So long, peaches and berries; see you later, heirloom tomatoes and corn; goodbye, watermelon. We’ll miss you all come autumn—but you can bet we’ll be finding some measure of comfort in more filling fare. That goes doubly for avid cooks who are keen to exchange the outdoor grill for the kitchen, preparing the likes of casseroles, cobblers, and stews for a leaf-stomping, steam-exhaling crowd. As it happens, a slew of new cookbooks devoted to just such a scenario is here to welcome them back inside. The following are especially good fun.
Autumn from the Heart of the Home
by Susan Branch (Little, Brown & Company, $25.95)
Boasting a homemade-scrapbook design this supersweet little cookbook also contains just enough quirks to keep it from getting sticky. The recipes are more sophisticated than you might expect under the circumstances, striking a balance between thoughtful takes on historical or regional specialties and sure-fire dinner-party material. Think steamers, Indian shuck (corn) bread with maple butter, scallop chowder, and eggnog cappuccino; imagine butternut soup served in shot glasses and new potatoes stuffed with fontina. And there’s no one so jaded that he or she can’t be charmed by the idea of a trinket-filled fortune cake, or real hot chocolate with marshmallows made from scratch. Indeed, a taste of mellowness is exactly what Autumn at its best provides.
Retro Baking: 100 Classic Contest Winners Updated for Today
by Maureen Fischer (Collectors Press, $16.95).
Rounding out the retro recipes is this funky, cartoon-colored collection based on the winners of those amateur contests, that have been a hallmark of culinary Americana for decades. Decked out in wink-wink period graphics and space-age fonts, the recipes indeed hark back to a time when novelty products—powdered mixes, canned fillings, and so on—were just beginning to replace the basic ingredients for cooking from scratch; here, fortunately, the latter are restored. Even so, Fischer’s text is certainly user-friendly, true to the breezy ease of the originals. Thus—just like the beaming, creamy-skinned, white-apron-and-black-pump-clad housewives in the pictures—you too can present family and friends with an old-fashioned Sunday supper, complete with oven-fresh dinner rolls, biscuit-topped beef casserole, and cranberry cobbler for dessert. You get the pretty picture: there’s nothing here too technically taxing or too fancy for unfussy taste buds—just basic baked goods done right, with a hint of 21st-century sass.
You’re Cookin’ It Country: My Favorite Recipes and Memories
by Loretta Lynn (Rutledge Hill Press, $24.99)
If Branch straddles the picket fence of nostalgia, Loretta Lynn (yes, that Loretta Lynn), not surprisingly, hurdles way over the top to wallow in boisterous, mostly endearing kitsch. In the preface, Lynn reminisces about the poor old, good old days when “we ate anything and everything we could find in Butcher Holler, Kentucky” (including “possum.”) Laden with ingredients like Crisco, Velveeta, saltines, and Cool Whip, these dishes are bound to blast away the impending winter blues with a barrage of carbs and fat grams. For instance, after breakfasting on enormous “cat-head” biscuits smothered in chocolate gravy, you could opt for a lunch of vegetable soup and tossed salad—whose primary ingredients are ground beef and bacon, respectively. For dessert, you’ve got your “gooey cake,” made with German-chocolate-cake mix from a box, sweetened condensed milk from a can, caramel topping from a jar, whipped topping from a tub, and crushed Heath bars. Rarely has the sheepish phrase “you gotta love it” been so apt.
The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter
by Diane Rossen Worthington (Chronicle Books, $24.95)
The most broadly conceived of the group, Worthington’s book will hold you day in and day out—from breakfast to dessert, in sickness (hello, chicken soup with matzah balls) and in health, whether the cook in you is feeling ambitious or shiftless, and whether the diner in you harbors a yen for Italian or a hankering for Asian. For instance, since saying “cinnamon-streusel sour-cream coffee cake” takes nearly as long as making one, the dish may indeed “become your standby for last-minute brunches.” By contrast, crispy roast duck with lavender-honey sauce requires a certain amount of time and effort but the results are black-tie-gala-worthy. Meanwhile, if your tastes span the globe, you’ll be pleased to find Worthington’s versions of everything from Creole gumbo to the Indonesian fried-rice staple known as nasi goreng. The Taste of the Season is a meaty compendium of cold-weather cuisine; what’s more, since it has a companion volume in The Taste of Summer, fans need not fret over finding a worthy complement when the temperatures once again soar.
Gratins: Savory and Sweet Recipes from Oven to Table
by Tina Salter (Ten Speed Press, $18.95)
As the author notes in the introduction, for all their homey dishevelment, gratins—or “baked dishes with a rich creamy interior and a crisp, golden topping”—possess a rather elegant bearing. Salter’s inventive, sophisticated recipes uphold that reputation. Imagine starting a dinner à deux with a sexy surprise like gratinéed figs with prosciutto and chèvre, or posing at a pal’s potluck with a Parmesan-topped polenta-portobello bake. Envision wowing the in-laws come Thanksgiving with a striking mélange of green apples, Yukon golds, and sweet potatoes, or giving the boss’s beetle-brows a boost when you serve sesame-seed-crusted salmon steaks, set off by a jade-green herb sauce, at your annual dinner party. In other words, imagine being fabulous; gratins, granting far more leeway and forgiveness than their carefully constructed culinary counterparts, let you be just that—at least until dinner’s over.