The Bite

If McCoys Restaurant stood alongside Route 66, its French toast would no doubt have been included in The Route 66 Cookbook: Comfort Food From the Mother Road Deluxe 75th Anniversary Edition, by Marian Clark (Council Oak, $24.95). This ode to the legendary 2,400-mile highway is packed with photos, recipes (mac and cheese! mashed potatoes in heart-stopping gravy!) and interviews with waitresses and cooks who worked at such estimable spots as the Pig Hip, the U Drop Inn and the Bungalow Inn. The book should make a dandy holiday gift for that friend who pulls into every truck stop -- with hunger in his gut and hope in his heart -- thinking that he might find not just a perfect piece of pie, but also words of wisdom flowing along with the free coffee refills.

This isn't the only new cookbook worthy of your Secret Santa pile, however. Perusing the booty at area bookstores, it seems as though more cookbooks were published this year than in years past -- but then again, it seems that way every year. If you've mentioned the word "food" on the air or in a magazine, well, you're pretty much qualified to put out a cookbook, and if you already put out a cookbook more than five years ago, it's probably time for the New and Improved Edition to come out so that you can squeeze some more mileage out of it without actually doing any work.

That's what makes Martha Stewart Living (Clarkson Potter, $35) such a Good Thing. This book takes up where the 1995 Martha Stewart Cookbook left off, and not only does it include all of the recipes from that delicious tome, but it adds a few hundred more. The result is a jam-packed package of goodies. Although I don't like the fact that all the photos are in the front, so that you have to keep flipping back and forth to see what you're doing wrong -- one thing that makes a cookbook work is lots of inspirational pictures that show how a soufflé doesn't have to look like a deflated football -- if you've been trying to find a recipe for salmon roasted on chardonnay twigs, Martha is there for you.

Other high-profile Ministers of Food include the High Priestess and Priest themselves. Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (Alfred A. Knopf, $40) is, of course, by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, featured in an adorable photo on the cover that makes them look like the seniors version of Fabio and some blond babe on a Harlequin romance. Things really heat up inside, though, where the two are given license to disagree on ingredients and methods in the most agreeable way. A recipe is presented in the center of each page, with a point/counterpoint column from the Masters flanking it, offering bits of wisdom such as "Think of pâté as meatloaf" (Julia) and "Don't be afraid of spices" (Jacques). It's a great read, and Child and Pepin's combined knowledge makes it a best bet for serious foodies.

Not to be taken quite so seriously is pinup boy Jamie Oliver, whose runaway Food Network hit The Naked Chef has prompted him to put out a cookbook by the same name (Hyperion, $34.95). A very expensive book, mind you, considering the small number of recipes and the fact that much of the not-so-fat volume is taken up by photos of Oliver: Here's the cutie Brit looking all scruffy walking through a market; here's the cutie Brit looking all tousled and just out of bed to make a little something in his home kitchen. I discovered the hard way that the bread recipes don't work at high altitude -- although the beer bread had potential -- and guinea fowl and rabbit are a little tougher to find in these parts than they are in England. Recommended as eye candy for your twenty-something niece.

Older and wiser than Oliver, Charlie Trotter decided not to go home with Julia and Jacques -- is anyone cooking at their namesake restaurants these days? -- but instead went to his own kitchen to cook up the aptly named Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home (Ten Speed Press, $32.50). The recipes are rather elaborate; overall, the book's worthwhile, if only for the delicious idea that there's actually a man out there making cilantro-crusted tuna with bok choy and lemon-sesame vinaigrette for his loved ones. This one's for Highlands Ranch stay-at-homes who shop exclusively at Whole Foods and leave their kids in the after-school daycare so that they can get the works at the day spa.

The best celebrity-chef book I've found recently is Blue Ginger (Clarkson Potter, $32.50), by another Food Network guy, Ming Tsai, who hosts East Meets West With Ming Tsai. Like that show, the cookbook features an interesting assortment of recipes that update Asian classics. Most of the recipes here are simple and straightforward and include step-by-step instructions as well as photos. I took the crab-and-fennel wontons with mango-lime purée and the innovative rock-shrimp lollipops to a party recently, and they were gone in an instant -- and those easy-to-make items weren't even from the "Over the Top" section that Tsai recommends for wowing guests. Another good Asian gift choice is Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Artisan, $40), written by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Almost more of a coffee-table looker than a guide intended strictly for cooking, this beautiful book is filled with photos of Southeast Asian countries that are accompanied by recipes from those areas. I haven't tried any of them yet, because I'm hoping I'll find this book under my tree.

For another ethnic option, Mexican master Rick Bayless has a new book out called Mexico One Plate at a Time (Scribner, $35), a companion to his PBS show of the same name. I like the way he put a color band behind the ingredients list to make them stand out better when you're trying to refer back to the recipe while holding cracked, drooling eggs in your hands; he also includes wonderfully informative sections on the major ingredients that add to your understanding of why a certain dish works. Claudia Roden is another author who's devoted her career to one type of cuisine; she's just put out an updated version of her seminal 1972 work, Book of Middle Eastern Food. Although the title -- The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Alfred A. Knopf, $35) -- isn't very creative, the book's a fairly thorough assemblage of traditional and contemporary recipes from every country around the Mediterranean. I've had the old book for about a decade and still use it several times a month.

If you're shopping for someone who's just getting into cooking, here are two good choices: In the Kitchen With Heloise (Perigree, $22.95), which includes tidying tips, pantry-stocking info and recipes for the basics (meatloaf, fried chicken) from the Queen of Clean; and for the chef wannabe, Le Cordon Bleu Kitchen Essentials (John Wiley & Sons, $35), which has great photos and lots of solid cooking advice from the esteemed Parisian-based cooking school.

And here's my holiday gift to you: the ultimate dessert from one of my favorite cookbooks of the year. Gwen Walters's The Cool Mountain Cookbook (Pen & Fork, $19.95) features recipes from ski lodges across the country, including several from Colorado (the roast Colorado rack of lamb from Aspen's Little Nell will make it seem soooo easy). But the book's best recipe is from Sundance (yes, Bobby Redford's place): the incredible Warm Chocolate Cake, a rich, chocolatey individual dessert that's part soufflé and part flourless cake. The approach is nearly no-fail. Don't skimp on the chocolate -- I've used Valhrona when I could find it and Ghirardelli when I couldn't, both with excellent results. And, trust me, you don't need the fudge sauce. Happy holidays.Warm Chocolate Cake

(reprinted with permission)

8 4-ounce ramekins

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup flour

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter

4-1/2 ounces good-quality chocolate, chopped

4 egg yolks

4 egg whites

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon flour

Preheat oven to 325. Butter and flour the ramekins with the 1 tablespoon of butter and 1/4 cup of flour. Set aside. Melt the 3/4 cup butter and chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk the yolks and add a small amount of the warm butter/chocolate mixture to the yolks, then add the warmed eggs to the butter/chocolate mixture and stir well. Beat the egg whites to the soft-peak stage, then sprinkle with the two tablespoons of sugar and continue beating until the whites are stiff. Fold the whipped whites into the chocolate mixture. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour and gently stir. Fill the ramekins 3/4 full. Bake in a preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until just set. Remove from oven and let stand for 8 minutes before unmolding onto a plate. Serve by itself, or with a scoop of ice cream and/or fudge sauce.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner