Monday, July 23, 2012

The Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book

The Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book
Author: Judy Rosenberg
Publisher: Workman Publishing (2011)

It’s hard to argue with good old fashioned honesty, especially when it comes to food. These days, there is so much out there in the ways of additives, preserving agents and allergens that it’s hard to find something that really is what the label says it is. This is doubly true for the commonly misleading “diet” food out there, which may be low in fat, but with the trade-off of staggeringly high calories and sugar grams, or an item like sugar-free chocolate and candy which can ruin your night if you overindulge (and not to mention still contain gross amounts of calories and fat). Home cooking is no stranger to modifications in the name of heath either – how often have you tasted a sawdust-y, spongy cookie or gummy slice of cake, to be told later that it was “better for you” thanks to sugar substitute, coarse milled flour and applesauce in place of oil?  While there are certainly successful, and dare I say delicious, methods of increasing a recipe’s health potential, it is refreshing to see a cookbook on the shelves that is willing and happy to declare the decadent ingredients the recipes contain. Judy Rosenberg, the owner and driving force behind the highly successful Rosie’s Bakery franchises in New England, took that unabashedly proud stance in her latest collection of decadent treats: The Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book.

Rosie’s makes no attempt to be a beacon of health and wellness. Like the title describes, the recipes contained in the 401 pages of text are laced with sticks of butter, pounds of chocolate, lashings of cream and cups of white and brown sugar. However, while not a weight loss or cholesterol-lowering how-to manual, the sheer fact that this book contains these most simple and pure cornerstones of baking, unadulterated by the chemical additives of modern day store-bought goods, makes it a book that you can feel good cooking from. The food made from the pages of this cookbook is so satisfyingly rich that portion control is second nature. While you may be tempted to take two (or ten!) Soho Globs (p. 136) off the cookie platter, the 12 ounces of chocolate and ¾ stick of butter in the recipe ensure that you’re sated after just one. Rosie’s Blueberry Muffins (p. 107) are sweet enough to have with a late-afternoon coffee or tea, but still hearty enough for a special brunch – you can even try to convince yourself that the oats in the crumble topping qualify as breakfast cereal. Even recipes as over-the-top as the Chocolate Delirium (p. 77), featuring a pound each of butter and bittersweet chocolate, six eggs, six extra egg yolks and a cup of brewed espresso, slip comfortably into the category of “special occasion without guilt” food... and Rosie’s definitely has it’s fair share of “special occasion” fare!
Rhubarb Bars (p. 285)

Where this book makes it’s mark on the average reader is in it’s vast collection of what I term “bake sale classics”. These are the items that seem to show up on almost every bazaar, fundraiser or company picnic dessert table, always from the local bakeshoppe or grocery, and for the most part nobody can figure out just how those businesses made them so well. With Rosie’s, the reader is privy to those secrets firsthand, and after adhering to Rosenberg’s recipe once or twice the formulae are easy enough to tweak to your individual standards of perfection. I made both the Tart Lemon Squares (p. 284) and the Rhubarb Bars (p. 285) in this book, and the changes I made from one batch to the next were minimal but imperative in transforming the recipe from Rosie’s to mine. For the lemon squares, which were bright and tart as described but lacking in a true “lemon” flavour as originally written, I added the zest of the juiced citrus, the leftover yolk (the white being used to glaze the crusts of both lemon and rhubarb bars) and a pinch of salt to the custard filling. The result was like the lemon bars from a roadside bakery stall we would visit on summer road trips in my childhood, but better – fresher, lemonier and with that perfect touch of “zing” to break through any taste of egginess in the filling. Fresh backyard rhubarb formed the basis of the other batch of bars, and I bumped up the “rustic” factor of their homemade appeal by making their base out of whole wheat flour and topping the gooey, chunky filling with a shower of large flake oats. Both versions were sweet without being cloying, and the rhubarb was definitely present in taste and texture thanks to it’s use “in the raw” as opposed to other recipes where the vegetable gets cooked to a pulpy mush first. Neither of these recipes yielded anything by way of leftovers when I brought them to an open house, and even the three year old present had one of each and licked his lips.
Rosie’s is not without a few minor glitches and detractions from it’s professional quality content. A sticking point with me, as it is with many of those visual learners out there, is the lack of photos. While I realize that with over 250 recipes a photo for each is simply impractical, a picture of some of the more complicated (or deviously-named) items would be beneficial. Then there is the case of the naming of certain recipes. For instance, the Pecan Fingers (p. 171) are no more pecan cookies than a piece of toast with sliced banana on top is banana bread. Without nuts in the actual batter nor baked with the recipe at all, the only time pecans come into play is in a haphazard scatter garnish over the cooled, glazed finished product. Minimal, to be sure, but confusing if you come across the page in the index looking for a chunky, crunchy nut cookie.
Tart Lemon Squares (p. 284)
There are too many recipes in The Rosie’s Bakery All-Butter, Cream-Filled, Sugar-Packed Baking Book for either one’s wallet or waistline to contend with in a short amount of time. But perhaps that is the biggest part of it’s allure. Judy Rosenberg has written this tome of simple, honest and delicious treats to last through the years, regardless of what fad diets come and go. Readers can use this book to hone their own skills in the sweet kitchen and teach their children the appreciation of what real, whole food can do. It is a book I feel confident in returning to again and again over time, both for ideas for day-to-day goodies and how-to’s for those “special desserts” that fill our lives. All without a car trip, special order, two week waiting period and marked up price tag.
Available on Amazon

