Martha's Five Best Cookbooks

As my cookbook-author friends Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell once wrote, "No one really needs another cookbook." The best and most classic recipes have already been immortalized in cookbooks around the world. Many of the simplest recipes have even become part of our culinary vocabulary. Some, like hard-boiled eggs or baked potatoes, have been committed to memory, while heirloom recipes usually get written down on notecards or scraps of paper and are passed from generation to generation. Published recipes are now easily found online and are simply copied and pasted, texted, tagged or forwarded from friend to friend to friend. 

Still, there is something to be said for a collection of recipes printed on paper with beautiful photographs to look at, with special tips and hints from the experts. It's nice to have recipes grouped by theme or by season or by menu, all collected between two covers. I recently tasked myself with the challenge of selecting Martha Stewart's top five cookbooks. With more than two dozen cookbooks bearing the Martha Stewart imprint, whittling down the selection to five absolute essentials seemed like a sensible thing for a Martha blogger to do. So, below are THE top five Martha Stewart cookbooks that everyone needs, listed chronologically by publication date.  Not everyone will agree with my selection, of course, but that's what the comments section is for! [Following is a list of supplemental books that could bolster and complement the Big Five but that are not necessarily must-haves.]

The first is The Martha Stewart Cookbook. Published in 1995, it is a collection of more than 1,400 recipes from the Martha Stewart archives that had been published to that point. All of Martha's classic recipes from each of her previous cookbooks are featured in this one volume, making it, perhaps, the most essential Martha cookbook of them all. Recipes for every level of skill are featured, although most are quite advanced. Over 21 chapters, Martha organizes her recipes by subject and takes us through "The Basics" (stocks, doughs, pastry, etc.), "Eggs", "Vegetables" and so on, spanning more than 620 pages. Lovers of the lush photography that is usually featured in Martha's books may be disappointed since there are no photos to be found in this book - only how-to illustrations accompanying some of the recipes. This is very much a compendium, a recipe repertoire, a how-to tome, underscored by Martha's tips and notes for entertaining, setting a table and stocking a pantry. For the Martha Stewart completist, this book ought to be in your collection.
Her first book on the subject of appetizers is classic Martha: well-organized, ambitious in its scope, beautiful in its presentation and brimming with inspiration and information. Martha Stewart's Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook was published in 1999 and is probably one of the most user-friendly cookbooks I've ever seen; even the size of the book was considered to make it easy to fit in the palm of the reader's hand while in use! All of the colour photographs for the recipes are collected at the front of the book, cross-referenced with the page number featuring the recipe, allowing the reader to browse the imagery first to select which hors d'oeuvres appeal to them, visually. Grouped into chapters denoting the style of the hors d'oeuvre (layered and stacked, wrapped, rolled, filled, folded, stuffed, etc.) the book takes all the guesswork out of the selection process, even providing menu suggestions, wine pairings and a chapter on cocktails! Frankly, it's the best book on hors d'oeuvres ever written, in my opinion, making it a definite Martha must-have. 
The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook contains the very best of the holiday recipes published in Martha Stewart Living magazine, from the first issue through to 2003, which is when the book was published. Included are Martha's favourite Christmas recipes as well as selections by her food editors: more than 600 recipes in all. Having the best of Martha's Christmas recipes in one volume is a reader's delight and it's one of our family's favourite books to use each holiday, even if we only make one or two of the recipes. Over ten chapters, each course is covered, from breakfast to dinner: Christmas morning essentials, hors d'oeuvres, main courses, desserts and cocktails. There are how-to illustrations and full-colour photographs to guide and inspire the cook, as well as menu suggestions and presentation ideas, even packaging ideas for giving food as gifts. It's a gorgeous, thorough collection of the best holiday recipes Martha Stewart Living has ever published.
In this beautiful volume, everything - and I do mean everything - you need to know about baking is included. Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook was published in 2005 and it is the definitive guide to the art of baking. By beginning the book with general baking tips and baking equipment, the book gives the reader a sense of confidence immediately. The book then progresses into Simple Baked Goods, then Cookies, Cakes, Pies, Tarts, Cobblers and Crisps, then Yeasted Baked Goods and finally Pastries. This is followed by a Basic Recipes sections where you'll find recipes for lemon curd, buttercream frosting, seven-minute frosting, meringue, etc. Interspersed throughout the chapters are helpful hints and how-tos, such as how to ice a cake, how to use a pastry bag, etc. The recipe selection is extremely delicious (especially the cakes!) and the photographs by Jonathan Lovekin are enticing and artistic with their consistent grey backdrops. It is a gorgeous book and especially a very helpful book for the novice baker and those who are more advanced. If you're up for the lesson, this book can teach you how to bake - guaranteed!
Baking has always been easier than cooking for me. I suppose it is the careful instructions and measurements that, if followed carefully, yields the ideal result. Cooking requires more finesse. It's more about instinct than design. Martha, however, being the astute teacher that she is, was determined to teach her readers not just what to cook but how to cook in her 2008 publication, Martha Stewart's Cooking School. In what is perhaps one of the best cookbooks ever written, Martha is determined to make the reader feel so confident, and so self-assured, that any culinary challenge can be met head on. She does this using her trademark step-by-step, instructional tone, leaving no question unanswered; from how to chop an onion to how to truss a chicken, this book is overflowing with lessons for the home cook. Grouped into chapters by cooking method (roasting, broiling, braising, stewing, sautéing, steaming and poaching) Martha provides a thorough overview of each technique and answers why this method of cooking works for the foods and recipes that follow. Using this book, the cook is never left to venture blindly into the unknown. It is highly recommended for anyone new to the art of cooking and because of its scope and attention to detail, I've ranked it as a Martha must-have.


If five Martha Stewart cookbooks is just too minimalistic for your bookshelves, I've selected some companion cookbooks from Martha's library that are certainly worth adding to your collection as complements to the Big Five, above.
Each one of these baking books is a gem unto itself but when combined into a series of four you've got yourself a party. New Pies & Tarts, Cupcakes, Cookies and Cakes - every baked confection you could ever dream of is found in these volumes. 
This book is the perfect book for weeknight dinners that are fast and delicious. Divided by season, it has a back-to-basics feel with recipes that take less than an hour to cook but that don't skimp on flavour. You'll find everything here from starters and sides to main courses to desserts. (The macaroni and cheese is to-die-for!)
Food snobs may scoff at the idea of a cookbook devoted to American food but this book takes you on a culinary tour, from coast to coast, celebrating the regions that developed some of the most iconic American foods that are enjoyed around the world, from hamburgers and French-fries to shoofly pie! (As a Canadian, many of the foods are familiar to me but there are numerous exciting regional differences that inspire. I loved reading the backstories to many of America's signature foods).

1 comment:

Lorie ~ Ferndale Lane Vintage said...

I was thrilled to find the first cookbook you mentioned ("The Martha Stewart Cookbook" from 1995) in a thrift store a few years ago for $2.99! Hardcover, never used. Now whenever I am in a thrift store I head straight to the book shelves. Just yesterday I picked up a few volumes of her Christmas with Martha Stewart Living, Gardening 101, Good Things and Handmade Christmas, each $1.99.