As I was looking through stacks and stacks of cookbooks at a local thrift store, I was struck by the fact that I already have the only cookbooks I need... and then some! Of course, the definition of "need" changes based on what I find, what I want, and what I can afford! In terms of the books that I actually use almost daily, I've got 'em and there's only two!
The first is an obvious choice... "The Joy of Cooking". I actually have two editions of this one, the first is from the 1940s and belonged to my grandmother. The second, and the one that I use most, is more current and was a gift from my oldest son. He found it at a grade school book fair and was so proud when he gave it to me. If the usefulness and appreciation of a gift can be determined by how "used" it looks, there are few books that are more beloved! The cover is stained and burned and big chunks of the text are loose or disengaged entirely. I have to stuff them back into the pages every time I take it down from the shelf!
"The Joy of Cooking" seems to have everything one needs for basic cooking. You'd think I'd know the recipe for pancakes, waffles and pie crust by heart but, truth be told, I have to look every time I make them! The book naturally falls open to the pancakes page, and the fluffy dumpling page is permanently marked with a little piece of dough.
"Joy", as I think of it, also answers key questions about substitutions, measurement conversions, roasting temperatures and how to cook rice (hey... we all have to start somewhere!). If I were just starting out in the world, I'd find this immeasurably helpful. As it is, with plenty of cooking experience under my belt, it still provides all of the information I need and a darned good "Quick and Easy Enchilada" sauce to boot. This is especially nice when, in the middle of making 80 enchiladas you find that you only bought one, small can of sauce.
My second cookbook of choice came to me via "Baking with Julia"on PBS. One of the very best episodes features Marion Cunningham, a cook I'd never before heard of. She bakes wonderful biscuits, popovers and fabulous Buttermilk Crumb Muffins. Marion's whole demeanor is that of the kind of person you'd love to be taught by. She's warm, she's enthusiastic and utterly American, in the best sense of the word. She clearly loves the best American food, which is often simple, homespun and makes use of the best ingredients. Her biscuits and scones form the base of a decadent Strawberry Shortcake (the shortcake is actually spread with butter before the berries and whipped cream are added!), and her popovers are table-ready for butter and jam or gravy. By the time you've finished with the episode, you're dying for one of those muffins (and a popover... and a biscuit...)
After seeing the program, I learned that Marion Cunningham wrote "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book", and it is the most wonderful book on basic baking I've come across. To read it is to hear her voice and feel her excitement about each and every recipe. One can almost imagine her standing there saying, "Of course you can do this!" Marion valued old-fashioned recipes, not for nostalgia's sake alone, but because they are often the best. Sometimes the original really can't be improved upon.
"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" is so useful because it contains countless recipes for things like chocolate cakes, coffee cakes, pies, cookies, breads, even crackers. More than that, it's delightful to just sit and read. Each recipe is preceded by an explanation of what makes it worth trying and explains what sets it apart. There are no superfluous entries here. If there are twelve chocolate cakes, there's a reason for each and every one of them.
There are several "Master Recipes" for things like butter cake, white sandwich bread and apple pie. In these entries one gets detailed instructions on the proper methods of measuring, handling and mixing, sometimes with simple line drawings. Far from being tedious, these miniature classes are clear and, again, in Marion's friendly voice.
"The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" has had a challenging existence in my house, though. After acquiring my first copy for a mere dollar at that same local thrift store, somehow it became the victim of one of my wife's "decluttering" sprees. One Saturday, wanting to bake some English muffins, I found "Fannie" had disappeared. Being out of print, and me not wanting to give in and take the easy way out (ordering it from Amazon.com), I searched and searched for it until, sometime last Fall, I found a copy at a used bookshop.
Marion Cunningham passed away a few years ago, I'm sorry to say. Her own life story is an inspiring one and proves that there's always hope for a better future. And, she's a marvelous example of finding a passion and making into a living.
Of course I have other cookbooks... books by Julia Child and Martha Stewart. Cookbooks for ice cream and Scandinavian food and crepes. Books all about pie and appetizers and Christmas food... You get the picture. In each of them I have one or two "must have" recipes but nothing beats "Joy" and "Fannie" when it comes to my everyday needs.