Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness

Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness
Author: Dédé Wilson
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2012)

Imagine – all the things you love about a piece of cake, without the fuss and bother of storing a whole one in the fridge. Simple, I know. Ever since I first saw these confections on Angie Dudley’s (AKA Bakerella’s) blog, I’ve marvelled at how I didn’t think of the concept sooner! While a great way to utilize stale, overbaked and even freshly baked cake leftovers, cake balls provide a wonderfully blank canvas for experimentation. This creative potential is made deliciously clear in the cookbook Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness by Dédé Wilson, contributor to Bon Appetit magazine.

Carrot Cake Balls!
Carrot Cake ‘n’ Cream Cheese Frosting Cake Balls (p. 63)
Far from your standard “chocolate and vanilla” flavours, Cake Balls offers 52 different twists – from a Toffee-Brown Butter Pecan (p. 132) to Creme Brulee (p. 82) and even Apple Pie (p. 50). Wilson also includes recipes for the cakes, brownies and frostings used in the balls, along with including a section called Cake Ball Creations (p. 140), which is filled with fun and interesting ways to play with the basics (like making a Fairy Princess Ballerina (p.148)).

This book is great not only for the finished products’ combinations but also for the basic cakes and brownies that Wilson calls for in the book themselves. The Banana Cake (p. 36) was moist and buttery, and was made even better the second time with an extra banana and one less egg. My personal favourite, though, was the Fudgy Brownie (p. 37). I found it far too sweet as written (especially since it’s intended to be mixed with frosting and dipped in chocolate!), but the texture was definitely as Wilson described – sticky and moist, perfect for shaping (she gives the caveat that these were not meant to be served au naturale). If I was going to serve them as cut brownies, I’d add three minutes to the bake time, cut the sugar to three-quarters of what the recipe calls for and use partial brown sugar for added flavour and a more familiar texture. It’s a simple formula that opens itself up to a world of possibilities in both ball and bar form.

Caramel Banana Cake Balls
Banana-Caramel-Nut Cake Balls (p. 55)
More problematic for me were the frostings and glaze I tried. The Caramel Frosting (p. 44) was far too greasy in texture, acting more like a hand cream than a “glue” when I tried to use it in the Banana-Caramel-Nut Cake Balls (p. 55). I loved the flavour of the filling for the Apple Pie Cake Balls (again, after cutting the sugar in half), but it was again too greasy combined with the moist cake. I’d use it for tarts and hand pies for sure, and when juxtaposed with a savoury crust I’m sure it would really stand out. The Cream Cheese Frosting (p. 63), however, had no flaws on the palate or with the consistency, being tangy enough to cut the sugar and sweet enough to not simply taste like cheese. I will definitely go back to this recipe, and in fact made several batches since I used it on a large slab cake. It also fared well as a cake ball “glue” when I used it with scraps of trimmed carrot cake for a partial batch of Carrot Cake ‘n’ Cream Cheese Frosting Cake Balls (p. 63). Not having white chocolate on hand at the time, I used dark and upon serving it was told I should sell them to Starbucks! Trying to make the Confectioners’ Sugar Glaze (p. 47), though, was more of a trial. Wilson indicates in the recipe introduction that “[i]f you whisk the sugar and water together without heating, the glaze will remain sticky” – a quality that isn’t overly desirable in a portable snack. However, she never tells the reader how to heat the mixture for a hard set, nor mentions it anywhere else in the book. Had I been thinking, I would have gone back to Alton Brown’s Doughnut Glaze recipe which has served me well.

The great thing about a treat such as Cake Balls is that they are a product of versatility and even frugality. While Wilson’s Bon Appetit history shows itself in her guides to tempering chocolate (p. 70), caramelizing sugar (in Creme Brulee Cake Balls (p.82)) and working with “coating chocolate” (p.24), she also includes incredibly useful “how-tos” for basic ball creation (p. 16) and basic ingredients and techniques to be aware of (p. 20). Wilson also realizes that time and/or cost is an issue for many home cooks, including “it’s okay” notes about customizing the treats based on your personal preferences or availabilities and using a box mix and canned frosting to whip up treats in a pinch. Many readers will already be doing this to make their own “doughnut holes” for bake sales, and while she doesn’t mention it using leftover, frosted slices of cake (especially chocolate-on-chocolate types) can be easily broken down to “ball paste”, rolled and dipped too.

