Monday, November 15, 2010

Sweet Treats: Just Like My Mother Used to Bake

Sweet Treats: Just Like My Mother Used to Bake (2010)
Contributing Editor: Linda Collister
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small

Have you ever heard yourself utter the phrase “this is just like Mom used to make”? Or perhaps this tune is more common to your ears: “my mom makes/made this so much better”. I know that even when I’m making a recipe that my mom has physically handed me the card for and watched me prepare, the end result is never quite the same as hers. It isn’t that the taste is bad, or that the texture is horrendous – it’s just not Mom’s. Even when it’s a recipe I’ve written and made a million times – like my basic banana bread – as soon as she steps into the kitchen and dons her (proverbial) apron, something happens that totally transforms the environment and everything she touches. Whatever is made therefore becomes hers, just unique enough that objective tasters can peg that it’s not mine. That it’s special. In no uncertain terms, that it is a whole other class of perfection.

The irony of my mom’s cooking always resulting in a better product than mine is that her entire history of culinary training is a combination of three things: what she learned at my grandmother’s hip, what she did to cope as a young wife and mother of ravenous girls, and what she was able to glean from a handful of high school Home Economics classes. In fact, Mom was quite ambivalent about the whole concept of food, or cooking in general for years. Only when my food-related allergies and intolerances began to present themselves and I began honing my culinary skills did she really begin turning “the corner”, so to speak. I, too, grew up attached to my mother’s side as she made dinner almost every night, even if it was just a box of mac and cheese. Nothing thrilled me more than getting a chance to “help” knead our Christmas loaves of brioche and challah, and the task of shaping the filled ring or the eggy braid each season was something I coveted more than the latest toy or “hot” fashion trend. I was fortunate enough to have a rather intensive Home Ec foundation in elementary school as well, and elected to build on those rudimentary skills in high school under the direction of both a chocolatier – cake decorator and a pastry chef. That time is one that I remember being filled with batches of 32-egg, 8-kg of fat chocolate chip cookies (which also had 4 kilos of chips!) and entirely too many “taste tests”. After the inevitable upswing of my weight and my subsequent success on Weight Watchers (followed by my food-related illness), I found food blogging, took a bakery arts course at George Brown College’s cooking school and finally fell into my current definition as a nutritional consultant, holistic nutrition student and (mostly) holistic and specialty-foods baker. I clearly have the chops (on paper) to make more than acceptable treats. So why don’t I get the “ooh la la” response with my offerings of Mom’s chocolate chip cookies? Simple: I’m not Mom.

So it is a lofty goal that contributing editor Linda Collister describes with the title of her latest book Sweet Treats: Just Like my Mother Used to Bake. Family recipes are works of art that are so personal that there is a reason why a Google string search for “banana bread” yields over 1,180,000 results, over 1,000 of them in the Food Blog Search alone. Treats includes that popular snack and 75 other recipes, not only from Collister’s hand but by Susannah Blake, Maxine Clark, Ross Dobson, Brian Glover, Liz Franklin, Fran Warde and Laura Washburn, all in a very attractive, concisely written package. Colourful photographs pepper the pages, luring anyone who leafs through the book into taking a closer look.

In taking this closer look, one may have to wonder at the incredible variety and complexity of these so-called “mother’s recipes”. None of the photos, not even for the “Classic Choc Chip Cookies”, look anything like anything my mom bakes, and according to her, the things she grew up baking with her mother were nowhere near as “complicated” as those in the book. While the recipes are definitely not multi-step, two-day affairs, they do have a certain panache to them that is a little out of place in a family recipe tome. If you are looking for that rustic, “down home on the farm” style of baking, then you will likely be disappointed by Collister’s book. Unlike many other “baking” cookbooks out there, though, the photographs in Treats are just as honest as they are gorgeous. Far from being pieces of art so artificially posed and shellacked into place, the elements in each shot are almost candid in appearance. This does not detract in any way from the pleasure of the book – if anything, it adds a level of approachability so often lacking in baking guides today. If you are looking for fairly simple, easy-to-dress-up (or down) goodies, with easy to follow instructions and consistent yields, this is a good book to pick up.

In order to get a “feel” for the way Treats reads for the baking set, I decided to test out two of the recipes. To choose those tester recipes, though, I defaulted to my mother, who I believed would best be able to describe the similarity of the goods to recipes she remembered from her childhood. Unsurprisingly, the recipe in the book that was the chocolatiest while inducing the least amount of guilt was her first selection: Clark’s Double Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 12). Rife with dark cocoa powder, dark chocolate chunks and white chocolate chips too, these chewy biscuits were delicious just barely cool, and were still fresh 4 days later. In fact, after sitting overnight, the cookies became the epitome of school-lunch cookies everywhere: a crisp exterior just sturdy enough to prevent the baked dough from disintegrating formed a protective shell around an incredibly “moreish” chewy (and not-too-sweet) heart. Likewise, the loaf of Apricot and Honey Rye (p. 154) submitted by Linda Collister that I made as one of my mom’s “weekly loaves” was no slouch in either the looks or taste departments. While it is definitely not something my mother would have ever made during my childhood, it was something she thoroughly enjoyed in her routine.

One of the most useful parts of Treats is the inset “tip boxes” scattered through the pages – providing hints for everything from removing cookies stuck to the sheets (pop them back in the oven for a minute) to reviving seized, half-melted chocolate, and even how to convince butter that’s just this side of un-creamable to beat into fluffy perfection. There is also a conversion chart for imperial to metric weight, volume, length and temperature measurements the very end of the index as well. This chart comes in handy quite often when baking from this book, since the “translations” Collister made for the American chef often lead to some rather interesting measurements (as in a cup + 2 tablespoons) for ingredients, and sometimes less used ingredients themselves – compressed yeast for example. That said, there is almost always an alternative for these “un-American” foods suggested, so even the most inexperienced home cook will be able to create something perfectly delicious from Collister’s book.

Sweet Treats is the kind of cookbook that anyone with the desire to share their love through sharing food should own. It is not simply a catalogue of the simple, everyday recipes that flood the pages of both literal and virtual cookbooks everywhere – it is a how-to guide for building on your own family’s traditions with new spins on classic ideas, and a springboard for creating new customs and favourites with those around you. This work is a great resource filled with basic techniques that, once mastered, can be applied to all sorts of ingredient combinations for a result that is all your own: a recipe that years later you will be proud to hear others claim is “just like yours”.


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