Book Review: Mozza at Home

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

On first read, Nancy Silverton’s Mozza at Home feels appealing, reassuring, and aspirational.

The recipes look interesting, a mix of familiar foods with nice twists. Silverton reassures readers with a warm, confident tone. And with long descriptions of her seemingly charmed existence, split between rustically sumptuous Los Angeles and Italy residences filled with effortless, large dinner parties, readers can aspire to an equally lovely life.

Cooks who feel hard-pressed to create a menu that both hangs together and provides a balance of quick and more difficult recipes will appreciate how Silverton organizes the book’s 19 menus: Each chapter provides a main dish with a variety of recipes to accompany it, plus (in most cases) a list of recipes in other chapters that would also work. Freed from the “will these taste right together?” question, readers can focus on combining the recipes that fit their schedule and skills. But with all the menus, a flexible schedule, heavy on plenty of time to cook, and reasonably strong cooking skills will make for happier readers.

That’s because Mozza at Home promises relaxed, family-style entertaining—but these are still, more often than not, fairly involved recipes. Cooking skills may be less important than time here, and Silverton’s clear, detailed instructions can inspire confidence—but readers without strong skills may end up exhausted trying to pull off these menus.

And depending on your point of view, the book offers up relaxed-but-beautiful supper parties, or a forced rusticity (rustic+$20 bottles of balsamic vinegar). There’s a lot of tearing going on in this book—tear your bread for croutons rather than cutting cubes, tear your egg whites for egg salad rather than chopping them, have your guests “rip off chunks” of a pork roast to serve themselves. Silverton isn’t shy about telling you how to achieve your artful rusticity, with directions for precisely how to serve each dish. This can make readers uneasy about even casual entertaining comfortably.

Ultimately, though, do the recipes live up to the promise? In limited recipe tests, yes and no. Take the “Saturday Night Chicken Thighs with Italian Sausage and Spicy Pickled Peppers.” Results of this three-page recipe, which requires making the peppers at least a day ahead, tasted like less than the sum of its parts—tasty enough, and not overly technically complicated, but still a long, involved recipe. The companion smashed potatoes require a second oven, given the different cooking temperature, and seemed underwhelming given a full stick of butter, a third cup of olive oil, rosemary and sage involved.

But a roasted pork shoulder takes advantage of the inherent flavor of a fat-capped pork butt so it can require very little effort—an overnight rub plus a nine-hour stay in the oven—for a terrific main dish. Choose from a long list of sides in this chapter—guacamole, with the nice twist of pureeing the onion, jalapeno and cilantro; avocado salsa; charred tomato salsa; quick tomatillo salsa; grilled spring onions; rice; charred peppers; and refried beans with a twist, using white beans. Not quite what you wanted? Silverton points to seven more options in other chapters; this menu does seem easier to pull off no matter what you choose, with solidly flavorful food equal to (or better than) the effort involved.

Like the pork, most of the menus revolve around meat or fish—grilled lamb chops, hamburgers, garlic-rubbed skirt steak, braised oxtails, olive oil-poached albacore, oven-roasted grouper, lamb and chicken tikka kebabs, spicy pork stew, short ribs, with a host of vegetable and grain side options. None of the menus include dessert; Silverton says any of the desserts in the dessert chapter will work with any menu; recipes include polenta cake, olive oil cake, wedding cookies, chocolate caramel tart, chess pie, and chai chocolate chip cookies.

For ambitious cooks with ample time to throw dinner parties with a big spread, Mozza at Home will provide plenty of inspiration.

Mozza at Home: More than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining by Nancy Silverton (Released October 25, 2016, by Knopf; 432 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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Book Review: Classic German Baking

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

As readers might expect from someone with “Kebschull” as a maiden name, this reviewer had high hopes and expectations for a book on German baking. In Classic German Baking, author and former cookbook editor Luisa Weiss surpassed those expectations with an engaging, precise, and pitch-perfect collection of more than 100 recipes that deserve to be better known in the U.S.

