Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies
Author: Alice Medrich
Publisher: Artisan (2010)
As a baker, whenever I make cookies for a group I know that it’s always asking for trouble in one form or another. There’s always those that want their cookie treats soft, others chewy, and still others want a good crunch when they bite in. The contents (or lack thereof) filling the bakes are another sticky point – do you want to be presented with a quarter pound of chocolate, peanut butter, pretzels, oats and fruit? Or are you more the “less is more” type, who is perfectly content with a graham cracker or a simple sugar cookie? What about bar cookies – where do they fit in on the spectrum? For any cookie-lover or cookie-baker with a spectrum of tastes comes a book from one of the queens of cuisine, Alice Medrich. Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies is a title enough to make your mouth water, and Medrich covers all those categories, and more.

With all the other baking and dessert “bibles” out there, with a good amount authored by Medrich herself, do we really need yet another cookie book? The unique aspect of this book is that it is incredibly inclusive of all kinds of cookies. Organized by texture, the chapters encompass crispy, crunchy, chunky, chewy, gooey, flaky, and melt-in-your-mouth offerings, sure to win over anyone. With a highly cross-referenced appendix and index, Chewy even includes cookies perfect for those on wheat-free diets or are trying to lose weight. If not inherently low-fat or wheat free (like meringues), many of the recipes have fairly easy modifications included. There are even whole-grain cookies included in the book – a rarity in any other “mainstream” baking manual... but do not be fooled – this is no diet cookbook! Fat and sugar are still in abundance, and there is no hiding of the fact that cookies are a treat. Medrich also gives a comprehensive list of recipes for special "[c]omponents" (p. 335) of her cookies such as flavoured sugars, fillings and glazes in the back of the book, most of which are equally at home in any baking application.
The one thing Medrich’s book does not contain is a gluten-free recipe modifier, so while there may be no wheat in her Golden Kamut Shortbread p. 332 they are not the Christmas cookie of choice for your celiac best friend. There are also few vegan cookies in the book, but Medrich is not out there to proclaim Chewy as a book for any specific diet. The very fact that specific modifiers for several of her recipes should be applauded as a move towards accepting the variety of special needs out there.

My only pressing issue with Chewy is that Medrich’s book is fairly tricky to bake from if money’s tighter than you’d like it to be (like around Christmas, for example!) and you don’t want to shell out for expensive ingredients. While many of the recipes are fairly simple in their design, is there no lack of somewhat more “gourmet” goods, nor is there skimping on the quantities of rich ingredients. Your butter and egg bills, for example, will be significantly higher than normal if you’re not in the habit of purchasing them often! Medrich also seems to adore calling for chocolate and all kinds of nuts in Chewy. Most of the brownies (a weakness of both my taste-testers and I) contain half a pound of unsweetened chocolate for an 8” square pan, though she does (thankfully) include two cocoa-based recipes as well. For everyday bake sales or home snacking, her Cocoa Brownies (p. 222) and Less is More Overnight Brownies (p. 206) are more than passable... in fact, I preferred them to the melted-chocolate filled ones.

One thing I absolutely adored about Medrich’s latest work is her creativity with such an old bake sale treat. Cookies are the kind of dessert or after-school snack that are subject to becoming tiresome, since there really are a finite number of ways to re-purpose your old chocolate chippers. I thoroughly enjoyed picking out some goodies in Chewy to try, though it was agony not to make almost all of them! Luckily for me, I do have a (very) well-stocked pantry and basically had my pick of the lot when it came to selecting my Christmas giveaways. With the nutritionists at school clamouring for something yummy and energy-packed during exams, when I happened upon Medrich’s Honey Hemp Bars (p. 157), I knew I had to try them out. While it took up twice the room (filling the bottom of a 9x13” pan instead of an 8” square), the recipe only gave me 12 bars, rather than her stated 16-20. They were definitely worth the bake though! However, I would definitely exercise caution with these! Expensive ingredients aside (for me the pan came to almost $8), hemp seed and some of the other additions to these rich bars are a bit of an acquired taste. I couldn’t get a single child to try it, but then again when the cereal aisles are chock-full of little more than candy bars I wouldn’t expect puffed millet and date paste to exactly draw them in. As for the adult set? Well, the ones who got a taste certainly enjoyed them – and I say those who got a taste because as soon as the word was out that a bar better than the school’s storebought ones was on the table they disappeared!

The award for the prettiest cookies I’ve made from Chewy to date, though, has to go to an “upgrade” Medrich gives for her (also to die for) Peanut Butter Clouds (p. 296) using tahini and sesame seeds. A basic egg-white and sugar meringue gets made, then the decadence of the seed paste and seeds are folded in and the mixture is piped into cute little kisses. If you are a sesame lover at all, you must try these crisp morsels... and being nut- dairy- and gluten-free (not to mention great keepers!), they are a good bet for a holiday potluck or office party.

