The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman's collection of recipes is mouth-watering and, despite a couple of misses, features appealingly homey foods.

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    The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
    By Deb Perelman
    Knopf Doubleday
    336 pp.
    View Caption

Here's one way to rate cookbooks: by IQ, a measure not of their intelligence but of their Irresistibility Quotient, the ratio of irresistible to less tempting recipes.  On that scale, Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen Cookbook scores at the Mensa level.

Are you among the five million monthly visitors who have been smitten by the appealingly homey recipes on Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen website? If you're wondering why you should spring for her cookbook when you can access hundreds more of her recipes online, complete with enticing photographs and reams of reader commentary, the answer is editing: What we have here is a carefully curated mix of mainly exclusive new recipes plus a few previously posted winners. The result is that wonderfully high IQ.

Although her photographs are mouth-watering, this is not food porn. Perelman, a self-taught cook and photographer, aims at getting you cooking, not just gawking. She's a self-described picky eater and obsessive, and everything she publishes must pass this test: "Will this recipe be really, truly worth it?"

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Like the best television cooking show hosts – could that be next for her? – Perelman projects an inviting warmth and chattiness. She's funny – "The squares keep at room temperature for at least a week, although never in my apartment" – and self-deprecating enough to ease your culinary insecurities.

She invites us into her household, with pictures of her toddler son sprinkled throughout: "Welcome. Welcome to my tiny kitchen. Wouldn't it be great if we could all fit in here? I'd make us mulled cider and gooey cinnamon squares. We could talk about pie." Alas, her kitchen is too small. But the message is, if she can produce all this bounty in such a shoebox, so can you.

Perelman, like many successful food bloggers – including the Wednesday Chef, Luisa Weiss, whose memoir with recipes, "My Berlin Kitchen," I reviewed earlier this fall, and Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame – quit her day job once her site took off.   

She's upfront about her biases. On her website, she proclaims: "What I'm wary of is: Excessively fussy foods and/or pretentious ingredients. I don't do truffle oil, Himalayan pink salt... or single-origin chocolate." In her book, she confesses to disliking cold soups and fish, but she surmounts both prejudices with a Seared Halibut with Gazpacho Salsa and Tomato Vinaigrette. Halibut, she writes, "is a great gateway fish." It is also wildly expensive, though she says another flaky white fish, such as cod, can be substituted.

A former vegetarian, Perelman offers a bounty of healthful meatless entrees. These include linguine with cauliflower pesto and a rich and hearty mushroom bourgignon she created before she "decided that a life without pulled pork was no longer one I wanted to participate in."

She is also an inventive baker. One innovation involves tweaking lemon or blood orange-olive oil cake by substituting grapefruit. She fills her hamantaschen with rhubarb instead of the more traditional prune or apricot purees.  Her pièce de résistance is a savory twist on strawberry shortcakes: scallion shortcakes topped with a tomato salad and whipped goat cheese, which in my test came out exactly as pictured on the book jacket, though twice as delicious.

Not all efforts add up. Buttered popcorn cookies follow what she calls "basic snack math, which is that two forms of junk food together always exceed the greatness of them separately, especially when you mix the salty and the sweet." To my taste, this is one where the parts are better than the whole.

Among Perelman's most useful offerings are what I think of as b&b recipes, the sort of prepare-ahead breakfast dishes often served at charming inns. Her delectable winners include Cinnamon Toast French Toast and New York Breakfast Casserole, which features bagels, eggs, onions, tomatoes, and cream cheese baked together. 

One can only imagine the agony of selection that went into this book. I would have opted for a few more recipes like the Rosemary Gruyere and Sea Salt Crisps ("Cheez-Its for grown-ups") in place of such boilerplate tips for stress-free entertaining as prepare ahead, keep it simple, and enlist friends' help. Another misstep involves the book design: While beautiful, it frequently fails to list ingredients and instructions on facing pages, requiring too much awkward page-turning to follow a recipe.

But these are small quibbles about a book filled with practical, crowd-pleasing keepers like her mother's apple cake, featured on her website back in 2008. This is one of many recipes that stays fresh for days – assuming it lasts that long.

Heller McAlpin writes the Reading in Common column for The Barnes & Noble Review and reviews books for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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