Thursday, February 28, 2013

All You Knead is Bread

All You Knead is Bread
Author: Jane Mason
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2012)

There are few things that embody the heart and sprit of the creator more than a handmade loaf of bread. Bread is a staple, occurring in some form or another in every country around the world. From inexpensive crusts baked in the ashes of wood burning fires to the extravagant brioches and fruit-studded, alcohol infused holiday breads found in December and at Easter, it is undeniable that mankind relies on it. Well made bread in the home kitchen is certainly attainable, and Jane Mason provides a wealth of information and techniques in her first book, All You Knead is Bread.

Far from focusing on one form or nationality of breads, All You Knead is essentially an encyclopedia and atlas of the art. Mason includes over 50 actual recipes for loaves and rolls, but more than that, she details bread as a historically significant item, a scientific medium and an economic tool. Everything from the ingredients to the processes occurring in a loaf-in-progress can be found in the first 28 pages, including a fully detailed guide to sourdough. Amidst the recipes are peeks into bread baking and eating around the world, from Mexico to Germany, all informative and fascinating in their own rights. Throughout the book, gorgeous photography from a variety of sources (all listed on p. 176) entice the casual browser to stop and peer a little deeper.

Black Rice Bread
Black Rice Bread (p. 75)

Turning to the formulae themselves, readers will find options for “everyday”, “occasional”, “celebration” and “sweet” breads, all handily cross-referenced in a well-organized index. The Everyday Bread chapter (p. 29 – 83) includes everything from the yeastless Soda Bread (p. 33) to the delectably savoury Cheese Rolls (p.82), as well as internationally-themed items like Steamed Buns (p. 71) and Simit (p. 61). Any and all of these are more than enough variety to last the average baker a year or more of enjoyment, but Mason has even more doughy delights in later pages.  Occasional Bread (p. 85 – 119) holds the glorious Brioche (p. 86), buckwheat Blinis (p. 105) and hearty Beer Bread (p. 100). For holidays, Mason includes treats like Hot Cross Buns (p. 122) and Kringel (p.135), and to tempt the readers’ sweet tooth, Cinnamon Buns (p. 167) and Maple Syrup Buns (p. 164).

Bag(uette) End
Baguettes (p. 37)
Luckily for readers, even the most complex of recipes in All You Knead is incredibly approachable. Mason is detailed without becoming verbose, and the photos illustrate critical junctures while managing to avoid cluttering the pages. I definitely appreciated both the photos and the written instructions while making the Baguettes (p. 37), and I credit their clarity for both my batches’ success. Mason’s Black Rice Bread (p. 75) was another huge hit here, turning out “in person” as beautifully as the book’s photos and with a wonderfully tender crumb. Being so soft, my only criticism is that it has no practical application beyond eating plain – it is too difficult to slice thinly for sandwiches and far too soft to stand up to the toaster. However, thick, fresh slices drizzled with runny honey make for a delicious breakfast or mid-afternoon snack, and I’d bet if it was left out to stale for a few days one could turn it into a delectable, exotic coconut milk bread pudding.

This book is a surefire hit for households everywhere, provided there are no low-carbers in the vicinity! It certainly is hard to think of a single person who wouldn’t benefit from a browse through All You Knead is Bread. Whether you are a total novice in the bread baking world or have been crafting loaves for 30 years, there will be something of interest and information to discover and tempt.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking: 101 Delicious Recipes for Lowering Blood Pressure, Losing Weight and Feeling Great

Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking: 101 Delicious Recipes for Lowering Blood Pressure, Losing Weight and Feeling Great
Author: Andrea Lynn
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2012)

Few foods can garner as much accolade and criticism as humble salt. Found in all colours of the rainbow, grinds from melt-on-the-tongue flakes to miniscule diamonds to crunch-in-the-teeth rocks, salt is the chef’s right hand seasoning. For all it’s wonderful flavour-enhancing properties, though, salt has the unfortunate side effect of raising blood pressure – a condition that can create heart problems over time – and thus has become the nemesis of the nutritionist. So what of the health conscious, flavour loving consumer? Must they sacrifice the taste of a well seasoned steak or pasta sauce, give up their cheese and eschew their soup? Or do they resign themselves to a lifetime of Avapro, Micardis and Diamox? Andrea Lynn thinks you can have all the flavour with minimal salt, and sets out to prove it in her book Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking: 101 Delicious Recipes for Lowering Blood Pressure, Losing Weight and Feeling Great.

