Thursday, May 17, 2012

Classic Artisan Baking: Treats for Family and Friends

Classic Artisan Baking: Treats for Family and Friends
Author: Julian Day
Publisher: Ryland, Peters and Small (2012)
It’s hard not to love something that is homemade with love. Be it a child’s first “imaginary soup”, a gift basket filled with homemade jams and pickles, or your mother’s chocolate chip cookies that you can never seem to replicate (even though the recipe is on the back of the chocolate chip bag), the rustic touch is a comforting highlight of the best classical fare. True culinary artisans still cling to the ideal of being “just like Grandma”, but with demand growing and both time and money in ever shrinking supply un-doctored, wholesome food is a rare treat.

Meg Rivers believed wholeheartedly in making baked goods that were simple, without artificial agents and which would be consumed so quickly that adding any preservatives would be unnessecary. She started Meg Rivers’ Cakes, offering wholesome baked goods made from good-quality, seasonal ingredients, a passionate venture which Julian Day took on after Rivers’ passing in 2011. Classic Artisan Baking: Treats for Family and Friends brings the taste and experience of that truly “real” bakery to the home cook, in a beautifully bound and illustrated 140 page work.

Artisan Baking evokes feelings and imagined memories of early summers in an English cottage – in no small part due to the quaint language of the British Day. Though likely not intentional, the North American heartstrings will tug at descriptions of treats as “family cakes”, “biscuits” or “tiffin”. The classical, almost Devil-may-care way that a seasoned Grandma would throw together ingredients for a batch of goodies is also expressed in Artisan Baking – ingredients are often given in “scant” or “heaping” amounts, or measurements are prefaced with “about”. While seasoned cooks will find this no problem (and like me, feel relieved at the freedom such directions allow), those who are more reliant on “exacts” may have an issue. Readers in non-metric countries may be surprised by the recipes’ temperatures given first in Celsius, then Fahrenheit, and finally “gas mark”, while ingredients are given first by weight, then volume. This is not shocking as both the author and bakery are both based in the county of Warwickshire in England, but is handy to realize when first starting out.

Unlike many other current baking books on the market, Artisan Baking spends no time on creating a dictionary of ingredients, techniques and shopping guides. A notation underneath the ISBN and publisher information on the reverse cover page lists just five items for the would-be baker to consider – all so simple and basic that they would be a given in almost any recipe. In fact, the tips (such as preheating the oven) are assumed by the cooking world so much that it was only when looking for the publishing date (after testing several recipes) for this review that I discovered this addition at all.

The starring quality of Artisan Baking is the recipe collection itself. Clear attention and forethought have been paid to each and every inclusion – the reader will easily see that Day adores his craft and is committed to bringing wholesome, unprocessed treats back to the household. It is rare that a reader cannot find self-rising or whole wheat flour, corn syrup or marzipan in their local store, and even a quick internet search will provide substitutes for or explanations of more European ingredients like glucose syrup, treacle or ginger wine.

I had a hard time determining where to start with this book’s offerings, since the decadent photography kept pulling me into every page. However, the Carrot Cake (p. 111) won me over due to it’s unlikely “healthy” qualities. Unlike standard carrot cakes (be they in the UK or America) laden with refined flour, eggs, sugar and oil, the loaf-style cake in Artisan Baking has only a single egg, ¾ a cup of both oil and brown sugar (which I was still able to easily reduce) and is made entirely with whole wheat flour. A banana provides moisture and binding power as well as an unexpected, fruity sweetness – and those readers who dislike the pineapple customary in carrot cake will find its absence welcome. The result is frosted with a less-sweet version of cream cheese frosting, using mascarpone (or in my case, homemade ricotta), salted butter, citrus juice and minimal icing sugar. Everybody I served this to commented on how refreshing the cake was without the cloying grease and sugar, and also how moist the slices were even after four days in the fridge. For a Sunday night dessert after a day spent out back working the garden, my family enjoyed slices of the richer, but still bitter-sweet, Coffee and Walnut Cake (p. 30), laced with instant coffee, chopped walnuts, ground almonds and a kiss of salt from the butter. This dessert also stayed moist and rich several days into it’s lifespan, even when I made it a second time with spelt flour and vegan egg replacer (pictured right). I finished and decorated both this cake and the carrot loaf described above simply, just as they appear in the book’s incredible photographs by Steve Painter – frosting only on the top of the cake (and in the case of the Coffee and Walnut Cake, as a filling).

