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.

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