21 June 2009

On My Rickety Shelves: Little Cakes From the Whimsical Bakehouse

Thanks to the lovely people at Random House Canada, a copy of this month's cookbook selection was delivered to my kitchen.

Little Cakes from the Whimsical Bakehouse: Cupcakes, Small Cakes, Muffins, and Other Mini Treats
By Kaye Hansen and Liv Hanson
Clarkson Potter/Random House Canada
176 pages; $27.95

My readers know my cake decorating skills are the antithesis of those produced by Charm City Cakes. So frustrated I am with the prospect of prettifying my baking that I've deemed the mere attempt at piping "foofing"... as in: I don't do foofy cakes. Normally I glaze...at best I schwoop...but pipe? Never. So why did I accept the offer of Little Cakes from the Whimsical Bakehouse? Simple: I wanted to prove to myself that I could produce a cake that, while not of Duff Goldman's calibre, would not be a total embarassment.

Kaye Hansen and Liv Hansen are the creative and baking forces behind The Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY. Kaye is a self-taught baker while her daughter Liv uses her art school training to create eyecatchng cakes. They've appeared on various US Television shows and have produced a series of cake books under the "Whimsical Bakehouse" name.

Their latest tome was written for people like me, who find the entire prospect of cake decorating daunting, but would like to learn. The book itself is broken out into four main areas: getting started, anytime little cakes and muffins, special occasion little cakes and templates; they also include a section on suppliers. Recipes include cakes and other pastries, fillings and icings; decorating instructions and templates are also provided.

The most useful information this book gives about cake decorating. Basic tools of the trade from bases to pans to brushes and scoops are all explained, including tools and special ingredients. The fundamentals of filling, crumbing and icing cakes are covered to some extent, but some of their baking tips are overly basic, almost to the point of "dumbed down" more than is necessary...at times I felt like they were talking down to their readers, in a schoolmarmy tone that just puts my back up--"carefully measure all of your ingredients" and "most cake and muffin recipes can be baked in cupcake papers."

For me the most important part of this book is the confidence it gives the neophyte decorator. Instructions are easily followed for desired effects. Granted some techniques are less daunting than others--dolloping and smoothing icing on a cupcake vs piping hydrangeas--and some require an artistic temperament--piping and shading acorns.

The recipes are laid out in a non-standard format--instead of starting off with an ingredient list and following with instructions, ingredient information is provided in a sort of "as needed" basis, lists appearing, just before they're called for in the recipe. This may be problematic for some bakers.

The recipes themselves are rather lacklustre. Normally I would make three or four recipes to test a book but after two, I'd decided I didn't need to try any more. Even though the foods come together well enough, the flavour tasted as soul-less as if they were made by assistance of a store-bought pouch. I may be odd, but when I bake at home, I want the products to taste like someone cared about the end product, not bought from the grocery store.

Almond Coffee Cakes (p57)
This recipe is easy but may hold some people back, simply because the requisite baking tin (a 12 mold mini-square tin) is not necessarily in every home's baking rack. As you can tell from the photo I don't have one and I decided to make this recipe in my 12-bun cupcake/muffin tin. The other issues I have with this recipe is--and I'm not sure if the fault is mine, or with the batter or instructions was the cakes fell apart where the centre of cumbs separated the two halves of batter. Not the end of the world, but not enjoyable. The flavour was so reminiscent of pastries bought at overpriced coffee shops--flat and very sweet.

Banana Muffins (p52)
I substituted the called-for walnuts with almonds, which I don't think detracted from the muffin. The authors suggested topping the cakes with some chopped walnuts...instead I spooned the dregs of my last batch of granola). The muffins were incredibly moist and but again, lacked any sort of twinkle that would set this apart from something made from a cafeteria reliant upon packet mixes.

Ella's Birthday Cake
Okay. I know what you're thinking--there can't be a recipe for something called "Ella's Birthday Cake." You're right. There isn't. I wanted to give you an idea of what someone, with no confectionary talent can pull together based on what she learned from this book. It's not the fanciest or "cleanest" cake, but it's decidedly prettier than I'd produced before. I learned how to smooth on the icing and adapted the acorn technique for the multicoloured polka dots. Not bad for a first try, I think.

The Hansens give home bakers ideas about how they can make cupcakes and cakes a bit more festive. They can start off with basic techniques and then go on to create their own masterpieces.

So how does it rate?
Overall: 2.75/5
The breakdown:
Recipe Selection: 2.5/5
Writing: 3/5
Ease of use: 3.25/5
Yum factor: 2/5
Table-top test: Lies flat

Kitchen comfort-level: Novice
Pro: Decorating instructions that can take decorators from square one to beyond.

Con: The cakes taste so absolutely...boring.


What I'm reading:
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I'm a quill for hire!

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