Best Cookbooks of 2011

The really good ones merge sweet memories and hand-holding how-to

Oh, I love to dive into a cookbook where the author isn't just telling you a half-cup this and filet that, but is continuing the world's "story of food" at the same time. All my favorite cookbooks that came out in 2011 have that in common: They're written to inspire nostalgia, whether for a long-ago Polish grandmother's poppyseed cake or the cucumbers with ricotta, basil, and mint served at Franny's in Brooklyn, established 2004. Here are this year's best, fine essays, sweet anecdotes, and step-by-step instructions included. That way, you can make your own memories.

Southern Biscuits (Gibbs Smith) by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart

Perennial cooking show host and sweet sass Nathalie Dupree is a temptress. She makes every kind of biscuit a person could roll out seem wonderful, and then tacks on great tidbits about the Southern cooks who brought each recipe to life, their quirks, errors, masterpieces and all. She might just know everybody important, and she for sure knows how to make every biscuit that matters, angel to ham to ginger-banana biscuit bread pudding.

Sample quote: On Mishap Skillet Biscuits: "I find that mistakes are the mother of invention. What began as Shirly Corriher's biscuit recipe from a book rapidly evolved into something tender and cakey with each fumbled measurement and misread ingredient."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Pimento Cheese Biscuits

Rose Petal Jam: Recipes and Stories from a Summer in Poland (Tabula Books) by Beata Zatorska and Simon Target

A feast for the eyes and spirit is this lovesong to Zatorska's grandmother, whom she trailed through a village house and garden as a child in the '60s and '70s. There are lavish, fresh photos of art, and fields, and crushed beets, and modern signs from the vanishing borders between Poland and the Czech Republic. They talk apple pancakes for breakfast, give the short and simple steps for the title jam, stir up cucumber salads, serve out peppery spirits, and maybe most importantly, obsess over homemade pierogi. The book makes you want to go back in time, but at the same time you feel you've already been.

Sample quote: "Before I went off to sit the exams that would determine whether I had any hope of becoming a doctor, Jozefa made a special trip to our apartment in Jelenia Gora. She came so she could cook me ‘Daisy Eggs' for breakfast... the eggs are boiled, then chopped with herbs and butter and served in their shells."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Plum-Filled Potato Dumplings

Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook (Sterling Epicure) edited by Rachel Warton

The latest from Edible Communities, the Brooklyn volume celebrates food (and grants recipes) from Brooklyn-based food mavens, be they cheesemonger, pickler, brewer, or multi-star executive chef. They talk food, they serve food, they put food by for days when summer's just a faded memory—like pickled ramps or fiddlehead ferns.

Sample quote: "Most folks would never dream of cooking a radish, but they cook up like turnips and are twice as tasty [in Radishes Sauteed With Cream and Herbs from Diner Restaurant in Williamsburg]."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Kick Ass Red Sangria

A Spoonful of Promises (Lyons Press) by T. Susan Chang

A contributor to NPR, Chang's reminiscences sometimes amuse, sometimes pack a punch, as in "The Once and Future Apple Cake," which links up the legacy of her mom, lost far too young to cancer, and an apple country post office. She delves amusingly into foods she fixes for her own children, and pens a mighty nice courtship carried out over her pursuit of the perfect Yam Neua with her husband. Her instructions are offhand, friendly, and include the likes of "Cleaning Monkfish" and "Ring Ding With Popcorn."

Sample quote: "The smell of wonton soup evolves as you make it. First it just smells porky, with a high overtone of shrimp if you used it. When you add the rice wine, the smell staggers a bit and opens up."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Aunty Sen's Scallion Pancakes

300 Best Potato Recipes (Robert Rose) by Kathleen Sloan-McIntosh

I love, love, love potatoes. Sloan-McIntosh loves them more. It's so much fun to read her memories about her Irish mom serving potatoes pretty much every supper all the way up to some treatments she and her husband give the spuds at the Black Dog Village Pub & Bistro in Ontario. Chip butties (that's sandwiches, in Jolly Old England), potato bread, potato croutons with linguine and pesto, Peruvian Potatoes with mozzarella, stews, soups. For me, the pages pretty much turned themselves.

Sample quote: "The quantity of butter in Grande Dame Anna Potatoes may seem excessive, but I would happily eat like a sparrow for a whole week if I knew I would be sharing this with my man on Saturday night, along with a rare sirloin and a big, luscious Rioja."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter

Piece of Cake! (Robert Rose) by Camilla V. Saulsbury

It's funny that this book includes so much reminiscence, given that it's very cutting edge with recipes that all include just one bowl to make real-live scratch cakes, some everyday, some gourmet quality. But along with the homemade cake mixes (some gluten free) and up-to-date delicacies like Fig Cake with Buttermilk Glaze come Saulsbury's food memories, including sweet words about the Meyer lemon tree in her California backyard alongside the Lemon Sour Cream Cake recipe. And her short history of the Wacky Cake, including its influence on her doctoral dissertation, is both fun and educational.

Sample quote: "It is with great enthusiasm (and a bit of mirth) that I've noticed the reappearance of hummingbird cake on the menus and in the pastry cases of chic eateries across the United States."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Mixed Berry Spoon Cake

Basic to Brilliant, Y'All: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company (Ten Speed Press) by Virginia Willis, Anne Willan

The author has one of the most unusual cooking pedigrees I've seen—a downhome Southern cook with an overlay from her years spent training at a French cooking school. So you might get a bit about her shooting a video, in Dijon, about the making of mustard, right next to gushing about sweet potatoes, molasses, and sorghum. The idea of the book, and she pulls it off with aplomb, is to present lovely basics, like, say,, Pan-Seared Georgia Trout, and follow it with an add-on to elevate it to "brilliant." In the trout's case, that would be pecan brown butter, and some of the other brilliant add-ons, mostly French in technique, include Grilled Onions and Sherry Vinegar, Duck Skin Cracklings and Offal Mince, and Cherry Coulis.

Sample quote: "My family grew up eating spaghetti with a traditional meat sauce. Well, sort of... The meat was ground venison from a deer Daddy shot, and Mama always added Dede's homemade scuppernog wine. She also used a McCormick's seasoning packet, still does."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Sweet Potato Grits

Williams-Sonoma Rustic Italian by Domenica Marchetti

The name might say Williams-Sonoma, but this cookbook is full of Marchetti's personal tips and anecdotes from an Italian American upbringing who spent summers in her mom's home country. The nice thing is, she riffs the traditional with fresh, local produce, like doing a pea puree on a traditional crostini, or spicing up the traditional giardiniera (pickled vegetables) with chile breadcrumbs. You'll also find the signature Williams-Sonoma step-by-step directions and encouragement, whether you're tackling tackling Roman-Style Pizza With Spinach and Olives or something super simple, like Roasted Delicata Squash with Sage. As you read, you find yourself drawn to Italy, or maybe an Italian neighborhood in New York—or perhaps just into your own kitchen.

Sample quote: "When I was growing up, potato pizza al taglio (by the slice) was my favorite snack while wandering through Rome. It had no sauce—just paper-thin slices of potatoes and a sprinkling of cheese and herbs."

Favorite recipe tried so far: Tomato-braised Romano Beans with Basil