Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A World of Cake...Traditions from Cultures Around the World

A World of Cake: From Honey Cakes to Flat Cakes, Fritters to Chiffons, Meringues to Mooncakes, Tartes to Tortes, Fruit Cakes to Spice Cakes... Traditions from Cultures Around the World
Krystina Castella
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (2010)
Chocolate, vanilla, carrot or kiwi – it seems that everyone loves cake. Probably the fanciest and most variable desserts around, cake recipes span the globe in hundreds of variations. Some are simplistic loaf concoctions with a drizzle of melted chocolate or powdered-sugar glaze, while others are stacked seven tiers high with fillings, frostings and fondant decorations galore. Almost every occasion worth marking – at least in modern society – features something that is usually rich and alluring enough that everyone stops to take notice. Wedding and birthday cakes are by far the most well known Western creations today, but the varieties are as extensive as the imaginations of pastry chefs globally. One hundred and fifty of these special dessert recipes are shared, with a mosaic of beautiful imagery, by Krystina Castella in her book A World of Cake: From Honey Cakes to Flat Cakes, Fritters to Chiffons, Meringues to Mooncakes, Tartes to Tortes, Fruit Cakes to Spice Cakes... Traditions from Cultures Around the World... and that’s not all.
It is no stretch of the imagination to call this book an encyclopaedia. Even if you’ve never baked a cake (or even wanted to) in your life, there is almost as much information on the sweets as there are recipes in the pages. Pretty much everything you could ever want to know about cake, from it’s historical roots in Egypt to the impacts of cultural and technological inventions on it’s production, is covered in fascinatingly intensive detail in Cake’s first ten pages. A four-page calendar of “cakeable” events worldwide ensues, in which I discovered more holidays I even knew existed: each with a page reference for further perusal. Easy to read and illustrated definitions for every cake “type” featured in the book and an extensive “field guide” of textures, ingredients, equipment, preparation, construction, decoration and even storage of these also pack the first chapter. Don’t feel like reading a dissertation piece? Pick a country from the 13 regions listed in Castella’s table of contents, or search for a specific recipe in the carefully cross-referenced index. Unfortunately, the contents page does not list the recipes under each region it mentions: a bit of a pain if you, like me, are inspired to make a recipe based on whether or not it sounds good. A substitute draw is in the colour photography, which deserves to be in an art gallery. That said, as pretty as they are, they also broadcast an air of inapproachability – the food is so artfully garnished that the lay baker may give up on trying out the recipes before reading the words on the page. While Cake does make a rather – if you pardon the expression – appetizing coffee table book and reference work, those brave enough to actually break out their (specialty) cake pans are in for a journey.
Like all good journeys, the travels through Cake are blessed with a great map. The instructions for baking these sweets are incredibly detailed for the most part – from lining the moulds to mixing the batter and baking. Recipes requiring extra preparations such as a caramel, soaking syrup or elements like candied, toasted or ground nuts will find these “sub-recipes” included under their own headings – conveniently in the order the recipe calls for them. As well, any assembly steps or key garnishes for the finished cakes are described, from the simplistic sprinkling of chopped nuts on frosting to the intricate kanji characters on her Japanese Friendship Cake (p. 282) and careful construction of the cream-filled croquembouche tree with spun sugar (p. 98). Given that most cakes simply aren’t themselves without a crown of frosting or a luxurious filling; if Castella uses a particular recipe the page numbers are provided. Though a lot of the recipes are still more complex than the average home cook would ever want to make regularly, if you happen to be on the hook for a special occasion dessert or are baking for a “world exposition” type of event you’ll find your key to success with Cake.

I was lured to one of the more unusual recipes for a Vietnamese sweet when I first flipped through the pages of this book. Known in English as “Cow Cake”, Castella’s recipe promised the outcome of a beautiful gluten-free, vegan cake with a uniquely rippled surface. While the photos looked promising enough – a dense crumb with scattered pockets of air in both white and pink – I admit my result was anything but. I should have realized that, without any sort of binding agent in the rice flour and coconut milk mixture, there would be no way that any bubbles could help make those coveted, pretty ripples. What emerged from my oven – after I gave up on having it ever bake through – was a very flat, very dense object with an almost burnt top crust that cracked away to an almost molten batter underneath. While I’m sure it would have tasted fine, it was nothing like the picturesque slices shown in the book and after being asked by my mother just what it actually was I wound up scraping it into the compost bin. A later dip into the internet’s wealth of global food information revealed most recipes had eggs – some as many as 6 – and the single vegan variation I came across was bound with a hefty dose of tapioca starch. Given that there is no mention of either food in Castella’s ingredients or methodology for this cake, I am unsure if the omissions were merely errors in edits and final proofreading or a bona fide intention for the recipe.