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket

Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket
Author: Judith Fertig
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2001)
Bread is the body and soul of every civilization. Empires have been built on the backs of flour, whether as simple unleavened rounds in neolithic times, oval Indian naan, tangy Ethiopian injera  or leavened wheat loaves in ancient Greece. Growing and milling grains helped to organize, grow and industrialize societies, and by the Middle Ages the type of bread eaten was also the indicator of socioeconomic class. With automated machinery to mix, knead, bake, slice and package identical loaves to ship to the masses came the increased use of bread improvers, preservatives and other ingredients. While this improved shelf life, baking efficiency and ensured softness from baking to final slice, the tastes and textures of a homemade loaf were lost. Today, much storebought bread is spongy and flavourless, and even “artisanal” loaves are often simply shadows of what they began as. Thanks to dedicated bakers and recipe authors, a homemade bread Renaissance is beginning in kitchens around the world. Judith Fertig is one of the forerunners in the campaign to regain traditional food values in America, adding to the home baking collection with 2001’s work Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket.

Prairie Home Breads is not simply another bread manual or manifesto on home cooking. Nor is it a diatribe against buying staples like sandwich bread from the store – instead, Fertig lures in readers with charming forewords and stories, useful tips and master techniques and easy to understand, thorough recipes. The introduction to the book is a combination of memoir, history textbook and encyclopedia. In the latter section readers will find methods for each step of hand making bread, from proofing and kneading to punching down, shaping and ultimately baking. Even for the more experienced bread bakers, it’s a great refresher and information source, especially with regards to the functions of each ingredient in a formula and the specifics of perfect rising, baking and storage.

Seven sections divide the offerings in Prairie Home Breads into Yeasted, Naturally Leavened & Slow Rising, Whole Grain, Rolls & Buns, Quickbreads, Muffins & Popovers, Scones, Biscuits, Crackers & Soda Bread, and Coffee Cakes & Pastries. While this is definitely a book about bread, Fertig peppers the recipe pages with quotations, history bites, ideas for using the finished product and guides for flour “types” (p. 89), sourdough starters (p. 51, 58, 64), shaping rolls and even how to have fun with an enriched celebratory dough recipe (p.138). Every recipe is prefaced with a charming note as to where the recipe came from or the memories it evoked from a contributor. Along with the breads in this book, Fertig also includes recipes for fillings, condiments, recipes using bread and “serve along” sides like Warm Goat Cheese with Fresh Basil, Balsamic Vinegar, and Wildflower Honey (p. 62). A recent favourite at a family barbecue was the Summer Garden Moulded Bread Salad with Garlic and Lemon Vinaigrette (p. 4), although I must admit we purchased, rather than made, a crusty multigrain Italian loaf and used the red currant tomatoes we had on hand rather than yellow pear tomatoes. Like any recipe created from years of experience in the kitchen, the salad didn’t disappoint – similar in flavour to a muffuletta sandwich with the texture of a marbled pate, it was a nice change to the typical panzanella you might find at an Italian gathering.

Those looking to craft their own rustic home loaves are spoiled for choice by Prairie Home Breads. Goods range from the simple Shaker Daily Bread (p. 3) to the more complex Prairie Pioneer Two-Day Bread (p. 59) and the exotic Minnesota Wild Rice Bread (p. 105).  For my mom, who loves her bread sweet and fruity (and “filled with bits” as she puts it), I had no trouble picking out Fertig’s recipe for Spicy Pear Bread (p. 29) to make. A Swiss concoction Fertig found at a tiny cafe in southern Wisconsin, it is one of those items that have as much local stories and history kneaded into it as flour. Filled with chunks of fresh and dried pears (soaked in pear nectar), the eggless bread is moist and tender with a slightly chewy crust. To cater to my pantry’s contents (and my mother’s tastes), I made three changes to the original: using ground cardamom for the anise, 100% whole wheat bread flour in place of the all purpose, and instant yeast instead of the active dry. The end result was nothing short of delightful to eat, especially when spread with the Farmer’s Almanac Pear Butter I had left over. A plainer, two-loaf recipe that also garnered high praise from the toast and sandwich crowd was the simple Cracked Wheat Bread (p. 90). Still somewhat sweet, it lent itself well to my whole wheat bread flour use and one loaf even played host to some of the “bits” my mom so loves (in her batch I used Thompson raisins, pepitas and sunflower seeds). The dough for this recipe is somewhat stiffer than the almost “wet” Spicy Pear Bread, and Fertig recommends a heavy duty mixer for good reason – it almost burnt my old Hamilton Beach model out. The only problem I found with the Cracked Wheat Bread recipe was that it called for two inclusions of butter in the ingredients list but only used one dose in the method. I simply omitted the second amount from my batches and judging from the rate it disappeared from the kitchen the loaves didn’t suffer as a result.