Apple Pie Cake Balls
Apple Pie Cake Balls (p. 50)
The recipes in Cake Balls: More Than 60 Delectable and Whimsical Sweet Spheres of Goodness are not perfect, but the idea of making portable two-bite treats with the flavour of a full slice is a practical one that will not be going away. The combinations of flavours and textures Dédé Wilson shares in the book’s pages are great spins on plain concepts that can be made with your favourite recipes without issue. This reason alone this book is worth perusing, and if you forsee yourself contributing to bake sales, birthday parties or sweet tables, you won’t be steered wrong.
Available on Amazon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine

Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine
Publisher: Harvard Common Press (2012)

Everyone loves to have their own little treat. Having your own self-contained portion of a meal or dessert makes you feel special, as if it was made just for you, and of course it means you don’t have to share! But making single servings of anything can be tricky, especially when it comes to baking and desserts. That’s where the genius of Shaina Olmanson and her latest book Desserts in Jars: 50 Sweet Treats that Shine comes into play. This quaint little hardcover contains 50 scrumptious recipes that neatly tuck away into your standard Mason, Ball or Kerr jars. From cakes and puddings to granita, cobbler and even pie, almost no type of dessert is excluded.

This book is a joy to look through. Every page of Desserts is printed in full colour, and every recipe includes a photo of the finished dish. The book also has a “lay-flat” coil binding, which makes it incredibly useful in the kitchen. The index is well organized and easy to read, and Olmanson also provides a detailed conversion chart at the back. The book’s introduction is a professional, yet personable guide to all the elements that go into the perfect jarred dessert – which jar to choose, how to fill and bake in them, tips for freezing leftovers and even how to decorate the finished product.

I was familiar with Olmanson’s creative cooking before reading Desserts, as she maintains a blog titled Food for my Family. Her practical, easy-to-read and -relate to style carries through into her book, and you can tell that many of the recipes were written with her busy family (and others like it) in mind. While most recipes serve six to ten, smaller families will still be able to enjoy the treats through the week, and longer if they fall in the Frozen Desserts chapter (p. 112) or are wrapped and frozen post-bake. This obviously doesn’t work for Olmanson’s Custards and Puddings (p. 70), but the other items do just fine in the freezer and are handy to have on hand for guests! Being baked in glass, the chilled desserts also reheat nicely in the microwave or a low oven. For those who like to plan ahead, the book also includes recipes for baking and drink mixes that can keep in the pantry for months and also make wonderful (and welcome) gifts.

I knew immediately upon receiving my copy of Desserts that I absolutely had to make Olmanson’s version of the now infamous jarred Classic Apple Pie (p. 45). As we aren’t used to pies made with a filling comprised of anything but apples and cinnamon, this recipe (calling for a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar) was a little too rich for our tastes. However, the instructions were clear and would easily adapt to anyone’s favourite recipe. I did have an issue with the all-butter Classic Pie Dough (p. 42) being a little too tender to work with when it came to wrestling it into the jars, and while the top crusts were nicely browned and crisp after baking, the bottom s were soggy, almost oily, and didn`t have the tender flake of butter crusts I’ve made before in a pie plate. When I make this recipe again, I’ll be more inclined to try a shortening based dough, brushed with egg and par-baked to keep it a bit sturdier before adding the filling.

I also tried out two of the “mix in a jar” recipes from Desserts and found great success in both their ease of assembly and overall finished product. The Monster Cookies (p. 137) were intriguing since they didn’t use any flour at all and allowed for almost infinite variations, not to mention it made a gorgeous gift! In my version, I used a chocolate-laden trail mix I found at the bulk store in place of the walnuts – nirvana for the chocoholic in me. I also made the Cinnamon Coffee Cake (p. 133), using homemade cinnamon chips, half spelt flour and California walnuts in place of the pecans. This combination was a delectable one that was heightened even more by the recipe’s inclusion of tangy sour cream and decadent butter.

Regardless of whether you have a family of five running on forty different schedules, or it’s simply you at home with a yearning for a treat, there really is something for everyone in this book. It’s a fun, inexpensive and relatively simple way to treat yourself without keeping a whole cake or pie in the house (where it will either be the source of waste or guilt!). Not to mention, Desserts in Jars are portable, versatile, and just plain cute! Shaina Olmanson does a wonderful job at “canning” this concept, and the end result is definitely worth a look.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bean By Bean: A Cookbook

Bean By Bean: A Cookbook 
Author: Crescent Dragonwagon
Publisher: Workman (2011)

Being, for the most part, a very-low-fat vegan, beans have been part of my pantry and kitchen for years. I haven’t met a bean I didn’t like (excepting fava and lupini), and will gladly spend summer afternoons tending, harvesting and eating the fresh Romano and string beans growing in the garden. However, I appreciate that standard bean recipes can become a bit “boring” and tedious to make and eat – there is only so much minestrone, dhal and chili one can have before dinner becomes “beans again?”.

