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This year, many of us have become the home cooks we never thought we could be (whether by choice or by necessity). Keep that enthusiasm going into 2021 with some fresh culinary inspiration; because while the pandemic derailed many things, the release of excellent new cookbooks was not one of them. To find the latest releases worth giving, from instant classics on the art of baking to one of the year’s most moving cooking memoirs, we asked our favorite cookbook authors to recommend a new cookbook they’d give as a gift — and then we asked the authors of those books for their recommendations. Ahead, the best new cookbooks to give this holiday season, according to the people who know it best.
Petra Paredez, owner of Petee’s Pies in New York City, says she’s most excited for the new cookbook from Mexican expat (and blogger) Mely Martinez. “One thing I’ve noticed about the Mexican American family that I married into is that they can literally talk for hours about the merits of one great aunt’s tamales versus another’s, but none of the recipes are on the record,” Paredez says. “I had encountered Mely Martinez’s blog many times when I needed a little more structure than those word-of-mouth family recipes. She makes Mexican cooking approachable and customizable, and includes so many soups, stews, and vegetable recipes, which is basically all I want to eat right now.”
For Martinez, it’s a new cookbook from Canadian chef and former Viceland host Matty Matheson that she’ll be thumbing through all winter. “I love the wide variety of recipes,” she says. From stews to sandwiches, there are loads of “unique and delicious dishes,” she adds. “Everything looks impressive; the bread section makes you want to start baking right away.”
For his pick, Matty Matheson went with this memoir from Nashville-based pastry chef Lisa Donovan, which details her journey as a single parent, domestic-abuse survivor, and woman working in toxic, male-run kitchens. “I’m biased because I think Lisa is an all-around perfect person, and this book tells the story of one of my favorite people,” Matheson says. (To Donovan, he adds, “Thank you for being so vulnerable and powerful.”)
One of Donovan’s favorite books of 2020 is, unsurprisingly, a book on pastry — specifically this book entirely dedicated to the art of pie-making written by New York Times contributor and food stylist Erin Jeanne McDowell. “If my hands got crushed in some large machine accident and I could no longer teach the world about pie dough and pie-making, there would only be one person I would trust to impart the true wisdom of this age-old tradition and skill: my sister in pie, Erin McDowell,” says Donovan. “Not only is this a gorgeous book with incredible images, it is written so you succeed. Erin knows that pie intimidates, and she has a rare gift of easing your fears and guiding your hand all at once. You’ll wanna get this book for both inspiration and for a lifetime of learning.”
Erin Jeanne McDowell, author of The Book on Pie
McDowell gave a nod to another baking cookbook, Yossy Arefi’s ultrasimple approach to quick desserts. “As a person who bakes literally every day, I couldn’t believe how excited I was by every page in this book,” says McDowell. “Best of all, it’s the kind of baking that can be done whatever your mood or time constraint. I’ve made ten recipes from this book, and I’ve only had it a few weeks!”
When not snacking on cakes, Arefi says she’s been thinking nonstop about the many delicious meals she’s had at Xi’an Famous Foods, now available in cookbook form. “I have stopped into one of Jason Wang’s family’s restaurants on many, many occasions for a steamy bowl of spicy and sour dumplings in soup or spicy cumin lamb noodles, and I ordered a pack of Xi’an Famous Foods chili oil immediately after they started selling it during lockdown,” say Arefi. “Their book not only has recipes for XFF’s signature spicy, hot, and sour dishes and lots of other regional recipes from Xi’an, but the storytelling is top-notch too.” And come December 21, there’s one recipe she’s most looking forward to making: “Jason recommends making dumplings on the winter solstice, since superstition says it will help ward off the cold, and I plan to do just that,” says Arefi.
If you’re looking for a thousand — okay, 50 — great ways to enjoy chicken during the winter months and beyond, Wang says look to Sheet Pan Chicken from author and food writer Cathy Erway. “Every time I think of chicken, I think of it being either really dry and tasteless, or done with the right techniques so it ends up tasting flavorful and juicy,” he says. “I love that Cathy’s book is dedicated to the various ways to prepare a seemingly mundane protein. Knowing her extensive experience as a food writer and home cook, I’m excited to add some of her simple, home-style chicken dishes to my recipe arsenal.”
If you’re looking for a fantastic introduction to the wide, wide world of Indonesian cooking, Erway recommends this new guide from Australian Indonesian writer Lara Lee. “Just the title of this cookbook makes me eager to cook,” says Erway. “I love Indonesian cuisine, but I haven’t learned too much about it, so this cookbook will fill a hole on my shelf.” Like Lee, Erway is half-Asian and says she’s interested to see how Lee has navigated her heritage. She adds, “I’m also eager to read more about Lara Lee’s journey of exploring the cuisine of her father’s heritage, and feel that I can really identify with her when she writes, of her grandmother, ‘I was too young to learn her recipes then, but the flavors of Popo’s food left an impression that stayed with me long after she moved back to Timor and later passed away.’”
From her home in Australia, Lee tells us that the cookbook she’s most excited about also involves journeying into a grandmother’s kitchen — albeit grandmothers of East Africa. “I love In Bibi’s Kitchen because it is rich with stories and heart,” she says of the first cookbook from Somali chef and Basbaas founder Hawa Hassan. “Reading about and then re-creating those foods, inviting these plates filled with emotions into our own homes, bearing the love and woes and intrigue of multiple generations, across seas and land and time. Layers of complexity in both flavor and history, I learn something with every bite. This is the type of food I enjoy most.”
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