Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: Martha Stewart Living's One Pot: 120+ easy meals from your skillet, slow cooker, stockpot, and more

Martha Stewart. Who doesn't know who she is? Culinary goddess, home-trending leader, magazine and television mogul. A leading expert in all things home-oriented, she's truly one of the first go-to's in the world of cooking, baking, or any kind of DIY thing.

I am a fan of her work. She bakes, she makes, she cakes, she's a lifestyle genius. And so is her team of experts that creates Martha Stewart Living (the magazine, just in case you're new to the world of Martha Stewart). Probably the smartest thing Martha has ever done is surround herself with people who know what they are doing, just as well as she does. I've been a fan of Martha Stewart Living for awhile; it's a pleasure to read and I do not question for one moment how all that awesomeness gets into less than a hundred glossy pages. She's got people who know what they are doing right by her side.

So, as a reviewer for Blogging for Books, as soon as I saw a copy of Martha Stewart Living's One Pot up for review, I snagged it. I pounced. I leaped with glee. I think we all know by now that I love to cook. I love to make and create and be a creative maker. An opportunity to review (which means try out, eat, and love!) a new Martha and Martha's team cookbook, I was all over it.

I pushed the order and send button. Done.

And then I waited.

      And waited.

           And waited.

A few more days of waiting and the book arrived from the publisher. Finally!

What was I so excited about, really? A new cookbook? Oh, yeah, definitely. Or was it that it's a cookbook that's all about tasty simplicity? Just as much the latter.

Now, I am a kid in a candy store when it comes to new books. For sure. I love a good book, I love getting books, I love writing books, I love reading books, and I love reviewing books. Love books. Did I say that enough? Well, I do!

And this golden opportunity to review and try out some new Martha recipes was nearly too much joy for me to handle. Okay, not really. I can handle some Martha joy. And some delicious something - all made in one pot.

First, I have to say that this book is really, really well-written. As would be expected, the team of experts at Martha's magazine have kept the meals simple, easy to read, easy to make and filled with beautiful pictures that make your mouth water.

Secondly, I love the extreme simplicity of this book. Most of the recipes require only a handful of ingredients, things you would typically find in an American kitchen. And they really are one pot only. A few require you to brown things first, but they suggest you brown and remove, then add the next ingredients all using the same pot. There might be an extra bowl here or there, or even the occasional plate, but when does cooking not require you use dishes? The recipe I chose to make happened to be the Fruit Skillet Cake which I adapted to be gluten-free and dairy-free and had it tossed together and baked up in less than an hour. Super easy, super fast, and incredibly delicious. (The cake was really outstanding and came right out of the skillet.)

A finished Skillet Fruit Cake made with local plums

And my final reason to love this book was the helpful advice. That's kinda Martha's specialty. Most of us know that. And of course, a major focus of Martha Stewart Living. The One Pot book includes recipes that are cooked in stockpots, skillets, slow cookers, roasting pans, pressure cookers, and more. Each section has a how-to guide on buying/choosing a pan or skillet, why some work better than others, the difference between a saute pan and a skillet, how to use a pressure cooker (and not be afraid), what makes for a good slow cooker or stockpot, and on and on. Tips, advice and simple guides on the first two or so pages of each section prior to the recipes is just as helpful as a full-length guide. It's simple and yet, perfect.

I just fell in love with this book. The simplicity, the delicious recipes, the convenience of one pot (and truly one pot). Everything from it is a genius idea that requires so little effort, the greatest achievement will be getting to the bookstore to buy it before they are all gone.

Happily enjoy!

*I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: Let Us All Eat Cake: Gluten-Free Recipes for Everyone's Favorite Cakes by Catherine Ruehle with Sarah Scheffel

Sitting down to eat my second to last piece of Boston Cream cake that I made inspired to me to get around to writing this review. The slightly bitter contrast of the dark chocolate ganache to the buttery, creamy, and just-the-right-amount-of-sweet pastry cream that sits layered and filling every crevice of the moist yellow cake.

So good.

