Ultimate cookbook gift guide: There's a book for every cook and we've tested them all out. Click for more photos

Cookbooks for Christmas

Ultimate cookbook gift guide: There's a book for every cook and we've tested them all out. Photo: Eddie Jim

The goodfood.com.au team put some of this year's hottest cookbook releases through their paces.

Scroll down to read all the reviews plus recipe extracts. Or use these links to jump to a specific book.

The Food of Vietnam | Gelato Messina: the recipes | The New Classics (Donna Hay) | Moving Out ... Eating In | Love Italy | Asian After Work | The Blue Ducks | Simply Good Food |Save With Jamie | Everyday | The Gentle Art of Preserving | The Agrarian Kitchen | Historic Heston | New Classics (Philippa Sibley) | Recipes from Australia's Bathers' Pavilion | Maggie's Christmas | Leiths How to Cook |

The Food of Vietnam

Luke Nguyen, Hardie Grant, $69.95.

Who's on the gift tag? The travel tragic.

What's to like? You won't find many of the dishes in this weighty tome at the local Vietnamese diner. This is Nguyen's definitive attempt to capture the real cuisine of Vietnam, eaten in homes and on street corners. Like Christine Manfield's Tasting India, it examines a nation's cuisine region by region. You'll need a well-stocked Asian grocer to make this book earn its keep, but these vibrant, evocative flavours just might help soothe itchy feet.

Score 43/50: Range of recipes 8/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 8/10. Overall user-friendly rating 9/10.

Recipe road test: Crisp silken tofu crusted in lemongrass.

The ingredients for this shared-meal dish were readily available and didn't require a trip to a butcher, Asian grocer or fish shop. It was a cinch to cook, a simple recipe where the hero ingredient shone, thanks to a small but able support cast of complementary flavours.

Gelato Messina: The Recipes

Nick Palumbo, Hardie Grant Books, $39.95

Who is on the gift tag? The home scientist or gelato enthusiast

What's to like? There's just something about Gelato Messina, the purveyor of Italian iced confections that attracts queues rain or shine at its Sydney and Melbourne stores. For the devotee, this book makes interesting reading, in particular the science of gelato and the stories behind classic flavours like “Elvis, the fat years”. The 50 recipes are detailed and tailored for both home and commercial equipment. But be warned, they're not for the faint hearted, not least of which because of the ingredients list. Dextrose and stabiliser, anyone?

Score 38/50: Range of recipes: 7/10. Looks: 8/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 5/10.

Recipe road test: Fior Di Latte Gelato. This is the foundation of all the other gelato flavours in the book so a good place to start. But be prepared to set aside a good part of the day. End-to-end and following the recipe to the letter, this road test took more than 10 hours, with four of those requiring some kind of hands-on work, in particular whisking and temperature checking. The end result had a lovely texture - smooth and creamy – although it was perhaps a little on the sweet side. Unsurprisingly, mastering the art of gelato takes practice! I'm sure the time could be reduced a little with more experience and confidence (although four hours to 'age' and two to three hours in the freezer would still be required) and the recipe tweaked to reduce the sweetness. If you've got the time, can track down the ingredients and love gelato, this book could be the key to a whole new hobby.   

 


The New Classics

Donna Hay, Fourth Estate, $59.99.

Who's on the gift tag? The born-again cook.

What's to like? Mum never taught you how to make a simple quiche, a roast chook, a hearty soup or a (fill the gap)? Don't get bitter, get Donna Hay's latest. Her 23rd cookbook is a beauty and neatly sums up her contribution as one of our most popular ''make it look easy'' cooks. There are how-to pages on home-made pasta, roast beef and paella, to name a few, each followed by progressively more challenging and original takes on the basic, demonstration recipe. You'll be showing mum how to roast a herb and mascarpone butterflied chook in no time.

Score 43/50: Range of recipes 8/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 8/10.