Her time as a cookbook editor shows: This book has just what a cookbook reader wants. With careful, concise directions that tell bakers exactly what they need to know to succeed; measurements in cups to appease American bakers, but also grams for the precision bakers really need; and exquisitely good copyediting, Weiss sets her readers up for success in the kitchen.

The creator of the “Wednesday Chef” blog who previously wrote My Berlin Kitchen, Weiss was born in Berlin to an Italian mother and American father. After moves back and forth as a child to Boston and Berlin and a decade in New York as a literary scout and cookbook editor, she settled back in Berlin with her German husband and their young son. Weiss started the blog as a way to work through recipes she kept clipping, not focused on German food. So this book on German baking doesn’t have a blog-thrown-into-a-book feel; it stands on its own.

Weiss takes readers through cookies, cakes, yeasted cakes, tortes and strudels, a short chapter on savory tarts, breads, kuchens and strudels, breads and rolls, and Christmas cookies and breads, plus a few basics, such as homemade quark (a rich cheese for cheesecakes and baked goods), almond paste, spices, streusel, and, of course, lightly sweetened whipped cream, which no German can go without.

Many, but not all, of the recipes require European-style higher-fat butter, and some cookies need baker’s ammonia for the proper light, airy crispness. A few other uncommon ingredients pop up in several recipes, but even bakers with a basic pantry will find much to make.

And once they get started, bakers will find it hard to stop. From the “simplest butter cookies” to quick, buttery almond bar cookies, to slice-and-bake crisp cookies rich with cardamom, the cookie chapter kicks the book off with confidence-inducing recipes. Skip ahead to a rich, moist, super-tender apple-almond cakey kuchen, or turn the page to a glazed apple kuchen that’s a cross between cake and pie, richly flavored with tender, cinnamon-infused apples and raisins. Lemon-scented cherry kuchen was excellent and tender on its own, or try topping it with the streusel from the basics chapter. In recipe tests, each of these proved nearly perfect.

For something unfamiliar to most American palates, try the tall marbleized poppy seed cake, rich with ground, sweetened poppy seeds. Use caution when baking not to overbake at all; many of these recipes are drier (intentionally so) than a lot of American cakes, requiring extra care in baking.

Or put those flavors to use in yeasted cakes—simple yeasted apple kuchen relies on the pure flavors of lemon and apple, with variations involving rum-soaked raisins, almonds or streusel; poppy seed filling and a streusel top keep a yeasted kuchen moist. Almonds, hazelnuts, chocolate and plums make multiple appearances.

Or go for very plain, but hardly boring, with classic breakfast rolls, crisp and light, or a gently buttery  Swiss bread with a fine, tight crumb—both ready to be slathered with butter and jam, or topped with slices of cheese and ham.

Move on to Christmas cookies that deserve to be eaten at least half the year. Lebkuchen, springerle, pfeffernusse, cinnamon-almond meringue stars, almond chocolate cookies, candied orange cookies sandwiched with chocolate . . . and many more.

Any complaints about this book? Mild ones at best. Weiss often notes that a recipe is best eaten on the day it’s made, but for bakers with small households, it may be hard to polish off a 9-by-13 pan of yeast cake in a day; more notes about what freezes or halves well would have been appreciated. And although she thanks KitchenAid for the loan of a stand mixer, most kneaded doughs give instructions only for kneading by hand; realistically, many bakers will be far more likely to make these doughs if the mixer tackles the work.

Finally, for a generation raised on food blogs, there are already complaints online about a lack of photos. But if readers want to consider themselves real bakers, this book will take them there; with only a few minor exceptions, the precise instructions negate the need for explanatory photos, even for nearly newbie cooks. The book’s lovely photos, a mix of Berlin scenes and food shots, should be more than enough.

Cookbooks rarely deliver so well on what they promise. Classic German Baking lives up to its name—and will be a classic itself.

Classic German Baking: The Very Best Recipes for Traditional Favorites, from Pfeffernüsse to Streuselkuchen by Luisa Weiss (Released October 18, 2016 by Ten Speed Press, 288 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

 

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