Sunday, February 22, 2015


I've become a huge fan of a new PBS-TV cooking series called THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF and apparently so have a lot of other American fans on this side of the pond. I had no idea this show has been a huge hit in Great Britain for five years now. Since moving to Portland, I've been bereft of the wonderful PBS cooking shows that aired regularly on PBS there. Apparently this foodie town doesn't love cooking shows. I have been particularly upset about not being able to access Lidia Bastianich's wonderful programs. All we get here is America's Test Kitchen and a Martha Stewart baking program, both of them excellent in their way, but lacking in personality.

Personality is exactly why I've stopped watching anything on The Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I'm not a fan of competitive cooking, generally speaking. Once upon a time, The Food Network had lots of demonstrations shows that catered to all tastes. My favorite was Sara Moulton, but I also enjoyed Ina Garten (not terribly original in the content of her food), Giada DeLaurentiis (a good cook, but too much cleavage and too many teeth), Tyler Florence (the boy tease), Bobby Flay (one of the best technicians on TV), Rachael Ray (an underrated cook with lots of good practical ideas), Mario Batali (a great chef who is a messy cook), and even Sandra Brown (whose tables capes made me nauseous). Then one day, the folks in research decided viewers didn't like studio-bound shows. Suddenly after 10 lucrative seasons, even Emeril Lagasse was considered finished. So all these personalities were erased from the Food Network's prime time line up and replaced by nonsense shows such as featuring cupcake wars, cake baking competitions that featured garish, Las Vegas-style creations with lurid sugar sculptures, some of which shattered on their way to a viewing station. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with the irrepressible Guy Fieri, is an amusing show, but you never learn how to make any of the foods he covers. Most of us will never get to the particular restaurants Fieri visits, and the publicity by now will surely affect the quality of those destinations.

But I aim my most potent sense of contempt at ridiculous shows such as Chopped! or The Worst Cooks in America. What is the point of filling up a basket of times that don't necessarily compliment each other and then ask perfectly competent chefs to try to figure out what to do with each of the three course they have to prepare in under 30 minutes. Total rubbish and humiliating for the losers. We get the spectacle of three judges who are often condescending (praise does go to Alex Guarnaschelli, a chef and adroit Iron Chef star, for her reasonable responses to the junk that is cooked on this show).  By the time the each series is over, I doubt the competitors on The Worst Cooks in America are actually going to cook again, and their pathetic attempts to try get no sympathy from me. These contestants are chosen from the ranks of the culinary equivalent of anti-Christs. Isn't cooking supposed to be a fun and satisfying endeavor?

The Cooking Channel started out using Jamie Oliver reruns (Jamie at Home managed to be that rare program featuring a professional chef teaching home-cooking that could actually be cooked at home!),  and some very interesting cooking shows from Canada.  The elegantly effortless Laura Calder, was a real pleasure to watch on French Food at Home. Now we're treated to a bunch of former Top Chef and other cooking experts, writers, critics extolling the virtues of food truck fare or baking shop goodies. They moan in vaguely cringe-worthy sexual ways about grilled cheese sandwiches or brownies, which serve no purpose other than to send viewers into their kitchens in search of something sweet and definitely not dietetic to gorge on. These experts are young and meant to attract young audiences who may or may to be interested in anything other than eating these popular foods. 

Call me an old fogey, but I want to learn something, which is why programs with Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali out of the gladiator sport of Iron Chef, are more appealing. 

Which brings me back to THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF. The contestants are all amateur bakers but they know their way around flour, yeast, sugar and buttercream. The show puts them through their paces. There was one one pastry that I've never heard of--Kouign Amann--a French pastry that had the contestants flummoxed. Most of the time, their challenges are about preparing baked foods they've never done before. They are asked to read recipes, which they have had no preparation. Bake times seem not to be supplied, which often leads to some seriously under-baked breads or cakes. The show is making them use their experience to intuit how long a rise a loaf of bread will need, or how much time a dough needs to a perfect rise or a disastrous over-proofing. 

Many of the baked items on this show are fearsomely ambitious. The Prinsesstarta (Princess Cake) is a Swedish concoction of vanilla custard, with jam, on a sponge cake with an almond (marzipan) covering piped with whipped cream and embellished with chocolate. This is not your everyday slice of cake. Positica is a sweet loaf baked at Christmas and loaded with cinnamon and raisins. Mini Pear Pies require a delicate touch with the strips of dough that wrap around each pear.  I love to bake, but looking at the Tiramisu Cake makes me want to find it at my local bake-shop. 

