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Cooking the books
January 16, 2010 2:06 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a new project? Wish you were a better cook? Why not try cooking every recipe in a cookbook? Originally started by Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame, people now register domain names for anticipated cookbooks in advance of the release date. As daunting as it seems to tackle the entirety of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, that challenge seems to pale in comparison to the epic quest of cooking all 1000+ recipes in the Gourmet cookbook. For the chef who wants a different sort of challenge, there are the particular demands of Heston Blumenthal's $250, 11.6 pound molecular gastronomy bible, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. While the bloggers cooking through Alinea are working with isomalt and sorghum flour, the daring souls blogging Nose to Tail are wrestling with noses, tails, and all the offal parts in between. If this seems like a lonely road, maybe you'd like to join one of the group baking projects such as Tuesdays with Dorie or The Bread Baker's Apprentice.
posted by hindmost (47 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
From the first (WSJ) link: The necessary ingredient: You need to be a little crazy.
posted by rhymer at 2:38 AM on January 16, 2010


Ha! I am waiting for someone to start cooking their way through Escoffier.

I seem to recall it had various recipes for cooking black truffles ... as a vegetable. Those things are worth their weight in gold.
posted by jannw at 2:41 AM on January 16, 2010


I love to cook. I love it because it is unlike my job, and allows me to express some creativity, make a mess, improvise... it was even a stretch for me to start baking breads, because that requires a certain precision. And measuring stuff. And covering the kids in flour.

So this kind of "completionist" (love the tag!) stuff makes me squirm. I'm going to look away now. Nothing wrong with a good cookbook, don't get me wrong, but every cookbook has a handful of great recipes THAT YOU MIGHT YOUR PERSONAL SELF ENJOY, and trying to cook an entire book full of recipes is just depriving you of cooking other stuff from other books that you might also enjoy and might fit the giant bag of beets you just got from your CSA and OK I AM LOOKING AWAY NOW
posted by Ella Fynoe at 3:17 AM on January 16, 2010


I wonder why, with the internet, people even buy cookbooks??? I started cooking in earnest a few years ago, and 99.9% of what I've done has been inspired by online content....
posted by HuronBob at 3:30 AM on January 16, 2010


I wonder why, with the internet, people even buy cookbooks???

Because any yutz with a dial-up can post their recipe on the Internet. It's a lot more hit-or-miss as a primary source.

Mind you, I have used the Internet for doing things like cross-checking a bunch of different recipes for the same dish, to see if I have wiggle room on some ingredient ("crap, I really want to make cassoulet, but I can't get a full duck, only duck breast...is that gonna make a difference?"). But when it comes to the initial inspiration, I go with the cookbooks, usually. (Bear in mind, though, that I have about 50-75 of them, so i'm still drawing from a rather large well.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 AM on January 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Dang hindmost I wasn't hungry or (I thought) lacking but after reading and clicking the links from your post I'm suffering a need to feed or eat or both. Nicely done.
posted by vapidave at 4:27 AM on January 16, 2010


I love to cook. I'm sad cooking is being turned into a fad.
posted by _dario at 4:29 AM on January 16, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm sad cooking is being turned into a fad.

Hey, any fad that encourages people to cook for themselves rather than getting all takeout and processed pre-packaged food, thereby cutting down on both obesity AND food packaging waste, is okay in my book.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:41 AM on January 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


Wow, definitely worth visiting the "Big Fat Duck cookbook" link, just because the recipes are so complicated, obscure, and grueling that they border on comical, and it's frightening/impressive to see someone take them on.
posted by threeants at 5:00 AM on January 16, 2010


Cooking isn't a "fad," it's just that everybody cooks, to some degree. Blogging about cooking might be a fad, though.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:02 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Previously.
posted by NMcCoy at 5:04 AM on January 16, 2010


Yeah, people taking an interest in something so fundamental as food is always lemongrass soup in my book.
posted by vapidave at 5:09 AM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was just trying to find that nose to tail blog earlier today. I think I have an addiction to food blogs.
posted by JackarypQQ at 5:14 AM on January 16, 2010


Just putting this out there, but I would totally go see Julie and Coolio.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:41 AM on January 16, 2010


Am I the only one who wanted to bitchslap the self-obsessed faux Julie Powell and tell her to go crawl back under her rock, as she was getting in the way of a perfectly good movie about Julia Childs?!

