07 November 2006

Cookbook Spotlight: Baking: from my home to yours

Baking: From my home to yours
By Dorie Greenspan
Houghton Mifflin, New York City
Hardcover; 514 pages; C$55/US$40
ISBN-10: 0-168-443336-3; -13:978-0-618-44336-9

Thanks to Sara, the wonderful mind behind i like to cook, I was invited to participate in the next Cookbook Spotlight series. Without hesitation I said yes: I had such a wonderful time with the last title, I’ve been hoping to be invited back. Thanks to Sara and the very kind people at Houghton Mifflin, 25 of us received our very own copies of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from my home to yours to cook from and blog about.

I nearly spat up my evening tea when I read Greenspan’s introduction:

Until I was a junior in college, my sole cooking experience consisted of burning down my parents’ kitchen when I was thirteen, after I tossed frozen French fries into boiling oil and covered the pot. For the next half-dozen years, I remained blissfully clueless about all things culinary.

My eyes vibrated in that way they do when seemingly conflicting thoughts start my synapses firing—“How does someone go from setting her kitchen ablaze to writing nine cookbooks?” was battling with “Will this book be salvageable? combined with a little bit of “OMG, will I have a kitchen by the end of this adventure?” (and yes, there was the “Speaking of which, where is my fire extinguisher?” question thrown in, but I know where all three are).

Greenspan’s story is an interesting one. Married at 19, she was forced to learn how to cook (what 19 year old newlywed student can afford to eat out every meal?). By the time she finished her doctorate in gerontology, she had an epiphany: she actually liked cooking and, more to the point, she’d rather bake than continue a career in academia. With sheepskin in hand, and her husband’s encouragement, she found her way as apprentice pastry chef in a number of famous pastry kitchens. In time, she began writing columns and cookbooks. She’s worked with notable chefs such as Julia Child and Daniel Boulud to pen chef recipes into recipes normal, everyday people could successfully repeat in normal, everyday home kitchens.

As with every cookbook that enters my possession, I read Baking cover-to-cover, with my usual attitude of "can this writer immerse me, hold my interest and make me want to try these ideas of hers?” Will she be a knowledgeable friend who, will via good, clear language find a comfortable place in my kitchen while passing on advice and perceptions based on her own experience or (as I’ve put it before ) esoteric-to-me knowledge. Yes, I want my cookbooks to speak to me and not down to me. I also want to know that the person who wrote them not only understands cooking but has a modicum of common sense.

This book combines Greenspan’s obvious love of all baked sweets with a desire to demystify the sometimes scary world of baking. Her voice is warm and friendly and she injects humour and anecdotes throughout, including the time she was served her own “World Peace Cookies” and how a cake, the “Chocolate Armagnac Cake,” got her fired. She also includes her version of the dessert-maker’s glossary of ingredients, tools and techniques.

Her recipes are divided into six broad chapters: Breakfast Sweets; A Cache of Cookies; Cakes of All Kinds; Pies and Tarts; Spoon Desserts, and Indispensables. Each section is then divided even further. For example, Pies and Tarts has sections devoted to apples; fall holiday pies, and creamy pies and tarts; fruit pies and tarts. Each chapter and section has its own introduction, filled with practical information written in a way to calm the nerves of someone who has never tried that sort of cooking before. If you’ve never tried making a fruit tart before, you may be comforted to read

At its most basic, a fruit pie or tart is just fruit or dough, give or take some sugar, spice or maybe a little butter.
It’s this sort of simple, reassuring language helps muster up the courage to bake a double-crusted blueberry pie.

Her recipes are well written and presented in an easy fashion. The technique section is broken down in to logical steps, but also contains sections about tweaking ingredients to make a different, but just as lovely dish. She gives information on how to serve the dessert and how to store it. Not every recipe is photographed, but those that are beautifully done in a manner that denotes home cooking—the image of the mixed berry cobbler that overbubbled in the pan, leaving slurpy drips running down the side is not only gorgeous, but comforting because it isn’t a perfect image.

What I think are the most useful parts of Baking are her lemony-yellow pointer pages. For example, if flaky scones and biscuits elude you, her hints on page 20 tell you all you need to know. Quite honestly, it’s her wonderfully written tips on pie crusts which, I think, solved my pastry-making problems.

There are very few things I fault in this book—and they aren’t the author’s doing.

