I love cookbooks. Loooovvvvveeee cookbooks. Collecting cookbooks is definitely one of my things. And while I have zero credibility outside of that fact to be ranking cookbooks in the first place, I thought I’d share with you my current list for 2020. And bonus—if anyone you know is looking for gift ideas this holiday season, any of these will be a homerun.
For a cookbook to land on my favorites list, it has to hit a few different criteria. (Sidebar: does anyone remember the Parks & Rec episode where Tom has his huge checklist for judging whether or not a song is “a banger”? This is my cookbook banger checklist). First, it has to include recipes that are that strike the balance easy(ish) to make, but come across as showstoppers. Second, you can pick any recipe at random and know with confidence that it’s going to be delicious. Third, the books usually include great stories and narrative throughout on how the recipes came to be and why they are important. And finally, it has to be a beautiful book (that’s right, I said it—I like beautiful food photography). After all, the book should make you WANT to make all the recipes in it at first glance.
So without further adieu, here’s the list of my top 10 cookbooks of 2020:
If we’re being honest, Ina could write a cookbook entirely about ketchup and it would end up on my list. Why? Because no matter what the recipe, she nails it. Every. Single. Time. I have never made an Ina recipe that I didn’t absolutely love, and let me tell you, during quarantine there was a LOT of Ina happening in our household. Her cookbook dedicated to a modern spin on comfort food could not have been more perfectly timed, and I can’t wait to finish trying every one of her new recipes.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Boston Cream Pie
I heard Ina mention in more than one interview over the past several years that Boston Cream Pie was this one recipe that she had wanted to include in her cookbooks, but she hadn’t made a version she was happy with yet. So when I saw that it finally made it into her latest book, I knew I had to try it! And of course, like everything else Ina touches, I believe this recipe is gold. It’s now officially my favorite recipe for boston cream pie!
Runner Up: Tie between Cacio e Pepe Cheese Puffs and Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara
Okay, I promise this isn’t going to be a list of a 20-way tie for all the recipes in each of these cookbooks, but if I was allotting a tie to anyone, it would be Ina, because again, her recipes never disappoint. Cacio e Pepe is my favorite pasta dish of all time, and I think I actually made an inaudible squeal when I saw the recipe for these puffs. Much like cacio e pepe pasta, these were SO easy to make and I already had everything I needed in my kitchen without having to make a trip to the store. And the brussels sprouts pizza was just so easy to whip up, but seemed like I had gotten it from a gourmet pizza shop, and of course it tasted amazing.
Vivan Howard is just so great. And I feel I can say that because of the 3.5 minutes I spent talking to her at her drive-thru book signing for this book (#covidtimes). She just seems so genuine and so nice, I could listen to her talk about food forever. So while I knew her cookbook would be good, I had no idea how unique it would actually be! First of all, I’ve never had a cookbook like this; the book is separated into sections that each start with one key ingredient, then all the following recipes incorporate that ingredient.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Banana Bread Bundt Cake
Banana bread, made in bundt cake form with a slight kick and small hit of orange. It is absolutely unbelievable. This recipe is in the V’s Nuts chapter (an ingredient in the cake)—a recipe that is rank-worthy on all its own. But mix those into a banana bread bundt cake??? You’ve got gold, my friend. Pure gold.
Runner Up: Worth the Hype Pimento Cheese
I know, I know—another pimento cheese recipe? But yes, this one is truly worth the hype.
I love Bake From Scratch so much because you know any recipe you pick will ALWAYS be pretty much the best of that cake/pie/bread/pastry that you’ve ever had. I have a few of their bundt cake recipes in the VIP section of my recipe box, so when they came out with a cookbook dedicated entirely to bundts, I knew it was going to be spectacular!
