Food TV: Which cooking show is best?

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 20 2011 10:06 AM

Screen to Plate

The cooking shows that'll get you off the couch and into the kitchen.

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More successful: the plum cornbread demonstrated on Anne Burrell's Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. Although I find her personality abrasive, like Flay, Burrell cooks with ease and grace, and she makes real food, with primal cuts of meat and good ingredients. You know you're watching a pro—and a pro with some imagination. I craved plum cornbread after watching the show, but plums weren't yet in season. A few weeks later, when they were, I prepared Burrell's recipe on the spur of the moment. It was outstanding with vanilla ice cream for dessert, when the plums were still slightly warm and juicy. And it was outstanding plain and cold, for breakfast the next day. I don't know if I learned anything new about cooking, but I was cooking.

The biggest hit of all, though, came from the most unlikely of sources. One rainy weekend I turned on the Food Network and caught an episode of a show I'd never even heard about called Dessert First. It was hosted by a pretty, zaftig pastry chef named Anne Thornton, and I said to my son Owen, who was flopped on the sofa beside me: "She sure looks like she cooks a lot of desserts." And he said, "Mom, that's kind of mean." Which it was.

It is a show so remedial that Thornton actually explains what a double boiler is. I rolled my eyes, but Owen was pretty into it. As Thornton went about making bridge mix bark and hot chocolate (she throws chunks of milk chocolate into her cocoa), Owen said, "That is the coolest hot chocolate. I wish I lived next door to her."

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Among the dishes Thornton demonstrated that day: s'mores bars, which consisted of nothing more than buttery, salty graham cracker crumbs layered with marshmallows and milk-chocolate chips. "You have to make those," said Owen.

I agreed. I had to make those. And since I had all the ingredients, almost as soon as the show ended, I went to the kitchen and did so. They were bars that a 13-year-old could make unassisted. And they were perfect, as perfect a recipe as I have ever cooked. People fell silent when they ate those s'mores bars. People took breaks from their diets. Within two days, there was not a crumb left in the house.

I printed out the recipe and put it in my permanent recipe binder, where, I confess, no recipe from America's Test Kitchen has ever made it. I still think America's Test Kitchen is the best food show on the air, but I would add a caveat: However simplistic it may seem, however unsophisticated the recipes, the show that teaches you how to cook is the show that gets you off the couch and into the kitchen.

Jennifer Reese, former book critic for Entertainment Weekly, blogs at the Tipsy Baker. Her book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, will come out in paperback in October.

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