Never trust anything that proclaims it is the best.
By its very nature, anything declared the best has been measured by subjective standards and is usually the result of a poll of people whose opinions might be as different from yours as, say, Focus on the Family's from the American Library Association.
In the case of The Best American Recipes 1999, a beautifully produced anthology of recipes culled from books, magazines, newspapers and the Internet by two widely experienced food writers and editors, that piece of advice would be well taken.
The concept is winning. What foodie hasn't wished someone would offer a clipping service that would guarantee the best recipes from thousands of sources, all collected in one place?
The editors of this book waded through thousands of recipes published in 1998, settled on 500 to test in their kitchens, then picked their favorite 100 or so for the collection. And therein lies one of the problems: One-hundred recipes just isn't enough to accurately represent all that is out there.
McCullough and Hamlin identify food trends from the past year (the return of cheese, the rise of comfort foods, Indian influence, better tasting and more varied vegetarian dishes) and design their offerings around those trends. The criteria for inclusion? The authors define a great recipe as "one that you immediately know you want to make again and share with other people. It's one that your friends beg for, the one that earns a permanent place in your culinary repertoire."
I tried three recipes from the book, and found that one hit the mark, one would comfortably rest in the dog-eared file of recipes I may or may not try again, and one belonged in the garbage disposal.
Pam's Mom's Brisket, a recipe the editors heralded as "an example that defines greatness," simply didn't taste good. A selection from The Complete Meat Cookbook, the method and concept are fairly traditional: Take a large beef brisket or chuck roast and bake it, covered, in a 350-degree oven in a wet, tomato-based sauce for several hours.
In this case, the sauce consists of a bottle of chili sauce (basically, spiced-up ketchup), chopped onions and celery, a bottle of lager beer and a package of Lipton's dried onion soup mix. The result, though it makes the house smell great while it's cooking, is acrid and bitter. I suppose it could be doctored with the addition of something sweet, but as is, it's nowhere near as tasty as promised.
Far more appealing is a recipe for breakfast cobbler with sausage, apples, onions and cheddar from a television cooking show. A hearty brunch dish, this one is also terrific left over to nibble through the course of a cold winter's Saturday. Pork sausage, Golden Delicious apples and sweet onions sauted together comprise the filling which is then covered with a wet batter and baked. The batter is as sinfully fatty and rich as the filling: Sour cream, egg, buttermilk and cheddar cheese combine to give it tang and heft and all the heaviness is set off by the sweet apple chunks.
The best recipe I tried is a real artery clogger (bake it once a year; it won't kill you), and is the picture of simplicity -- Cajeta Pound Cake. The authors suggest that cooks might want to make their own cajeta -- a thick, creamy caramel sauce made with goat's milk -- but I can't imagine why anyone who lives in the Southwest and can pick up a jar in the Mexican specialty foods section of any supermarket would bother. The cake is dense, moist and golden brown and is wonderful with fresh fruit. The recipe was first published in A Cowboy in the Kitchen (Ten Speed Press), a collection I plan to track down.
Cajeta Pound Cake
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups sugar
8 large eggs
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups cajeta
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and set a rack on the lower-middle level. Grease a 10-inch Bundt pan or tube pan. Dust lightly with flour, shake out the excess and set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until the mixture is light in color and texture, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl down with a spatula if necessary. Beat the mixture until it is light in color, about 3 minutes.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and slowly add to the creamed mixture, beating on low speed. Increase the speed and beat for 2 minutes. On the lowest speed, beat in the cajeta.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake the cake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the middle comes out clean. (Begin to test after one hour of baking.)
Remove the cake from the oven, and let it cool in the pan set on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold the cake onto the rack, and let it cool completely.
Well-wrapped, the cake will keep at room temperature for up to 3 days and, in the refrigerator, for several days longer.
(The Best American Recipes 1999, Houghton Mifflin Co.)