I had far better luck with one of the more “traditional” recipes in Cake – a New Zealander butter cake with kiwifruit, nut and white chocolate flavours. I know: how could you go wrong with those three ingredients? Not having the macadamias called for on hand, I went for an equally delectable variation that Castella mentions – an Indian (as in Asia) Cashew Cake (p. 306). A pinch of cardamom perfumed the mixture so much that I worried it would overwhelm the more delicate fruit, but the cupcakes I made with the recipe for my taste testers mellowed out beautifully while baking and the sinfully rich white chocolate buttercream formed a saccharine contrast to the tart and spicy base.

For the dedicated baker or globetrotting foodie, A World of Cake is a wonderfully detailed resource. It is not your run-of-the-mill, hand-holding manual for the complete kitchen novice, nor is it intended to be one. The knowledge of the basic mechanics of baking is essential to achieving the full benefit of Castella’s work by baking through this culinary atlas. In many cases, even old hats in the kitchen will learn something new – and no matter where they hail from, everyone will come away hungry for more.

Available on Amazon

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Vegan Cookie Connoisseur: Over 140 Simply Delicious Recipes That Treat the Eyes and Taste Buds

The Vegan Cookie Connoisseur: Over 140 Simply Delicious Recipes That Treat the Eyes and Taste Buds
Author: Kelly Peloza
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2010) (

It used to be that vegetarianism was only a movement led by pot-smoking, unshaven hippies. The general population’s entire knowledge of the phenomenon known as veganism was that it was followed by those same hippies who just marched on Parliament and threw cans of paint on their hamburger-grilling neighbours. If you, as an omnivore, was invited to a vegan’s home for dinner, you’d be dreading it – because after all, the only vegan foods in the universe had to be brown rice and black beans, a nut and lentil loaf or – God forbid – a dish with the spongy white block known as tofu. It’s not surprising that the mentality of vegan food as being bland, boring or even downright scary has persisted in today’s lay community, especially in my parent’s generation and older. Most conventional restaurants today are incredibly meat-centric, and the traditional “breakfast of champions” is still bacon and eggs, and until very, very recently you couldn’t buy a single prepared vegan product outside of a health food store. There is still a major imbalance in the modern grocery stores, even the most well stocked of the bunch: while you’ll find whole aisles dedicated to shrink-wrapped cuts of meat, a well-stocked deli, and maybe even butcher and fishmonger counters, (not covering the array of frozen, meat and/or cheese-based stuff of many frozen meals), the entire vegan-friendly stock may fill one cooler case and a handful of shelves.
Times are changing, though, and how! Vegetarianism is now as commonplace in society as omnivorous living, whether for health, economic, ecological or ethical reasons. Country-wide movements for the installation of “Meatless Mondays” are occurring in the USA – land of the burger and Texan steak – and Canadians dining on Alberta beef and Pacific salmon are encouraged to do the same. Even vegans are becoming mainstream, viewed by some sceptics or desperate individuals as a new “weight-loss” or “detox” fad, but seen far more frequently as simply another culinary lifestyle just like keeping Kosher or Halal. Vegan foodies are all over the media spectrum; blogging, on TV, and not least in the bookstore. Far from rehashing tired stir-fries and fruit salads while bemoaning the challenges of egg- and dairy-free cookery, authors like Kelly Peloza embrace the delicious and decadent side of life. In her work The Vegan Cookie Connoisseur, Peloza dishes up over 140 recipes for every type of cookie you could ever want. From drop to bar, rolled cut-outs to no-bakes, the sweets are almost endless. Every offering is completely animal free – no dairy, eggs, or honey – and most can be made with ingredients found in any baker’s cabinet. If there is any stigma about the “difficulty” or expense of vegan baking lingering in your mind, Peloza effectively slays it with her chewy Giant Bakery-Style Double Chocolate Cookies (p. 78), spicy Chai Cookies (p. 17) and her Cashew Cappuccino Nanaimo Bars (p. 153).
I couldn’t resist trying my hand at those three sweet treats – being born with a chocolate addiction (inherited from the other women in the family!), a mother adoring coffee *almost* as much as chocolate and a best friend with a love for Chai tea, there was never any question as to the first recipes I’d try out! A skim through the fairly standard ingredient glossary and FAQ – in which Peloza reassures the reader that using a different sugar, agave colour or even flour refinement is totally fine – I dove headlong into the pages.
Even if you just have a single mixing bowl, no electric mixer and a couple cookie sheets, it’s perfectly possible – no, make that essential – to make a batch of Peloza's huge, rich chocolate-chocolate chip cookies. A microwave makes the preparation of the melted chocolate base super-simple (of course you could break out the double boiler), and the fact that you don’t even need to sift the cocoa powder into the batter means you can have CD-sized biscuits ready in under an hour. If you’re not a huge chocolate fan but have a love of soft, spicy cookies like snickerdoodles, Peloza’s written one of the most uniquely-flavoured recipes I’ve come across in her Chai Cookies. I’m not a Chai tea lover myself – the few times I’ve had it in front of me it went unfinished – but the mixture of spices both in and on these cookies smelled heavenly. I know the students coming into IHN clutching their Chai Lattes swooped down on them lickety-split and declared them nothing short of delicious. Being an ex-coffee hog with a patriotic heart, though, I think I looked forward to baking the Cashew Cappuccino Nanaimo Bars most. What can I say... I’m Canadian! I think I was probably asking for trouble after the other two easy successes, but decadence has it’s price, I suppose. Those bakers planning to make the cream-filled bars take note: the base of margarine, sugar, cocoa, soy milk, graham cracker crumbs, cashews, melted chocolate and Kahlua makes twice the amount the rest of the ingredients warrant, and takes a good extra 10 minutes to firm up at the temperature Peloza specifies and I highly suggest freezing the base for 45 minutes before spreading on the creamy filling. Do make sure to get a good brand of ground coffee for the filling as well – and since I didn’t have the optional coffee extract hanging around but still wanted the extra “pop” of flavour, I used both the recipe-stated Kahlua and a teaspoon of instant espresso powder. I was not disappointed with the flavour at all in the end, and the extra base dough that I eventually scraped off of the pan mid-bake made some very delicious chocolate-cashew cookies for my mom.
One of the coolest things I’ve found about Connoisseur is Peloza’s handy “hint dropping” throughout the pages. Whether it’s how to bake cookies in a toaster oven, cope with a food-related allergy or (most useful for omnivorous bakers) how to veganize a prized family recipe, the tips scattered through the book are valuable bits of information that you’ll find yourself using time and again. If you have a penchant for variations, there is no shortage of them here either. Don’t want plain vanilla in your gigantic bombs of chocolate deliciousness? Well, what about almond or coffee? If you love making biscotti every year as Christmas gifts, you’ll love the two “basic” recipes for the sweet (chocolate and vanilla) as well as 8 other variations to make everybody happy.

