It has been more than 50 years since Gourmet, the 62-year-old grande dame of food magazines, has published a major cookbook. So when editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl and her staff decided three years ago that it was time for another one, the anticipation was great.
Reichl, the author of two best-selling memoirs and the former restaurant critic for the New York Times, has a devoted following of fans. When she took over Gourmet five years ago, she yanked it out of its stuck-in-the-'70s doldrums and gave it a sharper, modern image. The assumption in the publishing world was that with her name on the cookbook's cover, plus Gourmet's reputation for sophisticated, carefully tested recipes, the book was certain to be a hit.
Although she says she can't discuss the exact amount, Reichl reportedly was given a $1 million advance to do the book. That helped bankroll three years of meticulous recipe testing, retesting and updating, conducted by Reichl, two longtime Gourmet editors (executive food editor Zanne Stewart and senior food editor Kemp Minifie) and more than a dozen test cooks. The group whittled down an archive of 50,000-plus recipes to a core group of 1,200 for the cookbook. It was a huge, daunting project -- "a lot more work than we ever anticipated," Reichl admitted.
Once it was done, publishing company Houghton Mifflin pledged $1 million to publicize the book and a first printing run of 250,000 copies (a large amount for a cookbook). Cooks optimistically awaited the final product.
But sometimes the littlest things can trip up the biggest projects. Amid all the tweaking of recipes, the debating over whether to include the year each recipe first appeared in the magazine (Reichl decided not to) and the heated discussions over which dishes to reject and which to accept, someone apparently failed to pay attention to one important detail.
When the hefty, 1,040-page volume was finally published last month, many readers were dismayed when they opened the $40 book. Like a carefully planned feast marred by a single hair in the soup, the pages had recipe titles printed in hard-to-read, pale yellow type.
Considering that this is a book dedicated to presenting the best, most usable recipe possible, this glitch makes it frustratingly difficult to read or find recipe names as you flip through the pages.
Reichl called it "a horrible surprise" and blamed it on a mistake during printing.
Vice president and publisher Janet Silver with Houghton Mifflin has played down the problem. "There have been some illegibility issues with readers, but [the cookbook] is still selling like crazy," she said. The color of the typeface, however, will be changed for the book's second printing, she added. "We don't know if it'll be darker yellow or black. We're trying to figure out how to make the color more legible."
Many readers who bought the book were not happy. Although the cookbook quickly became a top seller on Amazon.com, reviews posted on the Web site slammed the yellow titles. "They are close to impossible to see," groused a Mountain View, Calif., reader. "An otherwise fine cookbook destroyed as a usable kitchen guide," added another.
Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a Manhattan book store specializing in cookbooks, said "practically everyone who pages through the book" has complained about it, although he notes that he's still selling a lot of copies.
Waxman, who worked in book publishing for 18 years before opening his store in 1982, finds the color selection puzzling. "It was always an axiom in publishing. No black print on a dark background, no yellow-on-white or cream. If ever there was a case of 'What were they thinking?', this is it."
Legibility issues aside, "The Gourmet Cookbook" is still bound to earn a place on a dedicated cook's bookshelf for its sheer breadth and dependability, if nothing else. It's like a citified "Joy of Cooking." It assumes you already know how to make the basics -- and maybe even consider them plebeian. This is the book for when you want to boost your repertoire up a notch or two.
It is not, as Reichl was quick to note, a historical cookbook. Very few of the recipes have any indication of what year, or even decade, they originated. "We talked about it a lot, but we decided that putting in the year would be a deterrent. People might see 1943 and think 'Now that's going to be a bad recipe'," she said during an interview in Washington.
Reichl and her staff also spent a lot of time updating and rewriting older recipes, which often assumed a cooking knowledge that today's cooks don't have. A '40s dessert recipe that began, "Cream butter and sugar . . . " had to be rewritten to say, "Beat butter and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer."
Cooking times were adjusted for today's leaner meats, and ingredients were brought up to date. A 1959 recipe for apple strudel, for example, called for Greening apples and sultana raisins in the filling. The new version includes the more widely available Gala apples and golden raisins. A 1993 pad thai recipe that used ketchup now calls for the more authentic tamarind paste. Similarly, the book's version of Shrimp de Jonghe, a 1947 dish created when butter was more popular than garlic, now calls for half the butter and twice the garlic of the original.
The process for testing and revising recipes "was insane," said Reichl. "We were obsessive. We had two tastings a day for two years. I think we each gained 8 to 10 pounds."
In our own testing process, we chose nine recipes from the book for meat, chicken, fish, pasta, vegetables, soup and dessert. We had no outright flops, but a couple dishes weren't worth the effort: Pan-Seared Ancho Skirt Steak, for example, used a Mexican-inspired sauce of ancho chilis, orange juice and garlic. Using part of the sauce as a marinade was fine, but the sauce alone tasted raw and bitter when poured over the meat before serving, as the recipe directs. We also won't be repeating a recipe for chicken piccata with Nicoise olives; the light lemon sauce was ho-hum and slicing off slivers of the tiny olives is a royal pain in the neck.
Other recipes, however, were truly eye-openers. Slow-roasted salmon with a mustard parsley glaze was fabulous, and roasting it at a low 225 degrees produces a silky, tender texture that will transform your idea of how to cook salmon.
We also loved the La Brea Tar Pit Chicken Wings -- baked in an easy soy sauce-and-wine sauce until dark and glossy -- especially after we figured out the correct type of roasting pan to use. Both Reichl and Minifie say they've made the wings at home many times for guests and school functions and we can see why.
Even a recipe for tiny chocolate chip cookies was a learning experience. The usual directions for making cookie dough were given an easier twist, and the tiny size lent them elegance.
One annoying quirk to the book, however, doesn't concern making a recipe, but trying to find one in the book's index. Reichl often mentioned the endless revisions the staff made in a sticky bun recipe to get one that tasted rich, but not overly heavy and greasy with butter.
So we headed to the index, looked up sticky buns any number of ways and couldn't find it. Not under Buns, or Bread or Sticky. Finally we paged through the Breakfast and Brunch chapter, squinting at the yellow titles. And yes, there it was. Pecan Currant Sticky Buns. Hard to find, but worth it.