Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness

Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness
Author: Dédé Wilson
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2012)

Imagine – all the things you love about a piece of cake, without the fuss and bother of storing a whole one in the fridge. Simple, I know. Ever since I first saw these confections on Angie Dudley’s (AKA Bakerella’s) blog, I’ve marvelled at how I didn’t think of the concept sooner! While a great way to utilize stale, overbaked and even freshly baked cake leftovers, cake balls provide a wonderfully blank canvas for experimentation. This creative potential is made deliciously clear in the cookbook Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness by Dédé Wilson, contributor to Bon Appetit magazine.

Carrot Cake Balls!
Carrot Cake ‘n’ Cream Cheese Frosting Cake Balls (p. 63)
Far from your standard “chocolate and vanilla” flavours, Cake Balls offers 52 different twists – from a Toffee-Brown Butter Pecan (p. 132) to Creme Brulee (p. 82) and even Apple Pie (p. 50). Wilson also includes recipes for the cakes, brownies and frostings used in the balls, along with including a section called Cake Ball Creations (p. 140), which is filled with fun and interesting ways to play with the basics (like making a Fairy Princess Ballerina (p.148)).

This book is great not only for the finished products’ combinations but also for the basic cakes and brownies that Wilson calls for in the book themselves. The Banana Cake (p. 36) was moist and buttery, and was made even better the second time with an extra banana and one less egg. My personal favourite, though, was the Fudgy Brownie (p. 37). I found it far too sweet as written (especially since it’s intended to be mixed with frosting and dipped in chocolate!), but the texture was definitely as Wilson described – sticky and moist, perfect for shaping (she gives the caveat that these were not meant to be served au naturale). If I was going to serve them as cut brownies, I’d add three minutes to the bake time, cut the sugar to three-quarters of what the recipe calls for and use partial brown sugar for added flavour and a more familiar texture. It’s a simple formula that opens itself up to a world of possibilities in both ball and bar form.

Caramel Banana Cake Balls
Banana-Caramel-Nut Cake Balls (p. 55)
More problematic for me were the frostings and glaze I tried. The Caramel Frosting (p. 44) was far too greasy in texture, acting more like a hand cream than a “glue” when I tried to use it in the Banana-Caramel-Nut Cake Balls (p. 55). I loved the flavour of the filling for the Apple Pie Cake Balls (again, after cutting the sugar in half), but it was again too greasy combined with the moist cake. I’d use it for tarts and hand pies for sure, and when juxtaposed with a savoury crust I’m sure it would really stand out. The Cream Cheese Frosting (p. 63), however, had no flaws on the palate or with the consistency, being tangy enough to cut the sugar and sweet enough to not simply taste like cheese. I will definitely go back to this recipe, and in fact made several batches since I used it on a large slab cake. It also fared well as a cake ball “glue” when I used it with scraps of trimmed carrot cake for a partial batch of Carrot Cake ‘n’ Cream Cheese Frosting Cake Balls (p. 63). Not having white chocolate on hand at the time, I used dark and upon serving it was told I should sell them to Starbucks! Trying to make the Confectioners’ Sugar Glaze (p. 47), though, was more of a trial. Wilson indicates in the recipe introduction that “[i]f you whisk the sugar and water together without heating, the glaze will remain sticky” – a quality that isn’t overly desirable in a portable snack. However, she never tells the reader how to heat the mixture for a hard set, nor mentions it anywhere else in the book. Had I been thinking, I would have gone back to Alton Brown’s Doughnut Glaze recipe which has served me well.

The great thing about a treat such as Cake Balls is that they are a product of versatility and even frugality. While Wilson’s Bon Appetit history shows itself in her guides to tempering chocolate (p. 70), caramelizing sugar (in Creme Brulee Cake Balls (p.82)) and working with “coating chocolate” (p.24), she also includes incredibly useful “how-tos” for basic ball creation (p. 16) and basic ingredients and techniques to be aware of (p. 20). Wilson also realizes that time and/or cost is an issue for many home cooks, including “it’s okay” notes about customizing the treats based on your personal preferences or availabilities and using a box mix and canned frosting to whip up treats in a pinch. Many readers will already be doing this to make their own “doughnut holes” for bake sales, and while she doesn’t mention it using leftover, frosted slices of cake (especially chocolate-on-chocolate types) can be easily broken down to “ball paste”, rolled and dipped too.

Apple Pie Cake Balls
Apple Pie Cake Balls (p. 50)
The recipes in Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness are not perfect, but the idea of making portable two-bite treats with the flavour of a full slice is a practical one that will not be going away. The combinations of flavours and textures Dédé Wilson shares in the book’s pages are great spins on plain concepts that can be made with your favourite recipes without issue. This reason alone this book is worth perusing, and if you forsee yourself contributing to bake sales, birthday parties or sweet tables, you won’t be steered wrong.
Available on Amazon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine

Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2012)

Everyone loves to have their own little treat. Having your own self-contained portion of a meal or dessert makes you feel special, as if it was made just for you, and of course it means you don’t have to share! But making single servings of anything can be tricky, especially when it comes to baking and desserts. That’s where the genius of Shaina Olmanson and her latest book Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine comes into play. This quaint little hardcover contains 50 scrumptious recipes that neatly tuck away into your standard Mason, Ball or Kerr jars. From cakes and puddings to granita, cobbler and even pie, almost no type of dessert is excluded.