Needless to say, this is no health manual. Sure, there are no eggs or butter to contend with, but there is plenty of chocolate, margarine, sugar and nuts to make up for that. Really – if you’re out to bake cookies, the last thing you should be counting is a calorie or fat gram! Though there is a special section of the book dedicated to “Healthier Cookies and Baking for Specific Needs” (starting on p. 191), decadence is still far and away the bill of fare in Connoisseur. Regardless of your particular diet (or lack thereof), belief system or personal lifestyle, you are sure to find a host of new favourites in The Vegan Cookie Connoisseur. Many “traditional” bakers will marvel at the dangerously simple versions of “everyday” cookies as well as the ingenuity of Peloza’s inventions, and “traditional” eaters will be none the wiser.

Available on Amazon

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sweet Treats: Just Like My Mother Used to Bake

Sweet Treats: Just Like My Mother Used to Bake (2010)
Contributing Editor: Linda Collister
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small

Have you ever heard yourself utter the phrase “this is just like Mom used to make”? Or perhaps this tune is more common to your ears: “my mom makes/made this so much better”. I know that even when I’m making a recipe that my mom has physically handed me the card for and watched me prepare, the end result is never quite the same as hers. It isn’t that the taste is bad, or that the texture is horrendous – it’s just not Mom’s. Even when it’s a recipe I’ve written and made a million times – like my basic banana bread – as soon as she steps into the kitchen and dons her (proverbial) apron, something happens that totally transforms the environment and everything she touches. Whatever is made therefore becomes hers, just unique enough that objective tasters can peg that it’s not mine. That it’s special. In no uncertain terms, that it is a whole other class of perfection.

The irony of my mom’s cooking always resulting in a better product than mine is that her entire history of culinary training is a combination of three things: what she learned at my grandmother’s hip, what she did to cope as a young wife and mother of ravenous girls, and what she was able to glean from a handful of high school Home Economics classes. In fact, Mom was quite ambivalent about the whole concept of food, or cooking in general for years. Only when my food-related allergies and intolerances began to present themselves and I began honing my culinary skills did she really begin turning “the corner”, so to speak. I, too, grew up attached to my mother’s side as she made dinner almost every night, even if it was just a box of mac and cheese. Nothing thrilled me more than getting a chance to “help” knead our Christmas loaves of brioche and challah, and the task of shaping the filled ring or the eggy braid each season was something I coveted more than the latest toy or “hot” fashion trend. I was fortunate enough to have a rather intensive Home Ec foundation in elementary school as well, and elected to build on those rudimentary skills in high school under the direction of both a chocolatier – cake decorator and a pastry chef. That time is one that I remember being filled with batches of 32-egg, 8-kg of fat chocolate chip cookies (which also had 4 kilos of chips!) and entirely too many “taste tests”. After the inevitable upswing of my weight and my subsequent success on Weight Watchers (followed by my food-related illness), I found food blogging, took a bakery arts course at George Brown College’s cooking school and finally fell into my current definition as a nutritional consultant, holistic nutrition student and (mostly) holistic and specialty-foods baker. I clearly have the chops (on paper) to make more than acceptable treats. So why don’t I get the “ooh la la” response with my offerings of Mom’s chocolate chip cookies? Simple: I’m not Mom.

