Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A World of Cake...Traditions from Cultures Around the World

A World of Cake: From Honey Cakes to Flat Cakes, Fritters to Chiffons, Meringues to Mooncakes, Tartes to Tortes, Fruit Cakes to Spice Cakes... Traditions from Cultures Around the World
Krystina Castella
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (2010)
Chocolate, vanilla, carrot or kiwi – it seems that everyone loves cake. Probably the fanciest and most variable desserts around, cake recipes span the globe in hundreds of variations. Some are simplistic loaf concoctions with a drizzle of melted chocolate or powdered-sugar glaze, while others are stacked seven tiers high with fillings, frostings and fondant decorations galore. Almost every occasion worth marking – at least in modern society – features something that is usually rich and alluring enough that everyone stops to take notice. Wedding and birthday cakes are by far the most well known Western creations today, but the varieties are as extensive as the imaginations of pastry chefs globally. One hundred and fifty of these special dessert recipes are shared, with a mosaic of beautiful imagery, by Krystina Castella in her book A World of Cake: From Honey Cakes to Flat Cakes, Fritters to Chiffons, Meringues to Mooncakes, Tartes to Tortes, Fruit Cakes to Spice Cakes... Traditions from Cultures Around the World... and that’s not all.
It is no stretch of the imagination to call this book an encyclopaedia. Even if you’ve never baked a cake (or even wanted to) in your life, there is almost as much information on the sweets as there are recipes in the pages. Pretty much everything you could ever want to know about cake, from it’s historical roots in Egypt to the impacts of cultural and technological inventions on it’s production, is covered in fascinatingly intensive detail in Cake’s first ten pages. A four-page calendar of “cakeable” events worldwide ensues, in which I discovered more holidays I even knew existed: each with a page reference for further perusal. Easy to read and illustrated definitions for every cake “type” featured in the book and an extensive “field guide” of textures, ingredients, equipment, preparation, construction, decoration and even storage of these also pack the first chapter. Don’t feel like reading a dissertation piece? Pick a country from the 13 regions listed in Castella’s table of contents, or search for a specific recipe in the carefully cross-referenced index. Unfortunately, the contents page does not list the recipes under each region it mentions: a bit of a pain if you, like me, are inspired to make a recipe based on whether or not it sounds good. A substitute draw is in the colour photography, which deserves to be in an art gallery. That said, as pretty as they are, they also broadcast an air of inapproachability – the food is so artfully garnished that the lay baker may give up on trying out the recipes before reading the words on the page. While Cake does make a rather – if you pardon the expression – appetizing coffee table book and reference work, those brave enough to actually break out their (specialty) cake pans are in for a journey.
Like all good journeys, the travels through Cake are blessed with a great map. The instructions for baking these sweets are incredibly detailed for the most part – from lining the moulds to mixing the batter and baking. Recipes requiring extra preparations such as a caramel, soaking syrup or elements like candied, toasted or ground nuts will find these “sub-recipes” included under their own headings – conveniently in the order the recipe calls for them. As well, any assembly steps or key garnishes for the finished cakes are described, from the simplistic sprinkling of chopped nuts on frosting to the intricate kanji characters on her Japanese Friendship Cake (p. 282) and careful construction of the cream-filled croquembouche tree with spun sugar (p. 98). Given that most cakes simply aren’t themselves without a crown of frosting or a luxurious filling; if Castella uses a particular recipe the page numbers are provided. Though a lot of the recipes are still more complex than the average home cook would ever want to make regularly, if you happen to be on the hook for a special occasion dessert or are baking for a “world exposition” type of event you’ll find your key to success with Cake.

I was lured to one of the more unusual recipes for a Vietnamese sweet when I first flipped through the pages of this book. Known in English as “Cow Cake”, Castella’s recipe promised the outcome of a beautiful gluten-free, vegan cake with a uniquely rippled surface. While the photos looked promising enough – a dense crumb with scattered pockets of air in both white and pink – I admit my result was anything but. I should have realized that, without any sort of binding agent in the rice flour and coconut milk mixture, there would be no way that any bubbles could help make those coveted, pretty ripples. What emerged from my oven – after I gave up on having it ever bake through – was a very flat, very dense object with an almost burnt top crust that cracked away to an almost molten batter underneath. While I’m sure it would have tasted fine, it was nothing like the picturesque slices shown in the book and after being asked by my mother just what it actually was I wound up scraping it into the compost bin. A later dip into the internet’s wealth of global food information revealed most recipes had eggs – some as many as 6 – and the single vegan variation I came across was bound with a hefty dose of tapioca starch. Given that there is no mention of either food in Castella’s ingredients or methodology for this cake, I am unsure if the omissions were merely errors in edits and final proofreading or a bona fide intention for the recipe.

I had far better luck with one of the more “traditional” recipes in Cake – a New Zealander butter cake with kiwifruit, nut and white chocolate flavours. I know: how could you go wrong with those three ingredients? Not having the macadamias called for on hand, I went for an equally delectable variation that Castella mentions – an Indian (as in Asia) Cashew Cake (p. 306). A pinch of cardamom perfumed the mixture so much that I worried it would overwhelm the more delicate fruit, but the cupcakes I made with the recipe for my taste testers mellowed out beautifully while baking and the sinfully rich white chocolate buttercream formed a saccharine contrast to the tart and spicy base.

For the dedicated baker or globetrotting foodie, A World of Cake is a wonderfully detailed resource. It is not your run-of-the-mill, hand-holding manual for the complete kitchen novice, nor is it intended to be one. The knowledge of the basic mechanics of baking is essential to achieving the full benefit of Castella’s work by baking through this culinary atlas. In many cases, even old hats in the kitchen will learn something new – and no matter where they hail from, everyone will come away hungry for more.

Available on Amazon

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