The internet should have killed the cookbook, but instead it reinvented it

Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter, one of 100 Genius Recipes in the book.
Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with onion and butter, one of 100 Genius Recipes in the book.
Image: Food52/James Ransom
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Why would anyone with a Wi-Fi connection buy a cookbook in 2015? Of course there are the artistically photographed tomes of celebrity chefs that double as coffee-table books or treatises on food politics. But when it comes to cookbooks as they are meant to be used—as cookie batter and tomato sauce-stained references—hasn’t the internet rendered them useless? Cooking one’s way through a single chef’s repertoire might get you a book-and-movie deal, but it’s unlikely to get a reliably delicious and fuss-free meal on the table every time. That’s what the internet is for.

Image for article titled The internet should have killed the cookbook, but instead it reinvented it
Image: Food52

Of all the fresh-voiced, naturally lit food blogs and websites out there—not to mention clever apps—the website Food52 may be the single greatest threat to the old-fashioned cookbook. At Food52’s New York headquarters, a tech-savvy culinary swat team concoct, test, edit, and share a body of recipes that includes crowd-sourced contributions from the site’s vibrant online network of home cooks. Food52 makes the most of what is great about the web, unearthing unlikely gems and giving an opinionated and curious community a clean, well-lighted place to discuss the perils of subbing honey for agave nectar, the best way to eat eggplant, and how to make cohesive meatballs.

But rather than killing the cookbook, Food52’s executive editor Kristen Miglore has just published her answer to what the form should look like in the post-internet age.

Genius Recipes originated as Miglore’s column on Food52, which since 2011 has featured recipes from chefs, bloggers, authors, and restaurants, with the help of crowd-sourced input from Food52’s network. The recipes all hinge on a special twist—an unlikely ingredient, shortcut, or total torch-up of conventional wisdom—that makes them “genius.”

They are signature, game-changing recipes. (I once brought Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan’s deep chocolate sables, studded with flaky sea salt, to a friend’s annual Christmas party. I will never be allowed back without a tin.)

And don’t come back without them: Dorie Greenspan and Pierre Hermé’s “World Peace” cookies.
And don’t come back without them: Dorie Greenspan and Pierre Hermé’s “World Peace” cookies.
Image: Food52/James Ransom

In book version, Genius Recipes reads like an epic, culinary “best of” boxed set of recipes—the kind you’d actually make—from chefs and restaurants such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson, Dan Barber, James Beard, Canal House, and the Union Square Café. But they’re not just any old recipes. They represent the cooking luminaries’ most-cited, viral, and internet-tested recipes. Here is Jim Lahey’s clever no-knead bread, which Miglore identifies as the first recipe to go viral, alongside Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce with butter and onion, a legendary cookbook classic recently rediscovered by the internet.

The book points to a fundamental change in the way home cooks approach recipes in the 21st century. In the age of infinite information, it’s no longer good enough to pull just any book off the shelf when we are craving, say, Caesar salad, as I was the other night. We don’t just want a Caesar salad recipe. We want the Caesar salad recipe: the one that will deliver the strongest result for the lowest possible quotient of outlandish ingredients and tedious steps. Enter Genius Recipes, with a Caesar salad dressing recipe from the New York restaurant Frankie’s Spuntino that replaces the raw egg, lemon, and oil with jarred mayonnaise and wine vinegar.

“Nothing about this seems like a good idea,” writes Miglore, as if sensing her reader’s raised eyebrow. The recipe, as she writes, is both “heretical and fiercely convenient.” It’s also a revelation. Despite its substitutions (or perhaps because of them, as anyone who has whisked themselves to distraction trying to emulsify the ingredients for a classic Caesar knows), this is Caesar salad in all its rich, bracing glory. My craving was satisfied, and without any raw egg, I can use the jar in the fridge for the rest of the week. That is genius.

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Frankie’s Spuntino’s Romaine Hearts with Caesar Salad Dressing

from Genius Recipes

Serves 4 to 6
3 hearts of romaine (pull away the floppiest, greenest outer leaves)
1⁄3  cup (35g) grated Pecorino Romano, plus additional for serving
1⁄2  cup (110g) Hellmann’s mayonnaise
1⁄4  cup (60ml) water, plus more as needed
11⁄2  teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
2 anchovy fillets
1⁄4  teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1⁄4  teaspoon Tabasco sauce
8 turns freshly ground white pepper
Fine sea salt, if needed
Freshly ground black pepper

  1. Trim the root ends from the romaine, separate the leaves, and wash and dry them. Put the lettuce in the fridge to chill while you prepare the dressing.
  2. Combine 1⁄4 cup (25g) of the Pecorino with the remaining ingredients (except the black pepper) in a blender and puree until the dressing is smooth. (If you don’t have a blender, mince the garlic and anchovy, and whisk them together with the rest of the dressing ingredients.) Taste and add salt if necessary; the cheese, Hellmann’s, Worcestershire, and anchovies are all salty, so you probably won’t need any additional salt. Loosen the dressing with more water as needed.
  3. Toss the chilled lettuce with the dressing in a large bowl.Transfer to serving plates or a serving platter and finish with a generous crowning of the remaining grated cheese and a few turns of black pepper. Serve at once.
Image: Food52/James Ransom