book reports

Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2015), $17.99

The Swedish tradition of fika, described as the cultural custom of taking a break in the a.m. or p.m. to enjoy coffee and a sweet (or, occasionally savory) accompaniment singly or with friends, is a tradition worth embracing. This is not an on-the-run, grab-and-go event, but one which encompasses more than a few minutes to savor the present. I believe this to be an essential element of life, especially now, in this uncertain world.
In Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, authors Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall  reveal the way to relax and enjoy–by learning about the history and recipes that support the occasion of sharing food and drink. What a delight it is to be reminded of this simple pleasure and, most of all, learn that one of the cornerstones of the experience evolves from a goody you bake yourself (very wise).
In five charming chapters (“a history of Swedish coffee,” “modern-day fika,” “the outdoor season,” “celebrating more than the everyday,” and “bread, sandwiches, and fika as a snack”) Fika points the way and, in short order, will have you assembling ingredients and setting out the china coffee cups. Of particular interest is the recipe for semlor, the luscious Swedish cream buns–cardamon-scented and almondy, and sure to set the mood to celebrate the spirit of the day.

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Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray, by Maria Bruscino Sanchez (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997), $13.95

Oftentimes, a cookie-baking collection becomes a historical bookmark on a certain trend–hopefully, in a positive way. Moving well beyond the beloved brownie and chocolate chip cookie, cooks love to explore the sweet interpretations of various cultures.

Biscotti notwithstanding, bakers in this country are fond of embracing cookies of all forms and flavors. I am so one of them. The tradition of creating a cookie tray, a layered edifice of multiple varieties, continued to be a tradition for Ms. Sanchez and she has devoted a slim–but festive–volume to offering recipes for constructing one. She even describes the concept of “traying” a mound of cookies–what fun! But back to the kitchen, where you can take the author’s lead and bake all kinds of cookies to architecturally assemble on that big doily-lined platter or plate you’ll need to have on hand: molded, drop, rolled and filled–all of these are enthusiastically offered in Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray.

Multi-layered cookies (and yes, there is an art to composing and positioning them–hint: shape, structure, and color all go into the building equation) look so appealing and, perhaps best of all, become their own edible art form.

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Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty, Inside and Out, by Jolene Hart, CHC, AADP (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2014), $16.95

In the personal lifestyle arena of material (the plethora of books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and such) that works inwardly to arrive at outward manifestations of goodness, Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty, Inside and Out is a gentle, thoughtful, and inspirational (without the lecture!) guide for ladies to retrieve their collective “glow.”
I’m in.
Eat Pretty, in three major sections and 208 tidy pages, sets out a big grocery cart of ingredients (and some recipes) that, while outfitting your refrigerator and pantry, might help to “…spark a major change in the way you look and feel.” In Part 2, “Four Seasons to Eat Pretty,” Hart reveals the (edible) elements to turn to for becoming a “beautiful eater.” Even if you pick and choose among the food suggestions, you will have successfully rethought adding (or subtracting) certain components from your meal plan. According to the author, coconut oil is a “metabolism booster,” popcorn an “antioxidant-rich snack,” arugula “a spicy sexy green,” and cherries an “inflammation defender.” In Part 3, “Beauty Beyond Your Plate,” the author explores proper digestion, the dynamics of stress, “food combining,” balance, and exercise. A list of “intentions” for each of the four seasons assists with a bits of advice which help to set goals.
The overall tone of this book is at once caring and instructional and, like all guidebooks, should be used according to one’s own well-being needs (personal health concerns should be addressed by a medical professional). A kind of beauty nutrition advice, not a dictum for a strict overall per se, is the feeling you’ll get from this volume.
Bottom line: Prepare to dine well and thrive.

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Tartine Book No. 3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole, by Chad Robertson (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $40.00

In Tartine Book Nº3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole, Chad Robertson dives deep into baking with whole grains (including ancient grains), turning the tables on classic pastries (take a good, tasty look at his Chamomile-Kamut Shortbread on page 251 and Buckwheat-Hazelnut Sables on page 261) and reinvigorating traditional breads with blended grains (a spectacular example of this is the author’s recipe for Spelt & Toasted Corn-Flour Baguettes on page 59, and following pages, and a veritable textbook on how to achieve the best “crumb” and flavor in a creation based on a multi-layered process and likely appealing to only the most passionate–and possibly advanced–of bakers). Even if you only put together Robertson’s 50/50 Sablé Cookies (page 258, and following page) and read through this work at leisure, you would come away deeply admiring the scope of the topic and love of the art Roberston conveys.
This is an exciting book. It may shake up some time-honored formulas and techniques–but only if you are not wedded to exploration.
The dynamic quality of Tartine Book Nº3 is evident throughout many distinctive chapters, like “Hearth Loaves with Sprouted Grains” or “Pastry.” Expect to add to your baking education–and the pantry–significantly by creating perfect crispbreads, scones, or tarts. And prepare to take your notion of the peanut butter cookie and have it turned completely upside-down (hint: Robertson’s take is made with oat flour and the cookies make one huge jump into confection immortality).
My suggestion: With a copy of Tartine Book Nº3 in hand, travel into this author’s mixing bowl to learn his philosophy and methods. It may take several reads to absorb the material. Even if bread is not your thing, perhaps he can lure you with Salted-Chocolate Rye Cookies (page 248, and following page). Unlike his Golden Brioche (which uses four different flours and a poolish, in addition to kefir butter), the cookie-making is a way-briefer, easier event, makes you rethink rye flour entirely, and produces swoon-worthy results.
All bakers beware. This book enchants.

