Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: Bread & Butter by Erin McKenna

I know cookbooks are not a venture from my norm, but a Babycakes cookbook is.

Why, you ask?

Well, there are a few reasons.

But, first, a little history.

Babycakes NYC is a very famous, very successful gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, vegan bakery in the heart of Manhattan. Ever since they hit the stage with their delectable treats for those of us with gluten-intolerance, -sensitivity, or full-on Celiac's, they paved the way for better tasting treats. I've yet to have had the chance to visit any of their locations, but I, like many other loyal followers who have never set foot inside, wait patiently for the chance to try their raved about baked goods.

Erin McKenna, the owner and creator of Babycakes NYC, has been in the business of creating safer treats since 2005. That's a long time in the gluten-free world. That was a time when no one else was really doing such a thing - or at least not many were. And she went so bold as to create everything gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, and unrefined sugar-free. This place converted those who feared vegan, gluten-free products into loyal followers. Crazy!

So, you can see how many of us covet the chance to set foot in that adorable pink store. But, alas, not everyone can make it to NYC for a sweet, gluten-free treat. The frustration!

Then, the most amazing thing happened.

She created a cookbook.

The first of three, Babycakes, was the first proud child of this creative parent and offered those of us who couldn't make it all the way to her cute little store, the chance to experience Babycakes all for ourselves in our own home. All you needed was the book and a list of ingredients.

Or so we thought.

The moment I looked at that first book, I was disappointed.

It included gads of soy milk, bean flours, and recipes that didn't test well. My first red flag was the ingredients. How could a book include soy when she never touched it in the bakery, if these recipes were from the famed bakery itself?

I got it. Frustrating as it may be, I got it.

I understood that anyone who creates such an epic venture isn't going to give away all the tried and tested recipes in one simple book. Who would? But I did think she'd put a book out that had decent recipes and resembled the likes of her bakery; at least the same premise. It just seemed so unfair to all of the fans who were relying on the fact that she kept so many allergens out of her baked goods. The cookbook unanimously dropped that promise.

Babycakes fell a little off my must-see NYC travel list.

Oh, but, I still wanted to go. It's just so tempting. Who doesn't want to know what all the hype is about? I would bet that the goods are just as amazing as people say they are, but the book should have been shelved in the back by all the unused dishes.

Next, Erin created another cookbook, Babycakes Covers the Classics. I never even opened this one up. I just didn't trust the book to be any good.

But then, Blogging for Books offered her newest cookbook, Bread & Butter, a gluten-free, vegan book filled with savory breads and baked goods. I wasn't sure if I should trust it, but a part of me wanted to know if the books had gotten any better. Did they still seem like a publicity ploy and a way to make more money? Or did they finally have some integrity?

I'm not asking a prized bakery to give away all her secrets. But if you are going to offer a cookbook to those who love your stuff, don't disappoint with recipes that aren't the real thing or even well-tested. Just don't bother. Or suffer follower disloyalty and loss of respect.

If you disregard my last statement, I really did try to go into the book with an open mind.

The book in its physicality doesn't disappoint. It is adorable. It's just as cute as the owner and all the 1950's outfits they wear. Pink with cute fonts and a loaf of fresh bread on the cover. Adorable. I was excited to open it. I could smell the freshly-risen yeast dough.

I began to flip through the pages, reading the foreward and the intro, looking at the pictures of the bakery. Cute. So very cute. And still tons of pink. It definitely follows the bakery's brand.

Next up in the chapters: some simple, basic ingredient assistance (as she calls it) - outlines of basic gluten-free, vegan baking principles. Then, the help desk - a smattering of FAQs all about baking with some of Erin's requisite humor interspersed. Finally, onto the recipes: the waking hours (breakfast); breads; sandwiches; pizza and focaccia; this is for the kids (kid-friendly yummies); foreign affairs (some interesting global recipes); puff pastry and beyond; snacks, dips and dressings; a sauce, a spread, and butter (including her original "butter" recipe); bread reborn; and sweets: the bonus round.

It's not a particularly big book, so each of these categories has only a few recipes in each (some more, some less). Lots of great pictures and each recipe is well-written. No complaints there. Some even have tutorial pictures like the puff pastry recipe - which I would have to say is loosely a puff pastry recipe. Based on the ingredient list and the way the recipe is made - there's no butter block, the dough appears to be more like a simple pie crust, and it's made with oat flour and bean flours - it's probably not going to puff. Doesn't mean it won't be delicious, but I'm not so sure it's really puff pastry with the very distinct flakiness and intense buttery-ness.

On the upside: only a couple of recipes have spelt, which is technically gluten-free, but the protein in spelt is so closely related to wheat that many gluten-sensitive people react to it. This was one of the the major complaints by many about her first book - nearly all of them had spelt. This one focuses more on oat flour (preferably certified gluten-free), Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free flour blend (which includes garbanzo, fava bean and other flours made in a dedicated gluten-free mill), brown rice flour, arrowroot, and potato starch. The dairy-free milks of choice are now rice and coconut - a far cry from the soy milk-dominated first book.