The challenges do not always make sense. It's quite dumb to ask bakers prepare a Baked Alaska under a hot tent on an equally hot day with at least ten ovens going. The ice-cream alone courted disaster between the times it took to make the custard base and chill it firmly enough to apply to a still-warm cake, and cover with the meringue that still has to be slightly browned in an oven. In fact, timing was my one big reservation about this show. 

I have no reservations whatsoever about this program's hosts--Mel Giedroyc (must be Welsh) and Sue Perkins are funny, supportive and genuinely sympathetic. The two judges are also very good: Mary Berry is a well-respected British cookbook writer with a specialty in baking, Paul Hollywood is a hunky and somewhat gruff professional baker, who rarely minces words in his evaluations, but he's not a prig. Their comments illuminate what is wrong and what is right about each category of baking they are judging. 

The contestants on the 2015 series I've been watching are a diverse group. Their ages ranged from their late 60s to 17. Only one young man fell apart (during that infamous Baked Alaska segment). They were all good colleagues and you didn't hear any trash talk in the interviews that dotted each segment, that make U.S. shows like this a trial to watch. 

The leisurely pace of an hour is just perfect. In the United States, we've had a long tradition of bake-off contests at state fairs, on TV, and most famously the Pillsbury Bake Off. THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is the best show on the subject I've ever seen. 

I'm looking forward to each new season. I'd love to catch up with previous series. Netflix?

Monday, February 9, 2015


Well I'm sure you've guessed that I had run out of critical steam. I mean how many times could I call a collection of recipes superb? I tended to shy away from calling a cookbook "crap" because...well...I still have a lot of friends in the book business who sent me cookbooks to cover, and that's not nice. And there are a lot of cookbooks out there that could justifiably be called crap. I don't earn a living from blogging (a lot of people don't earn a living from blogging), and I wouldn't know how. I used to review one or maybe two cookbooks a month. Now I'm covering a cookbook once every six months--not even. But I didn't want to stop talking about food, which is one of the things I love talking about most. So here I am in semi-retirement, publishing books (two cookbooks and one garden book thus far), and slowing down. I'm awfully busy doing not much. But I got out to eat all the time. I'm constantly cooking. I host a dinner gathering for two of my closest friends here in Portland every week and I really do put a lot of thought into the components of each of those meals. I also keep a good eye out for food trends, and follow the food on TV, radio, in newspapers, other blogs, etc. 

One of the big chores I had committed myself to when reviewing cookbooks was long, detailed reviews. Well that's not very interesting and I'm pretty sure it didn't move the sales needle much either. I will still talk about cookbooks, but in much shorter terms. I plan to add some recipes, talk about restaurant experiences, and keep my eye food trends, food pretensions, good food, bad food and everything in-between. 

DeBuyer 12.6 inch mineral carbon steel frying pan

I want to talk about frying pans. I've to a bunch of 'em:  cast iron, stainless steel, non-stick. I love the cast iron, but my All-Clad, 12-inch frying pan was totally frustrating to cook in. I think All-Clad make superior pots and pans. My two saute pans are excellent and always produce excellent results. But oil residue can only be removed with effort and all-too-often, food sticks to its shiny, smooth surface. For years, I've been intrigued by DeBuyer carbon steel pans and recently a friend convinced me to try one. They are heavy like cast iron. Once you've created a smooth cooking surface, their matte-gray finish becomes mottled with a multitude of colors, which eventually I'm promised, will turn nearly black. Also once cured, the pan has a non-stick surface. The handle is very long. Like cast iron, the pans are washed in hot water and a good stiff brush can easily remove anything that dries in the pan. And they must be dried instantly to avoid rust. This makes them relatively low maintenance. 

I've cooked breaded pork cutlets, eggs, pan-fried flap-meat beef steaks and created pan-sauce. I've sauteed onions, and other vegetables on its smooth surface and it goes easily into the one for a baked finish after an initial browning of pork chops, and other meats. The results are always excellent. I bought mine on Amazon and they can often be found in better cookware shops such as Sur la Table. The pan is a bit pricey, but at near-$70 it was a heck of a lot cheaper than the All-Clad which priced over $100. Be prepared to put this sturdy pan in your will. Built to last, future generations of your family will surely be cooking with this wonderful pan. 

