Monday, October 23, 2017

All-in-One Guide to Cake Decorating: Over 100 Step-by-Step Cake Decorating Techniques and Recipes

All-in-One Guide to Cake Decorating: Over 100 Step-by-Step Cake Decorating Techniques and Recipes
Author: Janice Murfitt
Publisher: Fox Chapel Publishing (2017)
From Amazon:

This comprehensive and accessible guide to cake decorating teaches all of the techniques and tricks that aspiring sugarcrafters need to create stunning and impressive cakes. Everyone will think these amazing cakes came from the best bakery in town! First Steps in Cake Decorating reveals dozens of expert cake decorating ideas that are simple to achieve yet look stunning. All the most popular methods of icing and decoration are covered, including buttercream, sugarpaste, chocolate, marzipan and flower paste. Detailed, easy-to-follow instructions explain the basics of preparing and using different types of icing, illustrated with step-by-step color photographs. There is a delicious array of fantastic cakes here to suit adults and children alike. Beginners will pick up the basics fast, and even experienced cake decorators will find inspirational new ideas.
Browsing through this book was like being back in introductory pastry school, but scaled way up. While the instructions are thorough and the photo-by-photo illustrations certainly helpful, this book is overwhelming in it's complexity, especially for someone who perhaps decorates two or three cakes a year for family and friends. The book covers cake shaping and filling as well as fondant techniques, which are interesting and something I would want to be able to do - but the techniques are so involved that I personally felt that hands-on instruction would be needed before I dared to try them at home. However, for those people either in, or contemplating, a pastry or cake decorating course, I highly suggest this book as a supplementary text, as it reinforces the lessons most programs teach.

The book's greatest strength is it's use of photography. Each page is full of full-coloured shots that generally illustrate key points or techniques, although there are some pages where the images are superfluous and somewhat dated. The passion for photography is no wonder, as the author's website is essentially a photography portfolio and states that her projects include working with photographers, advertising agencies and media companies.

While the basics of cake decorating don't really change, I would have been interested to see some of the newer trends covered as well (i.e. Russian tips, ombre). I did thoroughly appreciate the "Basic Recipes and Helpful Hints" chapter, particularly the charts to help you calculate how much fondant / marzipan and royal icing you would require for a certain size cake, as well as the portion guide. The templates are adorable, and would undoubtedly be useful for those unsure about their skills or who are attempting more intricate designs.

Overall, if you are serious about getting into the world of cake decorating, Janice Murfitt's book All-in-One Guide to Cake Decorating: Over 100 Step-by-Step Cake Decorating Techniques and Recipes is a good place to start, and pairs well with "in person" instruction. However, for the everyday baker, it is more of a coffee-table novelty than an instruction manual.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

175 Best Small Batch Baking Recipes

175 Best Small Batch Baking Recipes
Author: Jill Snider
Publisher: (2017)

My family is not huge on sweet things. Sure, they’ll have the occasional cookie or slice of pie on a special occasion, but “dessert” most nights is a bowl of yogurt with honey, cocoa and berries. That said, I love to bake more than anything else – and finding a compromise between assuaging my desires and having the freezer overflow is tricky. That’s why I was excited to try out Jill Snider’s book 175 Best Small Batch Baking Recipes, which claims it makes “[t]reats for 1 or 2”.

Gluten Free Chocolate Banana Cake
Gluten Free Chocolate Banana Cake (p. 246)
Small Batch Baking has everything a “sweet kitchen” baker could ask for in a cookbook. Myriads of cookies, from biscotti to shortbread, no bake bars to brownies and fruit squares, muffins and loaves are all part and parcel here. There are also mini pies and crumbles, gluten free options, and even cheesecakes are presented in adorable miniature. For the most part, Snider does not ask for specialty baking pans (the cheesecakes, however, need a 6” springform) and the ingredients are common and generally inexpensive. I enjoyed the fact that brownies, bars and cakes here use loaf pans for form, making slicing even easier and making everything look like a “Bûche de Noël” when frosted. The ability to make just 6 or 8 cookies, instead of 40, was also greatly appreciated – and it allowed me to offer more than one variety in a gift basket!