So it is a lofty goal that contributing editor Linda Collister describes with the title of her latest book Sweet Treats: Just Like my Mother Used to Bake. Family recipes are works of art that are so personal that there is a reason why a Google string search for “banana bread” yields over 1,180,000 results, over 1,000 of them in the Food Blog Search alone. Treats includes that popular snack and 75 other recipes, not only from Collister’s hand but by Susannah Blake, Maxine Clark, Ross Dobson, Brian Glover, Liz Franklin, Fran Warde and Laura Washburn, all in a very attractive, concisely written package. Colourful photographs pepper the pages, luring anyone who leafs through the book into taking a closer look.

In taking this closer look, one may have to wonder at the incredible variety and complexity of these so-called “mother’s recipes”. None of the photos, not even for the “Classic Choc Chip Cookies”, look anything like anything my mom bakes, and according to her, the things she grew up baking with her mother were nowhere near as “complicated” as those in the book. While the recipes are definitely not multi-step, two-day affairs, they do have a certain panache to them that is a little out of place in a family recipe tome. If you are looking for that rustic, “down home on the farm” style of baking, then you will likely be disappointed by Collister’s book. Unlike many other “baking” cookbooks out there, though, the photographs in Treats are just as honest as they are gorgeous. Far from being pieces of art so artificially posed and shellacked into place, the elements in each shot are almost candid in appearance. This does not detract in any way from the pleasure of the book – if anything, it adds a level of approachability so often lacking in baking guides today. If you are looking for fairly simple, easy-to-dress-up (or down) goodies, with easy to follow instructions and consistent yields, this is a good book to pick up.

In order to get a “feel” for the way Treats reads for the baking set, I decided to test out two of the recipes. To choose those tester recipes, though, I defaulted to my mother, who I believed would best be able to describe the similarity of the goods to recipes she remembered from her childhood. Unsurprisingly, the recipe in the book that was the chocolatiest while inducing the least amount of guilt was her first selection: Clark’s Double Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 12). Rife with dark cocoa powder, dark chocolate chunks and white chocolate chips too, these chewy biscuits were delicious just barely cool, and were still fresh 4 days later. In fact, after sitting overnight, the cookies became the epitome of school-lunch cookies everywhere: a crisp exterior just sturdy enough to prevent the baked dough from disintegrating formed a protective shell around an incredibly “moreish” chewy (and not-too-sweet) heart. Likewise, the loaf of Apricot and Honey Rye (p. 154) submitted by Linda Collister that I made as one of my mom’s “weekly loaves” was no slouch in either the looks or taste departments. While it is definitely not something my mother would have ever made during my childhood, it was something she thoroughly enjoyed in her routine.

One of the most useful parts of Treats is the inset “tip boxes” scattered through the pages – providing hints for everything from removing cookies stuck to the sheets (pop them back in the oven for a minute) to reviving seized, half-melted chocolate, and even how to convince butter that’s just this side of un-creamable to beat into fluffy perfection. There is also a conversion chart for imperial to metric weight, volume, length and temperature measurements the very end of the index as well. This chart comes in handy quite often when baking from this book, since the “translations” Collister made for the American chef often lead to some rather interesting measurements (as in a cup + 2 tablespoons) for ingredients, and sometimes less used ingredients themselves – compressed yeast for example. That said, there is almost always an alternative for these “un-American” foods suggested, so even the most inexperienced home cook will be able to create something perfectly delicious from Collister’s book.

Sweet Treats is the kind of cookbook that anyone with the desire to share their love through sharing food should own. It is not simply a catalogue of the simple, everyday recipes that flood the pages of both literal and virtual cookbooks everywhere – it is a how-to guide for building on your own family’s traditions with new spins on classic ideas, and a springboard for creating new customs and favourites with those around you. This work is a great resource filled with basic techniques that, once mastered, can be applied to all sorts of ingredient combinations for a result that is all your own: a recipe that years later you will be proud to hear others claim is “just like yours”.