This book is a joy to look through. Every page of Desserts is printed in full colour, and every recipe includes a photo of the finished dish. The book also has a “lay-flat” coil binding, which makes it incredibly useful in the kitchen. The index is well organized and easy to read, and Olmanson also provides a detailed conversion chart at the back. The book’s introduction is a professional, yet personable guide to all the elements that go into the perfect jarred dessert – which jar to choose, how to fill and bake in them, tips for freezing leftovers and even how to decorate the finished product.

I was familiar with Olmanson’s creative cooking before reading Desserts, as she maintains a blog titled Food for my Family. Her practical, easy-to-read and -relate to style carries through into her book, and you can tell that many of the recipes were written with her busy family (and others like it) in mind. While most recipes serve six to ten, smaller families will still be able to enjoy the treats through the week, and longer if they fall in the Frozen Desserts chapter (p. 112) or are wrapped and frozen post-bake. This obviously doesn’t work for Olmanson’s Custards and Puddings (p. 70), but the other items do just fine in the freezer and are handy to have on hand for guests! Being baked in glass, the chilled desserts also reheat nicely in the microwave or a low oven. For those who like to plan ahead, the book also includes recipes for baking and drink mixes that can keep in the pantry for months and also make wonderful (and welcome) gifts.

I knew immediately upon receiving my copy of Desserts that I absolutely had to make Olmanson’s version of the now infamous jarred Classic Apple Pie (p. 45). As we aren’t used to pies made with a filling comprised of anything but apples and cinnamon, this recipe (calling for a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar) was a little too rich for our tastes. However, the instructions were clear and would easily adapt to anyone’s favourite recipe. I did have an issue with the all-butter Classic Pie Dough (p. 42) being a little too tender to work with when it came to wrestling it into the jars, and while the top crusts were nicely browned and crisp after baking, the bottom s were soggy, almost oily, and didn`t have the tender flake of butter crusts I’ve made before in a pie plate. When I make this recipe again, I’ll be more inclined to try a shortening based dough, brushed with egg and par-baked to keep it a bit sturdier before adding the filling.

I also tried out two of the “mix in a jar” recipes from Desserts and found great success in both their ease of assembly and overall finished product. The Monster Cookies (p. 137) were intriguing since they didn’t use any flour at all and allowed for almost infinite variations, not to mention it made a gorgeous gift! In my version, I used a chocolate-laden trail mix I found at the bulk store in place of the walnuts – nirvana for the chocoholic in me. I also made the Cinnamon Coffee Cake (p. 133), using homemade cinnamon chips, half spelt flour and California walnuts in place of the pecans. This combination was a delectable one that was heightened even more by the recipe’s inclusion of tangy sour cream and decadent butter.

Regardless of whether you have a family of five running on forty different schedules, or it’s simply you at home with a yearning for a treat, there really is something for everyone in this book. It’s a fun, inexpensive and relatively simple way to treat yourself without keeping a whole cake or pie in the house (where it will either be the source of waste or guilt!). Not to mention, Desserts in Jars are portable, versatile, and just plain cute! Shaina Olmanson does a wonderful job at “canning” this concept, and the end result is definitely worth a look.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bean By Bean: A Cookbook

Bean By Bean: A Cookbook 
Author: Crescent Dragonwagon
Publisher: Workman (2011)

Being, for the most part, a very-low-fat vegan, beans have been part of my pantry and kitchen for years. I haven’t met a bean I didn’t like (excepting fava and lupini), and will gladly spend summer afternoons tending, harvesting and eating the fresh Romano and string beans growing in the garden. However, I appreciate that standard bean recipes can become a bit “boring” and tedious to make and eat – there is only so much minestrone, dhal and chili one can have before dinner becomes “beans again?”.

Enter vegetarian “comfort cook” and author Crescent Dragonwagon and her latest book Bean By Bean. This book provides readers of all tastes and ability levels with over 175 recipes, most of which featuring the humble legume in pride of place. The book starts off with a lengthy, intensive essay of sorts covering the basics of beans, even including nutrition and history notes which are more generally interesting than relevant to the cookery. What most readers (especially those new to beans as a staple food) will appreciate is the section titled Unmasking the Mischief of the Musical Fruit (p. 6). Not only does Dragonwagon include “pharmaceutical” remedies such as Beano (though it should be noted that the specific variety she suggests is no longer produced), but includes a list of factors that affect the legume’s digestibility and potential to cause gaseous side effects. The author also provides some helpful herbs and spices that can be added to cooking beans to minimize discomfort – including summer savory (great in Bean & Barley Salad (p. 141)) and cumin (prevalent in chili powder and curries like Dahl (p. 81)). Finally, Bean by Bean’s introduction offers basic cooking instructions and tips for every type of bean available – green (like wax beans), shell beans (which the author terms “semi-mature”) and the most common form – dried. Soaking, “de-gassifying” and a discussion on using canned and home cooked frozen beans for speed and ease are also included and definitely worth a read if you are a novice to this food. For specifics as to the treatment, substitutes and common usage of almost any bean or lentil you could want to try, the Appendix (p. 344) provides a helpful chart that is easy to read and follow.