The first treat I made from this book played highly to my love of cooking and baking for specialty diets. The last recipe in the book, Gluten Free Chocolate Banana Cake (p. 246), was easy to put together (even for my mom, a novice in allergy-free baking) and didn’t call for specific flour mixtures that can be tricky to find. Snider even gives a tip on substitution in the sidebar (and experienced gluten free bakers will be able to swap things in and out on their own). Many such sidebars are peppered throughout the book, and are always worth a read. The cake was, in a word, decadent – perfectly chocolatey, with a hint of banana flavour (if I wanted more of the fruit to shine I would roast the banana first) and a moisture that survived freezing, thawing and traveling for hours in the car. I opted not to frost the cake since I was transporting it, but the Banana Butter Frosting (p. 186) that was suggested (again in the sidebar) sounded divine. That frosting was just one of the six frostings and glazes offered in the book, again scaled down to practical use size.

I also tried another unique recipe from Small Batch Baking – Judie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 63). The recipe called for lard, which I substituted for home-rendered tallow, giving the cookies a slightly “doughnutty” aroma. The author states that the cookies are “soft”, but I found that even at the minimum bake time they spread and became crispy, almost wafer-like. The recipe never called for chilling the dough, as most cookie recipes do these days, and in retrospect I should have given the oats that were also in the batter. The flavour, however, was delicious and rich, if a tad greasy, and they were a hit with both adults and kids alike.

"Judie's Chocolate Chip Cookies"
Judie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 63)

I’m happy that a baking book exists for small families and people who (like me) just can’t stay out of the kitchen. 175 Best Small Batch Baking Recipes will definitely be put to use during the holiday gift-giving and potluck season, and I look forward to picking out some favourites for my household in the meantime.

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Essential Home-Ground Flour Book

The Essential Home-Ground Flour Book
Author: Sue Becker
Publisher: (2016)

As someone working off a teaching assistant (and soon to be university student)’s income, I don’t often go out of my way to purchase tools with only a single use or purpose. I grew up making bread at my mother’s hip, and since I was blessed with a high powered professional stand mixer as a gift, making bread (almost) every week has remained my passion. I’ve always loved artisan-crafted baked goods, and used to buy stone-ground flour from a local mill – which tasted fantastic but commanded a hefty price. When Sue Becker’s book The Essential Home-Ground Flour Book arrived on my doorstep, I was intrigued – although devoid of a mill. Luckily, this book managed to help solve that problem (and many others) along the way, all while offering inspirational recipes I couldn’t wait to try.

So, you’ve decided to mill your own flour. Why, what type of mill should you choose, and just how do you go about it? Part One of Home Ground Flour is 93 pages worth of information on the subject, from the benefits of doing it at all (read: cost, nutrition and flavour) to the history of milling, suitable grains and finally the actual devices themselves. It was Chapter 4 – Tools and Equipment for Home Flour Milling (p.37) – that intrigued me the most. I knew about burr mills for coffee and spice grinding, but never used micronizing ones. If I win the lottery, one of those super-powered, lightning fast beasts is definitely on my wishlist! Instead, I lucked out with a great deal on a Mockmill, a stone-grinder style of attachment for my mixer – and the purchase of a (relatively) high priced tool is something no cookbook, blog or cooking show has ever convinced me to consider.

Home Ground Flour Pizza Dough
Basic Whole Grain Pizza Dough (p. 174)
Once equipped, and having read the entire first part (including the incredibly beneficial tip boxes lining the margins), I armed myself with a kilo of barley grains and got to work. According to Becker, I had enough grain to mill 6 cups of flour – which was almost dead on. I also tried my hand at grinding farro, spelt, brown rice and even lentils (note: don’t grind anything not approved by your mill’s manufacturer!). I transformed a bunch of the barley flour into various loaves of bread that weren’t found in this book, but immediately noticed a difference in the way the dough behaved and tasted. Freshly milled flour, provided the grains aren’t stale, made for a slightly sweeter, more tender loaf in my experience, and with cookies you could really taste the nuttiness of the grain all the way through (perfect with oatmeal doughs!).