12-inch Ecopan frying pan

Non-stick cooking surfaces are not really part of my daily cooking except for a few skillets, and a small two-quart pot. I've become increasingly uncomfortable with non-stick surfaces, such as Teflon, because of the presence of health concerns. While no data supports the idea that these chemical surfaces are dangerous, like aluminum, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I recently purchased a 10-inch and 12-inch ceramic coated fry pans, and so far, I really like them. Let's talk first about eggs. Breaking an egg into one of these pans you notice right away that the egg never sticks. Just a slight jiggle and that sunny-side-up egg glides around the pan like an ice skater at the local rink. I've cooked bacon, and omelets, as well as sauteed green beans, parboiled Brussels sprouts in them and then finished them off in the same pan with a little butter and salt and pepper. Food cooks very well on these surfaces and cleaning them with a little soap and water is a breeze. So far their pristinely white surfaces haven't discolored. 

The one drawback is their lack of weight. Their surfaces are as thin as the bad-old aluminum Teflon of old. So you need to keep your eye on them to prevent burning. They are priced fairly inexpensively. I bought this pan in the kitchen area of a local TJ Mack for under $20, which leads me to wonder how long they will truly last. But for the time being, I'm enjoying cooking with them. 


Steakadelphia is a local sandwich shop specializing in Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, which were very popular in New York during the years I lived there, but they always came from places that you wondered had recently been visited by a health inspector. I'm hardly a food snob, but I do prefer eating in an immaculate restaurant whether its four stars or a local diner. Before moving to Portland, I had actually never eaten a Philly cheesesteak. Steakadelphia (at 5835 SE Powell Blvd., 503-788-7141) serves a pretty fabulous version. In this case, I've only ordered the Supreme. This 8-inch sandwich is full of flat-top cooked thinly sliced steak, embellished with white American cheese, mayo, onion, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, jalapeños mushrooms and their own Steakadelphia sauce. This deeply flavorful combination costs $6.75. There's a 12-inch version for $9.00 and if you want extra meat and cheese in the same 12-inch package, the price goes to 11.25. Add 25 cents in the evening to each choice. The rolls are soft. The whole is wrapped in a large piece of paper, and when you open it, the aroma hits you between the eyes. A burger never tasted like this. All the different elements come through. You're not just eating a messy sandwich. 

There are other choices here. Your choice of meat can be either beef or chicken or a combination of both. The Rough Rider choice means white American cheese, mayo, onions, tomato, bell mushrooms, sweet peppers, hot peppers and Philly horseradish sauce.  The Caveman is the same but with Philly honey mustard. You want another cheese? There are versions of the Provolone, Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Cream Cheese, AND Cheese-Whiz Philly cheesesteaks. Steakadelphia does two burgers and offers french fries, which I've never ordered because my brain is pretty addled by the time I consume one of those fantastic Philly cheesesteaks. You can wash your Philly cheesesteak down with domestic and local beers or soda. In case you're craving more--there is a rooter float or classic shakes in vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. There are about twelve tables plus two outside during warmer weather, or you can call ahead and pick up for home consumption. There are a lot of good sandwich choices in Portland. Right now, Steakadelphia is at the top of my list. 

Friday, February 21, 2014


I've said it over and over and over again--there is no finer teacher of cooking on television than Lidia Bastianich. Period. Lidia is full good information. She wants her readers and viewers to use recipes as a starting point offering all sorts of ideas for variations that will take the cook in new directions. There is a kind of zen calmness about her as she cooks endless numbers of pastas, ragus, sautés, and braises. Lidia can cook luxury foods with the best of them, but she also has respect for the cook on a budget extracting the most flavor from each. She always offers great tricks and techniques in order to get the best results and never cuts a corner if it means and less than ideal dish. I have watched her for about a fifteen years now and I find it fascinating to watch her cook. She is as comfortable baking as she is finishing a steaming plate of pasta. If male chefs cook to impress, as someone recently said, then female chefs cook to nurture. That is the essence of Lidia Bastianich. I have most of her cookbooks and they are well used and loved volumes in my kitchen. In LIDIA'S COMMONSENSE ITALIAN COOKING (Knopf; $35.00; ISBN: 978-0-38534944-4) Lidia is again collaborating with her art-historian daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who is an integral part of the Bastianich food empire. This new volume of 150 recipes is Lidia's latest collection of Italian recipes to tempt families back to the table right in the kitchen, a place she recalls, as a loving and nurturing space that set her on her own course of success. It is this strong sense of gathering family together to eat and interact that informs all her books, only this time, she's adding an extra dollop of culinary wisdom that will insure great meals.

