While many of its recipes are laden with heavy cream and butter, the richest ingredient in Amanda Hesser's wonderful new compendium -- culled from 150 years of New York Times food columns -- is her delightfully personable voice, which readers have come to love in her previous books, Cooking for Mr. Latte and The Cook and the Gardener, her food stories for The Times, and her blog, Food52.com. "Did I mention that it would not be an update of Claiborne's book?" she writes in her introduction, referring to the cookbook on which many of us cut our culinary teeth, Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook, first published in 1961 and still in print.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook is a rarity among cookbooks, both useful and entertaining -- "a kind of 150-year flip book of American cooking," as Hesser puts it, complete with fascinating timelines of culinary trends. "Poring through the archives reminded me that food is like fashion, a business of recycling and tweaking," she comments. Her entry for soups in the 1880s reads, "If you are a clam or a lobster, there is a strong chance you'll end up in chowder or bisque."
Hesser is wonderfully opinionated. You may not always agree with her, but you'll know where she stands. She declares the first 40 years of the 20th century "a culinary abyss" and remarks of the 1940s and '50s,"if you could taste some of the recipes I made from this era, you would see that I am saving you from a world of hurt." Defending her decision to exclude postwar recipes like bacon and peanut butter canapés, she reminds us, "This is a cookbook, not Madame Tussaud's."
What does make the cut, after Hesser's marathon testing, are more than 1,000 recipes, both basics and "whoppingly time-consuming" projects, arranged chronologically within each category (cocktails, soups, salads, chicken, etc., through desserts). What you won't find are luscious photographs: no food porn here, just tried-and-true recipes placed in historical context with witty commentary. Yet a commitment to quality ingredients is on display as well. The headnote to a 2001 recipe for Pork Braised in Milk and Cream (a sort of Kosher nightmare), reads, "Commercial pork loin has become so lean that it's not worth your time cooking it. Only make this dish if you can get your hands on a pork loin from a small farm raising nice plump heritage pigs." As for that milk and cream, don't even think of substituting reduced fat versions.
Old favorites include Mary Lincoln's Horseradish Sauce from 1897, "presumably conceived before she lost her mind," Claiborne's blender Salmon Mousse from 1961, James Beard's Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic from 1997, and an easy, eggless, butterless cocoa Amazon Cake from 2002, about which Hesser comments, "Will it be the best cake ever? No. But it will be very good and it will be homemade."
We've had a spectacularly gluttonous couple of weeks chez McAlpin digging into several of the dozens of recipes I've flagged, including Watermelon Gazpacho whipped up in a blender; a Sausage, Bean and Corn Stew perfect for late summer or early fall; Chicken with Sour Cream, Lemon Juice and Mango Chutney, which Hesser's husband made on an early date; Pierre Hermé's amazing Chocolate Sablés; and the Purple Plum Torte that's both the most requested and most often published recipe in the Times archives. They're all keepers -- as is this utterly delectable book.