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It’s a cookbook, but not as we know it

I don’t believe all cookbooks are meant to be used for their recipes. There are some which inspire and are for enjoyment. Here are a few ‘fancy’ books that may bring inspiration to you, either as a cook or as someone who is looking for a gift for a cook in your life.

A couple of good, solid Australian books for the confident cook are Cumulus Inc by Andrew McConnell and Bentley Contemporary Cuisine by Brent Savage. I do find the photography in these to be a little dark which doesn’t do justice to the thoughtful, balanced dishes, but the creativity is there and the dishes look accessible.

For books of extreme style and beauty, I would go to Quay: food inspired by nature by Peter Gilmore (yes, he of the guava snow egg Masterchef challenge), and
by Mark Best.

These books are from the extolled Sydney restaurants by the same name and both are superbly produced, and yes, there is a picture for each recipe.

Marque seems to have quite a few instructions commencing with, “begin this recipe one day in advance”, so not something you pick up the day before you’ve invited people over.

If you’re thinking of giving Marque to someone, make sure they have a lot of the kitchen equipment, including a dehydrator, blast-chiller and a Pacojet at the very least.

I get the impression from this book it aims to impress upon the prospective diner how much effort goes into each dish rather than offer any encouragement to try to make the dishes for themselves. But should you wish to whip up some Slippery jack mushrooms with celeriac, rosemary curd and Manjimup truffles, this is the book for you.

There is also a recipe for one of Marque’s signature dishes, Sauterne custard, which is served in an eggshell. The simplicity of the presentation is breathtaking. The recipes in Marque are expressed in a conversational style without a distinct list of ingredients.

Quay, on the other hand, presents its recipes in the traditional manner, listing ingredients and using the standard format to outline the method. And there the familiarity for most cooks ends.

The wonderful art direction, styling and photographs mean this is a book more likely to sit on the coffee table than on a kitchen shelf. Dishes are adorned with pristine, minute vegetables and delicate flowers and one would be hard-pressed to match the title of a dish to its picture.

These recipes require ingredients beyond the average household pantry, such as Banyuls vinegarxantana and lecite. This is the book to use for that warm salad of swordfish belly and octopus with artichoke aioli and chilli threads.

Of course Quay does offer an eight-texture chocolate cake: chocolate mousse, caramel vanilla and chocolate ganache, chocolate and hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate sponge, milk chocolate praline, chocolate caramel cream, dark chocolate casing, and hot chocolate sauce. This all assembles to a disc approximately 10 cm in diameter and 2.5 cm high. I’ve broken out just typing that.

And now we depart Australia’s shores for Spain and the United States.

Mugaritz: A natural science of cooking by Andoni Luis Aduriz – think adventurous cooking and then add some. And add some more. This amazing book is from the chef of Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, which is consistently ranked in the world’s top ten restaurants.

This book tells a story, a philosophy, a calling of luxury gastronomy. The dishes all form part of the composition of this philosophy. They are small, clean, elegant works of art: cucumber impregnated in ‘Gazpacho’ water, frozen drops of goat’s cheese and Requienii mint; warm ganache and shavings of inflorescence; honeyed fish stew accompanied with roasted bird skins and lemon scent. The food is designed to engage all the senses.

Ingredients include inverted sugar, kaolin, …oh hell, you’re never going to actually cook anything from this book – just enjoy its beauty.

My favourite ‘fancy’ cookbook at the moment is Eleven Maddison Park: The Cookbook by Daniel Humm. I love this book. It has everything, including a ‘behind the scenes’ and a floor plan.

This is from another world top ten restaurant, this time in New York. The book divides its recipes into seasons and then by key ingredient. It’s a ‘white’ book, skilfully using space to showcase all the dishes in double-page spreads.

A lot of the dishes do feature flowers, micro herbs and quite a few gelées, but overall one is encouraged to ‘have a go’ with these recipes. The crab salad, which serves eight, does require 200 viola leaves, but that aside, these dishes actually look like a meal as well as an amazing culinary experience.

Yes, there is mention of a cryovac machine and a roner, but it’s so matter-of-fact. One could try methods other than vacuum sealing in sous vide bags and poaching the turbot fillets in a water bath maintained at 137°F by an immersion circulator for seven minutes.

There is a celebration of the tomato, served in four courses, including a tomato cloud with basil. Or the roasted beef tenderloin with bone marrow crust, swiss chard and chanterelles. And you could finish off with a coconut meringue with mango, papaya and passionfruit.

This is the book I’d like for Christmas and I’m sure others who would like to occasionally – if only through reading – step out of their comfort zone would enjoy it too.

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