When the magazine of good living produced the first Gourmet cookbook in 1950, the world was a very different place. Europe was war-ravaged, while America was rich, innocent and giddy — the perfect setting for a new Europe, but with better plumbing and wider streets. All it needed were some pointers about the finer things in life.
Gourmet magazine was happy to oblige. By 1957, it had produced not one but two domestic bibles of continental cuisine.
Granted, there were curiosities from elsewhere. The recipes were not just European. However, no other book had quite the same transatlantic élan. Cooking from Gourmet, Volumes I and II, defined you as a person of great sophistication. If you had an Italian coming for dinner, you could produce crayfish risotto. For a Pole, pierogi. For a Frenchman, coq au vin. What the recipes lacked in authenticity, they made up for with the rakish glee of the day. Dubonnet, anyone?
The books went into so many reprints in the 1950s and '60s that a generation of baby boomers, including Gourmet's current editor, Ruth Reichl, grew up tracing their mother's fingerprints through the smudged pages. Today, as Condé Nast issues a completely revised modern successor, "The Gourmet Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin, $40), Reichl makes no secret of the desire to tap into the nostalgia.
"As I hold this new book in my hands, I am seven years old again, standing in my mother's kitchen, enthralled with the romance of cooking, dreamily flipping through the pages of 'the Book,' " she writes. "I know that there are still people out there eager for adventure in the kitchen — and I know that this is the perfect place to find it."
Yet more than times have changed. The books have too. The original book promised a kind of fine mischief, beckoning us from familiar foods into foreign worlds of untold glamour. The successor's posture is more world-weary, the affect of a group that seems convinced it's been everywhere and tried everything and, in a semi-governmental manner, assumed the task of telling us what's good and why. Reichl even declares, "Our goal was to give you a book with every recipe you would ever want."
Gone is the sheer merriment at the prospect of an elegant dinner party. The original's chapter on hors d'oeuvres opens with the lip-smacking declaration: "To begin at the beginning, note this: every meal deserves a good start." The new book opens the same section with a whine: "It's too bad we're stuck with this snooty French word."
Problems like that happen to books called Gourmet.
So often, where the original was effervescent, the modern book seems overwhelmed by its own place in history. The original vegetable section, entitled "Greengroceries," begins, "Midway between Beau Brummel, who once ate a pea, and G.B.S., who can't see a filet mignon for the raw carrot under his nose, stands the Happy Gourmet." The new one, "Vegetables": "If you had shown our original subscribers recipes for grilled radicchio, stir-fried pea shoots, or yuca fries, they would have looked at you in sheer astonishment."
Perhaps, though it's hard to picture women unfazed by the suggestion of serving turtle steaks in 1950 being taken aback by the prospect of grilling a red cabbage. What is more questionable is whether these patronizing revisionists would trust modern cooks to know that G.B.S. was George Bernard Shaw.
The new editors clearly subscribe to the notion that less is more. The original Volume I alone had 2,400 recipes; this new one, "more than 1,000." The new book isn't smaller; rather, half the recipes have been replaced by chat. Although the original limited its creative writing to chapter headings, the new one offers an introduction to every recipe.
No discursive impulse is stifled. You come away full of novel tidbits, such as: at Christmas, Swedes serve pan juices with meatballs, not gravy. Much of the padding is sensual. Those averse to deployments of "creamy," "luscious," "lacy," "moist," etc. should give this book a wide berth.
Old versions improved
Owners of the original volumes will find that only so many dishes made the cut. In this culling, the new book is on its best form, frequently improving the old versions. As a series of comparisons cooked in The Times Test Kitchen showed, the first coq au vin had a sour streak, while the revised one would pass muster in a French plat-du-jour place. The original gratin dauphinois was an abomination; the new version, borrowed from the authentically French Jacques Pépin, was superb.
You don't need to try the original risotto, made with long-grain rice, to know that it's been improved by the use of Arborio and porcini. However, some dishes that weren't broken got fixed anyway. "Suave" Celery Victor was given a nearly inedible canola-oil and stock sauce in the new version, where the original invited much-needed acidity by merely specifying French dressing.