It took me a few days to find the right words.

This cake is moderately time-consuming to make, as many layered cakes can be, if they are filled with more than just the buttercream you will use to decorate the edges and top. Not particularly complex, but just a lot of steps and layers that require time and energy to complete. But worth every last minute of energy it requires. 

But, first, let's talk about the book. I received this book as part of the book world of reviews and freebies called Blogging for Books and I chose it because, well, who doesn't love cake? Yes, there are a few people out there. And sometimes, even that person is me. But a gluten-free book by a trained pastry chef (and originally a self-taught baker) with a beautiful caramel cake on the front? Who could resist? I had to know what was inside and if I could replicate with Catherine Ruehle's expert instructions.

When I got the book, I admired it. It's a beauty. The hardback book contains beautiful images and easy to read recipes, some expertise in certain places and a bit of shared knowledge by someone who understands the letting go of gluten and dairy products (and learning to replace them with equal deliciousness). I paged through the tome with ease and grace and found some of my favorite cakes in the book: Boston Cream, Triple Lemon, Texas Sheet, Caramel Cream, and even coffeecakes. There are sections on breakfast cakes and snack cakes, layer cakes, filled cupcakes, little cakes, special cakes (with a few advanced techniques), frostings/fillings/glazes, and a few pages on tips and techniques. Love this book!

And I was excited to get into it. A beautiful book is one thing, but can it deliver? Well, I was about to see. I chose the Boston Cream Cake for several reasons. I love Boston Cream (Bavarian Cream is specifically my favorite, but finding and creating whipped cream that truly compares and holds up to dairy whipping cream is a challenge. I once used Mimicreme, but have found it incredibly hard to hunt down now. And you gotta have whipping cream to make true Bavarian cream-style anything). Boston Cream is probably one of my absolute favorites of all time. My whole family loves Boston Cream cake, donuts, pie (which is really the cake, but for some inexplicable reason, we all call it pie). And I happened to have nearly everything on-hand. Two short store trips later (and only because I insisted on going to Trader Joe's for their chocolate and coconut milk merely out of preference - plus it was an excuse to buy some Inner Peas) and I was ready to bake.

This recipe also intrigued me because it's mayonnaise-based. I've seen the recipes for mayo-based cakes before and I've made my share of oil or butter-based cakes, but I hadn't had the opportunity to try a mayo-based one. This was as good a time as any. How different could it really be when most mayos are oil-based with some eggs and a few other ingredients? I'm told the eggs add richness, the oils adds moisture and the cake will be delightful. And  I found this to be true. Very true.

The cake turned out moist and delicious and had one very noticeable effect: the moisture stayed for a few days. As any gluten-free baker knows, this can be a bit of an issue. No gluten, no lengthy spongyness. This is true for whole grain baked goods of any kind. The moistness was most likely a combination of the mayo, the four eggs in the recipe for the cake, and the fact that nearly three cups of pastry cream ends up sandwiched between four beautiful cake layers. Delicious multi-layered effect.

Making the cake was easy. Recipe was easy to follow, ingredients pretty standard except for the mayo, and they baked up beautifully. I really wanted to snack. But I didn't. I held out. Somehow.

Next, time to make the dairy-free pastry cream, which is basically a glorified pudding because we're not adding whipping cream. And it seems like everyone's idea of pastry cream is slightly different. Some swear it is more like a Bavarian cream where you make the pudding base, then whip up the cream and combine the two. Others say pastry cream is just a nice rich pudding with plenty of eggs, cream/milk/half-and-half as the base (not whipped, then added), and finished with butter. I say, to each their own. Without the whipping cream, dairy-free pastry cream is a breeze. And the flavor of this recipe was outstanding. I could barely contain myself. I just wanted to lick the whole bowl, spoon, pan, book. Really. It was that good.

