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