Favorite Recipe (so far): Tres Leches Pound Cake
Okay so this one might be cheating a little for me, because this cake had already solidified a card in the “best cakes” section of my recipe box a couple years back. This recipe was originally from a Bake From Scratch holiday issue several years ago and all I can say is WOW is it amazing. A+-mazing. It is one of my arsenal recipes that I know will always be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, pared with “omg that’s the best pound cake I’ve ever had” comments. So yes, auto-favorite or not, still my favorite recipe from this book.
Runner Up: In-Flight Bundt Cake
One time my spin instructor decreed mid-class that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, to which I responded “this guy has clearly never tasted cookie butter.” Right, so that’s this cake. In bundt-form. With a cream cheese swirl. And it’s fantastic.
Sometimes you just want a cookbook with straight-up classics. The go-to’s that you know everyone will love because all the recipes are steeped in tradition. This cookbook feels like a much-needed revival of southern baking recipes that will either make you feel nostalgic if you’re from the south, or give you some insight into the magic that is southern baking if you’ve never experienced it before.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Grandma Mac’s Apple Cake
Quick backstory—there is this epic apple cake recipe that came from one of my good friend’s husband’s grandmother (say that five times fast!), and it has since made an appearance at every single large family gathering that I’ve attended for the past decade+. So when I saw this recipe in the book and realized how similar it was, I knew it was the first one I had to bake. There were a few differences in Kelly’s version, which included adding coconut and orange zest—and what a difference they made! I didn’t think the “original” apple cake recipe could be improved upon, but this version was just SO FREAKING GOOD. The addition of those ingredients was subtle, but I think made the cake a truly perfect old fashioned apple cake.
Runner Up: New Orleans-Style Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding is definitely my weakness. If you put it in front of me while it’s warm, topped with vanilla ice cream? Forget it. I’m a goner. Like most bread puddings, this is one very indulgent recipe, but I love that Kelly includes a “lite” version at the end of the recipe for those days when you’re trying to convince yourself that anything can fall under the category of diet-approved.
I love cookbooks, but I realllllyyy love cookbooks that are also great books, meaning they are filled with great stories and narrative. You assume you’ll learn how to cook or bake a recipe from a cookbook, but when you also learn history associated with those recipes and the regions from which they originated, it’s truly something special. I am also in-love with Melissa’s writing style—she writes recipes as if she’s in the kitchen talking to you, which is honestly the best way to learn to cook any recipe, hand’s down.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Crisp-Skinned Panfried Redfish
Redfish is my absolute favorite fish. I had never had it before I moved here and my (now) husband (who is an avid fisherman) caught one while we were at the beach and cooked it up for me. This might have been the first time that I had ever had a fish prepared that was simply lightly panfried, and not doused in a sauce or buried under another flavor that didn’t make it the star. Melissa’s cookbook is the only one I have come across where the very first recipe in her Fish chapter is not only about the beauty of pan-frying fish, but a redfish no less! She gives some simple, small tips that really make pan-frying perfection.
Runner Up: Bread Custard
Are you sensing a pattern here? I love bread pudding. And this is another fantastic, less-sweet variation. I could try to describe it, but Melissa’s recipe note does that perfectly: “not like a wet bread pudding, but rather a denser flan. It is not too sweet, perfect to serve with fruit or ice cream”.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Chestnut Praline Bread Pudding
I know what you’re thinking, another bread pudding recipe??? Well, yes. But this one has chestnut pralines incorporated! And to me, this recipe really is the ultimate Christmas version of bread pudding. Plus it’s from the Southern Living Test Kitchen so you know it’s going to be good.
Runner Up: Roasted Acorn Squash with Browned Butter
This was one of those recipes that just appeared in front of me as I was flipping through the book, on the same day that I had received acorn squash in my weekly local veggie delivery that I wasn’t sure what to do with. This dish is so good that it’s going to be a staple on my holiday table for many years to come!
I think this book came out on Day #2 of quarantine—talk about epic timing! Seriously, I LIVED in this cookbook for the month of April. I love it because it’s literally all things baking, so it gave me an opportunity to dabble into areas that I don’t normally spend time (looking at you, bread and pastry). Each year, Bake From Scratch releases a full volume of all the recipes that made it into the pages of their magazines from the previous year. I love these volumes so much because while I always get every issue of Bake From Scratch, I don’t always get a chance to make all the recipes I want to out of them, but then this volume appears and I get to rediscover them all over again!
