If your beef stew needs a bit more salt or your vinaigrette a bit more garlic, you can fix it in a flash, but if your cake needs a bit more baking powder and looks like a thick, gooey pancake, you’ve had it. Baking is a precise art; the more you know about techniques, ingredients and their interactions, the better a baker you’ll be. James Peterson, expert cook and super-expert instructor, whose “comprehensive and comprehensible” cookbooks have guided both pros and home cooks through sauces, soups, shellfish and more for over 15 years, explicates this art in Baking, with 350 recipes for cakes, pastries, cookies, breads, quick breads, custards, curds and mousses, and 1,500 step-by-step color photographs that illustrate the most important parts of every technique and recipe included. As you learn the principles used in Peterson’s classic recipes, you’ll build a firm foundation that can be used in a wide range of baking projects and that will get you those gratifying oohs and aahs. His tricks of the trade and troubleshooting tips, added in notes and sidebars, are the icing on the cake. Peterson is as reassuring as he is inspiring, like having a patient friend at your side teaching you to think like a baker.

Going local with Lidia
There’s no shortage of Italian cookbooks; they multiply as fast as zucchinis in midsummer. I usually greet the arrival of a new one with a somewhat jaded, ho-hum attitude—but not when it’s written by Lidia Bastianich, celebrated chef, co-owner of five restaurants and author of five previous cookbooks, four accompanied by nationally syndicated public television series. Lidia knows her stuff and, with her unique warmth, cooking savvy and enthusiasm, knows how to share it. Her newest (just in time for your holiday gift list), Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, is an exploration and celebration of regional cooking from 12 of the lesser-known parts of Italy: Chicken in Beer from Trentino-Alto Adige; creamy Risotto with Gorgonzola from Lombardy; Veal Chops with Fontina from Valle d’Aosta; Tuna Genova-Style from Liguria; Tagliatelle with Walnut Pesto from Emilia-Romagna; Rabbit with Onions from Le Marche; Lentil Crostini from Umbria; Crespelle with Spinach from Abruzzo; Fish Soup with Vegetables from Molise; Baccalà Lucana-Style from Basilicata; Spicy Calamari from Calabria; Semolina Pudding with Blueberry Sauce from Sardinia; and 163 more recipes that reflect a deep respect for food and “the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.” Brava Lidia! You’ve done it again.

Cookbook of the month
It’s big (over 1,000 pages), it has more than 1,400 recipes, it’s been a best-selling cookbook in France for three generations and here, wrapped in a bright pink jacket and weighing in at more than five pounds, is I Know How to Cook, the first English translation of Ginette Mathiot’s “cookery bible,” Je Sais Cuisiner, originally published in 1932. (We could say it’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the French, and I’m sure Julia wouldn’t object.) Mathiot wanted to give her readers a “simple book of family food,” organized on sound cooking principles—including both traditional and “modern” dishes from many regions of France—that would save time and money for the home cook. Updated and revised in many editions, it’s been adapted for us by French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, the creator of the “clog” (aka cooking blog) Chocolate & Zucchini. With 15 chapters covering everything from Aïoli to Zephyr Veal Scallops, making stops for essentials like Moules Marinière and Mousse au Chocolat, this is a refreshingly solid, old-fashioned cookbook, with concise, matter-of-fact directions in paragraph form. Mathiot doesn’t preach about seasonality or togetherness, she just makes this great cuisine wonderfully accessible.

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