Other bad dishes stayed bad. Bibb lettuce dressed with butter sauce is as unappetizing now as it always was.
In place of many of the original recipes are products of the 1980s' eclectic restaurant boom. It's mixed pickings. The duck à l'orange with a Southwestern ancho chile sauce proved delicious. However, the linguine with scallops and Thai spice is a recipe best reserved for the occasion when your spouse brings home a lover from the office for dinner. The Southeast Asian spice paste clings to the Italian pasta like a thick grit.
It's hard to see why Gourmet attempted this particular book. The originals were products of their time, a debonair salute to America's new prosperity. But since they set the bar for 1950s elegance, so much has changed. Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Alice Waters, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy and Yan Kit So have exposed us to real French, Italian, Mexican and Chinese food. They've taught us how intricately the classic cuisines are tied up with place, produce and season, and they've changed the way we cook and eat. The idea that the world's food could be captured in one book seems as antiquated as Sterno-fired chafing dishes.
The conviction behind the old Gourmet cookbooks was that we could re-create the great buffet dishes of a Grand Tour in our own homes. It may have been misguided, but it was more than sincere; it was America at its most ebullient. The new Gourmet has no such glee, no conviction, no single style, no season, no locale, just lots of recipes from the test kitchen of a New York-based magazine.
In binding these up in a big yellow book, there are some flat-out winners. It does, as Reichl promises in the introduction, contain what may be the world's best sticky bun recipe. But in trying to be all things to all cooks, in the end, it is not good enough for any of us.
Pecan currant sticky buns
Total time: 45 minutes plus rising and baking time
Servings: 12 buns
Note: From "The Gourmet Cookbook." Use extra-large muffin tins (muffin cups with a capacity of 1 cup).
1 1/2 cups warm milk (105 to 115
2 ( 1/4 -ounce) packages (5
teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/3 cup granulated sugar
5 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus
additional for dusting
2 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs, at room
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1. Stir together one-half cup warm milk, yeast and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl until the yeast is dissolved. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn't foam, discard and start with new yeast.)
2. Put the flour, remaining sugar and salt in a mixer bowl and mix with a dough hook at low speed until combined.
3. Whisk together the remaining 1 cup milk and the eggs in a small bowl, then add to dry ingredients along with the yeast mixture and mix at medium speed until a very soft dough forms, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and continue beating until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes (dough will be very sticky).
4. Rinse a large bowl with hot water, then put the dough in the wet bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in a warm draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/4 hours.
2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup dried currants
2/3 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Stir together all of the ingredients in a small bowl.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup heavy cream
1. Combine the one-half cup butter, sugars, corn syrup and heavy cream in a 1-quart saucepan and heat over low heat, stirring, until the butter is melted. Bring to a simmer and simmer, stirring, for 2 minutes.
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus more to butter muffin cups
1. Butter the muffin cups. Spoon
2 tablespoons warm syrup into each muffin cup.
2. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and dust with flour. Roll out into a 16- by-12-inch rectangle with a floured rolling pin. Turn the dough if necessary so the long side is nearest you. Brush off the excess flour, then spread evenly with the softened butter.
3. Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough. Beginning with the long side near you, roll up the dough to form a 16-inch-long log and press the seam to seal.
4. Cut the log crosswise into
12 rounds. Arrange the buns cut sides up in the muffin cups. Cover loosely with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
5. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the buns until puffed and golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the buns onto a rack and cool slightly. Serve warm.
Note: From "The Gourmet Cookbook." You will need an instant-read thermometer. The Times Test Kitchen recommends pouring off fat (about one-half cup in our test) from the skillet before making the sauce.
3 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 cups boiling water
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
6 ( 1/2 -pound) Muscovy duck breast halves (also called magrets), rinsed and patted dry
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1. Toast the chiles in a small dry skillet over moderate heat until slightly darker, turning once with tongs, about 40 seconds total. Transfer to a small heatproof bowl, add the boiling water and soak until softened, about 20 minutes.
