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December 19, 2009

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Supersize cookbooks pile on recipes

WHAT exactly is one person supposed to do with 2,000 Italian recipes? Or 1,400 French dishes? A new generation of comprehensive (some would say behemoth) cookbooks is cramming thousands of recipes into weighty volumes, some nearly 8 centimeters thick and weighing more than 1.8 kilograms.

Why the heavyweights? Publishers say it is a matter of survival, crediting the Internet and the tough economy with driving the trend.

"This might be a reaction to the Internet and the encyclopedic selection of recipes that's at your fingertips," says Chris Steighner, senior editor at Rizzoli Publications, publisher of "La Cucina," a 1.8-kilogram, 2,000-recipe ode to regional Italian cooking.

"A lot of it is about quantity now because we're faced with the Internet," he says.

During the past four years, roughly a dozen of these monsters have crashed the landscape of five-ingredient, 30-minute meal books. "The Silver Spoon," for example, the category's 2005 standard-bearer, jams 2,000 Italian recipes into 1,264 pages.

For Francophiles, there is this year's "I Know How to Cook," a translation of a popular French cookbook featuring 1,400 recipes over 975 pages. And last year, the 10th anniversary edition of Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" sported 2,000 recipes.

By comparison, the just-released "Gourmet Today" (from the defunct Gourmet magazine) seems slender with just 1,000 recipes and pages. Most traditionally sized cookbooks clock in closer to 150 recipes.

"People are demanding them," says Emilia Terragni, editorial director at Phaidon Press, publisher of "The Silver Spoon," "I Know How to Cook" and other mega-volumes. "We have over 1,000 or over 2,000 recipes, and they're still selling for US$45. That's a good price."

Giant cookbooks are nothing new. As far back as 1896, Fannie Farmer offered more than 1,800 recipes for everything from "after-dinner coffee" to capon in aspic. The "Joy of Cooking" has had a kitchen-sink approach since it was first mass published in 1936. And Julia Child's 1961 "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" eventually filled two volumes.

Such cookbooks mostly lost favor during recent decades, supplanted by slimmer and more narrowly focused volumes, many of them driven by celebrity names. Then the Internet changed how people find recipes, and bigger books tried to bounce back.

Critics say these books lack one crucial element: voice. Most of these books are light on accompanying text and personality. Yet a sense of voice gives cookbooks not only readability, but also credibility.

"The book 'Mastering the Art' had such a huge living personality behind it, and I don't know who the author of 'The Silver Spoon' is," says Lynn Andriani, a senior editor at Publisher's Weekly who covers cookbooks. "When you have an author behind a book who has a distinct voice, gets to know their audience and seems committed, it helps a book gain a foothold."

Many people are less interested in voice, however, than in a reliable resource for one-stop shopping. For that, these books can shine.

"These mammoth cookbooks have that encyclopedic quality that people find reassuring," says Rebecca Federman, electronic resources coordinator at the New York Public Library. She also writes about the library's culinary collection. "People use them as reference works too, by consulting them for basic recipes."

Don't be intimidated by the thought of making your own pasta. As demonstrated by the above recipe for potato dumplings from the Italian Academy of Cuisine's "La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy," it's not much harder than playing with clay. If mushrooms are not your thing, try these dumplings with any assertive pasta sauce. Potato Dumplings with Mushroom Sauce

Start to finish: Two hours (one hour active)

Servings: Four to six

Ingredients for the pasta:

1.36 kilograms of russet potatoes;

3 cups of all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

Ingredients for the sauce:

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil;

1 medium yellow onion, minced;

56 grams of dried porcini (or other variety) mushrooms, soaked in warm water, drained and chopped;

1 tablespoon of tomato paste, diluted in 2 tablespoons of water;

1/4 cup of red wine (optional);

1/4 cup of broth, plus more as needed;

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)


Heat the oven to 218 degrees Celsius.

Use a fork to lightly pierce each potato several times. Bake until completely soft, about 40 to 60 minutes. Cut each potato in half and scoop out the flesh. Discard the skins. In a large bowl, combine the potato flesh and just enough flour to form a smooth dough that is not sticky. You may not use all of the flour, depending on how starchy the potatoes are.

Form the dough into thin cylinders, then cut them with a knife into pieces about 30 centimeters long. Using your thumb, press each piece of dough against a floured fork, then let it fall onto the work surface. When all the pieces have been made, cover them with a cloth and let them rest.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and mushrooms and saute until the onions are golden. Add the tomato paste mixture and red wine, if using. Add the broth, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly, stirring now and again, adding a little more broth if the mixture dries out.

While the sauce cooks, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the potato dumplings and cook just until they float. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a deep serving dish, alternating them with layers of the sauce. If desired, sprinkle with cheese.

(Recipe from the Italian Academy of Cuisine's "La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy," Rizzoli, 2009)

Steak Provencale

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: Six


396 grams of sirloin steak, chopped;

99 grams of button mushrooms, chopped;

3 garlic cloves, crushed;

1 egg;

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste;

All-purpose flour, for dredging;

3 tablespoons of olive oil, divided


In a large bowl, mix together the chopped beef, mushrooms and garlic. Add the egg, mix well, then season with salt and pepper. Shape the mixture into six patties, then dredge each through flour to lightly coat.

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat half of the oil. Add three of the patties and brown for two minutes per side. Repeat with the remaining oil and patties.

(Recipe from Ginette Mathiot's "I Know How to Cook," Phaidon, 2009)


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