Kitchn Love Letters

I Am Finally Cooking from My Cookbooks (Here Are My Favorites for Quarantine Cooking)

published Apr 12, 2020
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Marzipan Cake
Credit: Grace Elkus

On March 13, when my boyfriend and I both officially began working from home, I was optimistic. I felt grateful for the extra time — I don’t have kids, and I’m able to do my job remotely — and I figured tackling projects that had been on my to-do list, like decorating our tiny home office or cleaning out the front closet, would be a good way to ease some stress. Over the following week, as restaurants closed and a stay-at-home order was put in place, my list got longer: Play more board games, watch Little Fires Everywhere, try my hand at sourdough.

I tackled the one I was most excited about first: Put my cookbooks to use. Despite my longtime intentions to cook from my diverse collection (a perk of being a food editor), busy days often led to unplanned dinners, and it was always far more practical to cook up something on the fly than begin thumbing through my books for inspiration. But I knew each one was packed with gems just waiting for me to discover.

Finally taking the time to read them cover to cover felt like a long overdue gift to myself, and cooking through new recipes proved incredibly rewarding, adding excitement to what had quickly become a monotonous daily routine. Amy Chaplin’s bircher bowls (overnight oats mixed with a variety of seeds and nuts), from her gorgeous book Whole Food Cooking Every Day, broke me out of my breakfast rut. A crunchy Thai-inspired cabbage salad, from The First Mess Cookbook, inspired me to take a real lunch break, even if that just meant relocating from my desk to the kitchen table.

Credit: Grace Elkus

I found myself trying things I would have previously flipped past, most notably the marzipan petit four cake from Smitten Kitchen Every Day (inspired by the fact that I spent far too many hours watching The Great British Bakeoff). It was actually my boyfriend, whose claim to fame in the kitchen is knowing how to use the rice cooker, who suggested we tackle the project. Smitten’s creation consisted of a four-layer almond cake, a coating of chocolate ganache, and colored marzipan flowers. Although my boyfriend lost interest about halfway through, it made me happy to see him excited about baking, and I always love when he accompanies me in the kitchen.

As the weeks have progressed, the purpose of my project has changed. Whereas it began as a way to help me occupy my newfound free time, putting my cookbooks to use has now become a form of therapy — a welcome respite from a long day of working and constantly checking the news. Bringing a cookbook into the kitchen, rather than my phone or laptop, forces me to take a break from screens. My friends and I have even started a virtual cookbook club of sorts, all cooking the same recipe on a chosen night. Laughing via Zoom over a coconut-stewed tofu dish from Hetty McKinnon’s Family proved to be a bright spot in a series of not-so-bright weeks.

Credit: Grace Elkus

With each day that passes, the news hits closer to home, and my mind, filled with stress and uncertainty, certainly doesn’t feel like it has more free time. I’m also grocery shopping with far less frequency. My cooking, in turn, has become much more practical — a root vegetable gratin from Ottolenghi’s Simple helped me use up my wrinkling sweet potatoes and staling sourdough, and I’ve got black bean burgers in my freezer from an America’s Test Kitchen book to save me on days when I don’t want to cook at all. I’ve come to rely on Eat Your Books, a fabulous resource which indexes your cookbooks, to help me locate recipes to use what I’ve got on hand.

I may never get to the other things on my list, and that’s okay. My cookbooks have proved to be a source of nourishment, a mental distraction, and a way of keeping my friends and I connected — and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

This story is part of our Staying Home series, in which Kitchn editors and contributors share the recipes, tools, and habits that are helping them through the pandemic. As we work to flatten the curve, we’re cooking more, shopping less frequently, and looking for the good and the bright as much as we can. In this very disorienting time, here’s what’s keeping us going.