... oh, and when I heard that she wrote her second book about her affair and leaving her husband, that started during the time depicted during the movie, well... that was just so special!
posted by markkraft at 5:41 AM on January 16, 2010 [7 favorites]


Maybe it makes me a hater, but I see those completionist projects more as an artificial way of adding structure to one's life. And that artificiality makes it a lot less interesting than a project that grows more organically, and has more coherence with your life and how you live. In other words, the only thing I find less interesting than completionisting a cookbook is reading someone's blog about completionisting.

But then they seem to be attracting audiences, and even getting book contracts, so more power to them. If people want to read it, and you are having fun doing it, then why not?
posted by Forktine at 5:56 AM on January 16, 2010


I'm a fairly decent cook, not a chef by any means. And not inclined to argue either. But, what does completionist mean in this context? Or any context. Forgive my ignorance.
posted by vapidave at 6:09 AM on January 16, 2010


I hope they don't all get book deals and movies, or we're in for a long haul.

Forktine: ...that artificiality makes it a lot less interesting than a project that grows more organically

You know what else grows organically? Tumors. Something to think about.
posted by mecran01 at 6:32 AM on January 16, 2010


Because any yutz with a dial-up can post their recipe on the Internet. It's a lot more hit-or-miss as a primary source.

As someone who has been a part of the testing and selection process of chocolate, cake, and dessert cookbooks for an international mail-order venue, let me assure you that any yutz with a list of recipes they copied from the internet and modified a little bit can publish a cookbook.
posted by whatzit at 6:33 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


But, what does completionist mean in this context? Or any context.

Collecting, reading, or carrying out every task in a series, even when you are only interested in some part of that series. In this case it means cooking every single recipe in a particular cookbook from appetizer to dessert-- even the ones you might not ordinarily be interested to try-- just to feel as though you have accomplished something, giving you an artificial sense of achievement. After all, if you don't make one of the appetizers in the book because it doesn't sound appealing does that mean all the cooking that you have done relying on the cookbook recipes is of lesser value?

I own lots of cookbooks in which I have only ever made 10 of the 100 recipes. Many of the recipes in The Gourmet Cookbook are too much for two people or use expensive ingredients hard to get a hold of. For example, I won't do anything too fancy or difficult involving spinach because my husband hates spinach in any amount and I am allergic to shellfish so mussels are right out.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:37 AM on January 16, 2010


From Judith Jones - Editor of Mastering the Art of French cooking:

“Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She [Julie Powell] didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.”

And that's all I gotta say about that.
posted by czechmate at 8:06 AM on January 16, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think the idea is to build up your skill in cooking, by forcing yourself to learn (or at least try) to cook everything, including those things you typically won't try. Even if its something you don't like to eat, cooking it might still teach you something new, which you can then apply to your own cooking in the future. To me its sort of like a jazz musician making his way through every song in some fake book including those he hates, as a form of practice.
posted by destrius at 8:15 AM on January 16, 2010


Related: Adam Gopnick's recent New Yorker article: What’s the Recipe? --"Our hunger for cookbooks."
posted by ericb at 8:16 AM on January 16, 2010


What happens when you obsess over anything.....
posted by webhund at 8:19 AM on January 16, 2010


What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt.

As much as Meryl deserves another Oscar for her brilliant Child impression, Amy Adams deserves a handful of Oscars for acting out her annoying real-world counterpart.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:55 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


I didn't read the book or the blog, but what came through in the movie that annoyed me was the idea of cooking things that gross you out for the sake of cooking them. Life's too short to waste time and food like that.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2010


I cook a lot, though I pretty much never follow a recipe. This whole thing seems kind of tiresome. I'd be willing to bet that it is certainly not always fun. Honestly, you can become a better cook by cooking every single recipe in a cookbook, but you will become a good cook much faster if you learn to make your own "recipes" and focus on techniques and getting your own sense of taste and knowledge about what different ingredients add to the picture instead of doing some sort of weird project where you force yourself to make everything from one cookbook whether you really want to eat it or not.
posted by ishotjr at 9:27 AM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


Meh, I don't think there is a right way or wrong way to learn how to cook. I pretty much follow a recipe ounce for ounce - my wife prefers to get ideas from friends and family and figure things out on her own. In both cases, we end up with pretty decent food.

