I have very strict rules about holiday cookbooks. If I'm going to give one as a present, it has to be so beautiful that I don't want a speck of flour to touch it. At the same time, the recipes have to be so tempting that I'm constantly leaping up and rushing into the kitchen to try them out. And on top of that, the text has to be so riveting that I instantly plunk myself down and read it straight through. I guess what I'm saying is that the book has to be so good I end up keeping it for myself and buying another copy to give away. That's going to make this holiday season quite an expensive one for me.
Look at Italian cookbooks alone--three new ones I can't do without! Arthur Schwartz's Naples at Table ($32.50; HarperCollins) explores the cuisine that, until recently, meant "the kind of Italian food you've heard of" to most American cooks. As Schwartz makes happily clear, the food of this southern seaport city encompasses not only pizza but also Peppered Mussels, Prosciutto Brioche and Smothered Escarole. The information is encyclopedic, and Schwartz seems to have the knack for making friends wherever he goes. "You're hanging out with your buddies and suddenly you're all hungry. What would you make?" he asks one young cook, who "without hesitating...shot back with this recipe that takes less time to cook than the pasta."
In Food and Memories of Abruzzo ($35; Macmillan), Anna Teresa Callen writes that most dishes from this relatively isolated region of central Italy (especially well-known for its lamb and its peppers) "travel no farther than the next generation." But Callen grew up in Abruzzo, and she wants to make her readers part of the family. The text is lavishly spiced with chatty anecdotes and snapshots of her family--perfect bedside reading.
Meanwhile, Joyce Goldstein has been busy researching Italian family food of another kind. Rome is the site of the oldest Jewish community in Europe, and in Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen ($30; Chronicle), Goldstein has taken on the enormous task of codifying Italian Jewish cuisine. Most of the recipes she found had been passed down orally, and the ones that were written contained instructions like "Assemble dough in the usual manner." Goldstein's perseverance has resulted in a collection that's homey, elegant and informative, and her Crispy Fried Artichokes alone would be worth buying the book for.
Diana Kennedy's My Mexico ($32.50; Clarkson Potter) is an intensely personal vision of a country that is as much memory as reality. Kennedy--one of the world's leading authorities on Mexican food--helps harvest pecans in Coahuila, eats masa gruel with a potter and oysters with a cannery owner, and tracks down the xocoyoli, a wild begonia with an edible stem that grows on a riverbank. The book has hundreds of recipes too. Open any page of My Mexico and be transported to a waking dream.
Exotic travel also plays a starring role in Seductions of Rice ($35; Artisan) by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. This plucky couple and their two sons have traveled extensively to research the world's rice-eating cultures. The result is a touching and vivid account of an amazingly versatile grain and what it means to the people who eat it; the authors cover every variation from Thai Rice and Herbs Salad to Hoppin' John.
Nothing's more welcome than a bowl of soup in midwinter, and no one could have done a better job with this topic than Barbara Kafka. Her mammoth Soup: A Way of Life ($35; Artisan) will make you hustle right into the kitchen and stir up a pot of--oh, let's say, Beef Stew for a Spoon or Chicken Gumbo. Come spring, you can move on to something lighter, like Miso Soup with Daikon and Spinach. Such is the book's scope and authority that it's sure to be the last word on the subject for years.
I know what I'm making for Christmas dinner this year: Janie Hibler's Guinea Hen with Hazelnuts and Mustard. Or maybe Buffalo and Beer Pot Roast. As someone who'd probably ally herself more with the gathering end of the food spectrum than the hunting end, I surprised myself by loving Hibler's Wild About Game ($30; Broadway Books). Whether you need advice on what to do with the un-plucked pheasant a friendly hunter dropped on your kitchen table or want to try some of the dressed farm-raised game that's becoming increasingly available at specialty shops, this cookbook can help.
Books by restaurant chefs make me cranky. They always seem to assume that I have a sous-chef and tons of equipment. "Take out the octopus-boning knife," they'll say, or, "Skimming constantly, reduce eight gallons of duck stock to a single drop." Luckily, this isn't always true of Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef ($35; Broadway Books) by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Typical dishes include Sautéed Shrimp with Orange Dust, Stir-Fried Chicken with Tamarind Glaze, and Shallot Confit with Honey and Ginger. I love the relaxed directions too. At one point, Vongerichten's co-author, Mark Bittman, writes: "The crêpes are the only real challenge, but there's enough batter here to make plenty of mistakes and still come out on top."
Dessert, anyone? Yes, please, and I'd like it to be something from the lush and beautiful Desserts by Pierre Hermé ($35; Little, Brown) with text by Dorie Greenspan. Perhaps the Cara-melized Cinnamon Tart or the Coffee and Walnut Cake with toppings of ginger and coffee crème anglaise or a scoop of the Crème Brûlée Ice Cream, "a dessert for which hyperbolic description can only be considered understatement." This gorgeous book would adorn any coffee table, but your friends might steal it.
"A cookbook that calls itself a bible better be good," my daughter re-marked when she saw my copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible ($35; Scribner). Yes, it better. And, yes, it is. Like Beranbaum's previous Cake Bible, this is a prodigious tome (more than 700 pages) of, well, everything about pastry. And not just pies and tarts but croissants and Danishes and scones and biscuits and quiches and strudels. The recipes are meticulously detailed, exhaustively researched--Beranbaum worked on her Perfect Flaky and Tender Cream Cheese Crust for several years, testing more than 50 versions--and described so lusciously that you want to lick the paper they're printed on. Like the other Bible, this is one for the ages.
ANN HODGMAN is the author of two cookbooks, Beat This! and Beat That! (Chapters Publishing), and is at work on a third.