Baked Elements: Our Ten Favorite Ingredients
Authors: Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Stewart, Tabori & Chang (September 1, 2012)
So this is a review that has been a long time coming … and no, it isn’t because my blog was taken over by a crazed beer sampler. Really … the ship is still under control.
In truth, I was ready to review this cookbook 6 weeks ago but upon reflection, I thought, no, if I’m going to do this, I need to do it right: I need to try at least three recipes out of the book — which is a test I set for myself 15 years ago when I started my collection that now fills a whole bookcase. I determined that if I cooked three recipes out of any book, I could then justify the purchase. In almost all cases, through the dedication, I’d discover a “favourite” that would become a fixture in my repertoire. Long story, while the holidays provided many an occasion to “bake,” they also proved less than inspiring owing to the profundity of baking that already overfilled the season … so it took me awhile to bake the other two recipes to round out my appraisal.
Baked Elements is a book that caught my eye as soon as I saw the cover that proclaims “classic” and “chocolate” with a lot of style to go with it. I started thumbing through it in the Chapters bookstore and could likely be heard going “ooh” and “ahh” and “Oh, look at this” … all to a point where Anne was probably secretly cringing “shut up already — we’re in public.” It’s also likely why she simply said “I’ll buy it, ok” even though she’s gluten intolerant and there is nothing about this cookbook that says the authors have any hate-on for wheat.
Indeed, the authors behind these recipes are serious about their ingredients — and while they don’t look it, they’re clearly the Ben and Jerry of the baking book … or even some duet version of Julia Child taunting you “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” Enough to say, if you’re looking to diet, avoid sugar, don’t want carbs, or faint at the sight of milk fat, move along: these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. And it is “ingredients” that form the focus for the book and, in particular, the authors’ 10 favourite elements: peanut butter, lemon/lime, caramel, booze, pumpkin, malted milk powder, cinnamon, cheese, chocolate, and banana…. And if you’re not already drooling, then this cookbook is not likely going to have much impact on your life, so, again, move on.
With reference to my previous post on What Makes a Good Cookbook? here are a few of the things that jumped out at me as I used this book:
- This is a beautiful cookbook. The pictures included are gorgeous and instructive, though what would improve the book would be a picture for every recipe. The font is “cozy” and goes with the layout that makes this feel like you’re reading ‘treasured’ recipes out of your grandma’s cookbook, albeit, punched up a few notches. I’m pretty sure “lacy panties” aren’t in many of our ancestral cookbooks carefully handed down. Beyond needing more pictures, what detracts the most is a large format book that has a spine that won’t open well to hold it’s place — a common affliction of cookbooks, but I’m not going to overlook it, regardless …. (7/10)
- The tone of the authors is engaging, down-to-earth, and playful. It feels honest and in my opinion they don’t take themselves too seriously — though they definitely take their baking seriously. (9/10)
- The book is very instructive and helpful. There are 10 or so introductory pages on the equipment and ingredients you’ll need. It’s not exhaustive but it is on point — and it is helpful and I suspect most of us will and can still learn something from reading them. They aren’t out telling you spend unnecessary money either nor are they flogging their own dishes or special “Bam” spice mix. For example: “The simplest baking sheets are the best baking sheets. we use inexpensive, light-colored, rimmed half-sheet pans–the kind you find in a restaurant supply store…. Non-stick pans are not necessary.” I would learn as well, under “brownie pans” that they “tend to favor glass, ceramic, and light-colored metal, as neither of us is drawn to the crispy edges created by dark metal pans (though we realize this is personal preference.” Who knew? I didn’t … and I like that I learned something new. (7.5/10)
- Originality? That’s a tougher one for me to say because though I’m actually a very good baker, this is not what pulls me into the kitchen. Savoury I love — sweet, I could generally pass on. As a result, I cook 100 times more than I bake — and, when I do, I’m usually trying something new for me, and something classic. For those that truly hunger for baked goods, the recipes will likely entice but not make you say “Wow, I’ve never heard of that.” The crème brûlée and chocolate soufflé are examples of classics you’ll find in a 1000 other cookbooks — however, having said that, many of the recipes come with their own twist and the majority will likely be recipes that turn your head and that of your guests: (6.5/10)
- Do the recipes work? It still comes down to this fundamental question. The answer is ‘yes,’ and here’s my journal of proof. I made a recipe from chocolate first, then caramel, and finally cinnamon.