The DASH diet is recommended because of it’s emphasis on fresh, whole foods and portion control. The basics of the diet are simple, and essentially follow the “official” Food Guides out there – making this way of eating one that most modern people should be following anyway. Where the DASH diet sticks out as a “name” is it’s limits on salt – not a problem with those used to mostly whole foods (since they don’t come pre-seasoned), but as processed foods are laden with both salt and sugar the reduction might come as a shock for others. Lynn does not eliminate salt in her cooking, by any means, nor does she eschew the use of canned products (though she does stress “low-sodium” varieties when they’re available). This practical, and in some cases streamlined, approach to cooking allows many of the recipes in Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking to fit perfectly into weeknight dinners.

Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking opens with a brief introduction to the nutritional basis of heart healthy eating, including portion control and food group servings. Recipes are categorized into Appetizers and Snacks, Salads and Soups, Sides, Pasta, Poultry, Meat, Fish and Shellfish, Vegetarian and Desserts. This is a commendable array, though I do with more variety was shown with the vegetarian features, including more vegan options, and less emphasis was placed on meaty mains. While I have nothing against eating meat, I do believe from a health and ecological perspective that a diet of mostly plant based meals is beneficial. There is also a somewhat depressing lack of desserts and sweets in Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking. While I realize the bake-shoppe is less likely to be the home of excess salt (in terms of home baking at least, given that packaged bread is the #1 source of sodium in our diet), I do know that many people who are required to follow a heart-health plan develop a sweet tooth and are always on the lookout for options that fit with their doctor’s guidelines.
Tofu-Cheese-Spinach Filling
While a couple recipes in this book piqued my interest immediately, I decided to make Lynn’s recipe for Spinach Stuffed Shells (p. 62) first. What I liked about this recipe was that it contained mashed tofu in place of some of the cheese, much like a lasagne recipe I make. I did find a few adjustments necessary to make it applicable for our groceries and tastes, not to mention our budget. Around here, the jumbo pasta shells only come in 9 oz (not 12 oz) boxes, and while it’s called for in the book, I have never seen a whole-grain variety in either Canada or the USA. My family is not a huge fan of the fresh mozzarella called for in Lynn’s recipe, as it lacks any distinct flavour on its own and I felt that both the taste and texture of it combined with the tofu  would just be too much blandness. While I can appreciate the fact that fresh cheese is generally lower in sodium, when it comes to eating healthfully taste matters most. I opted for a blend of goat cheeses instead, which are lower in sodium and easier for the digestive tract to handle than their cow-milk counterparts while imparting a world of complex flavour. I also chose to add fresh garlic, which enormously added to the dish and was fresher and healthier than the granulated variety.

Spinach Stuffed ShellsI love the colourful pictures in Fresh & Healthy DASH Diet Cooking, though unfortunately some of them look nothing like the actual finished product. The Tofu Chocolate Pudding (p. 129) looks fantastic in it’s photo, but the actual pudding is lost in a sea of broken Oreos (which coincidentally have 7% of the RDA of sodium in a measly 4 cookie serving). The pudding itself, when made in my household, was not as elegantly rich brown either, though that could be a difference in chocolates. I haven’t attempted the Banana Bread (p. 133), but the picture looks like the recipe should contain molasses or another darkening agent other than maple syrup as its crumb appears to be rather dark.

Spinach Stuffed ShellsPhoto nit-picking aside, the recipes taste alright. But in no way will they come off as being the same as your “usual” fare – which can wreak havoc when cooking for children or picky adults. A few tweaks and mid-recipe taste-tests will greatly improve the reader’s experience and I encourage them to use fresh ingredients over canned or dried to get the most flavour and health benefits from the recipes. If you’re stuck for healthy meal ideas, this book is a good ace in your pocket, but more than anything this book’s nutrition information should spark the reader to begin modifying their own favourites and indulging in the DASH Diet lifestyle long before hypertension becomes an issue.

Available on Amazon

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook

The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook
Publisher: Workman Publishing (2012)

Do you have a sweet tooth? While I was never a die-hard candy fanatic, I’m definitely guilty of polishing off a box of truffles or a giant slab of chocolate fudge cake – with a scoop of ice cream for good measure. Making confectionery was always something that seemed otherworldly, beyond my non-professional skills as a home cook. Then, I started seeing other self-professed home cooks taking on the task and I was sparked to try my luck at it. When I received The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook by Liz Gutman and Jen King to review, it seemed like the planets had aligned.

