Derived from the pages of Cook's Illustrated magazine, American Classics (part of the successful Best Recipe series) offers 300 formulas for a soup-to-nuts trove of American standards--everything from clam chowder, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken to brownies, carrot cake, and lemon meringue pie (which required 28 tryouts before the "best" was achieved). The book goes far to realize its mission with exhaustive "what-we-were-looking-for-and-how-we-got-it" investigations; tons of useful asides on techniques, ingredients, and equipment; great how-to illustrations; and the recipes themselves, which are precisely thought through and clearly rendered. All in all, even a cursory dip into the book takes readers into the very heart of cooking.
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How does it work? Let's take the recipe for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, a simple dish but one that's frequently botched. First, the problem of achieving the right filling distribution: "Tradition ... suggests that the cheese be cut into thin, even slices for easy melting," say the authors, but this can be problematic as "cheese planes don't work well on soft, rubbery cheeses" and cutting with a knife "requires patience, practice, and a relatively hard block of cheese." After a number of slicing failures, the authors opt for "the common box grater ... which is quick and efficient." Next, the bread: "Some like it soft and some like it firm," but even so, a supermarket brand gets the nod. Testing a full range of fats reveals salted butter is best for "superior flavor and its ability to turn bread deeply golden," and so it goes through the choice of skillet (heavy gauge with a flat bottom) and the correct cooking temperature (no more than medium low). An exemplary recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches follows.
If all of this sounds obsessive, it is. More compelling is the fact that this approach helps readers understand the parameters of any cooking task, thus educating their tastes while also providing true technical empowerment. And the dishes really are keepers.