Before I opened the book, I had seen Lidia prepare Mozzarella and Celery Salad. My mother loved celery, and munched on big stalks of the stuff throughout my childhood. I never got in the habit, but recently I find the most delicious celery available in Portland, even in supermarkets where is comes from local farms. The stuff is addictive and I'm looking for lots of new ways to use it. Lidia offers several new recipes, including this delicious winter salad which could get any meal off to a good start. Thinly sliced with leaves, toasted walnuts, fresh mozzarella and a lemon-Dijon vinaigrette create a fresh new kind of winter salad, and one I can add variations to such as beets, cucumbers, oil-cured olives, cooked cauliflower, radishes and other delicious wintry ingredients. Celery Au Gratin is another delicious use for this much underused vegetable. A Boiled Beef Salad with Gherkins, Red Onion and Parsley, only begins to hint at the flavors in this recipe, which is Lidia's simple riff on the time-consuming Bollito Misto. The Rustic Ricotta Tart, puff pastry provides the enveloping container for fresh ricotta, eggs, mozzarella, ham and Grana Padano (or Parmesano-Reggiano) cheese.  An aromatic, paper thin Potato Pizza reminds me of my first trip to Rome, where I inhaled rectangular slices of potato pizza while I walked through the Campo die Fiori open air market.

Lidia Bastianich prepping artichokes

Lidia is always finding new ways to cook pasta, and so Spaghetti with Quick Pantry Sauce is a quick, inexpensive, and creative way to use the foods we always should have on hand:  olive oil, anchovies, black olives, capers, canned tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Pipette or Elbows with Sweet Potatoes, Parsley, and Capers is a more nutritionally balanced pasta dish, and no less flavorful for it. And for a crowd, try Baked Rigatoni and Zucchini. Lidia suggests enhancing this dish with swordfish or shrimp, crumbled sausages or shredded chicken breast.

Italian cooking offers so many variations, including Eggplant and Rice Parmigiana. Based on the  classic dish, here it is made more complex and inviting with the addition of Arborio rice. There are a bunch of fine risottos that seem new to me, including Lettuce Risotto, Fava Bean and Leek Risotto, Clam and Scallion Risotto, and Garlic Risotto.  I can't wait to try Razor Clams with Garlic and Parsley because razor clams are plentiful here in the Pacific Northwest, and I love them. The dish can easily be adapted using littleneck clams or mussels in those areas where the razor clam is not available.

A Skillet Gratin of Mushrooms and Chicken shows Lidia genius with this particular cooking vessel, and would be an excellent choice for company. A slow cooked Apple Cider Vinegar Braised Pork Shoulder demonstrates the excellence of this modestly priced bone-in cut of pork, and includes small turnips and easily qualifies as a superb dinner for guests. Another dish I've made is Ham in Marsala Sauce. Packages of ham steaks are not found in markets in Italy, so Lidia's inspiration was to treat them like scaloppini. Browning the ham in one piece, she removes it from the pan and then sautés chopped leeks in the pan drippings, adding a little white flour and then a full cup of dry Marsala wine. This makes a tasty, shiny sauce for the ham. I've only sautéed ham steaks for a late Sunday breakfast or a quick weeknight meal with scrambled eggs and a salad. This elevates the ham steak to a new level of sophistication. Minimal ingredients treated with respect yield great results. Of the dessert section, Grandma Rosa's Apple Cake is an easy standout.

In LIDIA'S COMMONSENSE ITALIAN COOKING, Lidia Bastianich invites us back into the kitchen where she grew up with adults and siblings around to share their days' stories. Go into your own kitchens and cook with your family. It's easy and the food is fantastic.

