A great cookbook is far more than a collection of recipes and pictures. It's a guide and a passport, an adventure for the senses and a promise–these recipes work, they're delicious, you have to try them–from author to reader. Unlike novels or biographies, they urge us to get up, to stop reading, to start doing. A great cookbook is the one thing you'd love to read from cover to cover but never can. The Globe's Chris Nuttall-Smith devoured, and cooked from, this year's most notable titles, sorting the ones most likely to become dog-eared and food-splattered from the ones most likely to languish on the shelf. Here are his top cookbooks of 2012.
For domestic gods and goddesses:
Canal House Cooks Every Day, by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
Can you imagine a little Italian-influenced bistro where they make chicken soup with fresh spinach and milky meatballs, tomatoes smothered in tonnato sauce, and pumpkin chiffon pie? Hirsheimer and Hamilton's book is built around a place of their own making, a fantasy built on simple, spectacular recipes and served on antique plates. It's hard to think of a better Italian(ish) book this year.
The Preservation Kitchen, by Paul Virant
Preserving's easy. The Preservation Kitchen's genius is in its definitely-not-the-Joy-of-Cooking flavours: sour-sweet currant mostarda, beer jam, lemon-pickled salad turnips with Champagne vinegar, brandy-packed peaches and figs.
La Tartine Gourmande, by Béatrice Peltre
French blogger Peltre's cooking is elegant, hyper-fresh and knockout pretty. Savouries – honeydew, lime and cucumber soup, for instance – are fetching enough, but the gluten-free pastries will be pure gold to the rumbly tum-tum set. Peltre makes tart shells and sweet treats from millet, quinoa, amaranth flour –whatever's flavourful. They're the only gluten-free foods I've truly enjoyed.
For global palates:
Burma, by Naomi Duguid
Burma has long been a black hole to food lovers. Toronto-based Duguid's book is a work of genuine discovery, a smart, loving look into one of the world's last great but little-known cuisines. You'll wonder why Burmese food – its sour, savoury, soothing soups, its complexly flavoured rice meals, its exquisite salads – took so long to catch on.
Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Ottolenghi is a Jew from West Jerusalem, Tamimi a Muslim from the city's east. Their book is a love letter to their cursed and magical city–with some of the most breathtakingly delicious recipes of the year. You'll be hard-pressed to find more perfect salads, or soups–pistachio with saffron and orange juice, perhaps?–or hugely flavoured comfort foods like burned eggplant dip or shakshuka. Hands down, my favorite cookbook of the year.
The Hakka Cookbook, by Linda Lau Anusasananan
China's Hakka people have been on the move for 1,700 years, melding Chinese flavours with local ones with each migration. Calcutta Hakkas use masala spice; in Toronto, Jamaican-Canadian Hakkas make soup noodles with Scotch Bonnet peppers. Anusasananan captures all of it, including the most authoritative and hunger-inducing reportage about Toronto's Hakka community that I've read.
Modern Flavours of Arabia, by Suzanne Husseini
Husseini splits her time between Ottawa and Dubai, where her elegant takes on Arab flavours have made her a food television superstar. The lentil soup with chard and lemon is fantastic; there are gorgeous salads (the one with purslane, mint, pomegranate and seared halloumi is a standout), superb fish and lamb and even a baklava-crusted cheesecake.
Best books for sweet teeth:
Bouchon Bakery, by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel
Keller and Rouxel are two of the most revered – and finickity – chefs in the business. From macarons and puddings to one of the best bread chapters in print, their 400-page work is a masterpiece; with patience and practice (also helpful: clinical-grade anal-retentiveness), anybody can bake like a top pastry chef.
Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker and Dabney Gough
The crew behind San Francisco's Bi-Rite Creamery makes frozen treats with great ingredients and a strict aversion to shortcuts. Their book delivers step-by-step, pro-level advice and out-of-the-ordinary flavours made (fairly) easy. Brown butter, maybe? How about mandarin orange with olive oil? You can't buy ice cream this good.
Vintage Cakes, by Julie Richardson
Was the baking better in bygone days? This slim, beautifully researched book makes the case for yes. There are hasty cakes, bourbon cakes, cakes that call for "goobers" and "cocoanuts," and even a Harvey Wallbanger Cake. You may never eat a soulless $6 cupcake again.
The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook, by Cheryl and Griffith Day
The Days run a little bakery in Savannah, Ga.; their recipes are easy but irresistible: pastel-coloured buttermints, chocolate bread, lemon loaf, benne, sorghum and cornmeal-kicked confections. Paula Deen wrote the introduction; it's as sweet as a 50-pound tub of buttercream.
For home chefs:
Dirt Candy, by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey
Cohen, a Toronto native, runs a Manhattan restaurant called Dirt Candy. Her cooking is exciting, ground-breaking, the toast of New York's gastro-weenies. It's also vegetarian. She makes gnocchi out of parsnips, Nanaimo bars from sweet peas and mint, daikon "ravioli" filled with pistachios, napped with lemon and corn. This isn't your hygiene-challenged great-aunt's Moosewood, mind: the recipes take time and finesse in many cases.
The Mile End Cookbook, by Noah and Rae Bernamoff
Montreal deli is big in New York of late; Montrealer Noah Bernamoff, who runs Brooklyn's Mile End Deli with Rae, his New Yorker wife, is a big part of the why. Their book is a brilliant collection of classic deli dishes: smoked mackerel and gefilte fish, honey cake, hot tongue on pumpernickel, or for the heroes out there, a 15-pound Montreal-style smoked brisket for you and 30 of your bests.
A Girl and Her Pig, by April Bloomfield
Bloomfield is what you'd get if you crossed Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers of London's groundbreaking River Café (she trained there) with nose-to-tail king Fergus Henderson. Picture green pea soup with smoked ham hock, technicolour radish salad, sliced beef tongue sammies doused with tarragon sauce: The flavours are fresh, punchy and all-out gorgeous.
Toqué, by Normand Laprise
The influential Montreal chef's first cookbook is a meditation on creativity, possibility and inspiration as much as anything. The writing is sharp, the photos stunning, the complex, only-in-Quebec recipes absorbing. This is a book to get happily lost in, and a measure of one of Canada's greatest chefs.
Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard
Why yes, that recipe is for pancakes fried in duck fat. And the pea soup, like so many of Picard's no-guts-no-glory dishes, is made with hunks of foie. Neither maple syrup nor the institution of the sugar shack have ever had a bigger booster, better cooking, or even close to so brilliant a cookbook.
For kitchen newbies:
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman
Perelman's motto: There are no bad cooks, just bad recipes. Her recipes are easy and delicious (deep-roasted cipollini onions and cherry tomatoes over white beans; brown butter mashed potatoes) without talking down to readers. If I had to pick just one book for a sophisticated new cook, it'd be this.
The Farm, by Ian Knauer
Knauer's recipes are built around the seasons at his family's Pennsylvanian farm. They're rustic, unexpected and light on their feet: dandelion greens with pine nuts and golden raisins; rabbit with mustard and apple cider; herb-roasted lamb shanks; a gloriously easy peach cobbler.
Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, by Ina Garten
Garten is legendary for her no-fail recipes, but just as important, her books are jammed with stuff that people want to make. How about crispy-creamy boiled-then-broiled English potatoes, for instance? Or corn and lobster fritters followed by grilled flank steak, and couscous with peas and mint? There's sticky toffee pudding with bourbon glaze, too. You've been warned.