is a Cookbook!
I like gifting cookbooks (no surprise, I know). Almost any cookbook can bring happiness to its new owner. However, the RIGHT cookbook totally ramps up the experience for gifter and giftee and I’m happy to offer some pointers on how to make a great selection, with some suggestions for specific books I admire.
If your gift is for someone who loves cookbooks, who cooks regularly and likes to experiment, you can probably pick up almost any cookbook as a gift and, assuming they don’t already own it, they’ll be happy. However, with a bit of additional curating, you can probably up the wow factor.
On the other hand, if your giftee is someone who just has to produce meals for a family and wants to avoid the ‘if it’s Tuesday it must be Spag Bol’ trap, then a carefully chosen cookbook will help take the chore out of daily catering.
And then of course there is the new cook, whether a student off to college, someone with their own first kitchen and a new interest in cooking, or basically anyone who has been used to meals prepared by someone else and who now has to fend for themselves in the kitchen.
Cookbook users come with different needs so I’ve pulled together a few ideas for various cook personalities.
THE VERY EXPERIENCED COOK
The person who reads cookbooks in bed and likes to experiment in the kitchen (with recipes, for clarity)!
The seasonal best seller may not be the wise choice for this cook. Christmas launches are basically designed for mass-market consumption. To use a film analogy, if you are planning to gift a book to a real foodie you are looking for the art-house release rather than the Marvel blockbuster.
French Laundry Cookbook – real coffee table stuff from Thomas Keller, Deborah Jones et al. The French Laundry, if you haven’t heard of it, is a restaurant in Napa Valley in the US. This cookbook is oversized, beautiful and almost unimaginably faffy in places. It also uses US measurements, which an experienced European cook won’t mind too much. Perfect for the aspiring Masterchef!
Rory O’Connell’s ‘Cook Well Eat Well’ – there’s as much art as cooking going on in this book from ‘the other O’Connell sibling’ (sister Darina Allen is arguably the better known cook in the family).
Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast by Ken Forkish. A great bread book and one that will also work for less experienced cooks.
Ottolenghi anything – much loved by avid cooks due to the range of flavours and ingredients but popular enough that you’d probably need to check the giftee’s library before investing (fyi – the name of his book ‘Simple’ is a very relative term, don’t be tempted to buy it for a new cook).
Or you could avoid ‘recipe’ books and go for something more related to technique. Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat, is a book about what makes food hum and zing and how to make the magic work. Two interesting books from Niki Segnit are ‘The Flavour Thesaurus’ and ‘Lateral Cooking’. The first deals with flavour pairings, what goes with what. The second explores how to move up down and sideways to produce new and different dishes.
THE ENTHUSIASTIC NOVICE
A few suggestions for the enthusiastic cook who aspires towards a bit more and is learning on the job:
Donna Hay’s Basics to Brilliance is full of meaty recipes (pulled testosterone anyone?) it’s really good for a man in an apron, unless he’s veggie in which case pass.
Diana Henry is a legend. From the Oven to the Table, in particular, is full of great ideas using accessible ingredients.
If your giftee is of the ‘fling it all together’ mentality then Alison Roman’s ‘Dining In’ would be a great gift. Be sure to get the one published in the right country though – there’s a US and UK edition available.
Baking used to be something your mother did but it has become much more of a thing in recent times. This is my moment to have a rant about the fact that non-bakers were snapping up all available bread flour at one point in the pandemic, leaving those of us who had baked for years with empty shopping baskets, but I won’t go there. Mary Berry is considered the queen of cakes, and probably rightly, but her success in this field (and specifically in the GBBO tent) can mean that the gift of an MB book could look like the socks version of a cookbook gift. I would look to Nigella’s Cook Eat Repeat for something a bit more adventurous, or to Rachel Allen’s Bake.
For an Asian twist, and a gorgeous book all around, I would highly recommend a look at ‘Dishoom’ from Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar & Naveed Nasir. If your giftee is not regularly cooking Asian food you could include a small hamper of ingredients with it (check out a few of the recipes and you will see the regularly recurring spices and flavourings and then pick them up at an Asian shop, not in those little bottles). This book is a sort of culinary Ulysses as it documents a day of food exploration in Bombay, as they still call the city in the book.
THE COMPLETE BEGINNER
So, first question here is – does your gifting target actually want to cook? I know a few people who don’t get the desire to cook in the same way that I don’t get the desire to trudge up mountains in the rain for ‘fun’. If the answer is yes, then there are some great books out there that make cooking seem like something anyone can do with flair.
There has been a parallel epidemic of celebrity chefs producing ‘at home’ cookbooks, the basic idea being that these are centred on the food they cook with their own families. Tread carefully here – these folk are still experts in their field and may be a bit blind to the amount of stuff they know that others don’t. I would suggest buying these in a real shop rather than online so you can dip in to a few pages first to check the calibre of recipe – if it’s a pimped up burger, great, if it’s duck confit from scratch in 2 litres of duck fat maybe not (looking at you, Marcus).
I’d highly recommend Neven Maguire’s Midweek Meals – loads of stuff that anyone could tackle, well explained and laid out. Although I haven’t seen it I expect that his Learn to Cook with Neven would also be an excellent choice for the newbie.
When I first started to cook the Avoca Café Cookbook (the first one) was my go-to for many recipes. This was at a time when I didn’t know that you could make soup from scratch at home and I thought homemade bread was some sort of witchcraft. The recipes are solid, somewhat old fashioned now, but very easy to master.
Lynda Booth’s Fearless Food is full of clearly written accessible recipes, and also contains some more adventurous efforts when the new cook is ready to step up.
Whatever book you choose as a gift, whether for yourself or for someone else, think about the key things that I cover when I review a cookbook. Is it food that excites the palate and has some novelty value without being too strange? Are the ingredients easy to acquire? Do you need a fully equipped professional kitchen or will a normal domestic kitchen have what is needed? And finally, and importantly, is the book beautiful to the eye and lovely in the hand!