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The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook: Recipes and Pairings for the Perfect Glass of Wine, by Mary Cech and Jennie Schacht (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005), $24.95

The flavors and ingredients of baked goods are explored and paired with dessert wines in this modern cookbook, as recipes include explanatory matches with dessert wines (noted within the all-important “making the match” section). For example, a lovely recipe for Cocoa Walnut Biscotti yields a fine batch of dipping cookies, ready to be mated with, say, an orange muscat, ruby port, or cream sherry. Who would argue with having cookies and a matching wine on the end table after dinner?
In all, the confections and their corresponding pours in The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook provide interesting reading, in addition to nibbling-and-sipping (and all of you bakers out there will learn how to take the dessert course to the next and most elegant level). Specifically, the splendid sections on caramel, honey, and spice; dried fruits; nuts; and cream draw me in most of all for their luscious, thoughtful pairings.

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Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), $39.95

The quote on the book’s back cover, taken from my Foreword contributed to Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, remarks that this book is not simply a successor to The Cake Bible, it is “a bright new guide to the glories of cake baking.” Occasional bakers as well as those who prepare cakes for retail sale will treasure the range in this book.

In Ms. Beranbaum’s hands, the art of cake baking is a meticulous, thorough-going process. The formulas expressed in her latest volume are every bit as detailed as those in The Cake Bible, a cookbook that marked a turning point for communicating, through the written word, this intricate and established culinary art to an audience of both professional and recreational bakers. The details, however, are a bit different–and equally as important to the work.

While both books are creative dissertations on cake, the last one, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes,  is more visually expressed–an important addition that gives readers at all levels of experience a way to understand a recipe before the ingredients are measured and the oven is preheated. by viewing the well-articulated images, you can compare and contrast your baking to the expert’s, and learn many tricks along the way. Baking images are not only inspirational, they are informative.

The information provided in the beautifully designed pages and tables (charts) may give the appearance that some recipes are difficult but this is not so, for the detailed particulars represent important guidelines for accomplishing certain techniques. Rose Levy Beranbaum, in addition to other authors such as Flo Braker (author of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking and Sweet Miniatures), Alice Medrich (author of, among many, Bittersweet and Flavor Flours), and Nick Malgieri (author of, among many, the seminal How to Bake) certainly paved the way for my contributions to the literature of baking, enlarging the sweet impact in the world of cooking along the way.

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Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $35.00

So you think you know how to make a first-rate grilled cheese sandwich? Do you thoughtfully combine three types of cheese? Choose bread that heightens the cheese? Select the correct weight of pan? Are you, overall, cheese-savvy? For all of that, and more, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith should rest on your cookbook shelf, if only for the full menu of recipes, then to be educated in the art and science of cheese.
Cowgirl Creamery, in the business of producing artisanal cheeses, turns their collective spirit into a stunning volume of recipes: For the record, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks will have you sighing over and bookmarking the “Simple, Classic Grilled Cheese” (made of Fromage Blanc, Cheddar, and Monterey Jack), Mary Loh’s Cheese Wafers (buttery, flavorful), and “Rustic Cheese and Onion Galettes, Two Ways” (pastry cloaked in an oniony tangle of grated cheese)–as well as upping your selection of cheese at home.
The personal history of how Cowgirl Creamery came to be, discovered in “Go West, Young Cowgirls,” will, at the very least, offer insight into the depth, cooking style, and determination of the individuals. The reader/cook will be fully brought into the picture, from the relationship with the dairy farmers and “milk animals” along with a fascinating understanding about seasonal dairy flavors impacting the resulting cheeses.
At first, you might not get drawn into the story of the synergy of cheesemakers and dairy farmers, because, well, the recipes are so resplendent. Then, having devoured “Cantina Salami Sandwich with Sautéed Greens and Aged Gouda,” surely there will be time to dip into such educating text (equally rich, but in information) as “Understanding Butterfat on Labels.”