Candy Bar Cookies – not without its challenges and not without me swearing in the kitchen as I made the first batch. Not a good sign when the reason for making the recipe is two-fold: make 60 cookies for a Christmas cookie exchange and review a cookbook. The failure in the recipe comes down to instructions. On the one hand, they were great to provide substitutions and commentaries on each — however, they failed to instruct that the cookies wouldn’t look the same if you used peanut butter cups instead of their first choice: Bounty chocolate bars. It stands to reason, in retrospect, that the melting point would be different and that’s why they lost their shape and came out flat. But when any cook is in the moment and working with an unfamiliar recipe and techniques, well, yes, I was swearing and convinced I had screwed something up big time. How did I figure this out? I had doubled the recipe with the intention to make 40+ peanut-butter cup filled cookies and another 40+ Bounty filled. When the first batch failed, I was, as I say, convinced I had screwed up the cookie dough with too much butter …
… but when the Bounty-filled batch emerged, I knew the fault was more on expectations than on anything, and that is a failure on the instructions.
Aesthetics and a period of some very frayed nerves aside, both cookies were delicious and I wouldn’t hesitate to make them again. Though they were a tonne of work, they both appealed to coconut and peanut butter enthusiasts as among the best to imbibe those flavours. And, if do say so myself, they came out looking pretty artful too ….
Test #2: Caramel Coconut Cluster Bars. If the effort of test #1 wasn’t enough to convince me that this cookbook is for experienced cooks, test two confirmed it. The fact that you’re going to need a candy thermometer should be a good indication. The fact that you’re going to make real caramel (as in: yes, you could do battle with Kraft over caramel supremacy after this) would be another sign. Not ridiculously hard, but you need your timings and temperatures to be bang on for all elements or failure is certain — and this will take you the better part of an afternoon to pull off too. Having said that, I did pull this off without any freaking out this time and I even made a flour substitution to create a gluten-free shortbread base instead. I know — substitutions during tests are prohibited, but the motive was love. That should count for something, right? Either way, it really worked. My own advice to those following in my footsteps: turn the bars upside down when cutting them so they don’t fall apart.
Test #3: Cinnamon Chocolate Soufflé. To my point above, when baking, I’m drawn to the classics still. I suspect part of it is because I’m still learning, an wanting to learn, new techniques just like I did when I was learning to cook. It’s also because I want the challenge … and would like to say “I did it.” But, quite frankly, the biggest reason is because the classics are classics for a very good reason: they’re awesome or else no one would have continued to make them. The chocolate soufflé falls into this category for sure.
I thought this would be a great test to finish off because I’ve never made a soufflé in my life, it’s reputation for failure is legendary, and the authors were claiming that I had nothing to fear at all.
I followed the recipe closely, relying on their every word. I thought the instructions were excellent and gave me clear and critical milestones to evaluate my progress with added tips to ensure success (like wiping the rims after pouring in the batter to ensure an even rise). In this, I will give them an ‘A’ for instructions with the caveat that I think their baking times are off (10-12 minutes would have been a better baseline and produced a higher rise and a more ‘set’ soufflé). And the cinnamon/’sugar’ used to coat the ramekins would have been better substituted with confectionaries’ sugar or at least castor sugar because the granularity was a distraction when eating.
However, for a first soufflé, both Anne and I were thrilled with the results and have already started planning the corn and cheddar soufflé recipe that follows. Here’s my proof of success:
Overall, this is a very good cookbook I highly recommend to anyone who loves to bake or loves to entertain. However, as already discussed throughout, if you buy it, you need to be very comfortable in kitchen and have a reasonably good intuition of what you’re doing and where you’re going with a recipe before you start. Fundamentally, you need to be a confident and I’d argue experienced cook. I don’t mean you have to own a restaurant, but you need to know ingredients and food: you should know what you’re making and what you’re striving for, otherwise, you’re likely going to be in for a few hair-raising hours. That aside, a bunch more pictures, a better and more practical spine, and some improvement in instructions where substitutions are concerned, and this would be an award winner.