One of the enjoyable elements of Bean By Bean is the peppering of quotations and trivia throughout the pages. While Dragonwagon’s colloquial, conversational style of writing and humour can be a bit wearing at times (especially in large quantities like this 370-page tome), the quotations are from a variety of sources, such as my personal favourite from the Yoruba people of western Africa:
"Mofere ipa eiye na!" / "Aki ofere li obbe"
"I almost killed the bird!" / "But no one can eat 'almost' in a stew"
 (p. 71)
I also liked the fact that many recipes offer variations on the theme. Changing out one or two ingredients or spices transforms the standard All-Day Baked Beans (p.216) into a global kaleidoscope of flavour (from Vermont to England and even the Caribbean). This book includes recipes for vegan, vegetarian, gluten free and meat eating (or as Dragonwagon writes, “meatist”) diets, and while a recipe may contain meat, dairy or gluten verbatim the options to modify are almost always given.

Not all the recipes in Bean by Bean include the legume itself. Most of the chapters offer bean-free side dishes, condiments and breads designed as a complement to the main ingredient. Dragonwagon previously wrote a book comprised of nothing but cornbread, and three cornbread recipes do find themselves in this book as well as biscuits and steamed brown bread. Vegetable sides like Roasty-Toasty Carrots & Onions (p.37) and sweet-savoury items like Mixed Fruit Salsa (p. 181) break up the carb-heavy dishes and are very tasty on their own as well.

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” Bean Pie (p. 327)
The book’s major strength is it’s ability to take a potentially boring ingredient and showcase it in every form imaginable. Far from the standard soup and chili you’d expect to find in a book like this, Dragonwagon also includes what may be the most comprehensive bean-centric dessert chapter in any published work to date. In fact, it is in this section that my favourite recipe falls – the cheekily named “Don’t Hurt Yourself” Bean Pie (p. 327). This 1897 recipe is very similar in flavour and texture to a pumpkin pie, but features navy beans as the main filling agent. Everyone I served it to enjoyed it – including children (though I didn’t tell them what was in it!). On the savoury side of the plate, I adored the simple flavours of Oven-Roasted Green Beans (p. 229), especially the variation with tomatoes and garlic. The CD’s Chili Mole (p.170) would be a perfect comfort food mid February, as would the Four-Star From-the-Cupboard Red Bean Stew (p.188). I was looking forward to trying Dragonwagon’s version of Vegetarian Cassoulet (p.234), but was turned off by the heavy use of meat analogues in place of other natural flavouring agents. It is worth noting that Dragonwagon is not shy with her use of these items, especially flavoured soy sausages and tempeh. Also, for those readers who are motivated more by photos than words, bear in mind that this book contains no photography whatsoever.

With a host of health, economic and ecological benefits, the versatile bean  is a food that should be on our plates more often than not. Luckily, authors like Crescent Dragonwagon have provided us with tomes of ideas and recipes to play with at home. With Bean By Bean, it’s possible to travel the world through your tastebuds, and save a few pennies for a plane ticket too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Petite Treats: Adorably Delicious Versions of All Your Favorites from Scones, Donuts, and Cupcakes to Brownies, Cakes, and Pies

Petite Treats: Adorably Delicious Versions of All Your Favorites from Scones, Donuts, and Cupcakes to Brownies, Cakes, and Pies 
Authors: Morgan Greenseth Christy Beaver
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2012)

Sweets have always been a staple in the Western culture. It’s hard to imagine a BBQ without pie or ice cream, birthdays and weddings without cake, or a year without Girl Guide cookies. Children still go to school with cookies in their lunchboxes, or have an after-school snack while doing homework. But people aren’t having dinner or cocktail parties as much as they used to, and the once standard family Sunday supper is now only a few times a year at holiday time. Sometimes, though, you want that sweet end to a meal just because, and with the growing awareness and concern over the “mystery ingredients” in packaged goods, home baked is a logical option. The thing about classic desserts like pie and cake, though, is that they aren’t overly portable, or (in the case of storebought items) are too big for a child or adult watching their intake to reasonably eat. Morgan Greenseth and Christy Beaver address this sizeable issue in Petite Treats: Adorably Delicious Versions of All Your Favorites from Scones, Donuts, and Cupcakes to Brownies, Cakes, and Pies.

Petite Treats is the perfect book for both everyday and special occasion desserts, featuring miniaturized recipes for muffins and coffee cakes, brownies, cupcakes, doughnuts and whoopie pies, even cream pie, cheesecake and tiramisu! Although the desserts and snacks are full fat and use real butter, eggs, sugar and chocolate, they’re designed to be enjoyed in small amounts and are often with built in portion control, leaving guilt at the door.

While simply scaling down a recipe to make less can wreak havoc on a baking formula (at the very least sacrificing the intended flavour profile), the work is done for the reader in Petite Treats. Everything is in proper proportion, cut back enough to be relevant but not so much that measurements are impossible or require a scale and special pans. All the recipes in this book use standard Imperial units, and a good portion of them are made in “everyday” baking pans (mostly muffin, mini-muffin and 9” rounds). However, Greenseth and Beaver do call for some unusual pans – some of which I had never heard of nor ever seen in stores. These include miniature scone pans, mini whoopie pie pans (on one occasion a bunny rabbit–shaped variety), mini Bundt pans, and mini cheesecake pans. For the home baker looking for easy to do treats with a minimum of fuss, this is a frustrating (and if opting to purchase the missing pans, expensive) complication and, for me, a deal breaker on many of the recipes I was hoping to try out.