The one issue I did have with Artisan Baking is that certain pan sizes are strange to the average homemaker. As someone who relies on the standard eight- or nine-inch “round” and “square” shapes when baking cakes and bars, most of the book’s larger cakes (baked in a 7” tin) required careful scaling (barring a trip to the specialty store) to avoid disappointment. The size discrepancy is not much of an issue with the bar cookies Day includes (most of which call for a 14” x 8” rectangular pan), but could be a deal breaker for those interested in the fancier cakes or who are looking to recreate the stunning photography accompanying each recipe. If you do plan on baking frequently from this piece, I suggest picking up at least a 7” round spring-form pan for the “family cakes”.

Being able to reconnect with the spirit behind artisanal cooking is an important lesson that (thankfully) a growing number of people are beginning to learn. The art of making desserts which are classically easy and simply good, full of flavour but without the mask of potions and preservatives, is not obscure and hard to obtain knowledge – it only takes a single guide to show the way. Happily, Julian Day and his mentor Meg Rivers are more than up to the task with one of my new bookshelf staples: the perfectly titled Classic Artisan Baking: Treats for Family and Friends.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Healthy College Cookbook

The Healthy College Cookbook
Authors and Collaborators: Alexandra Nimetz, Jason Stanley, Emeline Starr, Rachel Holcomb
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (2008) 

Stereotypical college life is fairly simple: dorm rooms, cafeterias, all nighters, takeout pizza and lots of liquid “sustenance” in both caffeinated and alcoholic forms. While it is definitely not as party-hearty as the movies and TV shows would have you believe, there is no denying the fact that students are in a very different situation than when Mom and Dad were in charge. Meal plans and the accessibility of not-so-healthy options in campus cafeterias make healthy eating a challenge, and with growing numbers of young adults leaving the nest without learning how to boil water the thought of using the kitchen facilities can be daunting.

Enter the by-students, for-students culinary solution: The Healthy College Cookbook. Written by Alexandra Nimetz, Jason Stanley and Emeline Starr, this new edition adds recipes from a fresh wave of post-secondary students and turns the simple “how to” original into a verifiable catalogue of ideas. Not only are the recipes simple, relatively quick to prepare and inexpensive, this cookbook is also filled with information on setting up your first kitchen, basic cooking techniques, grocery shopping and other “kitchen tips” that are smattered throughout the 283 pages. Handy symbols on each recipe denote vegetarian, vegan, “super quick” and “dorm room favourite” selections and all have a brief nutrition analysis provided for them.

For those who are truly new in the kitchen, the first chapter “Getting Started in Your First Kitchen” is a must read. Even as a seasoned home cook, I appreciated the tips the authors gave (like Three Easy Odour Beaters (p. 6)), and I wish that as a student I had the Cookware Essentials list (p. 3)! The herb and spice section is almost an encyclopedia (in a good way), including suggestions of what to use on what food you’re cooking. A small note on healthier substitutions (p. 17) is basic but useful for most “recipe makeovers”, and I particularly appreciated the line “... remember, 1 slice chocolate cake = 27 minutes on the Stairmaster!” (ironically for a 150 lb individual this is extremely close!). The only part of this introductory chapter I found lacking was the cupboard and fridge “essentials” list (p. 5-6), which has significant gaps in terms of what to keep on hand for most of the recipes to follow.
Peanut Butter Oatmeal (p. 26)

College Cookbook is categorized into eleven chapters, which is a bit superfluous given the bulk of them fit more than one “mould” (and some cases would do better in a different category). While Chicken and Bacon Quesadillas (p. 61) is documented as serving 8 to 10, I defy any college student to have just half of a tortilla as a snack. The entire contents of the “Pasta” section fit neatly into one of the Vegetarian, Seafood, Chicken, Meat or Sauce chapters, and the solitary turkey recipe (Turkey Burgers (p. 212)) looks awkward nestled in the Meat chapter with the beef and pork offerings. While the “Side Dishes and Sauces” chapter contains baked, twice baked and mashed potato recipes, the “Appetizer” section also contains a baked B.L.T. Tater (p. 58) which is essentially the same thing. A condensed table of contents and better categorization of the recipes would probably better suit the “easy” marketing angle of the book.

