I’ve heard it said that if a cookbook has one great recipe you use often, it’s a keeper. If it has four recipes you love, it’s worth far more than what you paid for it. And if it has eight recipes you use frequently, it’s a classic.
By that yardstick, Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarborough’s Goat is a keeper. Jose Andres’ Made in Spain and Rick Bayleess’ Mexican Kitchen are worth their weight in gold. And Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking is aptly named, for it is an absolute classic in my kitchen.
Anthony and I have a small apartment and an even smaller bookshelf, which is almost physically painful for a book-lover like me. Our trusty bookshelf is packed to the gills with well-thumbed novels, dog-eared travel guides, and grad school texts that blew our minds and changed our lives. Of course, it’s also loaded down with cookbooks. But even shoehorned into place and wedged horizontally atop smaller volumes, there is only so much room. Thus, by necessity, our cookbook collection is lean and mean. We own very few books that we don’t thumb through weekly for ideas, inspiration, or guidance.
Every time I plop down on the couch to survey our cookbook collection, I am struck by how much I visit these printed friends, old and new. I always think about that truism—that eight or more recipes makes a classic—and I am grateful that we have so many timeless beauties on our shelves. I am also, inevitably, reminded that there are a handful of cookbooks I own that are truly off the charts by this measure. My mom’s The Perfect Recipe, CookSmart, and Perfect Recipes for Having People Over are beyond classics by the eight or more count.
Simply put, I couldn’t cook without them.
If I need to bake chocolate chip, oatmeal, or peanut butter cookies, I head over to her corner of the bookcase. If I need to make the perfect chocolate cake, the smoothest mashed potatoes, the perkiest peach pie, some authentic cornbread, or melt-in-your-mouth tender biscuits, she’s my girl. If I forgot the formula for pizza dough, want to impress my friends with homemade onion rings, need the comfort of meatloaf, or the mysterious healing power of chicken noodle soup, Mom’s books are my go-to.
I feel connected to these books and to their recipes. Perhaps it’s because they offer classic American cooking at its best, or maybe it’s because I was there for the creation of every single recipe. Or maybe I am just lucky enough to have my mom’s recipes – which taste like pure love – printed and bound by Houghton Mifflin, rather that scribbled down on recipe cards.
Mom’s recipes, like the woman herself, always seem to provide me with a solid foundation, while also offering the knowledge and space I need to riff and grow.
It’s no surprise, then, that I turned to Mom when desperately searching for a dessert recipe that would showcase some dangerously ripe peaches and an abundance of blueberries. I’d already hit up the internet, but I wasn’t seeing anything I liked. So, I thumbed through Having People Over and found an upside down cake recipe which didn’t call for peaches or blueberries but gave me just what I needed: the formula for a tender, flavorful cake and the permission I wanted to go off-book.
This cake—a simple, gorgeous summer dessert—is the result.
Though my bookshelf is full to bursting, I am always on the lookout for more 8+ classics that help me be creative and engaged in the kitchen. What are your classics? And why?
Peach, Blueberry & Cardamom Upside-Down Cake
Makes one 9-inch cake, serving 8-10.
If you can, leave the stick of butter you need for the cake out on the counter overnight. This makes it super easy to beat into the dry ingredients.
For the fruit topping:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 large peach, pitted and sliced
½ cup blueberries, rinsed
For the cake:
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
1 large egg plus 1 yolk (or two medium eggs)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
1 cup sugar
Adjust the oven rack to lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with vegetable cooking spray, line the bottom with parchment, and spray it again.
Make the topping: Heat the 3 tablespoons of butter in a small sauce pan. Add the brown sugar and cardamom and cook, stirring occasionally, until foamy. Pour into the prepared pan and arrange peaches and blueberries over the sugar mixture.
Make the cake: Mix flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Mix milk, eggs, and vanilla in a small bowl.
With an electric mixer, beat softened butter into dry ingredients, first on low and then increasing speed to medium, until mixture forms pebble-size clumps. Add one third of the milk mixture and beat on low speed until smooth. Add the remaining milk mixture in two stages, beating on medium speed until the batter is smooth. Add the sugar and beat until just incorporated, about 30 seconds.
Pour batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.
Cool the cake for about 2 minutes before running a knife around the perimeter of the pan and inverting the cake onto a wire rack. Remove parchment, cool completely, and cover with plastic wrap until ready to serve.