Learning how to cook is no different than learning anything else. Some people prefer to follow instructions and then go out on their own when they master the fundamentals. Others prefer to dive right in and go with their gut. It's whatever works best for you.

I also use the Tubes for 95% of my recipes, but what's fun about a book is that it's fun reading material for a lazy Sunday afternoon sitting on the couch, where you just look at the pictures and think to yourself "oooh, I would love to make that someday"
posted by bitteroldman at 9:48 AM on January 16, 2010


By way of cleansing your palette, I offer you this: The Monkey Chow Diaries
Imagine going to the grocery store only once every 6 months. Imagine paying less than a dollar per meal. Imagine never washing dishes, chopping vegetables or setting the table ever again. It sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

But can a human subsist on a constant diet of pelletized, nutritionally complete food like puppies and monkeys do? For the good of human kind, I'm about to find out. On June 3, 2006, I began my week of eating nothing but monkey chow: "a complete and balanced diet for the nutrition of primates, including the great apes."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:39 AM on January 16, 2010


Why not try cooking every recipe in a cookbook? Originally started by Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame,

I'm pretty sure that people have turned to classic cookbooks for inspiration, and even have made brave attempts to cook their way through them, prior to Julie Powell. The difference is the blogging about it.
posted by desuetude at 11:12 AM on January 16, 2010


On June 3, 2006, I began my week of eating nothing but monkey chow: "a complete and balanced diet for the nutrition of primates, including the great apes."

When I was in high school, I worked in the ticket booth at a zoo every summer. I have tried monkey chow. I can't imagine eating it for a week. Even the monkeys get fresh fruits and veggies to go with it! However, one of my coworkers who turned out to be addicted to meth and was later arrested did subsist on monkey chow, parrot food, and overripe fruit for a month or two. I'm not sure if the weight loss was caused by the meth or the diet.


Also, I covet that Dorie Greenspan cookbook.
posted by amarie at 12:47 PM on January 16, 2010


I would be seriously impressed if someone cooked every recipe in the Joy of Cooking.
posted by chrchr at 1:53 PM on January 16, 2010


re: my "fad" comment, of course anything that steers people away from processed/packaged/junk food is great in my book too!

And this comes from (a) an Italian (most of us are obsessed about food and cooking -two italians meeting abroad will inevitably steer the conversation to food, the local cuisine, unfavorable comparisons, and start an exchange of recipes -- hell, my mother-in-law was discussing lentil varieties and cooking methods with her cardiologist *during her procedure* yesterday!) (b) a tuscan --which is really amusing, to me-- since it appears most of the interest in Italian cooking is actually in tuscan cooking, that side of the ocean, and (c) someone that has been in food-related mailing lists and newsgroups since... I don't even know, maybe 1995, discussing whether the best salt for the sea bass is from Sicily or southern France, or if it's ethically acceptable glazing a sachertorte with a ganache instead of a chocolate fondant.

My objection, if it might even be called an objection, is that while there's absolutely nothing wrong in researching aesthetically, historically, etc. into cooking, which (as any craft) can go as deep as one wants it to, by bringing this to the 'mainstream' this way, it makes it appear that it's something hard, for the initiated, somewhat elitist, maybe even bearing (the horror!) the hipster stigma, and that you have to research the perfect ingredients, and if your tuscan bread is from Montaione instead of Altopascio your panzanella is going to be good but -eh- not perfect, and so on... alienating in the end just those who could get the most benefit from a general raising in the quality of their food.

(anyway: I've been toying with the idea of starting a food blog in English with easy, real-italian recipes for a while now, I'll post in projects if it comes to pass;))
posted by _dario at 5:53 PM on January 16, 2010


My thing is to try at least 5 recipes from a few cookbooks I own, one being The Home Christian Cookbook which is a fascinating challenge. It's a Mennonite cookbook published in the 50s and 60s and there isn't a single picture in the book, so you have to combine ingredients such as crackers, mushroom soup, celery, chicken breasts and cheese hoping you're doing it right and it comes out tasty (which it did btw).
posted by Calzephyr at 9:59 PM on January 16, 2010


Wait, so the blogger in that film was *supposed* to be utterly insufferable?

