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Books for Cooks: Two sweet endings

Brown butter Cookies first appeared June 1961 issue Gourmet. (Courtesy 'The Gourmet Cookie Book')

Brown butter Cookies first appeared in the June 1961 issue of Gourmet. (Courtesy "The Gourmet Cookie Book")

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Updated: May 16, 2011 12:28PM

With nostalgia running high during the holidays, it is fitting — comforting, even — to see The Gourmet Cookie Book and Bon Appetit Desserts on the bookshelf.

Gourmet folded last November, leaving a void in countless epicureans’ hearts — even with the magazine’s quasi-rebirth as an iPad app. And Bon Appetit has entered fresh territory with the departure of longtime editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild and installment of new boss Adam Rapoport.

But ignore all that for a minute, and page through these two books, and all is familiar again .

Those who tend to go on a baking binge this time of year will obviously delight in the boost to the recipe files the two books provide. And the fanciful styling and photography and, in particular with the Gourmet book, delectable little stories behind the recipes provide just the cushion into which armchair cooks can settle as they recall the magazines they held so dear.

The Gourmet Cookie Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18) features the best cookie recipe published from each year of the magazine’s 68-year-old run, beginning in 1941 with Cajun Macaroons.

This is time-travel through treats. Honey Refrigerator Cookies, the editors’ 1942 pick, got their start because of wartime sugar rationing. Brown Butter Cookies (1961) celebrated that cool appliance called the freezer. Biscotti, so 1990s coffeehouse-ubiquitous, gets its due with Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti, the 1992 recipe.

In succinct introductions to each recipe, and with the recipes themselves, the book also traces the magazine’s history and mindset as it evolved. Recipes are printed as they appeared in the magazine (with additional notes to clarify steps or ingredients); you see the language and format of the recipes change from breezy to exacting over time.

The Gourmet Cookie Book is 161 pages. With a charming photo for every recipe, it’s like a picture book for cookie fiends (but with the added bonus of recipes that work like a dream).

Bon Appetit Desserts (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $40), by contrast, runs 689 pages. It’s big and beautiful and it seems to declare, “You want desserts? I’ll give you desserts.”

The subtitle is, “The Cookbook For All Things Sweet and Wonderful,” and if there is anything missing, I don’t know what it is.

Here is what’s covered: cakes; cheesecakes (31 types alone); pies, tarts and pastries; custards and puddings; fruit desserts; frozen desserts, which includes ice cream and gelato but also sundaes, semifreddos and ice cream cakes; cookies; bar cookies and brownies, and candy.

First, though, are exhaustive chapters on ingredients, where to find them and how to store; equipment, and techniques with illustrations (photos here would have been more effective).

Recipes are on a one to four whisk system — one for easy to make, four for “the expert baker.”

There are playful, and playfully over-the-top, desserts (a Halloween Candy Cake employs Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Reese’s Pieces and Butterfingers), and some so spare, they stand out (Oranges with Pomegranate Molasses and Honey).

But mostly, these are showpieces. Because while dessert comes last, it’s certainly not least.

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