2. With a slotted spoon, transfer the chiles to a blender. Add 1 cup soaking liquid and the garlic and blend until smooth.
3. Cook the sugar in a dry 1 1/2 -quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, undisturbed, until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally with a fork, until the sugar has melted to a deep golden caramel, about 8 minutes. Carefully add orange and lime juices (caramel will steam vigorously and harden). Cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until hardened caramel is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. With a sharp paring knife, score the skin, through the fat, on each duck breast in a crosshatch pattern, making score marks about 1 inch apart. Pat dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
5. Put three breast halves skin sides down in a 12-inch heavy skillet and turn heat to moderate. Cook until skin is well browned, about 10 minutes. Turn over with tongs and cook until meat is browned, about 3 minutes.
6. Return all breast halves to skillet, cover and cook over moderate heat until a thermometer inserted horizontally into center of a breast registers 135 degrees for medium-rare, about 6 minutes. Transfer the duck to a carving board and let stand, uncovered, while you make the sauce. (The duck will continue to cook as it stands.)
7. Add the chile purée and any duck juices from the plate to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, until thickened, about 6 minutes. Add caramel and any juices accumulated on carving board and simmer for 5 minutes. Whisk in butter until incorporated, then whisk in salt to taste.
8. Slice the duck breasts and serve with the sauce.
Note: From "The Gourmet Cookbook." Use a mandoline or other adjustable-blade slicer.
2 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold
3 1/2 cups half-and-half
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated
3/4 cup coarsely grated Gruyère
1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter a 2 1/2 - to 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow baking dish.
2. Peel the potatoes. Cut them crosswise into one-sixteenth-inch-thick slices with a slicer and transfer them to a 4-quart heavy saucepan. Add the half-and-half, garlic, salt and pepper and bring just to a boil over moderate heat.
3. Pour the potato mixture into the buttered dish, distributing the potatoes evenly. Sprinkle nutmeg and cheese evenly over the top. Bake until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving. (The gratin can be made up to 1 day ahead. Cool completely, then refrigerate, covered. Bring to room temperature before reheating, covered, in a 350-degree oven.)
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes plus 4 hours chilling time
Servings: 7 (4-ounce)
Note: From "The Gourmet Cookbook," which says the recipe makes 8 servings, but in the Times Test Kitchen, the yield was 7 (4-ounce) ramekins. The pots de crème can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. To make chocolate curls, shave curls from a block of room-temperature chocolate with a vegetable peeler.
6 ounces good bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), finely chopped
1 1/3 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup whole milk
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons instant
espresso powder, to taste
6 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
Bittersweet chocolate curls (optional, for garnish)
Chocolate-covered espresso beans (optional, for garnish)
1. Put the chocolate in a small heatproof bowl.
2. Combine the cream, milk, espresso powder and a pinch of salt in a 2-quart heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil, stirring until the espresso powder is dissolved. Pour over the chocolate, then whisk gently until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
3. Whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and a pinch of salt in a medium bowl. Add the warm chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass measuring cup and let it cool to room temperature (to prevent condensation from diluting the pots de crème when covered), stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.
4. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Line the bottom of a baking pan large enough to hold the pot de crème cups with a folded kitchen towel and arrange the cups on the towel.
5. Divide the custard among the cups and add enough boiling water to the baking pan to reach halfway up the sides of the cups. (If the cups have lids, do not use during baking.) Cover the pan tightly with foil and poke a few holes in the foil with a skewer. Bake until the custards are set around the edges but tremble slightly in the centers, 30 to 35 minutes.
6. With tongs, transfer the cups to a rack to cool completely, uncovered, about 1 hour. Refrigerate, covered, until cold, at least 3 hours. Serve garnished with chocolate curls and chocolate-covered espresso beans, if desired.