I have to say I would have liked the film more if they'd dropped her bits entirely.
posted by Artw at 10:45 PM on January 16, 2010


I would be seriously impressed if someone cooked every recipe in the Joy of Cooking.

Someone is working on it.

As for why people still buy cookbooks, I personally do it because it's nice to have a curated list of recipes, it's easier to cook from a book than to run back to my computer with greasy or floured fingers and figure out what the next step is, and because a lot of the high end cooking techniques are not as readily available online. While you may find every variation of bolognese sauce or cheesecake online, you're not going to find a lot of how-tos on molecular gastronomy. Grant Achatz of Alinea works with manufacturers to create custom equipment for his kitchen. If you want to replicate the meal you had at The French Laundry or Alinea, you're pretty much going to have to go to the source and use the cookbook.

One of the recurring themes that gets mentioned is that cooking through an entire book forces you to leave your comfort zone and try new techniques and taste new foods. A lot of people discovered new foods they enjoyed, and prepared foods that they would never have thought to make before being "forced" to by their self imposed rules. I have to confess to being tempted to start my own project, and this fpp was a byproduct of my investigations into the matter.
posted by hindmost at 11:00 PM on January 16, 2010


I cook a lot, though I pretty much never follow a recipe. This whole thing seems kind of tiresome. I'd be willing to bet that it is certainly not always fun. Honestly, you can become a better cook by cooking every single recipe in a cookbook, but you will become a good cook much faster if you learn to make your own "recipes" and focus on techniques and getting your own sense of taste and knowledge about what different ingredients add to the picture instead of doing some sort of weird project where you force yourself to make everything from one cookbook whether you really want to eat it or not.
posted by ishotjr


This is pretty much what I tell new cooks when I hire them and begin their training. Recipes are fantastic for home cooks that want to impress their friends and family (which there is nothing wrong with), and they really get people going sometimes.

If you want to really cook well though, technique is what you should focus on and books that promote that are your best bet. Mark Bittman and James Peterson's books are really awesome for this. I can't speak highly enough of Tom Colicchio's books either--"Think Like a Chef" has been given to just about every line cook that ever worked for me as a parting gift when they went on to bigger and better things.
posted by kaiseki at 2:34 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Joy of Cooking will break them.
posted by drezdn at 8:53 AM on January 17, 2010


About six years ago I flirted with the idea of cooking through, and writing about, Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton, because every time I read it, I'm always struck by how well so many of the recipes work, nearly two centuries after it was written. (I think that Modern Cookery should occupy the place that Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook does in the U.S. and Beeton's Book of Household Management does in the U.K., but I realize that I sound like a bit of a crank, so I try not to get too GRAR about it.)

I decided not to do it, partly because I was working full-time and freelance writing on the side, and thus wouldn't be able to do justice to such a project. Mostly, though, I decided not to do it because Julie Powell had just shut down The Julie-Julia Project and her book deal had just been announced, and I didn't want to give the appearance of riding Julie's coattails, and using her idea, to try to snag a book deal. I thought that serious cooks and food historians would find such a project craven on my part, and would (rightly) write me off as a dilettante.

There's a lesson here. I think the lesson is that I'm a shlemozzle.
posted by bakerina at 9:58 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder why, with the internet, people even buy cookbooks???

From my viewpoint it's because most of the recipes (as with everything else) on the internet are posted by Americans. And that's fine, it's just that our flour is different and anything that relies on it heavily isn't going to work as well. My cookbooks have mostly been published locally based on the ingredients I have in my cupboard, so I know the terminology will make sense and the end product will work. I tend to understand my favourite books too, like that really cool baking one where for my oven you halve the cooking time and always turn the cookie sheets, you don't get that kind of consistency from the internet.