Torta Rustica di Ricotta

In the Italian cuisine, dough is at the center of many dishes, whether turned into pasta, crostata,
pizza, or torta. The dough is the carrier of other delicious products, be they vegetables, meats, fish, or cheeses. In Italian tortas, ricotta is one of the favorite fillers, often with eggs to
bind it. One can flavor ricotta with just about anything; in this dish I use ham and mozzarella.
Just think of all the other meats and vegetables you can add to give this recipe your family’s special flavor twist.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 10- by- 7- inch baking dish with the butter. Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about 14 by 11 inches. Fit the dough into the prepared baking dish, letting the dough go up and extend over the sides.
In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, three eggs, the mozzarella, ham, and grated cheese to combine. Spread filling over the dough, and fold the dough over to make a 1- or 2- inch border. Press holes in the top dough with a fork, and brush it with the remaining egg. Bake until the filling is set and the pastry is golden and crisp, about 40 minutes. Let the tart rest on a rack for at least 15 minutes, to set, before cutting into squares and serving.

Serves 6 to 8
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
All- purpose fl our, for rolling
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 pound (2 cups) fresh ricotta, drained
4 large eggs, beaten
1 cup cubed low- moisture mozzarella
1 cup julienned strips deli ham
¹⁄³ cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano- Reggiano

Excerpted from Lidia's Commonsense Italian Cooking by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich with Tanya Bastianich Manuali. Copyright © 2013 by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


I am an unabashed fan of the Canal House cookbooks. This series of individual, small and beautifully published volumes (now up to eight) is well-used in my home. Quite unexpectedly early last fall CANAL HOUSE COOKS EVERY DAY (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $45.00; ISBN: 978-1-4494-2147-2) arrived at my doorstep. Based on the popular Canal House Cooks Lunch blog by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, this big, gorgeous volume is stuffed with about 250 recipes and 130 drool-worthy color photographs.  I was so busy with the publication launch of The Oregonian Cookbook, that a review of this wonderful book, book which I looked at night after night, got delayed. I hope that you'll go directly to your nearest bookstore and grab this cookbook because food this attractive, simple and flavorful belongs in the repertoire of every home cook.

One recipe in particular kept calling to me.  Poached Chicken with Tarragon and Chive Mayonnaise read and looked like simplicity itself. For this recipe, I even made my own mayonnaise, though the authors gave their blessing to the jarred stuff saying, "When we are in a hurry, we just doctor up good old Hellman's or Best Foods mayonnaise." This poached chicken is ideal for a summer lunch or dinner (I tried it on a warm August evening). My guests loved it, and it provided me with lunch the next day.

Keeping it simple is a hallmark of Canal House cookbooks, so in addition to a really delicious recipe for Deviled Eggs, the authors offer "Buttered" Eggs, a splendid alternative. "We simply "butter" the cut sides of hard-boiled eggs  with mayonnaise, arrange the eggs on a plate, and drizzle them with some good olive oil and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper," they explain. "We often garnish  them with something:  chopped Preserved Lemon rind, or minced chives. Sometimes it's parsley, tarragon, or dill, or bacon thinly sliced ham, or chutney." It is this deliciously simple approach that makes the recipes so appealing. In summer, Poached White Peaches in Lemon Verbena Syrup look nearly too good to eat.

With farmer's markets and better products, locally available, CANAL HOUSE COOKS EVERY DAY takes its cues for what to cook seasonally. And with Christopher Hirscheimer's extraordinarily fine photography, each ingredient or finished dish is captured at it's absolute peak.

Pan-Fried Chicken Thighs with Little Zucchini are a perfect example of the Canal House philosophy. There are only eight ingredients in this recipe, yet the technique of pan-frying chicken thighs, with only salt, pepper, some butter, a little fresh thyme, lemon juice and olive oil, deliver flavor with huge impact. Much of the same ingredients can be found in Grilled Salmon, except parsley changing places with thyme. Bratwurst with Sauteed Caraway Cabbage works for a busy work night meal. The Apple Galette would dress it up for company on a Saturday night. Fancier meals for holidays don't mean slaving for hours in the kitchen. Roast Prime Rib of Beef needs only salt and pepper. Little Yorkshire Puddings are the perfect accompaniment. End this superb meal with a Ginger Spice Cake with Dried Cherries.

Looking ahead to the post-holiday winter period of stews and braises, I came across a recipe for Rabbit Stew I am dying to make. Rabbit, button mushrooms, tomato paste, white wine, poultry stock, carrots, parsnips and peas, might be the right combination to help get over our collective ambivalence towards rabbit, which not only tastes good, but it lean and healthy.

As pleasurable to read as to cook from, once again CANAL HOUSE COOKING is a big book to use over and over again.

Poached Chicken with Tarragon & Chive Mayonnaise
Serves 4–6

When we are in a hurry, we just doctor up good old Hellmann’s or Best Foods mayonnaise.