I spent hours combing through Liddabit, flagging treat after treat I would die to gorge myself on. With seven chapters ranging from gummies to caramels, lollipops and even my beloved chocolate, the 75 recipes each tempted and delighted me. With the December holidays approaching, Liddabit was also the perfect way to save a little money by making a few gifts rather than buying them. Now with Valentine’s Day around the corner, this book is a wonderful opportunity to best the box of chocolates and show your love how much you really care – or host an anti-Valentine’s party with a gaggle of single friends.

On the topic of romance, the authors cleverly included a “Speed Date the Candies” chart (p. xiii), which was invaluable in my selection process. This chart lets the reader spot at a glance just which candy is ideal for your tastes, time and mood – be it boozy (like the Cherry Cordials, p. 85), gluten free (Agar Fruit Jellies, p. 109), shippable (Salty Peanut Taffy, p. 152) or quick to assemble (Five Minute Marzipan, p. 175). Information and tips critical for new candy-creators are covered in a thorough, friendly introduction. Each chapter also has a respectable amount of information and technique threading through it, but in no way does Liddabit read like a pastry school textbook. The authors include a wealth of photography (courtesy of Rachel Been) that illustrates the detail and beauty of candy production without in any way being gratuitous.

Soft Chocolate Candy (Kneaded)
"Dough" for Salted Soft Chocolates (p.67)
Chocoholic that I am, I immediately gravitated to the second chapter of Liddabit – Chocolate Loves You and Wants You to be Happy. There was no shortage of temptations – I swooned over the Hip to be Squares (p. 99) made with sinful Nutella, and the Buckeyes (p. 72) called to my salty-sweet tooth. In the end, though, the sheer simplicity of the Salted Soft Chocolates (p.67) won my heart. I’m not a huge fan of the chalky, chewy “fake chocolate” Tootsie Roll, so I was concerned that these would be the same (the authors describe the texture as similar, and they do look like the store-bought candy). I needn’t have worried. The chocolates are made with only 5 ingredients, including 17 ounces of dark chocolate, and by choosing the quality and cocoa mass percentage the cook can thus control the outcome of the finished product. I used a blend of 70% and 65% chocolates, which was perfect for the adult set I was cooking for, but may be too intense for a child’s or milk-chocolate-lover’s palate. I did end up using slightly more salt than called for, but in no way were these “salty”, just well-rounded. It is a good thing this recipe makes a lot of candy (as do most recipes in Liddabit), as it is a bit of a process and required, I found, more time, tools and strength than alluded to. While it is in itself an easy recipe, bank on a good two days from start to finish, invest in a SilPat, bench scraper and sharp knife, and be ready to break out the muscle pain ointment after all the kneading, cutting and wrapping is done. The end result is more than worth it, being a hit with almost every age set (the youngest ones declared them too bitter), and it is a recipe I will keep in my arsenal for future holidays.

Nougat Slices
Classic European Nougat (p. 145)
The other recipe I tried out in Liddabit was Classic European Nougat (p. 145). Nougat, as well as the various national varieties like turrĂ³n and torrone, is a favourite confection with my Italian stepfamily, and I wanted to give them something special for the holidays. The book declares that this candy is “Worth It”, but I have my doubts as a non-crunchy candy fan. By the time I attempted this recipe (which takes a solid afternoon to make and can be expensive due to the nuts), I had become somewhat familiar with the candymaking process. For those just beginning a journey into confectionery, I would strongly suggest making marshmallows first, as nougat is effectively solidified marshmallow. I was prepared for the hot sugar syrup (readers note you will need a candy thermometer for most Liddabit recipes) and whipping of egg whites (you will need a stand mixer), and had my mise en place set out and organized. However, I was not prepared for how stiff the whipped mixture really gets and how sticky the finished mixture can be – the book’s direction to "stir the nuts" into the base sounds like a simple matter. In practice, the process was more like "try not to break your spatula / your arms". Being so stiff, as well as so hot (almost 300°F), getting it into an even layer in the pan required the speed of an Olympian and hands of asbestos. In terms of cleanup, the patience of Job and about an hour long shower finally removed the remaining sugar residue from all corners of the kitchen and my hair. Cutting it was one of the hardest things either my mom or I had ever experienced, even though I knew it was a hard candy it was definitely a two day, hammer and knife job. It was well received though, and lasts almost indefinitely in a cool, dry place, so if you have the patience and strength it is perfect for gift giving.

While I can’t say for sure that Liz Gutman and Jen King will make candy as easy as flipping a switch with Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook, this book is definitely a stellar primer for the candy-curious. There is enough variety in the pages to allow both complete neophytes and experienced cooks to make professional looking confections with a little sugar, heat and elbow grease. I can’t wait to get the sweet kitchen back up and running – there are still 73 recipes I need to savour!

Available on Amazon