Prairie Home Breads really is about bringing back memories of home and family through food and stories. It is so varied in its worldwide offerings that readers will never find themselves without a slice to enjoy or a coffee cake to bring to a Sunday brunch, and is detailed enough that even the fanciest or most complex recipes are approachable and conquerable. From beginner to expert, grandmothers to great grandsons, everyone will find something in Judith Fertig’s Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America's Breadbasket to enjoy and share.

Available on Amazon

Friday, July 6, 2012

Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli

Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2012)

I have a stepfamily who is, in no uncertain terms, Italian. Large gatherings of family in our home are commonplace for any and all events, from the most trivial of birthdays and sports team drafts to the all-out Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve (which also happens to correlate with my stepfather’s birthday on the 23rd). Weeknight meals are almost exclusively Italian fare, although not the “spaghetti and meatballs” and “pizza” so much as rigatoni with rapini and oysters, gnocchi with plain tomato sauce and Parmesan and codfish with spicy peppers and potatoes, Sicilian style. Where my stepfamily hits all the right “traditional” notes in their savoury cooking, sweets and desserts (while definitely enjoyed) are almost exclusively store-bought. From cannoli and cakes to tartufo, if it’s a special event you can bet that somebody paid the local Italian bakery a visit.

While there is nothing wrong with store-bought pastry once in awhile, homemade desserts are almost exclusively better tasting and better for you. The problem arises when tradition comes into play and the old recipes of your nonna’s are either long gone or so outdated that modern appliances and ingredients don’t apply. Enter Grace Massa Langois, with her book Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli. The book’s mission is really to build on the passionate blog started by Massa Langois and make those classical Italian treats more approachable for the common cook – and as long as you have the courage of a lion, no dietary restrictions and a large group to feed, it is successful.

This is not simply another “Italian” or “dessert” cookbook. Recipes in Grace’s Sweet Life are complex, multi-step concoctions which, while intended to be as helpful as possible (and the details are, for the more convoluted items) can send the average baker running for the hills. While written in English, the book seems like it’s almost half in Italian thanks to the labelling of each recipe and step in that language first. Quaint, for the first few recipes, but if you’re cooking your way through the multi-page Torta Chiffon all’Arancia con Crema Chantilly all’Arancina e Crema all’Arancia (p. 39) it does get tiresome.  Massa Langois also calls for many specialty ingredients (an entire page as to what they are and what they do, however, is thankfully provided (p. 8)). While our local stores and Italian grocery are relatively well stocked, I have yet to find glucose, “lievito vaniglinato”, “vanillina aroma per dolci”, 00 flour or gelatine sheets save by either going into downtown Toronto or ordering online. There is no “resources” page to point would-be cooks to a store for purchase, and many online retailers require far more in shipping charges or quantity than I’m willing to incur.

Grace’s Sweet Life is also not a book for anyone with restrictions on the amount of dairy, nuts (and especially) eggs. Recipes can call for up to a full dozen, and cheese, cream and other dairy is lavishly used. There is a sizeable portion of the book using deep-frying and sugar-caramelizing techniques, which can also be off-putting to those of us nervous around those types of things (I myself am terrified of hot oil) or who are trying to minimize the amount of crispy-fried items in their diets. Granted, the book is not intended to be health food in the least – and I’m sure that the recipes using those ingredients are divine – but they definitely fall into “special occasion only” fare.

Luckily, because there are so many components to each recipe, even the most restricted diets can enjoy some part of the Italian dolce vita. Massa Langois also has some unique methods of preparing some items that can be a boon to any chef, professional or not. For me, the two stars I tried with great success were Bubble Sugar (part of the Torta al Ciccolato e Ciliega recipe (p.69)) and the Raspberry Jam from Crostatine con Frolla all Nocciola, Marmellata di Lamponi, e Crema Ganache al Cioccolato Bianco (p. 133). The Bubble Sugar was simple to make and impressive on its own as a candy or when used as the decoration it is intended to be – I liked that depending on the liqueur used (the alcohol provides the characteristic texture) the final result maintained just the barest hint of that flavour without becoming a “coffee sugar” from Kahlua or “orange bubbles” from Grand Marnier. The Raspberry Jam used the rather ingenious technique of baking the fruit, sugar and lemon juice together on a tray instead of heating up the whole kitchen by using a pot and the stove. I was able to make two batches of it in one afternoon with little work on my part, and the recipe works with any “berry” fruit such as strawberries, cherries and blueberries (I combined the three in my second batch). The only suggestion I would have is to cut down on the sugar a touch. The recipe doesn’t have a lot of sweetener really, considering jams are notorious for large quantities of sugar, but for our tastes batch #1 was just a bit too candy-like. Reducing the amount from ½ to 1/3 of a cup made a big difference, as did adding the zest of a lemon to the pureed mixture.

There are so many mouthwatering recipes in this book that it is impossible to say which one will next come about in my kitchen. One thing’s for sure, come the next Italian family celebration around here, Grace Massa Langlois’ Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli will not be far out of reach.