Cookbooks: Passing the Grandma Test

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Illustration by L. Nichols

My grandmother was born in a little village in Uganda when it was still British East Africa. As a girl she helped my great-grandmother cook traditional Gujurati Indian dishes, and as a young wife in Kenya, she replicated those dishes for her husband (who liked to cook as well but was busy founding the Kenyan ice cream company Dairyland). As they traveled my granny developed a taste for other things, returning home with a heart-shaped waffle machine, a ceramic fondue set, black lacquered chopsticks. Her culinary repertoire, along with the rest of Nairobi's middle class, was expanding.

At one dinner party, my gran served an enormous Floating Island in a cut crystal bowl, the poached egg whites striped with caramel. But she had infused the custard with saffron and cardamom instead of vanilla and topped the confection with pistachios rather than almonds. After nightcaps, friends wobbled home with her recipe and handed it to their cooks. It became a kind of summer smash.

I asked my grandma for a few of my favorite recipes once, including her Floating Island, a couple of African curries she made particularly well, and a pea-filled pastry. "Why not a whole book?," was her ambitious reply. Together we imagined a gigantic collection of traditional East African Asian foods divided into chapters that would include road trip tiffins, tea time snacks, cocktail parties, dinners, early breakfasts, and brunches. But we never started the project. That was nine years ago. Last week she called to ask if there was a dot in the middle of my email address and if I still wanted those recipes. She was having trouble getting started, she said.

Each book has the culinary force of a thousand grannies.

Her timing was good. I was working my way through three gigantic cookbooks. Granny books, I'd started calling them. Not because they are written by grannies (they're not) but because they are practical volumes of traditional recipes. Each book began as a collection of recipes from home cooks all over its country of origin (France, Italy and Greece), edited by equally practical cooks and cookbook authors. As a result, each book has the culinary force of a thousand grannies. Hoping to inspire her, I told my gran all about the cookbooks. And she responded.

I Know How to Cook (Phaidon, $45)
Je Sais Cuisiner was the French home cook's introduction to cooking, entertaining, and running an efficient home in 1932. It has been updated several times since then. This new English translation is just as charming (butter curls!) and no-nonsense as the one I used in the 1990s to make chocolate mousse. It's also much, much more attractive these days. The book is bound with a bright pink cover and peppered with colorful illustrations, its cuteness tempered by its crystal clear recipes. As Julia Moskin pointed out Mathiot's Boeuf Bourgignon recipe has fewer steps and fewer ingredients than Julia Child's more famous recipe because it was geared for home cooks. Mathiot's cassoulet recipe is fuss-free too, allowed a half page of instructions just like the other recipes. There are no special tips or tricks, and zero romanticizing. This cookbook is not so much a lesson in classic French cuisine as it is in smart, sensible cooking. It's no surprise to learn that Ginette Mathiot was the Home Ec teacher of Home Ec teachers and oversaw the curriculum at La Sorbonne. The new edition, adjusted and updated by a team including food blogger and cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier, is worth its weight in truffles.

Presented by

Tejal Rao

Tejal Rao is a writer and translator from Northwest London, living in
Brooklyn. She is a restaurant critic for the Village Voice. Follow her on Twitter or learn more at www.tejalrao.com.

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