This book is marketed and sold outside of the United States, but these audiences aren’t taken into consideration when addressing such things as measurement (sticks of butter, lack of Metric measurement, and the habit of using volume measures for things that many people in the world weigh); without a conversion chart, some recipes may not translate well to a non-US audience. Personally, I would have loved to have a recipe title index (either at the beginning of each chapter or at the end)—it would make finding recipes easier. The last point is my own pet peeve with the publishing industry: the Canadian cost has been calculated as if our dollar trades at less than 63 US cents. The Canadian dollar hasn’t traded at that low a level in about four years (currently it is about 90 cents US); if the publisher based the Canadian price at the 01 November 2005 rate, it would be about 85 US cents, or a cover price of about $46 ($9 less than the current list).

Those things aside, this is a really, really good book. I think the highest compliment I can pay any cookbook author is that I keep cooking from it. Most tomes get a few tries and then get shelved indefinitely. Not this one. It stays on my coffee table because I cook from it at every opportune moment (which, unfortunately, have been lacking as of late). Why? Because the results are predictably successful and predictably delicious.

When I review a cookbook, I normally choose four recipes before the book gets shelved. So far I’ve made seven recipes and with plans to bake more. Everything I’ve made has come out perfectly—normally I make notes about adjusting amounts or cooking times or oven temperatures. Often I cross out ingredients and write in things that would work better (proportions, flavours, etc.). I don’t have to do any of that with this book. I know that I can just take this book, pick out any recipe and make it and the results will be more than satisfyingly scrumptious.

Even my MOTHER, she-of-the-snarky-comments-about-all-TV-chefs-and-most-cookbooks, LIKES this book and LIKES everything she’s snuck out of my kitchen. She’s even riffled through pages, marking things she wants me to make for her and her friends. (Okay, maybe that’s another negative—people will want you to bake for them more often now that you have this book).

I consider recipe testing like a good graze at a buffet table: I want to try a little bit of everything. The four I chose were:

Fresh Mango Bread
I’ve never tried mango bread before—in fact, I’d never heard of mango bread before. The recipe reads very much like a carrot cake, and I’m sure one could substitute carrots or courgettes for mangoes. One of the problems living where I do is that we don’t get good mangoes in the bigscarymegamarts—sure they look ripe, but they aren’t. I used canned mangoes instead, in hopes that they would be better than the fresh ones around here. They were (marginally). The bread came out beautifully—dense and very, very moist. It wasn’t too sweet. I ate a slice for breakfast every morning for days and I never got tired of it.

Tribute to Katherine Hepburn Brownies
When I received this book, I had a huge craving for chocolate brownies. I hemmed and hawed over the various options, and settled on this one. How could I NOT make something that’s a tribute to screen legend? I hadn’t made brownies in about 15 years, so I was perfectly out of practice…you would never have known. Dense, slightly coffee-flavoury and fudgey combined with crunchy pecans made these incredibly amazing. The only problem with them is that they disappear very, very quickly.

(I noticed that the wonderful
Ruth of Once Upon A Feast also made these. Here’s the link to the recipe she posted.)

Tiramisu Cake
Yes, it’s très 1996, but still. It’s tiramisu. The cake layers were nicely spongey and soaked up the espresso really well, and will be used in future trifley-type puddings. The marscapone-whipped cream filling was amazing. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to put it together in a half-decent way, but Greenspan’s well-written directions helped me turn out a beautiful, delicious cake that everyone in my office raved about.

All-American, All-Delicious Apple Pie
If you’ve never made a pie before, and have been afraid to try one, this is a good one to try...as long as you know what types of apples to use. Greenspan doesn’t give any guidance as to the sorts of apples that should be used, which may be a problem for novice piemakers. That said, the spicing was nicely balanced and there was a zippy lemonniness from the zest. Yes, I know that has a lot to do with the apples.

If you’ve never made pastry before, or if every pastry crust you’ve made has been as tough as beef jerky, leaving you to believe that your only option is to buy frozen crusts, this is a good one (“Good For Almost Everything Pie Dough”) to try out. Please note, I don’t have a food processor, so I did it by hand—I’m not a great pastry maker, but I’m not the world’s worst either (maybe second-worst)--the pastry came together perfectly and baked up flaky and gorgeous. In fact, if you need only one reason to buy this book…this pastry crust recipe is it. If you need a second one, then the hints to make a good crust will more than do.

Anyone interested in baking should seriously consider adding Baking: from my home to yours to their repertoire. This book would make an excellent gift for a novice baker of any age. Equally helpful to novice cooks and experienced domestic doyennes, Dorie Greenspan’s Baking will become a well-loved, well-thumbed, and well-enjoyed source of delicious memories.

At a Glance:
Overall: 4.25/5

The Breakdown:
Writing: 4/5
Recipe Selection: 4.5/5
Ease of use: 4/5
Yumminess: 4.5/5

Kitchen comfort-level: all
Pro: Well-written recipes that cover a vast number of types of baked desserts.
Con: Conversion charts and recipe index would make this book easier to use.