Recipe road test: Herb and mozzarella mushrooms with garlic toasts.

An easy and versatile dish that works for breakfast, lunch or a no-fuss dinner. I substituted portobello for pine mushrooms and had to make do with non-buffalo mozzarella, but Hay's recipes are pretty forgiving like that. Result? Fun and a bit messy to eat; it would have tasted much better with buffalo mozzarella.


Moving Out … Eating In

Elizabeth Hewson, Roc-Hin, $34.95.

Who's on the gift tag? The sharehouse-dwelling student.

What's to like? Billed as ''a cookbook for home leavers'', this book is full of simple ideas. The recipes are easy to follow. Handy icons encourage larger quantities and/or freezing, which would appeal to budget-conscious students. The simple food is far from dull, with plenty of fresh herbs and Middle Eastern spices used. Themed menus are great for summer entertaining. Those leaving home will also appreciate the tips on setting up a pantry (must-have spices, for example) and the sound advice on kitchen equipment.

Score 39/50: Range of recipes 7/10. Looks 7/10. Clarity of recipes 8/10. Value 7/10. User-friendly rating 10/10.

Recipe road test: Coconut Eton mess with sesame snaps.

This tropical take on the British dessert is perfect for summer nights. Whipped up in minutes, the combination of coconut, cream, mango and meringue is light and easy. Smashed sesame snaps are an inventive textural garnish.


Love Italy

Guy Grossi, Lantern, $100.

Who's on the gift tag? Hard-core Italophiles.

What's to like? In an era of iPad recipes, this monumental maverick of a book weighs in at three kilograms - Encyclopaedia Britannica proportions. Still, if you've got somewhere strong enough to prop it up, you may never need another Italian cookbook. It's encyclopaedic in content, too (there's the recipe for castrated rooster you always craved) with gorgeous photographs. The recipes are divided into Italian regions and packaged with stories about the producers and ingredients restaurateur and chef Grossi and photographer Mark Chew find in their travels, the first being blood sausage. Because of this, it can feel like it jumps around: recipes for strawberries, cheese and pasta are scattered through the book. But if you've ever wanted to make your own mortadella, this book's for you.

Score 41/50: Range of recipes 8/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 8/10. Overall user-friendly rating 7/10.

Recipe road test: Risotto venere con code di crostacei.

A favourite dish at Grossi's Florentino restaurant in Melbourne, this is a stunner. The black rice looks dramatic, the bug tails contrast the crunch of polenta with the sweet meat, and parmesan cream adds a sophisticated finishing touch.


Asian After Work

Adam Liaw, Hatchette Australia, $39.99.

Who's on the gift tag? Working parents.

What's to like? Since winning MasterChef in 2010, Adam Liaw hasn't let his wok go cold. The Malaysian-born lawyer-turned-cook has just released his second cookbook, Asian After Work, with a focus on fast, simple dishes using supermarket ingredients. Some require a trip to a specialty store and a deep fryer, but most fit that brief. If the review copy, bristling with bookmarked recipes, is any guide, this book will get a solid kitchen workout.

Score 41/50: Range of recipes 8/10. Looks 8/10. Clarity of recipes 8/10. Value 8/10. Overall user-friendly rating 9/10.

Recipe road test: Caramelised lemongrass pork chops.

Made with pork neck steak steeped in a lemongrass, black-pepper, garlic and fish sauce marinade and served with Vietnam's ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce, this dish passed the gruelling teenage test with flying colours, eliciting ''That's the best Asian meal we've had in ages'' from one. It's easy to follow, inexpensive to make and extremely tasty. Definitely one to add to the recipe roster.

 

The Blue Ducks

Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson, Pan MacMillan, $40.

Who's on the gift tag? The surfer/beach lover.

What's to like? A lifestyle cunningly disguised as a cookbook. LaBrooy and Robertson, of Bronte's Three Blue Ducks, wrap up their approachable, tasty food in a narrative about mateship, surfing and sustainability. It's a good read, with recipes veering from the matey to the dudeish. There are also good chapters on preserves and keeping chooks.