In terms of ingredients, on a few occasions, the authors also call for “1 ½ eggs”, which is almost impossible to measure and a definite oversight. I also questioned the reasoning behind calling for PET milk in one recipe and the sporadic placement of clearly “veganized” ingredients like vegan sour cream and soy milk in what is clearly not a vegan cookbook – including one case where a butter icing – topped cupcake is made with bacon, but also soy milk! This inconsistency is easily remedied by the home baker, but is still somewhat of an irritation – particularly since the “vegan” versions of the ingredients are not used for health reasons, but are simply “there. One explanation for these inclusions is that Greenseth works at a vegan bakery, but one would expect the editing process to streamline the flow of the book for practicality and ease. If a recipe in such a dairy and egg heavy book as  Petite Treats was going to be vegan, why not make it one that is “conveniently” so, without the mock ingredients?

Thankfully, the majority of the recipes (at least the ones I was able to make) turn out as well as one would expect from a pair of bakers. I used an almond-milk version of the Fall Spice Glaze (p. 136) on some pumpkin doughnuts to great acclaim, and while we agreed that the Banana-Blueberry Muffins (p. 12) were too sweet and lacking in true flavour (there isn’t even any cinnamon!), they were very moist and stayed fresh-tasting for a few days. I loved the innovative approach to pie the Apple Pie Cookies (p. 96) offered, though the pie crust they suggested was again too sweet for us – especially since our standard recipe is rather Spartan in both crust and filling. I made two of the three brownie recipes in Petite Treats – the Espresso Brownies (p. 45) and Mrs. Randall’s Brownies (p. 48). The Espresso Brownies were everything you could hope for in an “adult” styled bar – dark, intense and fudgy with definite coffee flavour in both cake and icing. There was a note in that recipe to line the pan with waxed paper – an instruction I took as an error due to wax paper’s tendency to melt and burn at oven temperatures (parchment paper is a far better medium). I took the pan to a family friend and fellow foodie’s house one afternoon and was rewarded with compliments from both she and her husband – high praise indeed. Mrs. Randall’s Brownies were decent in their own right, though I suppose by baking them in a pan rather than in the mini muffin tins called for the resulting cake would have been less dry and spongy. This particular recipe was gluten free and sugar free, a combination that can be less than delectable if done poorly... and unfortunately this version missed the mark.

Espresso Brownies (p. 45)

Petite Treats: Adorably Delicious Versions of All Your Favorites from Scones, Donuts, and Cupcakes to Brownies, Cakes, and Pies is definitely a book for the baker who has all the tools at their disposal and a taste for the whimsical. For the average cook, there are some gems in the pages which are sadly overshadowed by the inconsistent ingredients between recipes and impractical pans required for many items. Perhaps a future printing will correct these oversights, but until then Morgan Greenseth’s and Christy Beaver’s book will remain unopened.

Available December 11, 2012 on Amazon

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Quick and Easy Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food: 150 Down-Home Recipes Packed with Flavor, Not Calories

Quick and Easy Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food: 150 Down-Home Recipes Packed with Flavor, Not Calories
Author: Alicia C. Simpson
Publisher: The Experiment (2012)

Meat eater or meat-freer? Die hard carnivore, fish-head, veggie belly or flexitarian? There are so many diets out there that we all fit into at least one “category” when we eat! So, even if you’re not vegan, chances are you know someone who is. Celebrities all over the globe tout this way of eating – which eschews any and all animal-derived items including eggs, dairy and even honey – as the best way to eat for mind, body and planet. Ethical issues are often cited as reasons many eaters switch over, but increasingly the crusade has been led by people searching for a healthier lifestyle or a way to lose weight.

Unfortunately, just because something is “vegan” doesn’t mean it automatically becomes a beacon of health. Like with many gluten free foods, there are many “vegan friendly” recipes and processed foods that involve copious quantities of oil, sugar, salt and refined carbohydrates (potato chips and cotton candy are both gluten free and vegan, but are in no way good for you!). The balance of delicious, soul-nourishing fare and healthy, vegan eating is the focus of blogger Alicia C. Simpson’s latest book: Quick and Easy Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food: 150 Down-Home Recipes Packed with Flavor, Not Calories. Simpson is the author of the blogs Vegan Guinea Pig and The Lady and Seitan, both filled with delicious food, reviews and discussion.

There is no denying the nutrition factor in this book. The first 30 odd pages detail “low calorie” eating, the importance of exercise, definitions of “low-fat / low-calorie”, “serving size” “nutrient density” and the like, and finally calorie-controlled menus for 1400, 1600, 1800 and 2000 calorie diets. A mini “glossary” of common vegan ingredients (i.e. nutritional yeast) is also included, and for true vegan neophytes this is a good read to have under your belt. I also appreciated the visually-appealing lists of serving sizes, covering common items in the “grains”, “vegetables”, “fruits” and “proteins”. The only issue I took with this part was the categorization of potato as a vegetable and not a “grain” like corn. Perhaps the phrase “starches” would have been better suited. As a nutritionist, I also appreciated the RDI tables for calcium and iron. However, I feel that the page of algebraic-like calculations to figure out caloric needs was excessive for a cookbook touted as “Quick and Easy”. There are many websites that are publicly accessible which calculate individual needs and eliminate the possibility of human mathematical error. The nutritional information is provided on each recipe, however the serving size isn’t – meaning that you would have to make the whole dish separately, weigh the components and portion out each element between serving bowls (not quick and/or easy) in order to get a proper calorie count and serving size.

