Mastering the Art of Celebrity Cookbooks

Our entertaining maven looks at recent cookbooks from three of the hottest brand-name celebrities, and examines the viability of their recipes for those of us who actually have people over.

A question for my fellow cooks: are you fickle like me? I discover a new recipe, fall in love with it, and it becomes my new boyfriend. I think of it all the time, can’t wait to be in the kitchen with it again, and to introduce it to my friends, who often become smitten, too. The recipe and I get together over and over. Then, as quickly as I fell in love, I tire of it and cast it aside, barely remembering it until years later, when it comes up in conversation.

This past autumn, my new boyfriend was the linguine with lemon, garlic and thyme mushrooms from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Express. I fell hard for this little sweetheart. It’s fast, ready in well under an hour. It’s simple, made with ingredients available in supermarkets. It’s flexible—you can use any pasta noodle, not just linguine. And it’s delicious hot, cold or at room temperature. Really, it’s the perfect side dish for a dinner party, especially if you are feeding a vegetarian or two, for whom it becomes a satisfying main course.

Et tu, Nigella?

Until I discovered the linguine recipe, I regarded Nigella with the same cynicism many of us view celebrity chefs. The linguine made me a fan. Even after the scandal involving illegal substances, personal assistants and the Chanel store, the linguine recipe was enough to motivate me to pay full retail for her latest cookbook, Nigellissima. Which, like its author and all of us, is complicated, magnificent, flawed.

If you’re going through one of those seasons—we all do—where you don’t care that much about cooking, I suggest you find this book and commit only to skimming through it half-heartedly. Just looking at the photography and the recipe titles will get your cook’s blood pumping. Nigella’s personality, playful and deliciously British, comes through in every paragraph of her recipes and their meaty (pun intended) introductions.

Her recipe for One-Step, No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream (see the sidebar) is almost worth the price of the book. But several of her recipes, like Quick Calabrian Lasagna and Chocolate Olive Oil Cake, sound intriguing yet prove disappointing. I noted a glaring typo in a recipe title, and a place where, sloppily, a paragraph was cut and pasted a second time. Which leads me to distrust every recipe and to wonder, how can these cooking stars, no matter how talented, how capable their staffs, crank out book after book, each a solid winner? One gets the feeling a 23-year old graphic designer who doesn’t cook was really at the helm on this one. The layouts are dazzling but impractical. The ingredients lists, for example, are rendered in all caps, which probably looked striking in the mock-up but makes hard work out of reading them.

How Dare You, Gwyneth?

Next time you want to feel inadequate, run out and buy one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks. Yes, I know, everybody picks on Gwyneth. Perhaps you read where she topped a recent poll as one of the most hated celebrities in Hollywood.

I wanted not to like the recipes in her cookbook My Father’s Daughter. Not only did Gwyneth win the DNA lottery, complete with perfect metabolism (“GP can effortlessly down a whole pan of perfect paella in Valencia” gushes Mario Batali in the book’s sycophantic foreward), she has Oscar-level acting chops and is married to a rock star.

Leafing through the book’s lustrous pages, one gets no sense that its author has ever hosted a rollicking debauch of a dinner party or that anyone dances in her professional-caliber kitchen. She uses the phrase “feeding my family” often. She offers not a single cocktail recipe.

Yet it is my unpleasant duty to report the recipes are darn good. Her butternut squash soup is scrumptious and relatively easy (if you puree it using an immersion blender), the perfect starter to a cold-weather dinner party. Her fish tacos are meltingly delicious and nice for a small, interactive dinner gathering. And her salad dressings are killer. Her balsamic lime vinaigrette, in fact, is my new boyfriend.

How dare she write a cookbook that is actually good?

That Nutty Giada

“Eat a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything” espouses Giada De Laurentiis in her tenth and newest book, Giada’s Feel Good Foods. If you are a Today show or Food Network watcher, or shop the kitchen department at Tar-jhay, you’ve seen the incandescent Giada, who until this latest tome, has proffered decadent pastas and other high-cal Italian fare.

This book is her answer to the question most frequently put to her: how do you stay so skinny? In it she takes the opportunity to share secrets to her overall fabulousness, including exercise (yoga), make-up (lip gloss, always) and even suitcase-packing (all outfits pre-planned and in one-gallon Ziploc bags) tips. She, or perhaps her publisher, has selected photos that unvaryingly showcase her cleavage. (Back in the knife drawer, Miss Sharp.)

What I like best is her Snacks chapter, which offers tasty, healthy-ish nibbles, great to serve with drinks, e.g. rosemary cashews and sunflower seeds. crispy chickpeas, smoked almonds, and popcorn with Herbes de Provence and smoked sea salt (I cheat and use microwave popcorn, two packages). Most of her other recipes, while clearly written, require too much last-minute prep to be workable for a dinner party, yet are too ingredient- and labor-intensive for everyday use.

While We’re Talking Recipes

Indulge me by letting me share with you my new favorite source for recipes: the blog Food52, founded by formerNew York Times food editor Amanda Hesser. It’s an extraordinary food blog, with lively writing, mouthwatering photography, cooking tips galore, and most importantly, recipes that are carefully vetted and explained step-by-step. Food52 is where I found my darling linguine boyfriend last fall. Email me and I will send you the recipe and a link to the blog.

I’ll Never Serve Store-Bought Again

Nigella Lawson’s One-Step, No-Churn Coffee Ice Cream

From Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook, Nigellissima, this recipe is ridiculously easy, yielding an end product that tastes like pure mocha heaven. Serve it to friends after a casual take-out dinner, to add an epicurean touch.

  • 1-1/4 cups heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder
  • 2 tablespoons espresso liqueur

Whisk all the ingredients together until soft peaks form, and you have a gorgeous, caffe-latte-colored airy mixture, and then fill one-pint airtight containers, and freeze for six hours or overnight. Serve straight from the freezer.

Note: I used an immersion blender to whisk the ingredients and it worked beautifully.