Finally, I got around to a few of my ear-marked choices in Home Ground Flour. The first was a batch of Apple Cinnamon Muffins (p. 182). I used a combination of locally milled sprouted wheat flour and home ground farro, which was a lovely complement to the flavours of the (again, local) honey that exclusively sweetens them. Each bite was peppered with bits of apple and the spice wasn’t overwhelming, which is always refreshing for a muffin recipe! Next, as a preparation for one of my upcoming Home Economics classes, I made a few batches of Basic Whole Grain Pizza Dough (p. 174). If you need convincing as to how much yeast loves freshly exposed endosperm, this is the recipe – the dough rises impressively fast, and doesn’t taste unpleasantly “yeasty”. Even though there’s no sugar in the dough, the baked crust had a hint of malty, almost honey-like flavour. Definitely a keeper in my book.

Tomato Confit Mini Pizza
Mini-Pizza with Basic Whole Grain Pizza Dough (p. 174)

I can’t wait to keep experimenting with Sue Becker’s The Essential Home-Ground Flour Book. It has not only provided a solid base of information to start me off on my home grinding journey, but also opened my eyes to the true differences between the bag from the store and right from the grain. If you appreciate bread (making and eating), want to support local grain farmers or simply have a desire to eat more nutritiously, check this book out. You will not be disappointed.

Apple Cinnamon Muffins
Apple Cinnamon Muffins (p. 182)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Piece of Cake!: One-Bowl, No-Fuss, From-Scratch Cakes

Piece of Cake!: One-Bowl, No-Fuss, From-Scratch Cakes
Publisher: (2011)

I pride myself on making cakes from scratch. A few times a year, I’m able to get really fancy and go all-out with an elegant layer cake with homemade frosting, or a super-rich cheesecake that fills a craving with only a sliver. The rest of the year, though, I like to bake low-fuss, low-mess cakes with minimal adornment – and no box mixes. Camilla Saulsbury seeks to fill this niche with her book Piece of Cake!: One-Bowl, No-Fuss, From-Scratch Cakes.

This book claims to alleviate many of the sticking points that prevent home bakers from making cakes from scratch – recipes here don’t need multiple bowls, creaming, separating eggs, alternating dry and wet addition or sifting. In fact, the roughly 240 pages of recipes in Piece of Cake kick off with the classic, almost never-fail Wacky Cake (p. 12). The cakes are, for the most part, designed to be incredibly simple in their presentation, although Saulsbury does include over 50 recipes for various topping (i.e. icings, glazes, and sauces). For the truly new cake-bakers, this book contains a lengthy introduction covering ingredients, equipment and techniques. Reading this section is 100% optional for those who have baked at least a few times in their lives, but if not, I strongly suggest a perusal.

My favourite part about this book is that Saulsbury includes homemade cake mixes for both “conventional” and “vegan” cakes. While almost any cake can be converted into a dry mix (just by mixing the dry ingredients in a bag separately), Saulsbury’s recipes also include the solid fat component, so much like a conventional baking mix all you’d have to do is add eggs, milk and a touch of oil to have cake any time. I tried the Yellow Cake Mix (p.42) and have to say a food processor is definitely the best way to go here. I did find the cake a little denser than storebought mix, and it took a little more time in the oven than I’m used to – I think this is the result of the book’s mix only calling for 2 eggs instead of three.

My problems with the cake outcomes continued when I went to make a classical favourite here: lemon cake. Titled grandly as Luscious Lemon Loaf (p.73), I had high hopes for this as a perfect accompaniment to tea with guests. Unfortunately, all the liquid in the cake (3 eggs, 1 cup of sour cream and ½ cup of oil) simply caused the “luscious lemon cake” to turn into mush, which burned on the outside while never baking through. After that failure, and my previous experience with the cake mix, I was very wary about trying anything else from this book as I don’t want to waste ingredients. However, I will continue to use the recipes as bases for my own modifications and ideas, as they are plentiful here.