Banana Nut Bread (p. 82)
In terms of the recipes, Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food includes breakfasts, breads, snacks, sides, salads, soups, mains, desserts, beverages and condiments. Simpson also incorporates a section of “basics” – from simple roasted tofu to five types of seitan (including my favourite sausage – chorizo!). Many of the recipes use the same ingredients, or are themselves used in other recipes (aka “recipes within recipes”). This can be a boon or a hindrance to those looking for “quick and easy” – if you are willing to spend a weekend preparing all the basic elements of a meal for later in the week, then when it comes time to put it all together it is more than acceptable to expect a 30-minute turnaround time. However, this is not a book that caters to impulse cooking. For instance, Wet Burritos (p. 176) could very well be a weeknight meal – but not if you haven’t made the Taco Seasoning Mix (p. 234), Enchilada Sauce (p. 236) and Refried Beans (p. 112) first. Granted, you can (and should) make batch-ups of these components once you find a few recipes you love, and keep them on hand in either fridge or freezer. Would-be cooks from Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food should also be familiar with the flavours, textures and preparation methods for things like quinoa, amaranth and millet and be prepared to spend the extra money (if not vegan normally) to buy liquid aminos, soy yogurt, non-dairy cream, “butter” and “cheese” and TVP. Unlike most nutritionist-vegans, Simpson is unabashedly a fan of both soy and gluten for protein, which is refreshing to see, but I do with there were more whole legume-based meals (the majority of the book’s legumes are in soup).

Banana Nut Bread (p. 82)
I had the experience of both resounding success and dismal failure while cooking from Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food. Both the Crispy Chile Peas (p. 94) and the South Carolina Peach Jam (p. 240) were tasty and perfectly spiced and interesting twists on a crunchy snack and toast spread. However, the Buttermilk Biscuits (p. 68) had a very strange flavour – nothing reminiscent of buttermilk – and did not become the flaky puffs I know biscuits to be. The Banana Nut Bread (p. 82) never baked through, despite extra oven time and every trick in the book I knew of. The loaf was also woefully lacking in flavour, being devoid of vanilla or spices. I don’t expect a “spice cake” with my banana breads, but one without cinnamon? My batter-tasters agreed: it was definitely missing something, and both those recipes felt to me like a waste of fairly expensive soy yogurt and almond milk. Thinking that it could simply be that Simpson’s forte is not baking, I tried the Yellow Split Pea Soup (p. 148), and was overwhelmed by sweet and smoky flavour. There is no salt in the recipe (thankfully there are bay leaves, but too many for my taste), and I found that I needed at least a good teaspoon to bring it back over to the “savoury” side, and added lashings of black pepper and a pinch of basil to try and liven up the flavour. With the modifications I made, it was serviceable, and if I was to make it again I’d leave out at least two of the bay leaves. I did have some success with the Spiced Cranberry Sauce (p. 123), since it’s not as sweet as most (a quality I like), but then again it’s hard to mess up cranberry sauce! I would love to make the Chorizo (p.45) and the Moon Dusted Donuts (p. 214) but at this point I’m hesitant to try.

South Carolina Peach Jam (p. 240)
Vegan fare does not have to be boring, difficult, unhealthy or outlandish. Everyone needs to feel comforted by a meal every so often, and if they can do that while adhering to their dietary needs so much the better. There are many aspects to Alicia C. Simpson’s writing I like, some even love, but the inconsistent success I had with the recipes in Quick and Easy Low-Cal Vegan Comfort Food: 150 Down-Home Recipes Packed with Flavor, Not Calories indicates it will probably be a very occasional resource in my kitchen. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

500 of the Healthiest Recipes and Health Tips You’ll Ever Need

500 of the Healthiest Recipes and Health Tips You’ll Ever Need
Authors: Hazel Courteney and Stephen Langley
Publisher: CICO Books (2012)

We are all trying to be healthier. Whether there is a specific goal in mind, like losing weight or treating a pre-existing condition, or there is just a general desire to feel better, overall wellness is paramount. Before turning to drugs or supplements as a “quick-fix” solution, why not try nature’s original medicine – food? 500 of the Healthiest Recipes and Health Tips You’ll Ever Need is a collection of nutrient-rich recipes and hints in a relatively easy-to-navigate, colourful format.

