Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Cooking with Friends

Bear with me.

Just as I may be accused of jumping on the pop culture bandwagon (following my twitter and news feeds being filled yesterday with the sensationalized announcements that some middle-aged actors from a television show that ended fifteen years ago are having a reunion episode) apparently authors of cookbooks do the same.

Back in 1995, when the sitcom Friends was barely a season old, some bandwagons were jumped upon by a couple of folks who (with motivations unknown to me) published a collection of recipes co-branded with a soon-to-be generation-defining television show.

I don’t remember exactly who or why… but someone gave me this cookbook as I shipped off and moved out of home setting out towards University.

I’d be lying if I told you this book had been cracked open as more than a curiosity in the decade prior to this morning.

But, for a very long time, it was one of approximately three cookbooks I owned.

Was I a fan of the show? Well. I watched it, but mostly because in the nineties as a student without cable television, we watched whatever was broadcast over one of the four channels that reached our apartments via the little rabbit ears antenna.

Yesterday I couldn’t help but open my twitter feed and see countless people promoting the reunion episode trailer that had been posted online. Serious news agencies devoted writers, resources, and space on their properties to dissecting the cultural impacts of a ten-year-long, millennium-spanning sitcom.

I was reminded that I had this book on my shelf.

Still.

On my shelf mixed in among the other mostly-serious cookbooks.

Latching onto popular culture to inspire recipes is not an obscure thing, tho.

Beside the Cooking with Friends cookbook on my shelf there was also (I kid you not) a copy of The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook (which technically belongs to my daughter) and a more recent acquisition Binging with Babish: 100 Recipes Recreated from Your Favorite Movies and TV Shows, which I bought to support Youtuber Andrew Rea who runs a remarkably well-produced and genuinely brilliant cooking channel where he instructs and entertains around a very similar premise. (After I’ve cooked a few more recipes from his book I’ll post a breakdown in a future post.) I’d also be obscuring my fascination with pop-culture-inspired recipes if I didn’t mention that I own a healthy digital collection of PDF cookbooks containing such titles as The Geeky Chef Cookbook, Minecrafter’s Cookbook, The Nightmare Before Dinner and of course The Wizard’s Cookbook: Magical Recipes Inspired by Harry Potter, Merlin, The Wizard of Oz, and More.

All that said, one season in to the show Friends there was insufficient inspirational fodder for the Cooking with Friends cookbook to be anything but a co-branded cash-grab. The recipes are broad and basic. Italian food (because one of the characters is Italian) or coffee-house treats (because they all spend a lot of time drinking coffee in a cafรฉ.) Later seasons would turn one of the main characters into a working chef (which certainly would have provided some interesting recipes) and revolve entire episode plots around eating, cooking, dining, drinking, and other food-related activities. But little of these stories is to be found between the covers of this book.

The little blue page flag visible in my photo above opens to a page with a recipe for pesto pizza a recipe that, yes, we did cook a few times, using both the pesto and the pizza dough recipe from this cookbook. I don’t recall the characters ever having much to do with pesto pizza… but the pizza was pretty delicious if I recall.

My twitter feed has already forgotten about the Friends reunion episode trailer that was the star of the news cycle yesterday. Maybe the bandwagon has rolled on. I spent half an hour as I started my day with a cup of coffee flipping through the recipes in this old, once-treasured book. It was well-loved, and perhaps now long-forgotten, but it served us well for a time.

Like an old friend. Friends? Friend.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Five Roses

There was a point in time about fifteen years ago when I would have told you that the best way to make pancakes was to follow the directions on the box.

And see, everyone who dabbles in more advanced cooking techniques than as-per-manufacturers-instructions likely has a story of that one recipe that upon discovering it made you think… yeah, I can probably make this.

For me that recipe was the pancake recipe in Five Roses: A Guide to Good Cooking.

I have no idea where this book came from.

For the longest time it was one of a half dozen eclectic recipe books on our shelf that had appeared in our lives sometime during that phase of moving out, getting married, and building a home. It may have been a gift or shown up in a care package from a relative or … I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps you’re wondering if maybe we had received it as a promotional deal from the manufacturers of Five Roses flour products? Alas no, I don’t recall ever having used Five Roses flour, know where I would buy Five Roses flour, nor even if Five Roses flour is still in production. (Well, it is …I just Googled it.) I’m sure it’s a fine baking ingredient, but our store shelves are ubiquitously stocked with Robin Hood flour. Even so, I don’t have a Robin Hood Guide to Good Cooking, just this one.