For the mayonnaise
1 large egg yolk
¼ garlic clove, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup canola oil
½ cup good, smooth, “buttery” olive oil
½ cup fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
½ cup chopped chives, plus more for garnishing

For the chicken
4 bone-in chicken breast halves
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 rib celery, halved
1 bay leaf

For the mayonnaise, whisk together the egg yolk, garlic, a pinch of salt, and about 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice in a medium bowl. Combine the oils in a measuring cup with a spout. Whisking constantly, add the oil to the yolks about 1 teaspoon at a time. The sauce will thicken and emulsify. After you have added about ¼ cup of the oil, continue to whisk and slowly drizzle in the remaining oil. Season with salt and thin with as much of the remaining lemon juice as suits your taste. Stir in the chopped tarragon and chives. Refrigerate until ready to use.

For the chicken, put the chicken, onions, celery, bay leaf, and a big pinch of salt in a large pot with a lid and cover with water by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and poach for 15–20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and put on a plate to cool. When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones. (Return the skin and bones to the pot and continue to simmer the stock until it is rich and flavorful; strain the stock and save for another use.)

To serve, cut the chicken into generous-size pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Spoon the mayonnaise on the chicken. Garnish with the chopped chives (and baby arugula, if you like.)

From Canal House Cooks Every Day by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher  Hirsheimer, Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013


My cookbook shelves are groaning with baking books. I've got a few large tomes on desserts, bread baking, to go with the many individual baking books from Maida Heatter (baking's doyenne of desserts), Nick Malgieri (a great baking teacher), Rose Levy Beranbaum (a baking genius), the glorious Dorie Greenspan, and many others. But BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS BAKING: More than 350 recipes Plus Tips and Techniques (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $29.95; October 8, 2013; ISBN: 978-1-118-453261) arrived on my doorstep quite unexpectedly and with one look, I had a new baking crush for the season. In this big, gorgeously photographed, totally modern cookbook from trusted and well-established source, you'll not only get recipes for cakes, pies, cookies, and other desserts, but breads, rolls, focaccia, pizza dough and bread sticks.

Right on the cover is my mother's favorite cookie--Pecan Sandies. This seemed to be her cookie because I don't recall my brothers or me eating them very much. She always had a bag of them close at hand. A couple of years ago, in one of those odd nostalgic moments, I bought a bag. They were okay, but not worth the calories. I baked a batch of this shortbread cookie and the smell infused my house with joy for the rest of the day. I swear the house still smelled of Pecan Sandies the next morning. They are a snap to make and are an elegant cookie to add to a dish of ice cream. There's even a chocolate variation on the same page. The book has a substantial cookie section. There are the classic cookies such as Chocolate Chip and a divine Make-It-Mine Oatmeal Cookies, which allows many variations of this classic such as Fat (pick one--I loved combining butter and peanut butter), Sugar (brown sugar or a combination of white and brown sugars or molasses or honey), Spice (cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice or ground allspice) Flavorings (vanilla, coconut flavoring, maple flavoring), Flour (white, wholewheat, with the additions of wheat bran or wheat germ) and Stir-ins (raisins or mixed dried bits, snipped dried apricots or tart red cherries, semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips, white baking pieces, butterscotch-flavor baking pieces, peanut butter-flavor baking pieces, flaked coconut, or chopped pecans, walnuts or other nuts). This is the kind of recipe to unleash your creative side, as long as you stay within the guidelines of the recipe. You can bake Giant Ginger Cookies (or Make it Mini variations) Snickerdoodles, Lemon Walnut Biscotti, or the latest French passion--Double Almond Macarons.

Bars are next with Fudgy Saucepan Brownies, Make-It-Mine Blondies (another recipe with lots of variations), Four-Layer Caramel Crunch Nougat Brownies (that photo made me weak in the knees), and numerous other brownie recipes, Maple Nut Pie Bars, Lemon Bars Deluxe, Pumpkin Bars and Oatmeal Jam Bars.