While this is a recipe book in title, Healthiest Recipes essentially takes on the role of baby-stepping bible for any sort of health complaint. Unfortunately, the “hype” associated with many “natural” and “holistic” nutrition circles carries into the book courtesy of Stephen Langley, a London-based naturopath. Now, I have nothing against natural remedies – in fact, I am a practicing holistic nutritionist myself – but many portions of this book are impractical or expensive to the average individual. In some cases the suggestions are even dangerous for those with the conditions the book is intended to treat! While well meaning, trying to be a “jack of all trades” just translates into contradiction and confusion for the readers. For example, in the “Anti-Allergy Foods” chapter (p. 22) the opening pages suggest tamari, miso and natto and suitable foods for a soy allergy, and even mentions tofu as being tolerable to some. Obviously, those with a true allergy will find this “handy swap” completely useless, as all of those items are soy based. Far more helpful would have been tips on how to spot potential allergens in ingredient lists, such as casein for milk-avoiders or xanthan gum for those with a corn allergy. There is no mention of avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen or pantry either, which can lead to attacks in sensitive individuals. In “A Healthy Heart” (p. 116), the authors state initially to avoid all table salt, then mentions that it’s okay if not “in excess”. This would be fine if they had included what a “reasonable” level was, and also included any added salts in the blanket statement. There is also good deal of fuss made about gluten and wheat damaging the gut and affecting nutrient absorption (p. 32) immediately following two recipes containing gluten-ridden spelt, soba noodles (which are often made with a blend of wheat and buckwheat), soy sauce and stock (both of which often contain wheat and/or gluten). Gluten and wheat are too often presented as the “root of all evil”, but some notes simply state to “eliminate wheat”, which will not help matters a great deal if it is the gluten protein causing the issue. The statement that wheat and gluten free pastas are better for balancing blood sugar is also misleading, as many commercially available options are still made from processed, refined flours which spike glucose at the same (or worse) rates. The book even admits that “many gluten-free foods are high in cornstarch and/or syrup” (p.32), two items they denounce in earlier pages.

This is not to say every tip in Healthiest Recipes is fraught with inaccuracy. Many nutrition and health notes in the pages are correct and interesting to read. The most useful of these are often found in the “Food as Medicine” sidebars (like pineapple’s enzyme bromelian acting as digestive aid, anti-inflammatory agent, blood cell “lubricant” and anti-tumour agent (p. 62) and why having a banana before bed gives you the tryptophan your body needs to convert to melatonin for proper sleep (p. 249)). The “Health Tips” are for the most part no slouches either – being a mix of trivia (people with Type A blood suffer from more circulation-related problems and artherosclerosis (p. 121)), nutrient advice (CoQ10 acting like an energy “spark plug” and heart support (p.260)) and lifestyle modifications (how to get your kids (and you) moving more for a healthy heart (p.133)). However, some of the hints border on “too technical” for the average reader to pay attention to.

What should have been the most useful portion of is the “Larder List” (p. 16). However, this list of “staples” is so long that even the largest pantries would have trouble holding it all! Seven types of vinegar and six varieties of sweetener are listed, but the recipes often call for them at random points without explanation as to why one is better than another. No fewer than fifteen types of fats and oils are also listed along with 15 types of grains and a multitude of nuts and seeds. Aside from the spices, the majority of these ingredients are expensive and not used in any quantity large enough to give them true value in the common cash-strapped home.
The recipes in Healthiest Recipes are in general very good, if you can abide the complexity of them. Most readers will find some of the phrasing is confusing. I noticed that the delicious-looking Falafel with Avocado, Tomato, and Red Onion Salsa (p.85) “deep fries” the chickpea cakes in 3 tablespoons of oil – which is a ridiculously tiny amount for a cooking method that denotes that food is submerged completely in hot fat to cook. I was also amused to see rice milk being used in a dish that also contained goat’s cheese (p. 30) and another that calls for raw honey, then proceeds to broil it (p. 38) – two of the many contradictory ingredient lists in Healthiest Recipes. Most modifications are simple enough for the skilled cook to handle, and the use of internet search engines is invaluable for ingredient substitutions (especially in the case of sweetener and dairy substitutions). That said, the Cardamom Rice Pudding (p. 113) I made with almond in place of rice milk was surprisingly creamy and perfectly spiced, though I did need to add a touch of salt (an ingredient missing in most of the book’s recipes). The Ribbon Vegetable and Hummus Wraps (p.71) were a surprisingly simple, filling lunch that would have only been made better with the addition of some alfalfa sprouts for colour and bulk. My mother has bookmarked the Miso and Seaweed Broth with Noodles (p.141) to try out, being a fan of the Japanese broth, and the Beet and Walnut Cake (p.242) I made for some friends (using a stevia baking blend and honey in place of the xylitol) blend was devoured to praise.
Beet and Walnut Cake (p. 242) with Crabapple Jelly
If you’re looking to be the master of your own health, Hazel Courteney and Stephen Langley make a commendable effort to help you along the way. However, I’m questioning how many readers will find the book too confusing, preachy or impractical for their skills as cooks, nutritionists and doctors, or who will be unable to use the book to treat their conditions as intended due to homes with children, holidays and long commutes. Coupled with the errors in the nutrition recommendations and an exhaustive, hard-to-source grocery list, I’m waiting for some serious revision work to take place before I’d title this book the 500 of the Healthiest Recipes and Health Tips You’ll Ever Need.

Available on Amazon

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook

The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook 
Authors: Cheryl and Griffith Day
Publisher: Artisan (2012)

It’s commonly said that while cooking is an art, baking is a science. To me, that evokes pictures of white-coat, tyrannical chefs weighing out every speck of flour and spooning out the quarter-teaspoon of sugar that pushes the tare that milligram over the “appropriate” amount. That is no way to fall in love with the glorious art of the kitchen and really enjoy the time you spend baking treats for your loved ones. Thankfully, Cheryl and Griffith Day share the same happy, hearty approach to baking, and together they opened the Back in the Day Bakery – “the best little bakery in the South” – in 2002. Ten years later, the couple penned the bakery’s cookbook and won over the stomachs and hearts of those who knew the establishment as well as Back in the Day newbies.