The actual recipes in College Cookbook are generally solid, dependable creations that the average student would both be able to and want to recreate. The meals are also those that can “grow” with the cook as they build their kitchen and cooking know-how, allowing enough free reign to experiment with flavours and ingredients while still maintaining the integrity of the original dish. That said, not all the recipes in this book are what I (or some students I consulted) would consider “healthy”. A single serving of the aforementioned Chicken and Bacon Quesadilla (half of one tortilla) clocks in at 230 calories and 13 grams of fat! Given that the majority of the student body would easily have two (if not more) servings at a time if they were feeling peckish, the Freshman 15 wouldn’t  be too far off.

Some recipes are too simple for anything but a child’s cookbook to have, such as Ants on a Log (p. 47) or Cottage Cheese on a Bagel (p. 72) while others are more complex, time consuming, hard to store, expensive or “gourmet” than what the average college cook is willing to approach. The “harder” recipes shouldn’t be discounted completely, however, as they are a wonderful place to turn when time and a fully equipped kitchen are on your side (perhaps over Summer break?). Even the “middle ground” items like Tofu and Broccoli Stir Fry (p. 133) are perfect for any home cook’s repertoire, regardless of their age or living situation. I love that this updated version of College Cookbook does contain a decent amount of tofu-based recipes and vegan options, and while a lot of the recipes are sorely lacking in vegetables as written, adding produce to stir fries, pastas, soups and casseroles is simple. Another strength of this book is it’s high ratio of “takeout”-like recipes. For anyone on a budget, let alone those who are chronically surrounded by fast food, being able to make a cheaper and healthier option is a big plus.

Chicken Curry (p. 202)

This book is definitely not just for broke, stressed out, time-crunched or lazy students looking for the next snack – although it suits that purpose as well. There is enough variation in the pages to tempt food lovers of any age, especially those who commute to work or have children to care for. I had the pleasure of having a lightning-quick, stick-to-your-ribs (albeit almost cement-thick) bowl of Peanut Butter Oatmeal (p. 26) one morning, while my mom has been enjoying reheating the Chicken Curry (p. 202) and Thai-Inspired Beef and Pasta (p. 150) at work. In both the case of the curry and beef dishes, I followed the student-life example of using what you have around and catered to my mom’s desire for vegetable-heavy dishes with a few substitutions and additions. The creamy curry (originally a milk-based sauce with diced onion and chicken cubes) became in essence a rich vegetable curry packed with mushrooms, cauliflower, snow peas and carrots and an occasional mouthful of chicken. The six ounces of thinly sliced, marinated round steak stretched to three filling, nutritious meals (rather than the two servings as written) with generous additions of carrot, green onion, mushrooms, bell pepper and snow peas. In both cases, the full flavour of the original recipe still shone through, and allowed the small amount of protein to carry through many meals without resorting to adding a huge amount of starch like rice or pasta. As we didn’t have any on hand, the macaroni in the Thai-Inspired Beef became brown rice stick noodles that my sister had brought back after her second year in university, adding a more authentic flair while also costing less per serving than standard Italian pasta. We’ve earmarked several other recipes in this so-called College Cookbook which are perfect for our hungry, busy and frugal family of five’s dinners as well.

Thai-Inspired Beef and Pasta (p. 150)

For those about to head off to school in September, or their parents, this book is a fabulous investment in the future. The health and wellbeing of young adults and families is at stake thanks to the inability of the younger generation to craft a meal from scratch and the lack of time or patience the older generation has to play teacher. The hidden value in this book is truly in that it makes cooking approachable and fun, two qualities which are frequently forgotten in the world of 500 page gourmet tomes and perfectly executed television shows. Anyone who pages through The Healthy College Cookbook will find something of value, be it a tip about deodorizing the kitchen or an impressive but low-fat burger, and the lessons learned along the way won’t be as fleeting as those from early morning lectures.

Available on Amazon