Score 42/50: Range of recipes 7/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 8/10. User-friendly rating: 9/10.

Recipe road test: 1. Kick-arse steak sandwich. Yes, it is. 2. Chicken and charred leek soup. This roast chook leftovers recipe sums up their waste-not philosophy. Grilling the leeks adds a golden, toasty note.

 

Simply Good Food

Neil Perry, Murdoch Books, $49.99.

Who's on the gift tag? Jaded home cooks.

What's to like? Neil Perry's latest adds a little spice for cooks who need something sexy for the repertoire. It starts with cocktails, leaps to pasta dishes, jumps into Asian banquets and then moves to Mexican feasts, all in a volume that's as dark and chic as Perry's restaurants, with the culinary air miles of the Qantas ambassador's peripatetic life. Perry pulls it together into a sophisticated package that delivers fast feasts and slow cooking.

Score 45/50: Range of recipes 9/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 9/10.

Recipe road test: Barbecued spicy chicken. Goes straight on to high-rotation.

 

Save With Jamie

Jamie Oliver, Michael Joseph (an imprint of Penguin Books), $49.99.

Who's on the gift tag? A budget-conscious family cook or student.

What's to like? Put the stopwatch away, Jamie Oliver has moved on from time constraints. His latest mantra is ''shop smart, cook clever, waste less'', and this book delivers, with plenty of savvy money-saving suggestions. Many of the recipes make use of leftovers, so prepare one of the ''mothership'' roasts and take your pick from the recipes that follow. Oliver's laidback and simple approach is readily accessible. Each section is interspersed with thrifty titbits, for example, how to pickle vegetables, what to do with stale bread and DIY infused vinegar.

There are no sweet recipes, apart from one page with a few frozen fruit ideas.

Score: 41/50: Range of recipes 7/10 (no desserts). Looks 7/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 9/10.

Recipe road test: Squash and spinach pasta rotolo.

This rustic pasta dish was packed with flavour, thanks to sage, thyme and plenty of garlic. Mashed roast pumpkin, onion, spinach and feta were rolled up into free-form cannelloni using ready-made pasta sheets. In a novel move, the cylinders were sliced and positioned in a pool of passata. Baked until crisp, the additional surface area allowed for bonus crunchy bits that were popular with the recipe guinea pigs. It involved a few time-consuming processes, but the result was worth it.

 

Everyday 

Karen Martini, Pan MacMillan Australia, $40.

Who is on the gift tag? The family's head chef.

What's to like? Martini's recipes are approachable, readable and edible. Italian classics are a starting point for this user-friendly tome (it has its own chapter on mince) that branches out into a multicultural mix with things like Lebanese lamb and peas, to chow mien. As a bonus, shopping should be kept to a minimum of the fresh ingredients – a well-stocked home pantry will take this book in its stride.

Score 38/50: Range of recipes 7/10. Looks 6/10. Clarity 10/10. Value 7/10. User-friendly rating 8/10.

Recipe road test: 1.Sicilian sardines. A good agrodolce antipasto with red wine vinegar – easy peasy and cross-references Martini's website for instructions on butterflying the sardines.

2. Linguini alle vongole. A good classic recipe with Martini's signature keen hand on the garlic.

3. Sticky honey and cinnamon lamb shanks. It's probably not the season but a least the recent cold weather has been good for something. This jazzes the shanks up with allspice, honey, cinnamon and chilli.

The Gentle Art of Preserving

Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, Simon & Schuster, $39.99.

Who is on the gift tag? The green cook, nostalgic nana or bunker-building survivalist.

What's to like? Ever wondered which came first: kimchi or sauerkraut? According to Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, that's a topic of some debate, but these British restaurateurs and cooking school owners wisely provide recipes for both in the fermenting section of their preserving guide. The book is an informative starter kit, with chapters on a diverse range of techniques, from canning to smoking to dehydrating, plus recipes to put the theories into practice. The skills could also come in handy during the zombie apocalypse.