Enter vegetarian “comfort cook” and author Crescent Dragonwagon and her latest book Bean By Bean. This book provides readers of all tastes and ability levels with over 175 recipes, most of which featuring the humble legume in pride of place. The book starts off with a lengthy, intensive essay of sorts covering the basics of beans, even including nutrition and history notes which are more generally interesting than relevant to the cookery. What most readers (especially those new to beans as a staple food) will appreciate is the section titled Unmasking the Mischief of the Musical Fruit (p. 6). Not only does Dragonwagon include “pharmaceutical” remedies such as Beano (though it should be noted that the specific variety she suggests is no longer produced), but includes a list of factors that affect the legume’s digestibility and potential to cause gaseous side effects. The author also provides some helpful herbs and spices that can be added to cooking beans to minimize discomfort – including summer savory (great in Bean & Barley Salad (p. 141)) and cumin (prevalent in chili powder and curries like Dahl (p. 81)). Finally, Bean by Bean’s introduction offers basic cooking instructions and tips for every type of bean available – green (like wax beans), shell beans (which the author terms “semi-mature”) and the most common form – dried. Soaking, “de-gassifying” and a discussion on using canned and home cooked frozen beans for speed and ease are also included and definitely worth a read if you are a novice to this food. For specifics as to the treatment, substitutes and common usage of almost any bean or lentil you could want to try, the Appendix (p. 344) provides a helpful chart that is easy to read and follow.

One of the enjoyable elements of Bean By Bean is the peppering of quotations and trivia throughout the pages. While Dragonwagon’s colloquial, conversational style of writing and humour can be a bit wearing at times (especially in large quantities like this 370-page tome), the quotations are from a variety of sources, such as my personal favourite from the Yoruba people of western Africa:
"Mofere ipa eiye na!" / "Aki ofere li obbe"
"I almost killed the bird!" / "But no one can eat 'almost' in a stew"
 (p. 71)
I also liked the fact that many recipes offer variations on the theme. Changing out one or two ingredients or spices transforms the standard All-Day Baked Beans (p.216) into a global kaleidoscope of flavour (from Vermont to England and even the Caribbean). This book includes recipes for vegan, vegetarian, gluten free and meat eating (or as Dragonwagon writes, “meatist”) diets, and while a recipe may contain meat, dairy or gluten verbatim the options to modify are almost always given.

Not all the recipes in Bean by Bean include the legume itself. Most of the chapters offer bean-free side dishes, condiments and breads designed as a complement to the main ingredient. Dragonwagon previously wrote a book comprised of nothing but cornbread, and three cornbread recipes do find themselves in this book as well as biscuits and steamed brown bread. Vegetable sides like Roasty-Toasty Carrots & Onions (p.37) and sweet-savoury items like Mixed Fruit Salsa (p. 181) break up the carb-heavy dishes and are very tasty on their own as well.

“Don’t Hurt Yourself” Bean Pie (p. 327)
The book’s major strength is it’s ability to take a potentially boring ingredient and showcase it in every form imaginable. Far from the standard soup and chili you’d expect to find in a book like this, Dragonwagon also includes what may be the most comprehensive bean-centric dessert chapter in any published work to date. In fact, it is in this section that my favourite recipe falls – the cheekily named “Don’t Hurt Yourself” Bean Pie (p. 327). This 1897 recipe is very similar in flavour and texture to a pumpkin pie, but features navy beans as the main filling agent. Everyone I served it to enjoyed it – including children (though I didn’t tell them what was in it!). On the savoury side of the plate, I adored the simple flavours of Oven-Roasted Green Beans (p. 229), especially the variation with tomatoes and garlic. The CD’s Chili Mole (p.170) would be a perfect comfort food mid February, as would the Four-Star From-the-Cupboard Red Bean Stew (p.188). I was looking forward to trying Dragonwagon’s version of Vegetarian Cassoulet (p.234), but was turned off by the heavy use of meat analogues in place of other natural flavouring agents. It is worth noting that Dragonwagon is not shy with her use of these items, especially flavoured soy sausages and tempeh. Also, for those readers who are motivated more by photos than words, bear in mind that this book contains no photography whatsoever.

With a host of health, economic and ecological benefits, the versatile bean  is a food that should be on our plates more often than not. Luckily, authors like Crescent Dragonwagon have provided us with tomes of ideas and recipes to play with at home. With Bean By Bean, it’s possible to travel the world through your tastebuds, and save a few pennies for a plane ticket too.