04 May 2008

On My Shelves: The Sweet Melissa Baking Book

Thanks to the kind people at Viking Studio/Penguin USA, I found a copy of Melissa Murphy's The Sweet Melissa Baking Book in my hot little hands.

The Sweet Melissa Baking Book: Recipes form the Beloved Bakery for Everyone’s Favorite Treats
By Melissa Murphy
Viking Studio (Penguin Group USA Inc)
240 pages; $27.00

I’m a bit of a sucker for baking books. Big, little, pie-centric, cake-focussed, full-colour and glossy, home made and photocopied, around the world in 400 pages, wham, bam, bake it ma’am—if I’m not careful my rickety shelves would tumble under the weight of those instructions that list piebirds, spring-form pans and recommend strips of baking parchment. They don’t have to be patisserie-perfect, but it’s usually a treat to read tips and tricks of those who’ve dedicated a part of their lives in pursuit of all things made of fat, flour and sugar (with the occasional fruit or nut tossed in for good measure). Melissa Murphy’s collection of her bakeshop’s treats, The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, gives fans—and those of us who’d like to be fans, but for want of a transporter aren’t—the ability to turn our home ovens into satellites of her famed patisserie.

A graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute, Melissa Murphy is the chef-owner of the Sweet Melissa Pâtisseries in Brooklyn, New York. Her bake shops have been featured in such publications a Food and Wine and The New Yorker, and she has contributed articles to such magazines as Bride’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Pastry Arts & Design. Sweet Melissa Patisseries won the 2007 Zagat Marketplace Award for "Best Tarts and Pies" in New York.

Murphy’s 100-plus recipes are sectioned into six: breakfasts, snacks, cakes, fruits, special desserts and candies, all (I assume) from her pâtisseries. Photographs are few and far between—eight full-colour images illustrating a handful of recipes along with half a dozen black and white bakeshop shots—treats in their natural habitat, if you will. The limited illustrations may turn off some potential book owners and perhaps some of the inexperienced or even insecure home bakers, but I think the focus on text is exactly where it should be.

My proclivities lead me not to care what a food stylist does with a slice of cake or the lighting glinting off a fresh berry. I care more about the taste and ease of preparation; the latter is directly linked to the quality and clarity of written instruction. Murphy’s instructions are generally well-considered and ordered making it easy to attempt any of her sweet (and the occasionally savoury) treats. The recipes are easily adaptable to the baker’s palate as she sometimes offers variants to main recipes. Her Chocolate Orange Macaroons (p74) morph into Lemon Macaroons, while her Sweet Muffins recipe (p4) comes with four filling suggestions—Fresh Peach, Strawberry Muffins with Fresh Lemon and Rosemary, Orange Blueberry Muffins with Pecan Crumble and Pear Cranberry Muffins with Gingersnap Crumble.

Murphy’s text offers hints, tips and professional advice—things that many home bakers seek out. Some sections have dedicated pages of advice: in “It’s Somebody’s Birthday!: Special Layer Cakes” Murphy’s seven-page introduction includes words of wisdom about assembling layer cakes, both split and unsplit layer cakes, while “What Will We Do With All This Fruit?” includes four pages that discuss flour, fats, water and techniques for pastry-making. Many recipes include “Pro Tips” such as how to make your own vanilla sugar or what sort of bread to use in bread puddings.

For the most part, this is a good book but there are a few caveats. The first is a general warning about sweetness. Yes, I know this is a baking book, filled with lovely sweetie cakes, squares and pies, but I found the treats to be a bit too sweet for my liking. In each of the sweet recipes I tried, I could have very, very easily reduced the amount of sugar by about 25 per cent and not have undermined the yumminess of the final product. Related to this is my second concern: in this day and age where focus is put on childhood obesity, the rise of Type Two Diabetes and the general free-wheeling of sugar in the North American diet, I found “After-School Snacks” bordering on irresponsible—parents I know would not make these available to children between home time and supper because they’d be so wired (and yes, I know these really are treats and hopefully no parent would regularly provide these goods to their children, but to call them “after school snacks” is really too much). The final thing I didn’t care for was the lack of baking times and temps in the pie recipes. I suppose Murphy thought that as bakers would follow the pastry recipes found on other pages, they’d naturally flip back and forth—I found it annoying and would prefer to have the oven and timer info with the actual recipe. Oh, yes, add my usual displeasure about the use of volume metrics for flour, sugar etc.

And which recipes did I try? This is a book of temptation, to which I succumbed:

Butterscotch Cashew Bars (p54)
Incredibly easy but far too sweet—the butterscotch topping could be halved or quartered and attain a sweet-salty balance. Murphy suggests the quantity was sufficient for 24 bars, written—I cut it into 30 bars and still found it too sweet (even my sugar-loving colleagues thought it was sugar overload).

Carrot Cake with Fresh Orange Cream Cheese Frosting (p 114)
Moist moist moist and not heavy like many carrot cakes I’ve tried. The orange zest in the cream cheese frosting was delicious. I’ve since returned to the frosting recipe, cut down the sugar a bit and substituted extract for zest. The cake will probably be a regular star from my kitchen…probably as muffins.

Double-crusted Caramel Apple Pie (p 156) made with Flaky Pie Dough (p137)
Murphy recommends plain flour for the crust, instead of pastry flour. The crust was flaky enough and wasn’t at all chewy. I will give her full points for the caramel sauce instructions. I have never been able to make an edible caramel before, but I followed her instructions and produced a luscious caramel sauce that rivalled (and dare I say surpassed) any I’ve had from the shops or restaurants.

Savory Muffins: Bosc Pear, Blue Cheese and Walnut Muffins (p8)
This is a variant of the only savoury recipe in the book—which is why I made them. Oh my word these were good—the flavour combination is classic and just ever-so elegant.

The Sweet Melissa’s Baking Book is a good general-purpose sweetie baking book. The flavour combinations are fresh and inspired and will make anyone who follows her instructions a favoured baker.

So how does it rate?
Overall: 3.75/5

The breakdown:
Recipe Selection: 4/5
Writing: 3.5/5
Ease of use: 3.5/5
Yum factor: 4/5
Table-top test*: Pretty much lies flat

Kitchen comfort-level: Novice-intermediate
Pro: Good kitchen tips make these sweet tips accessible to even neophyte bakers.
Con: A little heavy handed with the sugar, but easily fixable.

* I was reminded that a cookbook writer friend judged a cookbook partially on its ability to lie flat on a table, without without (eek!!) cracking the spine. Hey…who really wants to fight to keep a book open while trying to sort out its instructions?


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glamah16 said...

Oh you had aball with this book. I guess I need to go out and get a copy.

Jenny said...

I've been considering this book myself. Still unsure though.
Like the lie flat test - I usually use a can or another book to hold them open.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I just got the book, and I appreciate the warning about sweetness.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Jasmine, I have seen some interesting recipes from this book on food blogs lately - thank you for you thoughts about it!

Deborah said...

What a great review!! I have a copy of this, but haven't baked from it yet. Too many recipes, too little time...

Sara said...

Great review Jasmine, and yummy looking pictures! I was going to make those pear muffins, but chickened out. Glad to hear you liked them, I'll have to try them now.

Gigi said...

Great book review! I loved the flat test!

K and S said...

man that photo of the butterscotch is making me drool! great job!

Anonymous said...

What a delicious selection of goodies this cookbook beholds!

creampuff said...

You should be reviewing cookbooks always. I have this book but have yet to bake anything from it ... you've inspired me!

jasmine said...

Hello all

I had fun with this.

Ivonne--more reviews are coming!