But then I don't tend to use recipes a lot for cooking dinner as such, more for baking. Also I don't really like cooking in the first place so my meals tend to be pretty boring. Several people I work with turn to the internet regularly to figure out what to cook their family each night and they don't bother with books. Google is great for getting meal inspiration or thinking about what kind of extra ingredients to throw in and is much faster than trawling through books for that kind of thing. So I think both things have a place in the end.

I think the completionist thing is similar to projects like take a photo every day or read 50 books in a year. It gives structure and a goal and the feeling of progress, something many of us like to have in our lives. At the same time using it to cook lots of stuff you didn't really want to cook makes me shudder, again because I don't really like cooking in the first place.
posted by shelleycat at 2:48 PM on January 17, 2010


our flour is different

I'm now going to assume that American flower is made of HFCS, like everything else here.
posted by Artw at 4:04 PM on January 17, 2010


I think it's just ground differently. Ours is less fine or something. Generally I find cookies made to an American recipe will be more chewy while USA-based friends of mine have found my NZ recipes come out as a goopy mess. You can do conversions but I don't care enough, plus some other things are different between countries too (e.g. Australian and New Zealand baking powder are diffrent and their teaspoon measure is 20 mLs while ours if 15, etc). My local cookbooks don't use weird terms like cilantro and I don't have to do extra maths.
posted by shelleycat at 4:42 PM on January 17, 2010


If I wanted to cook my way through my mother's Encyclopedia of Cooking, I'd have to round up a squirrel...among other small animals. I think it even tells how to get the scent glands out of an opossum.

As for your flour troubles, shelleycat, there are several kinds of flour, ranging from cake (low protein, very soft) through all-purpose (medium protein), to bread (high protein, very chewy). Unfortunately, most of the flour around today in America isn't labeled. Some stores will have "best for bread machines," which is indeed bread flour, but for the most part all you can find is all-purpose. Sounds like NZ flour is probably bread flour.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:24 AM on January 18, 2010


I use the internet and cookbooks. I use the internet to compare a bunch of different versions of any given recipe to see what ingredients and methods I like and what I don't and then kind of meld things together. I like cookbooks for technique on cooking rather than just for one recipe. My favorite in this regard are Ratio and How to Cook Everything.

As much as I like cooking, I like it because I do it on my terms and cooking my way through a cookbook seems like a job.
posted by Kimberly at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2010


We have the different grades of flour too. But our baking flour is different than yours because yours is overprocessed.

And it's not a 'trouble'. My baking is awesome.
posted by shelleycat at 1:56 PM on January 18, 2010


Man, now I feel like a wierdo for finding this sort of thing really exciting.

Yes, I have cooked every single recipe in some of my cookbooks. I find it an enjoyable way to discover new techniques and flavours and flavour combinations. I am a completionist in most areas of my life, actually - I will do *all* the quests in the game, play *all* the songs in the book, and try *all* the wines in the tasting, even the ones I know I won't like, because it's all a learning experience, which I enjoy. About the only times I hold back are when I'm allergic to something. It's part of my 'try anything at least once' philosophy of life.

I consider myself a pretty good cook; given a pile of raw ingredients, I can usually whip up a decent meal without a lot of trouble, sans recipe. Or take a recipe as a starting point, and then riff on it to make something more suited to my mood at the time. My cookbooks are filled with scribbles in the margins for variations, for alterations, for additions.
posted by ysabet at 4:45 PM on January 19, 2010


shelleycat: We have the different grades of flour too. But our baking flour is different than yours because yours is overprocessed.

While there is no shortage of bleached/bromated flour available in supermarkets, not all American flour is overprocessed. There are at least two common brands of unbleached, unbromated flours sold as "all-purpose flour" in American supermarkets, with a protein content of around 11.5-12%. (The brand I use, King Arthur, is an 11.7% protein flour, and the company's QA tolerances are pretty strict.) Unbleached pastry flour (around 8-9% protein is harder to find in supermarkets, but pretty easy to find in specialty kitchen shops, or via mail order).

I'm sorry you live such a distance from me. I'm a big fan of awesome baking. (I don't know if I'd call mine awesome, but I can bake from scratch without embarrassing myself or making other people feel awkward. ;)
posted by bakerina at 10:30 PM on January 19, 2010


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