Score 41/50: Range of recipes: 9 /10. Looks 7/10. Clarity of recipes 8/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 8/10.

Recipe road test: Gravlax: cured salmon with dill, mustard and honey sauce.

This recipe will convert you to curing. The end result is sweet, creamy and delicate. The main stress point for a first timer is knowing when the fish is ready to eat - the only missing link in the recipe.


The Agrarian Kitchen

Rodney Dunn, Lantern (Penguin), $59.99.

Who is on the gift tag? Almost-converted tree changer.

What's to like? This is the story of ex-Tetsuya's chef Rodney Dunn who made a Matthew-Evans-like shift to paradise (Tasmania) where he now grows and rears his own ingredients and runs a cookery school (the book's namesake). Think recipes for sourdough, homemade ricotta and get busy making that smokehouse so you can smoke your own seafood, cheese etc … Not a great one for vegetarians but a beautiful, instructional book for those aspiring to live slow.

Score 40/50: Range of recipes 7/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 8/10. Overall user-friendly rating 7/10.

Recipe road test: 1. Smoked trout and fennel tart. 2. Baked egg custard with honey pears.

I needed quite a bit more milk than the 90ml suggested to get the pastry for the tart smooth and pliable but nevertheless finished up with a functional shortcrust base. The tart has a simple milk and egg filling, with the trout and fennel arranged on top post-bake. As for the custard, my virtuous side didn't approve of the ten eggs required, but I was won-over by the silky, sweet-tasting result. This was the first baked custard I've made that wasn't a runny mess. Happy.


Historic Heston

Heston Blumenthal, Bloomsbury, $199.

Who is on the gift tag? The seriously kitted-out cook.

What's to like? This beautifully produced book is more an art book than a cookbook. Its 432 pages speak of quality, opulence and attention to detail and the overall impression is stunning. Essentially a timeline of Britain's gastronomic history, this somewhat eccentric book features sumptuous food photography, gorgeous illustrations, detailed contextual introductions and incredibly complex and precise recipes. Blumenthal's contemporary interpretations of classic dishes are mind-boggling and beautiful. If you've got gadgets galore and you know your sous vide from your centrifuge, this one's for you.

Score 40/50: Range of recipes 10/10. Looks 10/10. Clarity of recipes 10/10. Value 6/10. User-friendly rating 4/10.

Recipe road test: This book was beyond me ... One for the coffee-table.


New Classics

Philippa Sibley, Hardie Grant Books, $49.95.

Who is on the gift tag? The kitchen show-off

What's to like? Reading Philippa Sibley's latest cookbook is like peering into the mind of an artist. Using classical techniques and flavour combinations, Sibley provides an insight into recipe development that will help ambitious home cooks and professionals find their own style. It's not for cooks who want to bang something on the table in 15 minutes. It's complex dedicate-the-day-to-a-dish cooking, carefully explained and sumptuously photographed by Mark Roper in a cool palate of greys.

Score 39.5/50: Range of recipes 6/10. Looks 9.5/10. Clarity of recipes 8/10. Value 9/10 Overall user-friendly rating 7/10

Recipe road test: Heirloom tomato gazpacho, crab, avocado, fino sherry jelly. Sibley has “Frenchified” this rustic Spanish cold soup, adding crabmeat, avocado and sherry jelly – and a fair bit more technique. My usual version is a ballsy combination of tomato, capsicum, cucumber, garlic and stale bread. This one's a little time-consuming but it's not difficult and parts can be made ahead, so it would be a lovely dish to serve for a refined Christmas dinner.


Seasonal Kitchen: Classic Recipes from Australia's Bathers' Pavilion

Serge Danserau, ABC Books, $59.99.

Who is on the gift tag? The entertainer.

