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`The Cook's Book' by Editor-in-Chief, Jill Norman is a VERY heavy book, both literally and figuratively, as it's 647 pages weigh at least as much as a five pound sack of potatoes. And, the authors are a Who's Who of major chefs. Ferran Adria of Spain did not even make the front cover, edged out by Rick Bayless, Ken Hom, Michael Romano, Charlie Trotter, and Norman Van Aken.
A quick glimpse at the book and a consideration of the noted English publisher made me skeptical of what I was to find in this volume, in spite of the star power of the contributors. `DK', short for Dorling Kindersley, Limited is the publisher of glossy picture books on all sorts of crafty and cleverly educational subjects. As I started reading the introduction and the first chapter on `Sauces & Dressings', I got a sinking feeling that the quality of the text did not do justice to the high quality of the photography. This is especially surprising, as Jill Norman is one of only two behind the scenes publishing types (the other is Judith Jones of Alfred A. Knopf) who has gained some celebrity, primarily as friend and executor for the great culinary writer, Elizabeth David. I ran into statements such as the one recommending that a custard be whipped over a water bath to keep it from curdling, with no clue given to whether it is too much heat or too much cold which will cause the custard to curdle. I also took issue with `Sauces...' author Paul Gayler's calling `beurre blanc' an emulsified sauce, putting it somehow in the same category as mayonnaise and hollandaise. `Beurre blanc' is much more similar to vinaigrette than to an egg based sauce. But, these were only some early stumbles, magnified by my initial suspicion of the book.
The air cleared and the value of the book grew immensely in my eyes when I turned to the next chapter on Foams by Ferran Adria. Adria's experiments with foams is becoming more famous with each day, but aside from one or two uses of foams by some of the `Iron Chef America' contestants, I have seen nothing about this technique. Adria's twelve-page chapter on the subject is almost single-handedly worth the hefty price of this book. One drawback to this chapter, which it shares with all other chapters, is that there is neither a bibliography of printed sources nor a list of suppliers. But, Adria give more than enough information to track down the goods by Googling the Internet. The two high points of Adria's essay is that he links foams to their natural precursor, mousses, and shows how the technique can be used to make some otherwise tricky procedures very easy, such as in the creation of a meringue.
There are, depending on how you wish to slice it, two or three main types of articles in this book. By far the least interesting are the eight essays on regional cooking styles. These chapters are very short and give a uniformly cursory overview of their subject. How, for example, can Rick Bayless, who has written at least five books on the subject, cover Mexican cooking in ten (10) pages? And, why not articles on Spanish, French, and Italian cuisines to join the ones on Japanese, Thai, and Chinese cuisines?
The other articles can be divided into those on techniques or types of dishes such as `Stocks & Soups' by Shaun Hill and those on important ingredients such as `Eggs & Dairy Products' by Michael Romano. Except for the Adria article on Foams, all these articles are satisfyingly long and all contain excellent discussions of important techniques. At the least, I can find no important technique missing. More importantly for those of us who already own a gazillion cookbooks, I find things in these articles which are truly new. My favorite example is Pierre Herme's section on how to make pate brisee. I have read at least a dozen descriptions of this technique, and aside from a few variations in ingredients, virtually everyone does it about the same, with some making it a bit easier than others. Herme does it different from all these others, AND, I can see where his technique is a genuine improvement. Instead of adding the cold butter to the bowl of flour, he slowly adds the flour to the cut up butter, which makes coating much of the flour with the fat a lot easier than what you get with your trusty pastry cutter. The pictures for Herme's technique also make it clear that he works the dough a lot more than you may gather from narratives of the technique. Half the time, I end up with barely integrated crumbles of buttery flour. Herme's oval of worked dough looks as smooth as a round of pizza dough. If the author had been anyone less than Pierre Herme, I may not have given this technique much credence, but it is impossible to argue with his reputation as on of France's greatest pastry chefs.
Romano's treatment of my very favorite subject, eggs, is a similar exploration of some of the further reaches of good egg cookery. Here, we don't get the usual fare, but excellent pictorials and descriptions of French style scrambled eggs, plus the French method of deep frying eggs and baking eggs.
Imagine my surprise when I read that Paul Gaylor cooks rice like it's pasta, especially since I just dissed Sara Moulton for doing the same thing.
My only lingering complaint about the book is the arrangement of articles. It seems it would have been much more useful to put the chapters on stocks and eggs ahead of the chapter on sauces, which uses stocks and eggs.
In all, this may be the first book capable of rivaling Jacques Pepin's great `Complete Methods' in value as a culinary education.
Very highly recommended for the foodie and amateur cook.