Favorite Recipe (so far): Cheddar-Sausage Pull-Apart Bread
I’d be embarrassed to tell you how quickly my husband and I ate this entire thing, but that would imply I regret it and the only thing I regret is not making this recipe sooner. You really can’t go wrong when you combine pull-apart bread, sausage and good cheddar cheese. It was the most perfect (for any time of day), easy to make, savory bread I’ve ever had!
Runner Up: German Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
German chocolate cake might be my favorite cake of all time. But being made of chocolate, coconut and pecan, I don’t see how it wouldn’t also be everyone else’s favorite cake. So picture that, but in a two-bite-sized cookie sandwich. Yup. They are just as amazing as you think they would be. And bonus, you don’t need a mixer to make these, so you can whip them up in no time!
I never don’t have a massive jar of Duke’s in my fridge. I love it so much, that I even made a Duke’s mayonnaise jar cake this year. But before you keep scrolling because you think a mayonnaise cookbook couldn’t possibly be good, you should do yourself a favor and pickup a copy. The recipes are not chachki in any way, but instead a surprising versatile set of dishes that you never knew could be made better by Duke’s (tarragon crab cakes anyone?) until you read this book.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake
To be fair, none of the other recipes would have had a chance next to this one (for me), but this recipe reallyyyyy is amazing. And I don’t give out cake credit lightly! First of all, if you’ve never had a chocolate mayo cake, stop what you’re doing immediately and go make this recipe. But also, for someone like me who makes almost entirely sculpted cakes, it is really difficult to find a cake that is a combo of so perfectly moist, but also works well to be carved (and doesn’t “crumble” under pressure—ha!). This cake knocked it out of the park on both counts—it’s fantastic!
Recipe Runner Up: Green Goddess Dressing
If I’m putting a salad dressing recipe on this list, then you know it must be good. I couldn’t believe how easy this was to make, but then also how amazing it was on everything! Salads, chicken—the list is endless. I make a batch of this every couple of weeks and then have it to use in recipes whenever I need it. It’s a new staple!
If I could describe this book in one word, it would be “nostalgic”. This was every memory I have of the chicken salad I would have at birthday parties, or the cream cheese cookies that my friend’s mom would make. It’s like the OG of southern party food.
Favorite Recipe (so far): Charleston Grilled Chicken
Did this recipe reel me in because it had Charleston in the name? Yes. But it did not disappoint. This is such an easy marinade and it really was a game-changer. I also love the story she includes for how the recipe came to be gifted to her family.
Runner Up: Saltine Pecan Toffee
This is the EXACT recipe that my good friend and her mom used to make (and I would reap the benefits of getting to eat) every year around the holidays. As soon as I saw this in the book, I had to make it immediately and it took me right back to those Christmas memories. So good!
I hadn’t come across Erin McDowell until I saw her at a virtual baking conference a week ago. You can’t not instantly love her—she is so funny, so relatable, and above all—she’s so incredibly talented at making pies. I bought her book immediately and have just been blown away with how much I’ve learned from it. Pie has always been one of those things that I love to eat, but don’t love to make because something always goes awry (big hit of crust fails). But the subhead of her book says it all, “Everything you need to know to bake perfect pies”. I’ve only had a chance to try a few recipes so far, but the way she writes, you end up acing pie every single time!
Favorite Recipe (so far): Pistachio Cream Pie
Homemade pistachio cream? Check. Pistachio nut crust? check. Eat in one sitting? Check.
Runner Up: Croque Monsieur Pielets
This is definitely one of those ‘easy to make, and everyone thinks you’re a french pastry wizard when you serve it’ recipes. Also, with a name like “pielet” you can’t help but love it.
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Book Photos: Amazon