollups. I loved the Armenian Thanksgiving pumpkin rice (this may be my Christmas centerpiece this year!), cabbage rolls stuffed with beans and tart fruit, plovs and rice dishes (particularly the Armenian emmer mushroom pilaf, see photo), and classic sweets (halvah, baklava, rosewater-scented puddings). The book also provides a fantastically in-depth guide to featured countries and a very thorough glossary.
“Palestine on a Plate” (Joudie Kalla). Joudie’s gorgeous love song to Palestine preserves her family’s recipes and demystifies Palestinian dishes, from breakfast hummus and breads to grain-based salads (freekeh salad with marinated chicken and pomegranate dresseing, lentil and beetroot salad with parsley and sumac dressing and grilled halloumi), poultry and lamb, seafood (sumac and za’atar roasted monkfish), and beautiful rose-scented desserts (and a killer recipe for moreish tahini brownies).
“Soframiz” (Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick): From the talented chef behind Oleana and Sofra and executive pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick, recipes include breakfast, meze, flatbreads, savory pies, cookies and confections, specialty pastries, cakes and desserts, and beverages. Gorgeous matte photography and clear, large font make this a pleasure to read and cook from.
“Istanbul Cult Recipes”: From the gorgeous gold-embossed cover to the unique black-and-white cartoons, “Istanbul Cult Recipes” is a fantastic love song to the city. True to Turkish cuisine, the bulk of the recipes are for meze, including a vibrant beetroot couscous, chopped salad with walnuts, and purslane salad, kebabs, pilavs, and veg-friendly mains (lentil kofte, hot salads, black-eyed peas with tomato, sarma, etc.). The recipes themselves are simple and straightforward, and most don’t require extensive prep or cooking time, making it easy to prepare several dishes to be served together, as is the tradition in Turkey. The included photographs capture the vibrant people and places, along with detailed maps and itineraries of suggested restaurants and markets.
“Molly on the Range” (Molly Yeh). I first encountered Molly Yeh’s recipe for scallion pancake challah on one of my Jewish Facebook newsfeeds, and fell instantly in love. Having spent six months working (and eating my way across!) Taiwan last year, I have a soft spot for Taiwanese comfort food as well as Jewish classics, and “Molly on the Range” is the love child of the two, from Israeli-inspired breakfasts (everything bagel bourekas with eggs, scallions and cheese, hummus and pita, shakshouka, cardamom orange kubaneh) to Christmukah food (samosa knishes, chicken potstickers, steamed buns), to updates on baked goods (spinach and feta rugelach, coffee halva, pistachio loaf cake) replete with a touch of salty humor, hip flowcharts, and a hefty dose of nostalgia. “Molly on the Range” wins hands-down for most downright fun – can’t remember the last time I repeatedly laughed out loud while reading a cookbook.
Jewish / Kosher:
“Israel Eats” (Steven Rothfeld). From the talented food photographer Steven Rothfeld (who has photographed my friend Hillary Davis’s cookbooks Cuisine Nicoise (see my Mediterranean Living review here), Le French Oven, and her most recent French Desserts) comes a gorgeously in-depth exploration of Israel’s varied topography, culinary traditions (largely influenced by the influx of Yemenite, Iraqis, and Sephardic Jews), and a plethora of exquisite vegetarian-friendly dishes, from a charred beet carpaccio and roasted root vegetables to silky hummus, mushroom falfel with herb tabbouleh, cheese and herb phyllo spirals with Shimon’s bizbaz, aromatic stuffed grape leaves, and a sublime(lt) simple roasted sweet potato with crème fraiche, feta, and dill, the stunning photography will transport you to Israel’s valleys, vineyards, beach resorts and markets.
“The New Mediterranean Jewish Table,” Joyce Goldstein. Joyce’s books on Sephardic cuisine are some of my favorites in my large Jewish collection, so I was over the moon when I heard she was releasing a new cookbook. “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table” collects recipes from North Africa, Syria, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and beyond. Unsurprisingly, many of the recipes are vegetarian friendly (all are kosher, although they are not labeled by meat, dairy, or pareve). A word of warning: if you are a cook who likes gorgeous, full-page photographs of dishes, you’ll be sorely disappointed as there is not a single photo.
“Bubbe and Me in the Kitchen” (Miri Rotkovitz)
From the very first pages, “Bubbe and Me” is like a warm hug from grandma. Breakfast includes classic updates on lox and bagels (hot-smoked salmon bagels with herbed goat cheese and veggies), challah strata, and an amazing pareve apricot pistachio babka, while you’ll find a delicious spread of meze (muhammara and za’atar pita chips, smoky spice-roasted chickpeas, herbed feta), and an array of colorful and healthy salad ideas (I particularly loved the arugula, apple, and date salad with goat cheese and pecans and the purple cabbage slaw with toasted sesame ginger vinaigrette). You’ll find modern updates on matzoh balls (parlsey and nutmeg matzo balls, golden vegetable broth with dill matzo balls), schav (ruby chard and lemongrass schav), latkes, and kugel. There is a chapter included on holidays as well, with a handy table of Passover ingredient substitutions and index of Passover recipes and a selection of menus for Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Passover, Lag B’Omer, Shavuot, Tu B’Av, and Shabbat.
“The Vegetable Sushi Cookbook” (Izumi Shoji). As a longtime vegetarian living in Japan, I’ve been unable to enjoy most types of sushi as most contain seafood. Vegetable sushi is just now catching on here but is perhaps more a novelty than anything else. The more than 100 recipes in “The Vegetable Sushi Cookbook” include many popular types of sushi including nigiri-zushi, maki-zushi, chirashi-zushi, gunkan-zushi, oshi-zushi, temari-zushi, maze-zushi and inari-zushi and show off Japanese veggies and herbs to their best advantage. You’ll find full-color photographs and detailed instructions on making great sushi rice, simple steps to extract the most flavor from a wide range of veggies, and additional side dishes that complement the sushi. A beautifully photographed ingredients and tools glossary will make it easy to take the book along to your nearest Asian / Japanese supermarket to purchase (potentially) unfamiliar items.
“The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook” (Salma Hage). Respected Lebanese cook and author Salma Hage’s sophomore release for Phaidon caters to vegetarians, but everyone will enjoy these dishes. Lebanese cuisine tends to be very vegetarian-friendly in general, featuring numerous preparations of grilled, braised, and pureed vegetables as meze. I loved the vegetarian versions of kibbeh, salads (especially the freekeh, pomegranate, and feta salad), and lighter takes on desserts (fresh fruit salad with mint syrup, pomegranate-yogurt ice pops). Recipes are labeled as vegan and/or gluten-free where applicable.
“Persepolis” (Sally Butcher). I’ve long been a fan of Sally’s fantastic books (most of which are vegetarian), and her latest gem Persepolis continues her tradition of taking classic Persian and Central Asian flavors and making them accessible and veg-friendly.