Rarely are we able to say with certainty that a book is at the top of its subject in regard and quality. This book, the continuation of `Mastering the Art of French Cooking' by Julia Child and Simone Beck is certainly in that most unique position among cookbooks written in English and published in the United States.
This volume is truly a simple extension of the material in the original work, which was recently published in a 40th anniversary edition by its publisher, Alfred E. Knopf and its principle author, Julia Child. As told in Ms. Child's autobiography, the original manuscript brought to Judith Jones at Knopf ran to over a thousand printed pages. About two fifths of that material was put to the side and most of it appears in this second volume. All this means is that you are unlikely to really have a full coverage of the subject of French Cooking as intended by the authors unless you have both volumes.
The first chapter has a clear sign that this volume rounds out the work in that it gives soups a much more thorough coverage than the first volume. Most importantly, it includes recipes for that quintessential French dish, bouillabaisse. To complement this subject is coverage of seafood such as a tour of the anatomy of a lobster that would put seafood specialist cookbooks to shame.
The biggest single addition to the subject in this book is its coverage of baking and pastry. Here is one place where the book may be seen to diverge from its focus of the French housewife's cooking practice. As the book states clearly in the first chapter, practically no baking is done at home, since there is a Boulangerie on every street corner. I generally find the level of detail on baking in cookbooks specializing on savory dishes to be much too light to give the reader an adequate appreciation of the subject. This book covers baking with a level of detail which would make most baking book authors blush. A sign of this deep, quality coverage is the diagrams used to illustrate baking techniques. The line drawings typically succeed where photographs do not in that they can be easily incorporated into the text and the drawing can eliminate extraneous detail and show the reader only what is important in understanding the technique. The section on making classic French bread ends with a `self-criticism' section we may nowadays call a debugging section. It lists several different things that may go wrong with your product, and how to fix them. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in only baking, let alone the rest of us.
The quality of presentation continues with the coverage of pastry. Some books on pastry give one pie dough. Some good books on pastry may give three or four. This book gives eight, with a clear indication of the differences in when to use the various doughs. Some books on pastry describe how to make puff pastry. This book gives a really complete explanation, with abundant diagrams. I suspect that very few people want to make their own puff pastry, but anyone who uses store-bought pastry will benefit from knowing how it is made. This section is worth five different expositions on the subject on the Food Network rolled into one.
Another major subject untouched in the original volume is the long chapter on Charcuterie. That is, the techniques needed to make sausages, salted pork and goose, pates, and terrines. Like the description of puff pastry, this chapter contains a lot you may never need, but then again, I am a great believer in serendipity. You never know where you may hit upon an idea to add interest to you cooking practice. The simplest product you can garner from these techniques is the method for making breakfast sausage, which needs no casing. The subject really wakes up when you realize that the subject arose as a method for preserving meats, just like canning and pickling were developed to preserve fruits and vegetables. If economy and the old hippie / whole earth catalogue ethic are your thing, this is something you will want to check out. And, I have seen this subject covered in recent books such as Paul Bertolli's `Cooking by Hand', and this book's coverage of the material is more useful.
Another gem in this book is the coverage of desserts, including frozen desserts, custards, shortcake, meringue, charlottes, and on and on and on. The guidance on novel uses of puff pastry has probably been a source for more TV shows on the subject than you can count on your fingers. The recipe for leftover pastry dough is just another indication of how practical the material in this book can be.
The appendices contain `stuff' that virtually no other cookbooks touch. One contains a cross listing of recipes for meat and vegetable stuffings. I did not have enough room in my review of volume one to cite the quality of the material on kitchen equipment. As both books have been updated several times since the early sixties, both contain modern tools such as the food processor and the latest heavy-duty mixer attachments. Aside from being as complete a catalogue of hand tools I have ever seen, I find the presentation done with the kind of good humor which was the hallmark of Julia Child's PBS shows.
The last major feature of this volume is a two-color index that covers both volumes. Please be warned. These books have neither simple cooking nor low calorie dishes. The object of this style of cooking was to make the very best of inexpensive ingredients.
Each page offers more reasons to be impressed by this work. Any true foodie should be ashamed if they do not own and read these volumes.