Now, this book is not all the cake roses I have promised so far. I have found a few trifling issues. And here's where the first one came in. The recipe said you could make the pastry cream while you bake the cakes. Great. Keeping it all flowing. However, it never states that you will need to let the pastry cream set in the fridge. There's a lot of eggs in this pastry cream with a bit of cornstarch and if I hadn't let the eggs set up, there is no way the cream would have stayed in the layers. It would have run out, just like pretty much any pudding does before it sets. It is thick, but not thickened. The setting process can take 1-4 hours. There is no mention of this in the cake recipe, nor the pastry cream recipe. The author makes it sound as though you can just set it on the counter and wait until the cakes are cooled, then spread away. I did not find this to be the case and after years of making puddings and pastry creams, I would have been surprised had this one set right away. I think this would be basic info to add to any recipe book. We're not pastry chefs (although, I probably have cooked enough pastries over the years, so maybe) and a book like this will gain the attention of new gluten-free, dairy-free bakers. This may not be a gluten-free issue, but different types of alternatives milks will behave differently. Catherine Ruehle calls almost exclusively for coconut milk, so there is consistency in most of those regardless of the brand, but if you can't use coconut milk, almond, hemp, or cashew will work just as well. But they require slightly different amounts of time to set. Rice is tough to get to thicken properly without adding more thickening agents. Aside from the different kinds of milk and how they behave, it would have been a good idea to add some guidelines for letting the pastry cream set, unless the author doesn't let her pastry cream set up. This would have been useful information too, either way.

Once the pastry cream was nestled into the fridge, onto the chocolate ganache. I love that this cake has a very simple and elegant chocolate ganache on top rather than a sweeter chocolate glaze. The contrast is decadent and yet, just right for the entire cake. So perfect.

Ruehle's chocolate ganache recipe is towards the back of the book in the section on frostings, fillings, and glazes and seems equally simple to most ganache recipes, except she suggests using coconut milk instead of cream. I've made ganache before, but I don't make it all the time. It's a great, simple easy addition to just about any dessert recipe from ice cream to cake to truffles. There's only two ingredients: chocolate and cream or coconut milk. However, here's where the second issue came about. The ratio was off or something was. Two ingredients in the wrong ratio make for a lovely, yet unsweet hot chocolate. I had chocolate soup. Two cups of chocolate chips to two cups of milk product is what the recipe called for. I had a feeling it was too much when using coconut milk, but I did it anyway and the result was a soupy mess that required me to run to my neighbor's house to borrow more chocolate chips in order to salvage it at 10 o'clock at night. I'd come this far. I didn't want to leave my cake without its happy ending, or topping, as it may be.

Once I did a quick internet search and checked out Ina Garten's ganache recipe along with a few others - just to make sure - I found out the ratio should be 2 cups chocolate to 1 cup milk product in Ina's case, but other recipes suggested an even 1:1 ration. Once I had this knowledge (and had inked it into the book), the ganache came out great. However, again, some ganaches require a little bit of time to set, particularly if you are using coconut milk versus something denser like heavy cream. Once the ganache set, which took a little bit of time, I was pleased with the texture. Ruehle states that if you refrigerate the ganache before using it (you can make the pastry cream and ganache up to two days in advance), then just make sure to bring it to room temperature before using. These instructions turned the ganache out great. I just wish that the author had specified that maybe using coconut milk instead of heavy cream might make it a big soupier unless you have a very dense coconut milk, which I have yet to come across. I even used some coconut cream which is the closest substitute for heavy cream I've found and it still came out soupy until I added the extra chips.

The author is a well-respect pastry chef having worked under some heavy hitters in the restaurant world and has been on Food Network as a challenger in the cake competitions, but she is most likely not a writer-specific. The book is written in conjunction with Sarah Scheffel, an extensive editor and writer of many, many cookbooks, as well as being a chef herself. So, I'm just going to chalk the second error up to simplistic oversight, as oversights do occur. However, there seemed to be some basic culinary knowledge missing, such as the setting time for the pastry cream. Yes, you could use the cream right away, if you wanted it to be on the thin side. And even the ganache, same thing. If you were in a competition, I suppose you'd have to use it that way. But this is for home cooking and it seems some things are just better fully explained. Had I not the many years of pudding-making or ganache-making experience (less on this, for sure), then I would have thought they were supposed to be used that way. I might have even thought the ganache should be soupy. A new cook might not know and I do see cookbooks as the resource (among many) that we go to learn about techniques.