The cake section begins simply enough with a White Cake, and moves on through Chocolate Cake and Red Velvet Cake, Classic Carrot Cake, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, and becomes more elaborate with Triple-Citrus Pound Cake, Hazelnut-Pear Torte with Dulce de Leche Filling. The decorated cakes section is anchored with a Make-It-Mine Birthday Cake with lots of customized variations. Some are very clever, such as the Cheeseburger Ice Cream Cake or a Spiderweb Cake. Classic Apple Pie launches the pies and tarts chapter, and you can have it with a Make-It-Mine Streusel Pie with its myriad choices (fruit fillings, crusts, spices, textures, and toppings). Shaker-Style Meyer Lemon Pie, may tempt you away from a Classic Pumpkin Pie, or a Mallow-Praline Sweet Potato Pie. There are lots of tart choices from a Rustic Chocolate Tart or a Country Peach Tart to a Double-Coconut and Pineapple Cream Tart and a Key-Lime Tart. For sheer sophistication, my money is on a Salted Almond Praline Tart. Become master of cheesecakes with no less than seventeen from Classic New York-Style Cheesecake to increasingly ambitious entries such as Blueberry-Topped Lemon Cheesecake, Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cheesecake, Maple-Mascarpone Cheesecake, and Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake with Sugared Pepitas.

The desserts section covers cobblers (Granny Smith Cobbler with White Cheddar Biscuits or Cherry Cobbler with White Chocolate-Almond Biscuits), Chocolate-Walnut Bread Pudding with Coffee-Kahlua Cream Sauce, Toffee-Pear Sticky Pudding, Brownie Pudding Cake, and Hot Cocoa Souffle with Coffee Ice Cream.

The bread section is worth the price of admission. I'm dying to make Make-It-Mine Artisan Bread, a no-knead beauty with options for various types of salts, stir-ins, and flours. A Mock Sourdough Bread dispenses with the need for a sour-dough starter, and a Whole Grain Caramelized Onion and Kale Bread is packed with good things. Quick breads, coffee cakes, breakfast sweet breads, Danish, doughnuts, and muffins provide warmth, while the "Coffee Shop" chapter will answer the question:  homemade or store-bought? There are holiday treats and other special occasion recipes, all adding up to a substantial cookbook you will be baking from for years to come.

I'm selecting the Vanilla-Scented Orange Cheesecake because orange in cheesecake is a favorite flavor marriage. Clear instructions that keep you on track, beautiful photography, and of course, the Better Homes and Gardens brand, all add up to the kind of baking excellence we all aspire to. With Christmas just around the corner, it's time to get baking. BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS BAKING will take good care of your baking needs throughout the whole year.

Vanilla-Scented Orange Cheesecake
prep: 40 minutes
bake: 45 minutes at 375°F
cool: 2 hours
chill: 4 hours to overnight
makes: 12 servings

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese
1 8-ounce carton sour cream
4 eggs
11/2 cups finely crushed chocolate graham crackers or chocolate wafer cookies
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon finely shredded orange peel
Few drops orange food coloring
1/2 cup orange marmalade

1. Allow cream cheese, sour cream, and eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, for crust, in a medium bowl combine crushed graham crackers, pecans, and 1 tablespoon sugar. Stir in melted butter. Press mixture onto the bottom and about 2 inches up the sides of an 8- or 9-inch springform pan; set aside.

2. Preheat oven to 375°F. If using vanilla bean, use the tip of a small sharp knife to scrape out seeds; set aside. In a large mixing bowl beat cream cheese, sour cream, the 1 cup sugar, and the flour with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until combined. Using a fork, lightly beat eggs. Add eggs to cream cheese mixture, beating just until combined. Divide batter in half. Stir orange peel and food coloring into half of the batter. Stir vanilla seeds or vanilla bean paste into the remaining batter.
3. Pour orange batter into crustlined pan, spreading evenly. Spoon vanilla batter over orange layer, gently spreading evenly. Place springform pan in a shallow baking pan.

4. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes for the 8-inch pan, 40 to 50 minutes for the 9-inch pan, or until a
2 1/2-inch area around outside edge appears set when gently shaken.

5. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Using a small sharp knife, loosen crust from sides of pan. Cool for 30 minutes more. Remove sides of pan; cool completely on wire rack.

6. Spoon marmalade over top of cheesecake; carefully spread to outside edge.  Cover and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight before serving.

per serving: 431 cal., 28 g fat (15 g sat. fat), 134 mg chol., 293 mg sodium, 40 g carb., 1 g fiber, 6 g pro.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Baking by the editors at Better Homes and Gardens. Photographs by Better Homes and Gardens, Blaine Moats, Jason Donnelly, and Kritsada Panichgul. Copyright 2013.