5 Best of…Comfort Cookbooks

Merry Christmas readers! I hope you’re having a wonderful Christmas Eve. I hope you’re going to eat some great food this week.

I enjoy roaming Pinterest for recipes and watching those 30 second videos on Facebook and finding tips on Recipes.com. But there is something timeless about a physical cookbook. I don’t feel this way about normal books. I am a complete Kindle convert. But cookbooks are different. I wanna hold and smell and love those to death. I don’t cook very extravagant meals, but I love reading extravagant cookbooks. I like to sit down and read them like I’d read a novel, especially themed cookbooks supplemented with quotes and stories.

Over the years I’ve gotten a few cookbooks as Christmas gifts, and it’s one of my favorite feelings to curl up in the week between Christmas and New Years with some tea or coffee and just… read recipes. Even if I don’t have a new one to read, I’ll pull one of my mom’s old ones off the shelve for nostalgia’s sake. Cookbooks are the epitome of cozy and perfect for winter. Here are five of my favorites.

The Tasha Tudor Cookbook. 1993.

Tasha Tudor was a writer and illustrator of beautiful children’s books. Her style is very warm and homey, featuring New England landscapes and charming domestic scenes. The cookbook itself is filled with Tudor’s favorite family recipes, split into seven sections, including one dedicated to “Christmas Treats.” It begins with a preface where Tudor explains her love of cooking, and talks about learning to cook with her Scottish grandmother in Connecticut. All eighty recipes are comfortable and simple, with a little introduction explaining the history or heritage 2.jpgof the dish. The methods part of the recipe is written not as steps, but conversationally, with lots of little hints and shortcuts and modifications. Reading it is more like listening to someone explain how to cook, than reading a cut-and-dry recipe. Most of the recipes are also paired with a beautiful illustration, and every few pages there is an illustration of a country kitchen, a picnic, or a garden. The illustrations are all original for the cookbook, and paired beautifully. It reminds me a bit of the illustrated All Creatures Great and Small I had as a kid – the pictures are very warm and feature a lot of children and animals. The recipes themselves are all traditional family recipes, like hot cheese rounds and potato and onion soup.

My sister got a copy of this cookbook one year for Christmas, but I’ve spent plenty of my own time thumbing through it. In this instance the illustrations are definitely what draw you in, but the little family stories and explanations of the recipes make The Tasha Tudor Cookbook a very comfortable read too. It’s also a good reference for something that seems basic, but you’ve never tried before – like homemade croutons or cranberry sauce.

Readability: 7/10; Pictures: 8/10; Cookability: 9/10

Outlander Kitchen. 2016.

I just got this one for Christmas this year (thanks Saint Nick!) and it is incredible. No question, this is the best tie-in cookbook out there, so sorry Game of Thrones. The novels span multiple continents and centuries, from 1980s Boston to 1760s Jamaica to 1940s 3England. This gives the author (Theresa Carle-Sanders) a huge amount of cuisine to work with. The cookbook comes with a foreword, an introduction, a “My Kitchen” section where Carle-Sanders explains the pantry, equipment, and techniques necessary, then seventeen chapters of recipes and photos. Many of the recipes are re-creations and re-inventions of older styles of food, many are made up by Carle-Sanders and inspired by scenes and characters. Each recipe has a title, a quote from the books paired with it, a little introduction to explain where the recipe came from, an ingredients list, and a methods section, finished off by notes to help you understand the context or adaptation of the recipe you just read. This cookbook is full of historical food facts, like how turnips reached Scotland, why pasties were adapted from the French court to the copper mines of Cornwall, and how buckwheat was replaced by corn in the colonies. It ends with acknowledgements and a complete index. In other words, this is one of the most complete and intense cookbooks I’ve ever read.

The recipes themselves are very unique because they are historical recipes with a modern twist, with some very practical staples thrown in. There is a recipe for Baja Fish Tacos in the same book as Drunken Mock-Turtle Soup and Beef Buffalo Tea. But it also explains how to make an easy beef stock and quick pastry dough. It has a hefty dessert section, as well as drinks and preserves. It’s got pretty pictures. Normally a collection of recipes this vast wouldn’t jive well, but tying it back to the series through the quotes keeps it cohesive. Outlander Kitchen is a cozy modern classic that will have a proud home on my shelf as a fun read and a good reference.

Readability: 9/10; Pictures: 9/10; Cookability: 6/10

Square Meals: A Cookbook by Jane and Michael Stern. 1984.

Before I get into this one, I want to say that I grew up with a first edition of this cookbook, with an illustration of a lady holding a pot on the cover. I say this because apparently there is a “revised” edition of Square Meals that was published in 2000. I’ve never seen that book. I doubt it can be as good as the original. You gotta know this cookbook was beast because it had no color pictures but I still read it cover to cover. It 4had small old-timey stock photos and little cartoon people. That does not matter. This is one of the best cookbooks ever written. It was published in the 80s as a throwback to the Americana cooking of the 1920-1960s. It’s more like a history book than a cookbook, although it does have recipes for all the food mentioned. Broken into chapters named things like “Ladies Lunch” and “Cuisine of Suburbia,” the food is paired with goofy stories and  sarcastic commentary. Every section has a preface to explain the cultural or historical significance of the recipes you are about to read. The only problem with it is that it’s a cookbook as historical archive. It covers all the different sorts of mid-century modern American cooking. That means there is a recipe for English Muffin pizzas. There is also a very gross recipe for something called Perfection Salad. But you’re not supposed to necessarily EAT this stuff. It’s just super fun to read.

