Cooking

Read Between the Lines

We review "Prune," chef Gabrielle Hamilton's long-awaited first cookbook

Considering how much praise Gabrielle Hamilton received for her 2012 memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter (Random House, $16), her first cookbook is remarkably free of prose. In Prune (Random House, $45), named after her influential, boundary-defying restaurant in New York's East Village, Hamilton relies on her recipes to do the talking, and those recipes have a lot to say.

Prune offers the kind of behind-the-curtain experience so many chef cookbooks promise but often fail to deliver. Rather than translate her recipes into standard cookbook language, Hamilton just hands them over, as written from one chef to another, on pages designed to look like a loose-leaf notebook (complete with crinkles, food stains and handwritten notes). This goes a long way in providing an inside view into the mind of a chef, not to mention the grind of day-to-day restaurant life.

It also means cooking from Prune can be a slightly challenging, albeit highly rewarding, experience. The book isn't designed to turn you into a professional chef, but it will teach you things: some of them practical techniques and tips, and some of them about how to think like a chef. Sure, Hamilton will tell you how to make Prune's comfy-yet-cheffy signature dishes, like Triscuits and Sardines or Pasta Kerchiefs with Brown Butter, Ham and Eggs, but she won't hold your hand through the whole process. Like the restaurant itself, this book defies conventions of the genre, eschewing introductions and headnotes and instead plunging you straight into the action.

Frozen Milk Punch with Sesame Biscuits

Prune assumes you're in a professional kitchen or have a working knowledge of the equipment used in one. You'll need to know (or take an educated guess at) what things like sizzle plates and fish tubs are, and, more importantly, how to improvise without them. I'm an avid-but-amateur home cook, and I managed to figure most things out—just like a cook would have to in a busy professional kitchen. It helps that Hamilton's recipes tend to be very specific, detailing exactly what to do and what to look for when cooking. She also includes directives to her chefs that may seem irrelevant to the home cook but are actually pretty useful. While another cookbook author might explain at length why you should label and date everything you store, Hamilton simply writes, in the middle of a recipe, "LABEL AND DATE PROPERLY PLEASE!"

In her recipe for Roasted Mixed Onions with Onion Butter and Toasted Seeds, Hamilton's stated goal is to mimic "the uncanny taste of an everything bagel," and I can't think of a better description. To get the full effect, generously salt the final dish. There's some fussiness to this recipe—five types of onions, four kinds of seeds, and "tea" made from boiled onion scraps—but it's really not complicated. I couldn't find torpedo onions, so I skipped those, and to streamline, I roasted all the onions together. I had to keep a close eye on things but felt it was worth the time and extra pans saved.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is written in a "per order" style and calls for cooking the pasta and bacon ahead of time. If you want to get a jump start on dinner, this setup is helpful, but it's also easy to increase the quantities and cook the recipe straight through. Hamilton calls for one-inch cubes of pancetta, but I preferred smaller pieces, which got crispier and had better distribution within the pasta. Listen when Hamilton warns to not "creamy up" the dish with extra pasta water or cheese. It's the secret to achieving the combination of starchy, salty and fatty elements that define a perfect carbonara.

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Hamilton's Frozen Milk Punch with Sesame Biscuits is the type of restaurant dish you'd likely never think of on your own. It's also a completely unexpected finish to a dinner party and shockingly easy to make. The milk punch slushy is creamy and sweet, and seriously boozy, so it's a dessert and after-dinner drink rolled into one. Do follow Hamilton's warning to thoroughly whisk the mixture and be sure to freeze it for the full 24 hours. The cookies served alongside have a wonderfully toasty, savory quality and a pleasant crumbly texture. I found the seeds stuck to my hands more than the cookies, so to minimize the mess, I recommend shaping all the dough first and then rolling it in the seeds.

Three more new NYC cookbooks we love:

The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries (Rizzoli, $40), by Ben Towill, Phil Winser and Nick Wilber with Julia Turshen
Since opening on the Lower East Side in 2010, the Fat Radish has drawn a stylish and loyal fan base with its ever-changing menu of seasonal, veggie-centric dishes, often with a hint of its owners' British roots. In their debut cookbook, the team offers a years' worth of everyday recipes, including Miso-Glazed Turnips, Deviled Brussels Sprouts and Rhubarb Eton Mess.

Baked Occasions (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $35), by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
Baked, the beloved Red Hook bakery—with a second location in Tribeca—is back with its fourth cookbook, this one devoted to sweet treats for holidays and celebrations both big and small. Recipes include Conversation Heart Cakes for Valentine's Day; Caramel-y Banana, Peanut Butter, and Chocolate Bread Pudding for Elvis's birthday; and 12 Days of Cookies for Christmas.

Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails (Ten Speed Press, $40), by David Kaplan, Nick Fauchald and Alex Day
With more than 500 recipes, step-by-step instructions for bartending techniques and a guide to shopping for and using different spirits, the first book from this popular and trendsetting East Village cocktail bar delivers a complete education in the art of making drinks. Profiles of Death & Co. regulars and essays on cocktail philosophy make it a book to read as well as use.

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