Baking for All Occasions
By Flo Braker
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008, hardcover, $45.50; 396 pages

THE PARTICULARS

Who needs this book? Not the butcher or the candlestick maker, certainly, but give thought to the bakers in your life. This book smells of cinnamon, butter and caramelized sugar. And you know how generous bakers are. They hate eating alone.

Skilled or novice? It helps to know baking words like “fold,”  “whip” and “beat”, but even if your understanding of such terms is a little foggy,  Braker is there to help. She’s has been teaching baking classes in the San Francisco area for decades and counts such notables as Alice Waters and Alice Medrich among her early students. Julia Child was a friend and mentor and Chuck Williams, founder of Williams & Sonoma, met her when he opened his first store in 1958 and has been a friend ever since. Braker says she’s made all the mistakes,  the implication being that you won’t have to, once you read  this book, particularly the section titled A Baking Primer, which is an exhaustive look at everything from pan types to ingredients and methods. Consider it a valuable friend eager to share the tricks and secrets of successful home baking. Most of the recipes are created for the home cook, and many are classics given a modern twist, so anyone with a knowledge of baking basics can find success here.

Downsides: Okay, so great recipes are the all-important part of any cookbook, but I would have liked to have seen more photos, especially for such unusual offerings as the Orange Chiffon Tweed Cake with Milk ‘n’ Honey Sabayon, or the Kouign Amman Express Pastries, a Celtic specialty that sounds delicious but is a little difficult to picture. The desserts that were photographed look fantastic, and it would have improved the book to have more for us to drool and dream over.

THE SCOOP

I’ve belonged to the same book club for more than 13 years now, and our monthly meetings centre as much around the baking (and, truth be told, the whipped cream which must be on the table at every meeting; we almost kicked out one member who forgot to serve this at one of the first meetings she hosted) as it does around the book we’re discussing. Putting out a nice cake, cookies, tart or whatever else the host has time for makes us all feel a little special.

That’s because baking is one of those lovely unions of art and science. It is one of the most precise forms of cooking. Ingredients must be carefully measured, methods followed to the letter, temperatures absolutely accurate. The art is in the love you put into whatever you’re baking. So what if the cake lists a little or the pie filling is a somewhat runny. That whipped cream will take care of such small problems. And you  know what they say about dinner parties: You can screw up the main course, but no one will remember if you offer a spectacular dessert.

For Flo Braker, baking is  a special-occasion cooking skill. And I’m with her when she says that any occasion – a large gathering of family and friends, a birthday, a rainy day –  is a good enough reason to bake something. Based on that premise, Braker has arranged her recipes in terms of occasions, not the usual listing under types, i.e. Cookies, Pies, Cakes. . .

Thus you’ll find a range of choices in each chapter: Blue Ribbon Worthy includes cakes, pastries, muffins, brownies, pies and tarts, recipes Braker has collected over the years and served to inevitable oohs and aahs from friends and family; Crowd-Pleasing Favorites has just that, desserts of many descriptions large enough to feed and please a crowd; Red Letter Day desserts are showstoppers, recipes that are more demanding to make but will give everyone at your dinner party an unforgettable  meal-ender. And those rainy days when the garden’s too mucky to work in? Braker suggests puttering in the kitchen to prepare desserts that will freeze well, or making enough dough for four pies, so that when time is short, you can still have your dessert. . . and of course, eat it, too.

The Baker’s Handbook is another terrific section in this book, offering recipes and advice on the building blocks for creating your own special desserts: lots of recipes for basic cakes, pastry crusts and yummy fillings.

THE RECIPE

I was out in my garden yesterday and was thrilled to see the first red swellings of rhubarb peeking out from the dark soil. Who can resist this gorgeously coloured, tart-sweet harbinger of spring? I’ve even seen recipes for cocktails using the sunset pink juice from this member of the  buckwheat family. But in keeping with the spirit of the season — and Angie’s contest — I’ve chosen this cake to celebrate spring. Braker says cutting the rhubarb into thin slices will keep them from all sinking to the bottom. If you don’t have cake flour, all purpose flour is fine. The cake’s texture will not be as delicate, but it will still be delicious. And yes, by all means, serve with a dollop of whipped cream. There is no gilding the lily when it comes to desserts.

Almond-Rhubarb Snack Cake

Cake
1 ¾ cup (7 oz./200g) cake flour
½ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. baking powder
4 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (7 oz./200g) granulated sugar
½ tsp. pure almond extract
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup (6 fl. oz./180ml) well-shaken buttermilk
4 ½ oz. narrow rhubarb stalks (about 3), trimmed and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices, to yield one cup packed
½ cup natural or blanched sliced almonds

Almond Topping

2 tbsps. unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. heavy cream
½ cup (2 ¼ oz./65g) granulated sugar
½ cup (1 oz./30g) natural or blanched sliced almonds

Before baking, centre a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9-inch round springform pan with  2 3/4- or 3-inch sides. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
To make the cake: Have all ingredients at room temperature. Sift together flour, baking soda, salt and baking powder onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 30 to 45 seconds. Add sugar in steady stream, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat on medium speed until mixture is very light in colour and texture, about 3 minutes. Add the extracts during the final moments of mixing.

With mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, about 3 tbsps. at a time, beating after each addition until incorporated. When mixture is fluffy, reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in three additions alternately with the buttermilk in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing after each addition only until incorporated. Stop mixer and scrape down sides of the bowl after each addition. Fold in the rhubarb slices with a rubber spatula. Spoon the batter into the pan and spread evenly with the spatula.

Bake the cake until a round wooden toothpick inserted in the centre comes out free of cake batter, 40-45 minutes.

About 15 minutes before the cake is ready, begin making the Almond Topping: In a small saucepan, mix together the butter, flour, cream, and sugar and stir over low heat just until blended.

About 10 minutes before the cake is ready, remove the cake from the oven, pour the topping mixture over it and sprinkle the almonds over the top. Return the cake to the oven and bake until the topping spreads over the cake and just begins to bubble, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for about 20 minutes.

Slowly release the springform clasp and carefully remove the pan sides. Let the cake cool on its base on the rack for 10 minutes longer. Then invert a wire rack on top of the cake, invert the cake onto it, and carefully lift off the base. Slowly peel off the parchment liner, turn it over so that the sticky side   faces up, and reposition it on top of the cake. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack. Let cool completely.

Serve at room temperature, cut into wedges with a sharp knife. Cover any leftover cake with aluminum foil and store at cool room temperature for up to 2 days. Serves 10.

From Baking for All Occasions