What's to like? First impressions: it's broad. The Sydney-based Dansereau is known primarily for French food but this takes off in all directions, to China, India, the Middle East and Africa. It would be unwieldy but for the book's four seasonal chapters, which reduces the ambitious leaps from pide to DIY saffron pasta to chicken with Israeli cous cous and figs.

Salads are the highlight of each chapter – Dansereau is blessed with the knack of making the salad a meal in itself – and his food certainly ticks the "pretty" box.

Score 37/50: Range of recipes 9/10. Looks 7/10. Clarity 7/10. Value 7/10. User-friendly rating 7/10.

Recipe road test: 1. Artichoke and steamed lettuce with thyme and anchovy butter sauce. He's right, cleaning artichokes is a time-consuming task but I liked the end result with the kicker of a sauce. 2. Tomato and avocado tian with pickled vegetables. A curious dish – decidedly retro and I confess I'm not sure if it was really worth the time.

 

Maggie's Christmas

Maggie Beer, Lantern/Penguin, $49.99.

Who's on the gift tag? Christmas tragics and entertainers.

What's to like? Don't send this book to Aussie expatriates enduring northern-hemisphere winters. It will reduce them to tears with its sentimental celebration of summery festive seasons and photographs of sunny gardens and golden beaches. You can almost hear the cicadas. The recipes are organised by events like ''Christmas Eve Supper'' and ''Boxing Day Leftovers'', with chatty introductions from Maggie. So it's really a summer cookbook as much as a Christmas one. There's not much traditional stuff (one hot turkey, one glazed ham, one pudding) and you'll need a stock of Maggie's verjuice and vino cotto for many recipes, as well as a few hard-to-find ingredients, such as dehydrated cumquats, but there are plenty of warm-weather holiday entertaining ideas. This is one for the beach house.

Score 41/50: Range of recipes 7/10. Looks 9/10. Clarity of recipes 9/10. Value 9/10. Overall user-friendly rating 7/10.

Recipe road test: Ballotine of Barossa chook. This is the recipe I'm most likely to make for Christmas Day. There's a heap of work ahead of time, especially for the butcher who has to bone the bird, rewarded by effortless slice-and-serve on the day, and it's a good-looking dish. I couldn't get the dehydrated cumquats, so I substituted, and I tried it without the digital meat thermometer recommended to make sure it's cooked (it worked, but don't risk it on the big day).


Leiths How to Cook

Claire Macdonald and Jenny Stringer, $59.95.

Who is on the gift tag? The beginner or haphazard home cook

What's to like? This comprehensive tome from the staff at Leith's School of Food and Wine in London oozes practicality, with techniques ranging from the basic – poaching eggs, dicing an onion – to the more advanced including making pastry and filleting a fish; accompanied by step-by-step instructions and photographs. There are plenty of recipes as well, suitable for midweek dinners, entertaining and baking projects. One of the drawbacks of some international cookbooks is a lack of access to certain ingredients, in particular specific fish varieties, and this certainly applies here. But there's still enough to make it a useful reference tool for home cooks.

Score 42/50: Range of recipes 9/10 Looks: 7/10 Clarity of recipes: 9/10 Value: 8/10 Overall user-friendly rating 9/10.

Recipe road test: 1. Za'atar crusted prawns with a bulghar wheat and herb salad. 2. Giant cous cous with spice-roasted butternut, pine nuts and coriander.

These recipes were road tested with midweek dinners in mind. They were easy to make, tasty and satisfying. A special trip to the supermarket was required for some ingredients (sherry vinegar, giant cous cous), but they're in no danger of languishing in the back of the pantry. Best of all, the cous cous salad was great for lunch the next day with the addition of some extra protein.

Reviews by Janne Apelgren, Larissa Dubecki, Roslyn Grundy, Jane Holroyd, Sarah McInerney and Annabel Smith.

More cookbook reviews and extracts here.