The Joy of Compiling a Cookbook

Maria Guarnaschelli takes on the task of modernizing a treasured food manual

Last year, when Scribner Publishing went looking for a new editor to update "The Joy of Cooking," the obvious choice was Maria Guarnaschelli.

Having worked with most renowned American chefs in one capacity or another during her illustrious career, Ms. Guarnaschelli has emerged as the cookbook guru du jour. She is coordinating the writing, illustrations, and organization of the new "Joy" that will be released this autumn.

According to Guarnaschelli, the principles of American cooking and culture as defined by the late co-authors Marion Rombauer Becker and her mother, Irma Rombauer, have lost much of their relevance. The book was first published in 1931 by Bobbs-Merrill Company, with its last printing in 1975. When she died, Mrs. Becker left this culinary legacy to her grandson, Ethan Becker, who is doing the majority of writing for the updated book.

With the onus of the Becker legacy upon her, and faced with reconfiguring from scratch what has become this country's culinary manual, Guarnaschelli feels honored, challenged, and intimidated all at once. According to Guarnaschelli, when the book comes out, many fans of the original institution will be in for a surprise. "People will be blown away by the level of sophistication, but there are definitely some people who will resent any changes," she predicts. "It can't be the same book it was."

In the first move that called attention to the upcoming revision, Guarnaschelli decided to hire "specialists" to cover culinary subjects within their respective fields.

Citing the book's coverage of cooking basics as one of its strengths, opponents of Guarnaschelli's decision are concerned that the original's unique voice will be compromised. Prepared for such a challenge, Guarnaschelli asserts, "Home cooks are desperate for more generalists. And that's still what the book is for. It's Cooking 101 with a graduate course thrown in."

Although her rsum could serve as a Who's Who of great chefs, Guarnaschelli regards "Joy" as her most significant effort to date. "It's the one [cookbook] that will affect the culture the most," she says. "It's challenging because it forces me to address the social changes that have taken place [since the 1975 edition]."

Take, for instance, the way people eat now. "Sundays used to be family holidays," she recalls, "but it's not like that anymore." And she cites a readership made up largely of brides, grooms, and college freshmen. "Because of mothers working, many more kids dine out at restaurants," she says.

To address new cooks on the block, Guarnaschelli's "Joy" has changed its appearance, including logo, typeface, and art. "There are 1,000 new illustrations," Guarnaschelli says excitedly. "Young people want a new look ... not the one their mother sent them off to college with."

Another challenge has been knowing when to say "when." "Trimming the book down has been a major effort," says Guarnaschelli. "We don't want to throw out stuff, but we have to. I've had to ask, 'Why is this book outselling every other cookbook in America?' and I think the answer is 'technique and the big picture.' "

The voice of the 1975 "Joy" - an eloquent but outdated tone Guarnaschelli compares to the witty essays of James Thurber - will also be changed. Meanwhile, she has had to be wary of offending devotees of the original manual who relied not only on the recipes, but on the fundamentals of etiquette, table service, and party planning. Unapologetically, she confesses, "Most of it we're doing away with or updating. We've added stuff like: 'After you've been to a dinner party, is a telephone call OK to thank somebody?' "

Many critics of "Joy" cite poor organization as its worst flaw. Although the structure of the book is still complex, Guarnaschelli hopes the new version will be easier to follow. "The chapters tend to go from easier to harder, from New England Boiled Dinner to Pot au Feu."

The book will also contain fewer recipes. The 1975 printing of "Joy" proudly advertised 4,500 recipes. Guarnaschelli contends that that number is far too high. "I will take out recipes at the end in favor of processes," she says. "This will be more of a reading book ... because cooking, and especially baking, is not a casual art." As for the eight chicken-liver recipes in the last edition, Guarnaschelli offers, "No one eats that much chicken liver."

Illustrating her point, one chapter from the previous "Joy" traces the word "lady" to the old English for "loaf-kneader." The passage ends, "...and - with little effort - we housewives can become 'ladies' again!" She calls such anecdotes "jokes," defying any editor to use the word "housewives" today. "That's the kind of stuff we're bringing out the shotgun for," she says.

Ironically, Guarnaschelli says that she is "not temperamentally suited to cooking."

"When I was growing up," she explains, "cooking wasn't what a woman did as a career." Still, despite the challenging aspects of her field, she has hardly lost her joy of cooking. "I have always loved it," she says. "I don't give dinner parties as much as I used to, but I'm always cooking for new authors' manuscripts. How else am I going to be of service to them?"

MAPLE BREAD PUDDING

(From the new Joy of Cooking)

A luxuriously rich, ultra-light bread pudding devised by a New York pastry chef. If you can buy extra flavorful Grade B or Grade A "dark amber" maple syrup, use it here.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square or 9-inch round pan. Trim crusts from:

8 to 10 slices (10 ounces) egg bread or white loaf bread

Cut the bread into 1/2-inch squares, making about four cups. Spread on a baking sheet and toast to a rich golden brown, stirring several times. Turn the bread into the prepared pan. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Whisk until blended:

9 large egg yolks

3/4 cup pure maple syrup

Whisk in:

3 cups heavy cream

If you wish, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour evenly over the bread and let stand 20 minutes, pressing the bread down several times with a spatula to help it absorb the liquid. Cover the pan with a buttered sheet of aluminum foil. Bake in a water bath until firm in the center, 1 to 1-1/4 hours. Serve warm, drizzled with maple syrup. Accompany with vanilla or buttermilk ice cream.

8 servings

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