Nothing comes so easily, and so readily to my senses, as baking.
I rarely buy cookbooks, opting instead to study their glossy laminated pages when in bookstores, skimming briefly over the ingredients and then letting my eyes linger, heavily, on images of chocolate and fruit and airy whipped creams to store in my memory bank for later. I like simply constructed desserts, with none of the thrills or frills of pulled sugar ribbons in the like of professional pastry chefs, and I take particular care in flavor combinations, making sure I really like my idea of a blueberry lime sour cream tart with hints of Drambuie trickled on the berries before I prepare it. Just recently I was overcome with a photo in the April 2009 copy of Gourmet Magazine of a Pavlova filled with lemon curd and topped higgledy-piggledy with blackberries and blueberries – beautiful to the eyes, yes, but also beautiful to the taste, I’m sure.
However, many people who enjoy cooking or baking lack that natural inclination to really understand the ingredients, to create harmonious flavor marriages. Not all of us, after all, strive to be professional chefs, but we’d still like that pizzazz in the kitchen every now and then to entertain guests in our increasingly fine-wine tasting, Food Network watching, Thomas Keller apotheosizing society. Buying food magazines and cookbooks tends not to be a priority expense for many – especially when buying quality lamb shanks at Whole Foods for that eye-catching dinner is far from cheap – so people often turn to the web, where free recipes abound.
Epicurious.com has been a favorite of mine throughout the years, offering hundreds of recipes from reputed culinary sources like Bon Appetit and Gourmet Magazine – not to mention many a renowned chef -, and is now available for full use on the iPhone. For free. After using Epicurious, other food sites like AllRecipes.com and the odd blog just seem lackluster and uneventful by comparison, devoid of mouthwatering pictures and glowing reviews that seem to decorate every nook and cranny of Epicurious. With the iPhone app, you can browse or search through their compendium of 25,000 professionally tested recipes, with most recipes positioned alongside devastatingly luscious photographs.
Much like the website, the Epicurious app has a convenient recipe navigation bar, only here the browsing options are different. Here, you may browse by Weeknight Dinners, Decadent Desserts, Cool Cocktails, Healthy Lunches, Party Snacks, or Dinner Party Ideas. Obviously, Epicurious recognizes its large party-hungry demographic and caters specifically to those wishing to wine and dine and astound with a stunningly creative meal; they just throw in the Healthy Lunches for good measure and to round it out.
I must admit I am very impressed with the Search function. You may search by main ingredient, meal/course, cuisine, dietary consideration, dish type, or even by the season or occasion. The ingredients cover all bases, from fruits to vegetables, to grains, nuts, meat, even yogurt or chocolate. The meal tab covers the expected – breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert – but even includes the less used categories of brunch, hors d’oeuvres, and snacks. Searching by cuisine is almost ridiculous, Epicurious throws so many countries and cultures at you that your head spins in circles – I’m not sure how many Scandinavian dishes I’m aching to try, but hey, I’m definitely glad I have the option. Searching by both dish type and season prove to be exhaustively thorough, covering the obscure stuffing and Mother’s Day, respectively, but my favorite search, by far, is the Dietary Consideration. Much like Whole Foods Market Recipes, Epicurious includes healthy, low fat, low calorie, low sodium, vegetarian, vegan, high fiber, kosher, low sugar, wheat/gluten-free, even raw (gasp!), and even that annoying will-it-ever-go-away low carb.
For those of you raw foodists rejoicing at the inclusion of recipes you can eat with relish, don’t get carried away just yet. Epicurious contains 82 “raw” recipes based on its search engine, but from what I could see, they’re all fairly simple and lackluster, mostly salad variations, and nothing inordinately special. Many of the ingredients are not even technically raw, like frozen passionfruit juice concentrate and champagne vinegar. Remember, these are professional chefs, with rigidly compounded traditions in cooking, and raw foodism still isn’t mainstream despite Charlie Trotter’s magnificent efforts. There are definitely more vegan options at 1250 recipes, with a nice mix of savory and sweet to choose from, but I’m not quite sure how many of them could be considered full meals. Though there are some quite delicious looking vegetarian meals, like the Grilled Veggie and Tofu Stack with Balsamic and Mint or the Grilled Portabella and Bulgar Salad “Sandwiches” made to replace burgers. As is the habit of many chefs, much of the recipes on Epicurious are heavily meat dominated, and incredibly indulgent. Skirt steaks, flank steaks, sea bass, grilled trout, lamb shanks, roast chickens and beef medallions really take precedence here.
Once you’ve decided how to search for a recipe, scroll through the recipe listings as you would your iPhone photo album, sliding your finger from side to side (you may notice the occasional Mastercard ad dispersed between recipes, since they sponsor the Epicurious app – has to show up somewhere, I guess). You may tap the plus symbol in the upper left of the screen to add any recipe to your Favorites, and you also have the choice of emailing recipes and creating shopping lists. The Shopping List function is a bit odd, leaving much to be desired, as it merely adds the entire recipe to the list, rather than listing only the ingredients. Perhaps that’s asking a bit too much from Epicurious, but overall I found that option fairly useless for my needs. Another oddity of the app is the tendency for the bottom navigation bar to become washed out, unidentifiable, when viewing recipes, making it difficult to recall which tab does what. It’s not really a big deal in terms of navigating, but it does make the app aesthetically off-putting.
Possibly the greatest feature of the Epicurious app is the ability to view recipes in landscape mode, which changes the recipe format into one of step-by-step directions rather than just a listing. With the phone turned on its side, three new tabs appear along the bottom, reading from left to right Main, Ingredients, and Preparation. The words become larger and thus are more easily read, and the preparations are broken down into easily followed steps that you simply scroll through as you complete them. Cooking is suddenly so easy!
As is to be expected from a site that contains the collective vision of professional chefs who are constantly trying to break new creative ground, sometimes you will encounter the odd questionable recipe or two – the Carrot Beef Sushi with Caper Basil Mustard comes to mind. Epicurious counteracts this weighted professionalism with pedestrian user reviews you can usually count on for sagely feedback. With renowned chefs running the kitchen you always run the risk of experimental and over-the-top recipes not meant for your kids or the picky eaters. But don’t worry, there aren’t any Ferran Adria stunts here.
For the wining and dining crowd, Epicurious is definitely the go-to source for culinary inspiration that is sure to impress guests. With beautiful sounding dishes like Orrechiette with Caramelized Onions, Sugar Snap Peas, and Ricotta Cheese or the equally lovely and more rustic Chipotle Pork Cheeseburgers, the home chef can still impress without going overboard. Though this app is more likely to incite the interest of those wanting to make showy and interesting desserts instead of the classic, homey apple pie, Epicurious has something for everyone. With excellent search functions, thousands of recipes, and easy to follow directions, it’s no surprise I find myself coming back again and again to nibble on the gastronomic tidings of Epicurious.