And though the photo doesn’t necessarily make it clear, that recipe book is now dog-eared and full of notes and adjustments and splotches of splattered recipe results.

Every weekend on Saturday morning I make pancakes for my family. Every weekend I craft a bowl of batter from flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, vanilla, oil, and milk. Every weekend I pull a crusty recipe from the hard-coded memories stored in the deepest part of my brain and turn it into breakfast.

That recipe originated in this book, a now well-loved cookbook in our home.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Had I realized how often over the last fifteen years I would be referencing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I would have splurged for the hardcover edition.

As it stands, our trusty copy of this loaf of paper filled with basic recipes rarely makes it back onto the bookshelf, and is so tattered and splattered, I’ll likely be lamenting it’s numbered days before it stops being useful.

I’ve started a small series of cookbook posts here on castironguy.ca because despite adding to my collection almost monthly, I find that most cookbooks are only useful or interesting in a limited way. Sure, you can learn a great recipe from almost any book out there, and half the fun is picking something that looks like a challenge or a tasty goal, and seeing how well your skills match with the intended product. That said, there are perhaps only a dozen cookbooks on our shelf that would make a cull if I was forced to simplify my library… and these are them.

The best analogy I have for this book is that it’s like my paperback edition of Google.

You know those times you are standing there in your kitchen, hands covered in flour, thinking about how you are actually supposed to be cooking something, say a roast or a whole spaghetti squash or maybe a pie crust.

How long at what temperature?

How much water was I supposed to add?

Should I be covering this?

Today I might Google it, or ask my digital assistant. Hey, Alexa, how do I… ?

But even still, and especially back when I bought this, it was and still is that one reference book that gives solid, simple advice on the nuances of basic food prep.

Sure, there are a few fancy recipes hiding in it’s pages, and lots of ideas about stuff like how to make your waffles more interesting, or how to spice a whole chicken, or variations on making your own salad dressings. But the core function of this book is basically aimed at people like me who mostly know enough to get started, have the ingredients in their hands, but are stumped on locking down the process. The how-to. The what was that one crucial step or ingredient that is going to change the outcome if I get it wrong. A reference guide.

This might not be the exact title for you, but there are a few big reference cookbooks out there with a similar purpose and you should generally keep one on your shelf. I do.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Flour Water Salt Yeast

So . . . I ordered yet another cookbook yesterday.

I’ve recently been watching a cooking channel on YouTube (perhaps one you have heard of, unlikely one you figured I’d watch) and the host released a cookbook last year, so I splurged. Until a make a few recipes from the book itself, I don’t feel that I’m in a solid or fair position to offer a review or opinion. Hopefully in about a month or so (after I spin up a few of the recipes and get a sense of the style) you’ll see such a post here. Until then…

My lacking of an opinion is not the case with Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast.

I remember when my newly kindled interest in sourdough bread-making started to really heat up. I’d begun culturing a starter and then I went scouring the internet for advice. A lot of people recommended this particular tome. I added it to my collection and spent a few solid days reading the details, pondering the techniques and anticipating my next loaf… mostly because that first starter was still pretty new and not ready to use.

I could write a lot about this cookbook.

I could tell you that the tone has always struck me in the same way as I felt when I worked my way through university and had this one lab-rat job for a boss who had a PhD in molecular biology and couldn’t believe he had to explain this stuff to me and fine, but pay attention and do you mind if I crank up the radio and we’re all going out for beers after work, you in? Pleasantly mentoring? Friendly condescending? Lovable know-it-all-ish?

Or, I could tell you that within the words contained on these pages there is as much elaborate history and detail about bread theory as there is actual recipes, and if this was online everyone would complain that they need to scroll for five minutes to get to the ingredients list but since this is a book it’s as much a beautiful read about bread (and pizza crusts) as it is anything else. Be prepared to read as much as you cook.

I could even tell you that if you read this book, no if you seriously read it and understand it, you’ll change the way you cook and you’ll go out tomorrow and buy a digital kitchen scale and understand that the math and French you learned in high school could serve more than an abstract purpose in your life as you start to refer to bread as having desired hydration levels and calculate flour percentages in your dreams. Shush! My sixty-percent levain is resting!

Basically I could just tell you that if you want to make good bread, I haven’t found a better volume. This is a great cookbook and one that will endure in my personal collection for a long time.