Overall, I loved this cookbook. I am eager to try out a few more of the recipes and see how the cakes turn out. And, well, eat them because some of the pictures made the cakes look so amazing, I just wanted to lick the pages.

I suppose this is my last issue with this book: the images. The ones that are included are arty, thoughtful, beautiful, and scrumptious. However, it seemed that many of the places where a picture should be added, there was none. It's more commonplace now to buy a cookbook that doesn't have a picture for every single recipe. Photography costs a lot, makes the book much bigger, and sometimes, they aren't always needed. However, in this case, I think some of the recipes would be better off with an included picture simply because this a cake book and most of the cakes (not all) are layered cakes with some advanced technique. Now, you can slather on buttercream any way you like, but most of us would like the cake to resemble the original or something close to it. Not required, but presentation is part of the package.

The places where a picture made sense, such as the Texas Sheet cake, was aptly placed. Not everyone knows what a Texas Sheet cake is. And the photo made me want to make one right away. I could smell the chocolate wafting from the page. But the Two-Tiered Whimsy Cake, which includes making and cutting out white chocolate modeling paste, had no picture at all. I could see this if you were running out of space. However, in the previous recipe for the Camo cake, there are four pictures included. I'm not sure why the Camo cake rated high enough to get a four-picture deal and the Whimsy cake none (particularly when the recipe is nearly four pages long). It would be helpful to me, the presumed baker, to see what I am going to make so I know what I'm getting myself into. Many will probably not even attempt the Whimsy cake because it seems rather complex and advanced and there's no picture to assure the baker that this cake is totally doable. Well, maybe the Whimsy cake just didn't want to sit still long enough to get her picture taken. I'm sure that's what happened.

I would recommend this book for the moderately experienced baker. I'm not sure I would suggest it to a new gluten-free baker unless a second edition comes out that alleviates some of the basic technique flaws and potential oversights. But if you have some experience with gluten-free/dairy-free baking, by all means, delve right in. I can assure you, which is really what it all comes down to, the end product is truly delicious and worth every potential oversight, ounce of knowledge and moist, little crumb.

*I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Little Book of Book Making by Charlotte Rivers

This fun little find came to me via Blogging for Books and it was a little surprise. I picked it because I love books, I love writing, and I love the idea of making books. Always been sort of fascinated by the concept of creating a book from start to finish, including the pages, the binding, the actual book. Clearly, I am not the only one.

Charlotte Rivers' tome creates a world of bookmaking artists, designers, and hobbyists who desire the same thing: to create a book from start to finish. It's a fascinating journey between many pages where one artist creates a book with simple accordion pages and another creates a complex book with creative covers, experimental page dyes, and specialized stitching to bind them all together. Either way, it is artistry encapsulated on every page.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit surprised when I flipped open this book. I expected a book on how to make books, which this one does include. However, the first four chapters showcase different artists around the globe and their conceptual creations. The final chapter has all the how-to info about how to create your very own creation.

I was a bit perplexed as I thumbed through the pages. Wasn't this book supposed to show you how to make your own book? It is a book about making books, after all. Each book creation is beautiful, but they seem incredibly complex for a beginner to even attempt. These designers have spent years mastering their craft and I'm just looking to possibly create a simple book with some pages in it. I love the idea, but I haven't put in my 10,000 hours of skill mastery yet.

And then I hit page 121 and nearly fell in love. It was then I realized that this book is all about inspiration with a bit of extra guidance at the end. It's meant to share the love of this work (and the journey you must go on to create them) with those who may not understand the depth of creative wells that each bookmaker must go to in order to create such lovely and extraordinary bound pages. Now, I understand. Bookmaking can be about holding a bunch of pages together or it can be about holding together the possibility of what might be contained inside. The inspiration is all up to the creator.

*I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.