Some of the recipes are legit, like the perfect mashed potato or spinach pie. But there are also a lot of weird ones, and ones that honestly should not be recipes. The whole finger-sandwich section is a hoot to read, but do I need to be told how to make a three-tier cheese sandwich on white bread? But that’s not the point of this cookbook. The point is to cozy up and read it, to have a lot of fun, and then make some milkshakes.

Readability: 10/10; Pictures: 2/10; Cookability: 5/10

The Laura Ingalls WIlder Country Cookbooks. 1995.

This tie-in cookbook from the mid 90s was a gift to someone in my family, but I can’t remember who. I might have been mine, my sister’s, or my mom’s. I know the book is still at my parents’ house. It starts with an introduction and is broken into five sections, such as Main Dishes or Desserts. Each recipe is on the right page, while the left page has a picture and a short blurb about either the food itself, or something about the lives of 5the Ingalls or the history of the time. The cookbook is not just inspired by the stories written by Ingalls Wilder, but also by the real lives of the family and the history surrounding them. Most of the photos are scenes from the Rocky Ridge farmhouse where Laura and Almanzo lived, or old photographs of the family. The construction of the cookbook takes you out of the food and into the history. Sometimes the recipe almost seems like a compliment to the picture and the history instead of the other way round. Like Outlander Kitchen, it’s doing a lot at the same time, while still providing recipes that are within the realm of reality to make. I remember when my family made The Perfection of Lemonade from this cookbook. It’s not a hard recipe, but you have to boil things and then chill them and do a lot of waiting. It truly was the most delish lemonade ever, but it taught me a thing or two about delayed gratification while we waited for BOILING WATER to become COLD. It seemed nonsensical to me that someone would stand over a vat of boiling water for an hour to produce a drink to then cool that person off. If you were so hot, why would you boil the drink to begin with?

I’ve only tried a few things from the cookbook. It doesn’t all interest me as food I’d want to eat, though the recipes are completely functional. But the meshing of the historical, real Laura with the fictional Laura of the stories works really well. A lot of Little House tie-in books are very harsh and like to remind you how hard and dreary the Ingalls’ lives really were. This cookbook, despite the photos and historical blurbs, lets the reader stay in that cozy Little House bubble, which of course is why we all love Little House in the first place.

Readability: 7/10; Pictures: 5/10; Cookability: 8/10

Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. 2004.

This last cookbook is particularly interesting for me, because it is a tie-in to Karon’s Father Tim series, except I hadn’t read the Father Tim novels when I first read the cookbook. The Father Tim books are set in North Carolina, in a sleepy town filled with small-scale adventures and neighborly squabbles, sort of like Gilmore Girls meets Anne of Green Gables. I hadn’t read the novels when first introduced to the cookbook, I didn’t really need that context to love the cookbook. The cookbook is broken up into sections titled after Karon’s books Like Outlander Kitchen, each section has recipes inspired by or directly from the Father Tim series. She quotes her novels in large chunks, using them almost as short stories to punctuate the recipes. She also has author asides, little notes on the recipes, personal stories, and words of culinary wisdom. It’s not terribly organized, jumpi6ng from a squash casseroles to apple pie to meatloaf, but it works. The book is also filled with photographs of food as well as beautiful watercolor illustrations of bundles of thyme and blackberries. The food itself is delightfully cozy and Americana but a lot yummier than Square Meal’s weird retro dishes. As far as practicality goes, the only recipe I’ve ever tried are the lemon squares, but oh my God, are those delightful.

The book finished with a “Mama’s Miracles” section, where Karon shares a few of her own mother’s favorite recipes. It gets tied up with some family photos, recipe credits, and an index. This cookbook is the perfect afternoon read. It is not demanding or educational. You can flip around easily, finding something new each time, or read it front-to-back in a few hours and come away with an incredible urge to host a Sunday afternoon picnic on a lawn somewhere in the foothills of old-timey USA.

Readability: 8/10; Pictures: 6/10; Cookability: 8/10

~~~

These are not the “best” cookbooks if all you’re looking for something light on the recipes and heavy on pretty pictures. In that case go right to Betty Crocker’s Old-Fashioned Cookbook. These are not the best cookbooks if you’re looking for incredibly detailed and technical recipes. These are most certainly not the best cookbooks to find dinner ideas for a busy week. In that case, I’d direct you right back to Pinterest’s crockpot section. But these cookbooks are comfortable, readable, educational, and easy to pick up and waste an afternoon with. After all, this is a book blog, and though some cookbooks may not quite count as books, I’m going to say that these definitely do. Have a wonderful holiday, and pick up a cookbook!


Sarah V Diehl

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