Why buy a cookbook when you can find so many recipes online? This question seems especially pertinent when considering The Food52 Cookbook, all of whose 140 recipes are available – along with more than 14,000 others and counting – on Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs’s crowd-sourced website, Food52.com, which holds weekly recipe competitions featuring a specific ingredient or theme.
The answer, in a word, is editing.
What “The Food52 Cookbook” offers are the winners of their first year’s contests – rigorously tested, wittily annotated, temptingly photographed, and instructively commented upon. With no also-rans to scroll through, it’s enticing without being overwhelming. Separated from the pack, recipes such as Your Best Brunch Eggs (a Savory Bread Pudding with mushrooms, proscuitto and shallots), Your Best New Year’s Resolution Dish (One-Pot Kale and Quinoa Pilaf), and Your Best Peach Recipe (Simple Summer Peach Cake) can really shine. Even more irresistible are the bonus selection of Wild Card Winners, such as Zucchini Pancakes, Seriously Delicious Ribs, and the addictive, couldn’t-be-easier Sweet and Spicy Horseradish Dressing.
As fans of her award-winning “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” “The Cook and the Gardener,” and last year’s “The Essential New York Times Cookbook” know, Amanda Hesser has a beguiling knack for melding impeccable taste and technique with witty aperçus and personal anecdotes that make you want to not just sample her recipes, but her life.
After testing more than 1,400 recipes for The New York Times omnibus together, Hesser and Stubbs realized that many of the most practical, inventive, and appealing dishes come from home cooks as opposed to professional chefs at fancy restaurants. The Food52 blog, now in its second year and named “Best of the Web” by Saveur magazine, allowed them to engage more directly with their readers, eventually creating not just an online community but one that has spawned Food52 gatherings and potluck dinners.
I started with Your Best Chocolate Cookie. As far as I’m concerned, the winning Double Chocolate Espresso Cookies could garner a blue ribbon any week: rich, dark, and buzz-worthy in more ways than one. (As the authors note, “don’t give them to young children before bedtime.”) The recipe was submitted by KelseyTheNaptimeChef, who also contributed Zucchini-Lemon Cookies, which won for Best Zucchini or Summer Squash, and a Chocolate Bundt Cake, about which the authors proclaim, “If Betty Crocker had a seductive cousin, this would be her signature cake.” According to the “About the Cook” feature – a nice touch – Connecticutian Kelsey Banfield writes a blog called The Naptime Chef and “will be publishing a book of the same name in 2012.”
As it turns out, many of the winning recipes are submitted by similarly accomplished cooks – food writers and lecturers and personal chefs. “Food52” is not the Internet equivalent of those old spiral-bound community cookbooks put out by your local PTA.
What most of these recipes share is a careful balance of practicality, novelty, and allure. Stubbs and Hesser have not only made sure they all work, but provide lively tips that let you know what you’re getting into.
We’re warned, for example, that the curd for Rhubarb Curd Shortbread “takes some elbow grease, it must be said. Think of it as your workout for the day.” A Faulknerian Family Spice Cake with Caramel Icing, winner of The Best Recipe or Technique Your Mother Taught You, comes with some helpful tips on icing: “We tried drizzling it, and you shouldn’t.” There are no reservations about the Autumn Celeriac Puree made with celery root, potatoes, and apples, or the Secret Ingredient Beef Stew, which takes on a “briny and buttery ... smooth, complex finish” from the surprise inclusion of anchovies.
One of the attractions of cooking websites – to a point – are other readers’ comments, often suggesting variations. Hesser and Stubbs have wisely included a few carefully selected posts. If I were adding my two cents to the winning bean recipe, Lentil and Sausage Soup for a Cold Winter’s Night, I would note that this comforting meal in a bowl worked well when I substituted chopped fresh dinosaur kale for the spinach and eliminated the fussy extra step of pre-cooking the lentils separately. I would also ask, hopefully, “Is a second volume in the works?”