Brown Sugar Tomato Jam (p. 238)
The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook is very much attuned to the “down home” comfort food we all know and love. At the same time, the Days have upped the ante on many recipes, bringing new and delightful twists on tradition. With chapters devoted to Breakfast; Coffee Cakes, Quick Breads and Sweet Yeast Breads; Cupcakes and Cakes; Pies, Cobblers, Crisps, and Tarts; Puddings and Custards; Cookies; Brownies and Bars; Confections; and Savouries, there is something to love for every age and disposition. The introductory section of this book is dedicated to the historical story of the Days and the Bakery and is beautifully written – a theme that continues throughout the remaining pages. Every portion of Back in the Day flows in a way that feels like Cheryl or Griffith is speaking with you in casual conversation, the passion they have for their craft silently infusing itself into the reader. The commentary is not excessive, but is enough to drive home the “small town” feel of the Bakery and make the reader feel comfortable.

The first section also includes a list of the key tools for any baker and the spices the Bakery values in their work, but the most critical (and interesting) portion of the first 10 pages is The Method to the Magic (p. 5). This six-part segment details the areas to pay careful attention to when preparing to bake in order to achieve consistent success. These tips range from the common sense (read the recipe through before starting, make sure you understand it, and take out all the ingredients) to the scientific (why and when eggs are needed, leaveners and ingredient temperatures) to the “hidden tricks” the Days have found helpful in practice (like moving the batter from the mixing bowl to another bowl). While not in the introduction, Back in the Day also has a section of ingredient and supply Resources (p. 249) that is a welcome boon for those in small communities or who are loath to shop around in person.
PB & J Bars (p. 195)

Readers will note that there is a lot of instruction involved with Back in the Day. This is not to say the book coddles the would-be baker – while there are simpler recipes (like Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 172) and Blackberry Cobbler (p. 121)), the recipes in the Confections chapter (p. 207), as well as the infamous Salted Caramel Apple Pie (p. 118) involve candy-making techniques and require a candy thermometer. Secondary recipes and hints (called “Sweet Notes”) pepper the pages, from making simple syrup (p. 87) to colouring sprinkles (p. 67), and recipe-specific tips are included where relevant. There is even a page dedicated to ideas for packaging the treats as gifts (p. 186), many of which I plan to use for the holidays.

Of course, a cookbook is nothing without good, solid recipes to stand behind – and Back in the Day delivers in this respect as well. While the majority of the book is at home in the sweet kitchen, there is a chapter dedicated to Savouries (p. 223) as well as a few saltier inclusions in with the Breakfasts (p. 13). I fell in love with the Brown Sugar Tomato Jam (p. 238), especially after adding a dash of ancho chili powder. It took perfectly to canning in small jars for Christmas stocking stuffers, and I saved a small pot of it to top extra-old cheddar and walnut gougères. On the sweeter side of things, the PB & J Bars (p. 195) were a huge hit both as written and in a smaller, veganized batch that I made with oat flour, ground chia seeds, flaked almonds and crab apple jelly. Of all the recipes I tried in Back in the Day, the crowning glory was by far Cheryl’s Brownies (p. 190). These rich, fudgey-cakey bars deserve a special mention not only because they were simple to prepare and easy to modify (expample: I left out the nuts for our plain-Jane brownie family), but because they garnered the approval of my most discerning taste-tester: my supertaster sister. Not only did these get a thumbs-up, but the empty pan returned with her on her first weekend home from university with a note signed by all her housemates requesting “more, please!”. Considering that requests for a remake of anything not originating from a package mix are as common as an ostrich in full flight, this book would be worth a buy for that recipe alone. The Creole Brownies (p. 193) are another stellar chocolate option, perfect for the bittersweet connoisseur, the base a dense block of baked cookie-cake peppered with cacao nibs layered with a decadent coffee-laced ganache. While I haven’t had time quite yet, the Brown Sugar Banana Bread (p. 45) and the aforementioned Salted Caramel Apple Pie are definitely on my must-make roster.
Cheryl's Brownies (p. 190)

If you love the experience of bringing a comforting, decadent bakery experience to your home kitchen (and reading the tale of two determined bakers who could), you’ll adore The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook. From charming stories to handy hints and sinfully delightful goodies, the pages are packed with feasts for the eyes and stomach.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Home-Grown Harvest

Home-Grown Harvest
Editor: Rebecca Woods
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2011)

Showcasing seasonal food is one of the tastiest and most nutritious ways to eat. The flavours of peak season peaches in a crispy cobbler, a medley of late Summer vegetables in a ratatouille or the bright green pop of tender asparagus and spring peas in a creamy risotto are hard to pass up – and when the produce comes from your own backyard or local farm, the benefits are even greater. Home-Grown Harvest, edited by Rebecca Woods, is a mouthwatering collection of recipes and stunning photography that will be sure to lure even the most skeptical cook into a fresh new world.

