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‘Essential’ recipes, a dash of history

Wed., Dec. 1, 2010

Six years in the making, “The Essential New York Times Cookbook” covers more than 150 years of cooking, whittled down to 1,400 recipes.

It’s an ambitious book by Amanda Hesser, a food columnist at the New York Times. More than just republishing the best recipes in the Old Gray Lady, the 932-page tome also tracks what we ate over the decades.

About a century ago, Americans ate pigeons and game birds. Then we ate chicken. A lot.

In the ’90s, we ate a lot of duck. In recent years? Not so much.

Hesser has chronicled how the American diet has changed as we moved from hunting to raising and processing our food.

She also runs the popular cooking website

We caught Hesser on her iPhone before she landed here for her book tour.

Q.This book took six years, 1,400 tested recipes and two loads in your dishwasher every day. You have twins. This has gotta feel like another birth.

A.The twins were just the warm-up. (She laughs.)

Q.You didn’t intend this book to be a historical reference, but in some ways it is. Lots of interesting facts – such as chicken is cooking faster now than 100 years ago. Why?

A.One theory is that farm animals were raised more slowly and were raised on pasture, which makes for denser muscle tissue. So it took much longer to cook. But it could also be a matter of breed and age of animal, as well. … It also takes more eggs now to bind a sauce. That could be different yolk size. Or could be hens were raised differently.

Q.Soup has changed a lot in 150 years, more than any other food. Why?

A.The food processor and the blender. They gave you the ability to create a different texture and also blend ingredients in a very different way. … Also, they used to be cooked for a very long time. More recently, past decade or two, we cook soup for a lot less time. Emphasis now is on freshness of flavor. The old way was to cook it down to concentrate the flavors.

Q.Did it surprise you that four out of the five most recommended recipes were desserts? (A lasagna recipe was the exception.)

A.That did not surprise me at all. I joked that the book should be called “Chicken and Desserts,” because they were the two recipe categories that people recommended most. We love our sweets … a cake tends to be memorable. There is a sense of accomplishment.

Q.The most-recommended recipe was the Plum Torte (see the recipe at Never would have guessed. What’s that about?

A.The plums sink down into the batter like these inlaid jewels. It has this nice, glossy crust. It is this moist, lovely cake. It is a recipe that you can’t ruin.

Q.You wrote about Julie Powell who, in a year, had cooked every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” (Hesser played herself in the 2009 movie about Powell, “Julie & Julia”.) Which would be harder to complete in a year – Child’s or your cookbook?

A.I don’t think you can complete 1,400 recipes in a year without losing your mind. (She laughs.)

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