If you are an experienced baker with a yen for discovering the vast world of cookie-making, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies is one of the most unique, well-referenced and inclusive baking bibles currently out there. It’s a book so detailed and complex in it’s offerings that completely novice chefs may feel overwhelmed by, and it’s sometimes pricey additions can further stall them for fear that they might fail. The benefit of any cookie-making experiment is that you can usually still eat the “failures” – and Medrich make a point to educate and help in any way possible though her glossary entries and resource list. No matter what kind you fancy, I’m confident you’ll find something sweet!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Autism Cookbook: 101 Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Recipes

The Autism Cookbook: 101 Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Recipes
Author: Susan K. Delaine
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2010)
Imagine: you and your child, in a shopping mall, the Saturday before Christmas. Santa and his elves are ringing bells, dancing around in bright, sparkly get-ups. Kids nearby are screaming for the latest toy. Harried shoppers shove their way through the crowded department stores with armfuls of packages. All the while, the cheery holiday music is blaring over the sound system, interspersed with announcements of the latest door-crasher sale. It’s enough to cause an instantaneous migraine.

Only it’s not December. Nor is it a weekend in your city’s major shopping centre. The two of you are just in your local grocery store on a completely unremarkable day. Yet your young one is treating the excursion as if it was Christmas Eve. Because, to your child, every trip to a public place is an experience akin to those holiday – rush mall crawls. Like 1% of the population, your child lives with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a condition that affects social and behavioural development patterns. ASD can present in a rainbow of symptoms, like withdrawing into silence and avoiding eye contact or acting out in “temper tantrums” brought out by innocuous events. There are many associated conditions that come along for the ride – most commonly gastrointestinal difficulties like allergies and intolerances. Problems digesting gluten, casein and many chemical additives are widespread, often forcing individuals with ASD and their families to rely on medically prescribed drugs and specialty foods. Even the most dedicated individual with a basic cooking background can be balked by the list of “cant’s”, and the completely foreign style of living and eating often throws any meals once innately prepared out the window. Often the special “ASD-approved” recipes are just as confusing and complicated as the condition itself – and the last thing any parent needs is to spend hours reading up on that night’s dinner components.

The Autism Cookbook: 101 Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Recipes was compiled by one such parent of an autistic child. Susan K. Delaine’s book is not directly marketed as a book of child-friendly recipes, but the bright, photo-packed cover gives away her intentions. Simple, nutritious recipes are the rigueur de jour here, and for busy families coping with cases of food allergies, the promise of quick and easy food is nothing short of a godsend.

The Apple Bread (p. 122)

Unfortunately, that feeling of salvation is short lived with this book. While Delaine has good ideas, the “quick and easy” mentality and her obviously rushed lifestyle are all too apparent. Of the “one hundred and one” recipes included, none of them contain a yield notation. While the dust jacket boasts that there are twenty raw recipes, the introductory note mentions twenty-three, and if you were to check the lengthy index you would not find a single entry under “raw”. A manual count of each recipe designated as a raw food in parenthesis reveals only ten in the category. In reality, there are actually 23 of those specialty recipes in the pages of The Autism Cookbook, as described in the “Why Raw?” section of the introduction, and the variance is not overly staggering, but consistency throughout the book would have been beneficial.

What I did find staggering, however, was the amount of glaring errata in the actual recipes. I tested out several different recipes and each of them was a complete, inedible failure – and by reading the ingredient ratios and methods it’s no wonder why. For example, the scone recipe on page 171 gives no temperature for baking, nor any yields (a common theme in the book). It also calls for 1 ¼ cups of dry ingredients, using only a single (and very “strong” tasting) flour without a single binding agent, and yet 1 cup of liquid. In that liquid ingredient ratio is a ¼ cup of vinegar – and half a cup of agave nectar! Then it instructs the would-be baker to “form a dough”, then “cut [it] into wedges”. Well, it doesn’t take a professional baker to realize the outcome of my “verbatim” experiment – a waste of (expensive) ingredients and a bowl of sweet, sour and funky-smelling grey mush. The Brownie Bites recipe on page 167 looks appetizing in the photo, but calls for flour in the directions and omits a listing for it in the ingredients. If you wanted to try one of Delaine’s raw recipes, and decided on the enticingly-named “Velvet Pudding” (p. 204) you will have to look elsewhere – the recipe under the title is for some sort of oily muffin that’s baked at 400F for 25 minutes.

On the savoury side, there is a turkey or beef-stuffed turnover recipe on page 54. The filling itself is great - flavourful and a good texture for making tacos or burritos with. But the pastry recipe and assembly directions included alongside this gem is problematic – like the scones and the Apple Bread (p. 122) I tried, there was too much liquid for the (single) flour, no binder to keep the dough together, and the author expects the cook to knead, roll out, fill, crimp and seal 2" squares of dough!

Chocolate Chip Scones (p. 171)
- after a lot of tweaking and a lot
less liquid!

One of the biggest issues I have with The Autism Cookbook is that the photos are completely inaccurate representations of any of the recipes they accompany. Not a single baked good shown could possibly be made with buckwheat flour as Delaine calls for, nor would a frosting recipe made with blueberries like the one on page 228 look anything like the shock of electric colour in it’s representative photo. If you are hoping to find the chocolate cupcake recipe used for the front cover’s main shot, unfortunately it, like all of the other photos, is there more for style than substance: there is not chocolate cupcake recipe on offer.

While the book is clearly written by a mother with the best intentions, it was not written by an author or a cook, nor tested or proofread prior to publication. If I had bought this book with the pressing need for nutritional support that many families with food-related issues have, I would be extremely angered by the waste of money on it. As it is, I am very disappointed at the obvious lack of testing and editing this book was subject to and am even more dismayed that it is being marketed to families with food-allergic children who are desperate for a semblance of “normalcy” in their daily living.