For the last several years, I have served as a judge for an annual regional cookbook contest. Spring feels like Christmas each year as packages of New England cookbooks regularly arrive at my door. Among this year’s stack was Massachusetts resident Janet Reich Elsbach’s “Extra Helping: Recipes for Caring, Connecting & Building Community One Dish at a Time.”

Cover courtesy of Shambhala Publications

I am ashamed to admit that I had low expectations. In a world of seductive, high-gloss cookbooks, it was a modest paperback with no photographs and many words (it does have old-fashioned, wood-block-style illustrations by Anna Brones). I was in the midst of a difficult spring, so you’d think the sentiments of caring, connecting and community would have resonated. Instead, I was tired and cranky, and some unattractive part of me rolled my eyes, metaphorically, at what struck me as Elsbach’s do-gooder posture.

But one chilly spring night before the judging deadline, feeling guilty that I had barely given “Extra Helping” a glance or a chance, I sat down in a comfy armchair, book in hand and cat in lap. When I looked up again, two hours had sped by, and I’d read it cover to cover. Before writing this review some six months later, I read the book again, and with equal pleasure.

In this golden age of cookbook publishing, it’s rare to find one that covers new ground. Or, if any new ground is covered, the subjects can feel gimmicky and calculated; think of the slew of recent cookbooks on sheet-pan cooking, instant pots or toast. Some of the appeal of “Extra Helping,” Elsbach’s first cookbook, is its quirky, less familiar premise. The chapter titles spell out the subject, among them “Food for Expanding Families,” “Food for the Rearranged and Relocated,” “Food for Illness and Recovery,” “Food for Solace.” (As someone helping care for elderly parents, I’d have appreciated a chapter on “Food for the Long in Tooth.”)

But what truly delighted me about “Extra Helping” was the prose. Elsbach isn’t just a cookbook writer, it turns out. She is a writer, period. I’ll get out of the way and let her demonstrate. This section comes from a chapter on feeding new parents. She’s writing about becoming a mother for a second time:

“As we approached the launch date of the second baby … a newish friend asked me an odd question: ‘Who’s doing your food?’ From time to time, when chatting with another person in one’s native tongue, one can encounter a sentence made up of words that are entirely recognizable while its meaning remains elusive.

“This was just such a time. When she perceived the mental echo on my part that her question had set off, she rephrased it. ‘Your meals, I mean. Who is in charge of your meals?’ These, too, were all words I knew well, but I still couldn’t make out the gist of the question. Though by this time, my little family had left the solitary moon of Pluto on which first-time parents sometimes find themselves, and had a nice little network of other young families around us, we had yet to see in action one of the best reasons I know to make friends.

“Eventually, using a combination of patience and semaphore and monosyllables comprehensible even to my gestational brain, this friend introduced me to the concept of the meal train. ‘Baby: The Sequel’ opened the door to a whole new world. Kind Feeding Friend set up a schedule among our nursery school parent group, with the result that every few days, hot food came to our door right at the hour when how much we needed it was colliding with our utter inability to provide it for ourselves. It was heaven.”

Which brings me to another thing I like about “Extra Helping.” At the risk of sounding hokey, it made me want to be a better neighbor, better sister, better friend – a better person. The sort of person who, no matter how busy she is herself, makes the time to bring considered and tempting food to the people in her life in profound need of nurturance and nourishment. This is a cookbook with a very kind heart.

The recipes in “Extra Helping” are personal. I think I’d be unlikely to make buckwheat gougeres or lettuce cups for someone in need. I don’t stock rice flour, coconut milk powder or agar flakes in my pantry. Other recipes intrigued me, though, including garlic lemonade (“It sounds like a practical joke but in fact garlic lemonade is an enchanted potion”), Ginger Custard (a “gentle custard, with a silky texture that is all comfort and packs a warming, gingery kick”) and Soothing Green Bisque, which combines pureed corn, spinach, coconut milk, orange zest and saffron.

At the start of the book, Elsbach includes notes about cooking for people with intolerances (to gluten, dairy, etc.) and on packaging food for transport. These are helpful, but “Extra Helping” isn’t primarily a practical how-to guide. More than once, I was puzzled at how a recipe fit her subject matter. Take Nana’s Tiny Pancakes (the cottage cheese pancakes of my own childhood), which appear in a chapter on mourning. The cook is instructed to make up the batter, heat the griddle and fry the pancakes. So are you meant to bring all the ingredients and commandeer the kitchen of the grieving family? Or make up the pancakes in your own home and transport them already cooked? Neither option sounds suitable.

But when I read beautiful writing like Elsbach’s, free of tiresome food cliches, chock-full of intelligence and reflection, ask me if I care.

GINGER CUSTARD

This recipe, listed under a section on Recovery, is two minutes’ work, if that, and you probably have the three ingredients in your pantry. When I made it, some of the custard set very loosely, some of it seemed to curdle more than set. Still, it was as nondemanding and gentle as a dish can be. Writer Janet Reich Elsbach squeezes the ginger juice with her hands; I used a cheesecloth.

Serves 2

One 1-inch knob fresh ginger root

1 cup pasteurized whole milk (raw milk will not set)

2 teaspoons sugar or honey

1. Have two small (4- to 6-ounce capacity) bowls at the ready and two small plates or saucers to cover them.

2. Using a microplane grater, grate the ginger and squeeze out the juice. Peeling the ginger makes the flavor a little milder. You need 1 teaspoon total. Divide the ginger juice between two bowls. Do not do this ahead; do this immediately before you heat the milk.

3. Combine the milk and sugar in a small pan and heat carefully over low heat, stirring to dissolve the sweetener, to 150 degrees. If you do not have a thermometer, watch for a tiny bubble at the edge of the pan to indicate you should turn off the heat – 150 degrees is warm to the finger, edging toward uncomfortable if you keep it in there for about 20 seconds.

4. Pour the warmed milk into the ginger juice in each cup from a height of a few inches so that the pouring creates a thorough mixing of the two liquids. Do not stir. Cover with the saucers and leave to set at room temperature. It should be set after 5-10 minutes. The custard may be served immediately, warm, or chilled in the fridge. It’s best on the day it is made, but will keep for about two days.


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