And the oils of choice are still unscented coconut and canola, or you can make Erin's "butter" recipe which calls for an interesting mix of things: unscented coconut oil, canola oil, rice milk, coconut milk, agave, sunflower lecithin, salt, xanthan gum, and lemon juice blended together, then refrigerated into a solid form.

I am intrigued by the "butter." I haven't made this yet, so I chose a recipe that I had pretty much everything for. If I didn't have it, I followed her substitution list of things that should be equal substitutions.

I chose to make bagels. I've made gluten-free bagels before from Carol Fenster's book and loved them. They were slightly chewy and I loved the baking soda/boiling water concoction that creates the crusty exterior. Even if making bagels (wheat or not) is a time-consuming activity, those worked great.

These, however, did not.

They were...okay.

Now, mind you, I have eaten many, many, many gluten-free, dairy-free items (my standard) and consumed my fair share of gluten-free, vegan products too. The bagels turned out more like a biscuit, both times I made them.

Why did I make them twice if they were just okay?

For a very good reason.

Quality control.

In this book, Erin states you can substitute various flours for other flours. I followed that in the first test with one exception - I don't use potato starch at home. My body isn't a huge fan. Instead, I use arrowroot and cornstarch. That's what I had, so that's what I used. Most of the time, I've had no problem with conversion. However, the first batch turned out very biscuit-like. Not a bad taste, but not a bagel either.

The dough did not turn out sticky, like the recipe described. Gluten-free dough often isn't handleable like a typical wheat dough - it tends to be thinner and more moist. This was that. Oftentimes, if a gluten-free dough is the same consistency as a wheat dough, the outcome will be dense and tough. I was supposed to be able to form the dough with my hands into bagel shapes - this first dough was too thin and moist for that.

But, I persisted with the recipe. I didn't want to add more flour. I wanted to see what the outcome would be as the recipe is written in the first trial. I set it in the fridge to rise and mingle for a hour, then pulled it out and scooped it onto two parchment-lined baking sheets. Since I couldn't hold the dough to shape it, I just used a spoon to shape it into bagel-shape. I didn't think too much of this as this is what I do with my gluten-free, vegan pizza dough that I've gotten tons of compliments on. There's still hope for a gluten-free dough that looks like this.

I covered them with tea towels and waited another hour. After preheating my oven, I popped them in, baked them for the required ten minutes, pulled them out and brushed them with coconut oil (which is what she does instead of boiling them), then baked them a little longer. I let them rest the full ten minutes on the baking sheet, then pulled one off.

The first thing I noticed was they stayed together pretty darn well. That's an amazing feat with a vegan baked good. The eggs in a standard gluten-free item help everything stay together; and since the recipe lacked those, this part actually pleased me. But, I already knew what the texture was going to be like by looking at them - like a biscuit. Not a bad biscuit, but not a bagel, in my opinion. They were missing the crusty, chewy exterior and the bread-like interior.

After mulling these over for a few hours, I wondered if the potato starch would really make that much of a difference. There is a slight difference in consistency and potato starch tends to be a little more hydrophilic that cornstarch. Cornstarch also tends to seize up and dry out a good faster than potato starch - but not by much.

So, I ran to the store, bought some potato starch and started again. This time, would it be more like a bagel?

In some ways, I thought they would be akin to my Bread. Wonderful Bread. recipe that I adapted from a Living Without article several years ago. That bread has a fabulous texture, a crispy, crusty exterior and is a great baguette. The ingredients and their quantities are quite similar in both recipes. But, a bagel is meant to be chewy on the outside with a nice, soft bready inside - baguettes are a little too crunchy for that. There would have to be some differences in preparation.

Babycakes DisneyWorld location - see the bagels on the middle shelf all the way to the left? 

The second batch was prepped, set, and baked, just as before. Overall result: a slightly more structurally tight bagel-shaped biscuit. The first batch fell apart more quickly. The second held together better overall. But, I just didn't see how they were bagels, except in shape. I ate one, and it wasn't bad; the texture was nice, like bread. Donut-shaped bread. Which, I suppose technically is all a bagel is. But it really missed the essential parts of a bagel. And the texture of my bread recipe has a better mouth-feel (and it's vegan too) than these bagels in terms of similarity to a soft, squishy bread center. I'm sure that recipe could easily be adapted to make bagels. Or I can just use Carol Fenster's recipe which turned out great - and those can be made vegan too.

Overall, I would venture to say that this book is better than the first - by leaps and bounds. The ingredient list is consistent with the bakery's mission, the recipes do work for the most part, but I am going to venture to say that the actual bakery store products are probably made from different recipes than these.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Until I fly to NYC for a little shopping and sightseeing, I won't know for sure. But, for now, I think I will keep using my other gluten-free baking books - my favs have vegan substitutions for those who need them and the products turn out awesome. In some ways, cookbooks made by high-profile eateries remind me of bestselling books that become movies - they are just never quite the same. Something gets lost in translation (or outright changed) which leaves the audience either uproariously happy or walking away wanting more.

*This book was given to me by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. Honestly.