With writing skills honed as a magazine cooking columnist, a natural talent for food styling, guidance from other cooks and cookbook authors, and pointers from her mother and mother-in-law, Renee Muller has created her first cookbook. It is beautifully designed and produced; the instructions for each recipe are clear and well laid out, and the photography makes a reader’s mouth water. Helpfully, the author specifies whether each recipe is meat, dairy, or pareve, and explains whether or not the dish can be frozen. For some recipes, there even a video link for preparation techniques. With plenty of notes and personal comments, Our Table is enjoyable both to peruse and to use.
Muller’s professional background is not as a chef, but as a food stylist. Her interest in this art began when, as a child growing up in Lugano, Switzerland, she would plate and decorate desserts in order to help her mother when the family had guests. Muller’s professional styling is visible in the photos in her book — she did all the food and prop styling herself. For the home cook, she offers suggestions as to how to step presentations up a notch with ease; a pretty dish, a garnish for a dash of color, or an unusual serving piece will enhance a platter or a plate.
For Muller, having grown up near the border of northern Italy, the tastes of childhood are Italian. And the dominant flavor of her food remains Italian even though she now makes her home in Lakewood, New Jersey. She includes recipes for manicotti (with shortcuts), European cheesecake, those cream-filled, conical puffed pastries (ie, cannoncini), a beautiful Swiss fruit tarte.The title of her book, Our Table, is from the Italian a tavola, meaning the place where family, friends, and neighbors gather to socialize — and to eat. “Our table is where life and food meet,” she explains.
Muller’s goal is to evoke the same sentiment in her own home, even though, geographically, she’s a world away from where she started. This new world also has its influence on her cooking. We find detailed instructions for making her mother-in-law’s stuffed cabbage, split pea soup with nockerlach (little dough balls), flanken, and babka, in addition to contemporary salads and granola bars.
As her mother did, Renee Muller invites her children to the table with the Italian, “A tavola!” Traditionally, this was a phrase drawn out and yelled; Muller doesn’t say if she does the same. What remains a constant is the prescription this mother of five offers and follows herself: “A mother’s love is to be used like any other spice. Put it into the food and you will taste the difference.”