I hope to have recipes posted in a while, when my schedule slows down a bit.



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Anonymous said...

I've read a couple of reviews from several blogs, I'm sold! This book is on my wishlist :)

Lis said...

Now THAT was a fabulous write up of this fabulous book. I couldn't agree more with everything you've said - even though I didn't even give thought to the measurement problem and/or lack of indexes at each chapter, but they are very good points. I think my only fault with the book is I wish the pages were laminated as there are quite a few in my copy that already have vanilla blotches and tiny lil drips of corn syrup sticking a couple pages together. ha!

Brilynn said...

Everything looks delicious, I'm so envious of all of your and your new amazing cookbook.

Anonymous said...

Ummm, I intended to say all those things. I had the same thoughts and feelings about the kitchen fire. And yes I want to bake almost every recipe in this book. I'm certainly well on my way.
I can't agree with you more on the weights and measure part - once you start weighting things it's so much neater. I really appreciate books that list it both ways but I guess there are folk who get the numbers mix also.

Sara said...

Awesome Jasmine! I made the Mango Bread too - so delicious. Thank you again for taking part!

Anonymous said...

I am making that Mango bread tomorrow, it looks so good. We very much enjoyed the Tiramisu cake during a friend's birthday
Great Spotlight!

Anonymous said...

This is definetely a great review, and I'm glad to hear everything turned out well!

Anonymous said...

This is definetely a great review, and I'm glad to hear everything turned out well!

Anonymous said...

Oh that mango bread looks so good!
This cookbook is truly a gem, its not must a good cook book, but also a great read. Mine is now sitting next to my bed.

Ruth Daniels said...

awesome review - it's almost as good as the book ;-)

jasmine said...

Hello all

Kat - I think that since so many of us have had so many positive experiences with this book, it should say something...I hope you get the book--I think you'll enjoy it.

Lis - Why thank you, my dear :) You know, I think blotches on recipe pages are an honest cooking casualty. I always wonder about pristine cookbooks I find in the used bookshops...they seem so unloved...

Brilynn - Think of it this way...we try out the recipes and give you our honest feedback so you know what to expect :)

Tanna - I read a coobook review (different title) by someone who listed volume measures instead of weights as a negative...one of the commenters got very huffy about this, and seemed to take it very personally (she *wasn't* the author). It was very odd...

Sara - Thanks so much for inviting me!

Helene - Hope the bread turns out lovely. You know how good the cake was :)

Ellie - Thanks very much.

JenJen - I think all good cookbooks are ones you can take to bed with you :)

Ruth - *blush* High praise indeed *blush* Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Dare I ask...what is on top of that pie? Why it looks like chedder!

Which I might I add goes magnificently with apple pie...and here I was thinking that, maybe it was just me who didn't top their pie with a dollop of ice cream or whipped goodness, but instead another saltier form of dairy...or I could be mistaken.

*and thanks for stopping by too*

Either way, I have two bags of apples that seriously need used. I guess that's the benefit or negative point of living about ten minutes from the orchard.

Anonymous said...

Wow, when you review, you review...I want to go back and do mine now :(

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review and wonderful sounding recipes you've posted. I especially like the sound of the fresh mango bread!


Anonymous said...

I find it very encouraging that she didn't get into baking until she was in her early adult years. What an inspiration!
Thanks for the thorough review.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully done, Jasmine!

You have paid true justice to the book. And I love all the recipes that you tried!

christine said...

Excellent review! I can't wait to get my hands on that book!

breadchick said...

Jasmine, I ALWAYS love your reviews and I'm making the Mango Bread this weekend for a girlfriend's brunch.

jasmine said...

Hello all

OB--You KNOW that's a lovely sliver of old cheddar on that wedge...I love the salty-sweet taste of apple pie and cheese...

Peabody--It's just the way my mind works...

Paz-- The recipes are good...and I think you'd like the mango bread...still NOT forgotten...still working on that post :)

Ashley--there's something comforting about that--I agree...and comical about the kitchen blaze...

Ivonne--grazie! You tried some lovely ones yourself.

Christine--It really is quite a good book. Hopefully you can get one shipped to you.

Breadchick--Oh *blush*...thanks so much for your kind words.


Anonymous said...

Everything looks beautiful and tasty too. I saw Sara made the Mango bread too. I'm definitely going to have to give that recipe a try. It looks so good.

Pille said...

That book sounds like a real treat! I'll keep my eyes open for it.. Thank you for a wonderful and helpful review!