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Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange, by Barbara Grunes and Virginia Van Vynckt (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010), $19.95

The two words, “Christmas” and “cookies,” inextricably and so sweetly linked together in the month of December, mean that both occasional and I-bake-all-the-time bakers think about stockpiling the butter, flour, eggs, and assorted embellishments. Collect the cookie tins and baking sheets, rally one or many pairs of hands, let the sugar sprinkle, and turn the cookie-a-thon into a party with the help of Very Merry Cookie Party: How to Plan and Host a Christmas Cookie Exchange.
Embedded in Very Merry Cookie Party you’ll find chapters that cover “Planning and Hosting a Cookie Exchange,” “Cookies to Build a Party Around,” and “Cookies by Technique.” The ways and means of designing a collaborative cookie-sharing party involve learning and setting up your own template for organizing the event, including deciding on the type and number of cookies each participant will provide, the sharing of recipes, packaging for the cookies and, perhaps, a cookie theme. The material then offers recipes inviting all to participate in the act of making Xmas M & M’s Cookies (page 43), Old Salem Molasses Ginger Cookies (page 52), Fudgy Brownie Bites (page 71), and Sugar Pretzels (page 95). Beneath each head note, a recipe contains a “Cookie Exchange Tip“–a dollop of information offering a serving suggestion, watchpoint for success, or tidbit of decorating advice.
While your own favorite recipe–heirloom or brand-new-to-you–is the one you’re most likely to share, many ideas are available for discovery in Very Merry Cookie Party, providing the launching off point for a favorite holiday tradition.

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Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours, by Alice Medrich with Maya Klein (New York: Artisan, 2014), $35.00

The calming, subtle-but-persuasive, and thoughtful of guidance of Alice Medrich suffuses the recipes she develops and, by extension, the follow-through contents of the baking cookbooks which embrace them.
Those who admire the creative approach that Medrich has brought to using basic baking ingredients (chocolate, especially, as the main element in previous books) will appreciate her fresh and personally comprehensive exploration of non-wheat flours in Flavor Flours: A New Way to Bake with Teff, Buckwheat, Sorghum, Other Whole & Ancient Grains, Nuts & Non-Wheat Flours. The book houses many recipes arranged by the primary component: rice flour; oat flour; corn flour and cornmeal; buckwheat flour; chestnut flour; teff flour; sorghum flour; and, lastly, nut and coconut flours. Chocolate sablés, for example, eschew cake or all-purpose flour in favor of a combination of teff and white rice flour, in addition to cocoa powder, butter, sugar, and a small amount of leavening; the presence of cream cheese, while something of a surprise in this shortbread-styled dough, purposely keeps the dough manageable while also acting as an enriching, tenderizing agent. In the recipe for oat sablés, cream cheese is repeated, but a mix of oat and white rice flour dominates, producing a slice-and-bake sweet that could possibly rival the traditional sablé made with wheat flour; simple to put together, nicely balanced flavor, lovely to eat, these cookies. Other recipes taunt you with their traditional names, only to surprise later on with unusually delightful results (I’m thinking specifically of the “New Classic Blondies,” “Chocolate Chip Cookies,” and “Chocolate Layer Cake”).
Reaching out to the new/old world of highly nuanced flours requires significant adaptation and a revised mental adjustment to taste and texture. No matter, Medrich and Klein have figured out what has surely puzzled loads of bakers aiming to reconfigure a formula to a finish of overall goodness while developing it as gluten-free: that is, recipes can derive their excellence from the properties of the flours, not by “…treating them as wheat flour substitutes” and demonstrate it all beautifully within the pages of Flavor Flours.

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Clean Slate: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best, by the editors of Martha Stewart Living (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2014), $26.00

What do the recipes for “Cardamom Quinoa Porridge with Pear,” “Beet, Avocado, and Arugula Salad with Sunflower Seeds,” “Poached Chicken with Bok Choy in Ginger Broth,” and “Citrus Salad with Pomegranate” have in common? Collectively, they represent delicious ways to rethink and recalibrate your meal planning (and market shopping).
Clean Slate: A Cookbook and Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body, and Feel Your Best is an encouraging, informative volume that will have you fine-tune a food plan–snacks included!–to suit certain goals, whether it is to add more whole grains to your diet, reconfigure or (attempt to) eliminate certain food habits, or add homemade liquids (such as smoothies and juices) to the daily rotation for that feel-good boost.
The recipes, mentioned above, formed the basis for a few of my weekday meals, in addition to “Roasted Edamame and Cranberries” as a snack. All were somewhat spare, in a pleasant way, and simple to execute. The book presents the ideas and concepts, as well as the food, in a clear setting, making it seem approachable and satisfying. The volume is divided into two parts, “Reset” and “Recipes.” The former offers advice for stocking up the pantry with grains, legumes, and such, understanding nutrients, and ways for clearing the body of toxins. The later presents recipes which tie into the premise of the approach.
Clean Slate nudges the reader/cook into thinking about the virtues of eating “clean” and charts its follow-through. The overall plan has options and is fairly preach-free. While I won’t give up a brownie bar or slice of butter cake (not that the book requires that total a commitment), I will continue to add a round-robin of light main courses to the roster of items appearing at my table.

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