C’mon, admit it: You wish you were one of Ina Garten’s friends. They mix cosmopolitans and bring her treats, appearing on her Emmy award-winning cooking show and in the pages of her cookbooks. And they sure eat well.
No matter. She’s practically offering the keys to her kingdom in her eighth book, “Barefoot Contessa Foolproof: Recipes You Can Trust” (Clarkson Potter, 2012; $35; about 100 recipes). In addition to the standard Cocktails and Starters and chapters, Garten devotes one to lunchtime entertaining. So here’s hoping we all get to do more of that.
We’ve become accustomed to the way this author writes a recipe: minimally, yet there’s almost always a telling detail — and that’s one reason why people appreciate her work. If the topping on the Caramelized Bacon is underbaked, the strips won’t crisp as they cool. Proceed even though the batter of the Perfect Pound Cake looks curdled; it will come together soon enough, with a higher mixer speed. The odd ingredient that can’t be picked up at the market? The Barefoot Contessa tells you where to find it.
The extra bits — tips about timing, setting a table and composing menus — provide the context that comes across in her television series (the next of which begins in January). The story she tells about making lemonade out of her new but less-than-ideal oven is not meant to be a cautionary tale, but a lesson in kitchen adjustments.
In truth, “foolproof” is not so easy for any instructor to pull off. Garten defines the term applied to dishes that stand the test of time, reliable ones she makes again and again. Already, I’ve put her Fig and Fennel Caponata into rotation. But cooks without confidence and the kinds of people who scan the fine print at the bottom of car commercials can find imperfections faster than water can find a seam to leak through. In testing recipes from this book, I managed to choose Cinnamon Baked Doughnuts (who wouldn’t?) and produced 18 lovely specimens from a batter that was supposed to yield 12. Maybe that’s the downside of mentioning nothing more than a “baking pan.” Instead of dipping them in butter, I found that brushing kept the doughnuts kept them from getting too saturated. I suspect she would be the first to endorse whatever adaptation was going to ensure that I’d make the doughnuts again and again.
Garten begins the book with a list of 10 foolproof cooking tips. From someone else, they might come across as commandments, and most of them are things you’ve been told before. But Barefoot Contessa fans know she wants to simplify, always simplify. Following them won’t get you invited to her house in East Hampton, but they will make things nicer for the folks at your dinner parties.