Harvest is a unique book in that it is not authored by one particular individual. Rather, it is a compilation of recipes by several cookbook authors such as Ross Dobson, Laura Washburn and Brian Glover. The recipes are organized brilliantly into categories of plant type: Root Vegetables, Bulbs and Stems, Fruiting Vegetables, Podding Vegetables, Greens, Zucchini and Squash, Mushrooms, Tree Fruits, and Soft Fruits. Almost every inclusion in this book is accompanied by stunning, full colour photography; both of the “raw” ingredients and the finished dishes. Offerings range from the more “standard” Caesar Salad (p. 108) to the unique Tenderstem Broccoli, Shiitake & Tofu Omelet (p. 97). All courses are represented in one way or another, from starters such as the classic Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil Salad (p. 73) to decadent desserts like the Frosted Pear, Zucchini & Carrot Cake (p. 146).

Readers of Harvest will be quick to discover that many of the contributing authors are not American in origin. While the measures are given in Imperial units, the phrasing and titles of recipes, as well as their preambles, hint at European heritage. Certain ingredients, too, will be more unfamiliar to American eyes and palates. Tenderstem broccoli, for example, is commonly marketed as broccolini and occasionally (though erroneously) broccoli rabe. Items such as golden syrup and crème fraîche are less popular in US and Canadian markets (though they can be found if you look hard enough), and so many would-be cooks may find themselves researching a substitute.

Leek & Potato Soup (p. 41)
Thankfully, the language style in Harvest does not detract from it’s recipes. Instructions for meals like Triple Tomato & Basil Risotto (p. 69) are clear and concise enough for the most casual home cook to attempt their creation. Conversely, the wording is in no way “dumbed down” or trivializing, and is sophisticated enough that more skilled individuals won’t feel out of place.

Given that my hemisphere is transitioning into Autumn, my family is moving towards heartier, more warming fare like soups and stews made with root vegetables. I opted to use up the last of our local new potatoes in the Leek & Potato Soup (p. 41) by Tonia George, which is one of my mom’s favourite varieties. I made two modifications based on what I had on hand – I added a diced parsnip to the buttery steam-sauté of leeks, onions and potatoes, and for the “milk” (the recipe doesn’t state a specific fat level) I used a 370 mL can of evaporated 2%. The finished soup got a hint of rosemary and chives stirred in, and tasted creamy, smooth and rich without being cloying. It made a fantastic starter for the meal we served to company, and my mom took leftovers for lunch the next few days.

Potato & Coconut Soup with Thai Pesto (p. 16)
I also made a second soup from Harvest, the more exotic Sweet Potato & Coconut Soup with Thai Pesto (p. 16) by Ross Dobson. Since I knew it would likely only be packed for my mom’s lunches during the week, I stirred the modified pesto (I had no fish sauce or basil, so used tamari, chives and mint as well as a hint of shredded coconut) into the puree instead of dolloping it on top. Even without having the Thai curry paste (I used a pinch-hitter of Sriracha, garlic and ginger), this recipe was the epitome of all the things Thai food is known for – a perfect marriage of flavour, texture and heat. While the puree itself, made with local sweet potatoes, red onion and coconut milk, is mild and sweet, akin to a typical Asian pumpkin soup, the pesto utilizes green chile peppers and if eaten alone (especially without prior warning) is a painfully nuclear concoction, albeit delicious pain. Together, though, the sweet and spicy aspects of the recipe, paired with a delicate sourness from the pesto’s lime, meld into a stick-to-your-ribs whole that is neither too sugary not mind-blowingly hot. The benefit of keeping the pesto separate when cooking this for the family is that everyone can then adjust the spice level to their own preference. Most children will leave their bowls unadorned, but those with a passion for heat will be adding tablespoons. I did have to add another can’s worth of water to get the soup to a spoonable consistency and used half and half toasted sesame and coconut oil for the initial sauté. It’s not a recipe for those with a limited pantry or grocery availability, and if you aren’t sure you like Thai (or generally Asian) food, chances are you’ll pass on this one. However, for the fans of the Orient, it’s a delicious way to bring a taste of Asia to the table.

Probably the biggest hit of the book with my taste testers were the Mini Chocolate, Beet & Cherry Cakes (p. 33) by Sarah Randell. I’ve long been a fan of beets and chocolate together, and by adding home-dried sour cherries to the mix I was sure the flavours would be stellar. Even after veganizing it with a slurry of ground flaxseed and hot coffee in place of the eggs, using whole wheat pastry flour and a combination of pureed raspberries and beets for half the oil, the giant muffins I made (in lieu of buying mini loaf pans) were moist, decadent and were snatched up in minutes. None of the tasters believed that there was anything healthy about them, much less that the star ingredient was beets! The bittersweet chocolate in the recipe, along with the cocoa powder, add a touch of “grown up” flair to a dessert commonly associated with the younger crowd, and I’d be hard pressed to find a child who would pass up a taste!

Mini Chocolate, Beet & Cherry Cakes (p. 33)

If you’re passionate about tasting the best of the backyard, or trying something new at the farmer’s market, Home-Grown Harvest is worth taking a look at. No matter what your palate, your season or your family dynamics, something is sure to catch your eye and deliver on it’s promise of full bodied wholesome flavour. It is gorgeous enough to share space on the coffee table, useful enough for the kitchen library, and a wealth of inspiration for entire years to come.