While I may not have found cooking from this book to be easy, Piece of Cake!: One-Bowl, No-Fuss, From-Scratch Cakes does contain solid knowledge of basic baking techniques and plenty of fodder for would be bakers to build on. I highly suggest learning what batters and ratios should look like before attempting anything in this book so as to avoid disappointment.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bake Something Great! – 400 Bars, Squares & Cookies

Bake Something Great! – 400 Bars, Squares & Cookies
Author: Jill Snider
Publisher: (2011)

I’m a bona fide baker – not only is it my passion to whip up cookies and brownies on the weekends for friends, family, and sometimes complete strangers, but I bring that joy every week to my classroom when I teach Home Economics for grades 1-8. I even trained in baking at one of the renowned Toronto culinary colleges. Suffice it to say, sugar and flour live in my bones. So of course, the possibilities of a cookbook declaring it’s “great” recipes excited me – after all, for me the only thing better than eating baked goodies is actually making them! Jill Snider seems to agree with those of us who are baking-crazy, and penned Bake Something Great! – 400 Bars, Squares & Cookies to prove it.

Bake is packed front to back with recipes designed to suit almost everyone’s tastes. Chapters range from Brownies and Drop Cookies to Nut Bars and Squares and Shaped Cookies and Biscotti. There are even special sections for Cake Mix, Holiday, kid-friendly and “Good for You, Too” treats, and each recipe has a handy tip in the sidebar for success in baking. Many of the recipes also offer variations to try or suggestions for “jazzing up” a baked good as well. Truly novice bakers will appreciate the thorough introduction, including a 6-page primer on “Baking for Success” (p. 6) which covers everything from baking pan composition (shiny vs. dark vs. glass), small appliances like mixers and food processors and parchment paper (indispensable in my kitchen) to the methods of cooling, cutting, storing and freezing. My personal favourite area of this chapter is a chart that details just how many bars or squares you can get out of the most common pan sizes – the multiplication is done for you!

With such a strong introduction, and being packed with full-colour photographs, I couldn’t wait to see what I could make. I started with Classic Peanut Butter Cookies (p. 342) – which definitely had more ingredients than the classic, back-of-the-jar one I’m used to but also had the added interest of chopped peanuts in the dough. While I liked the flavour the cookies had, they were too sweet for my taste, spread a fair bit and also left a greasy mouthfeel. If I was to make these again, I would drastically reduce the butter and cut the granulated sugar in half, possibly cutting both sugars in half if I used honey-roasted nuts as well. The cinnamon seemed out-of-place here as well, but that could be personal preference. 

Date-Fig Bars
Fabulous Fig Bars (p. 200) - original on top, modified on bottom
Next, I went for one of my personal favourites from childhood – Fabulous Fig Bars (p. 200). Encouraged by the photo (featuring equal thicknesses of cookie and fig layers) I set out creating them. However, the ingredient amounts for the cookie component did not yield nearly enough dough for a bottom and top crust, even when I rolled it thinner than the photo showed. It was also very hard to work with – dry and crumbly, not so much a cookie dough as a crumb topping – and I needed to add milk to the recipe to get it to come together. Later, I made a second batch (doubling the crust mixture, reducing the total sugar to ¾ cup and adding about 3-4 tablespoons of milk) which fared much better. Again, the flavours were present, but overall the experience was disappointing.

Hmm... not what I expected #followingarecipetoatee #semifail #cookies #chocolate #chips #chocolatechip #yum #food #cooking #baked #baking
Judie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 359)
Not to be completely deterred, I settled on making one of the basics found in every baking book – the chocolate chip cookie. Specifically, I tried to make Judie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 359), which looked promising and incorporated oatmeal for a hint of texture and flavour. I also liked this recipe because it utilized shortening – something my mom swears by in her chocolate chippers and an ingredient I partially use in mine. I figured the shortening, and lack of white sugar (it’s all brown) would keep a control on any potential over-spread. However my first batch – baked right away rather than chilled as I normally do for cookies – spread all over the cookie sheet into a crunchy, greasy mess. Frustrated, I chilled the second half of the batter, but it still gave me similar issues – crunchy, crumbly and greasy, with way too much spread.

While I’m not sure my experiences mimic every recipe in the book, I can say that from my perspective Snider needs to go back to the testing kitchen and rework many of the formulae in Bake Something Great! – 400 Bars, Squares & Cookies. As a cookbook seemingly designed for all bakers, including beginners, the amount of modification necessary to make the recipes “work” seems to be a bit much. Regretfully, I will go back to baking up my own recipes and leave this book on the shelf.

Available on Amazon