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

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Deep Dark Chocolate: Decadent Recipes for the Serious Chocolate Lover
By Sara Perry
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008 softcover. $20.95; 196 pages.


“Dark chocolate is more than a quintessential comfort food. It is the new coffee: an affordable daily luxury with its own menu of intensities, flavors and special infusions.” Sara Perry

There aren’t many people who disagree with Perry’s view. I know only one — he hates chocolate of any kind — but he’s a fine person otherwise.

Dark chocolate is for everyone — for moms and dads, for friends and lovers and for aunties and grandparents. Keep it away from the dog (the theobromine will make dogs and cats sick), but give it to someone who’s had a rough day and it soothes the ragged edges like nothing else. Chocolate has a rich, decadent, almost sinful side to it, but thankfully, it has its good sides too.

Chocolate brims with healthful flavonoids as well as mood-enhancing substances that replicate falling in love. There’s a small jolt of caffeine in there, too, but a whole pound of chocolate contains only the same amount as an 8-oz. cup of coffee, says Perry.

Perry describes all the forms of dark chocolate takes, from unsweetened or bitter baking chocolate to cocoa powder, then offers a list of chocolate-related terms that explain both its properties and its origins. For best results, use quality whole chocolate, chips, buttons or cocoa, she says.

If you’ve never worked with good quality dark chocolate in baking and cooking, it pays to read the chapter Baking Tips and Deep, Dark Chocolate Secrets before you proceed with any recipes, Perry suggests. Chocolate can be finicky, and though disasters such as seized chocolate (caused by even the tiniest bit of moisture as you try to melt the chocolate) can be fairly easily remedied,  you have to know what you’re doing.

The recipes here are divided into cookies and brownies; cakes, pies and tarts; puddings and custards; chilled desserts; sauces; breakfast delights; candies; and drinks and range from chocolate espresso cookies to chocolate gingerbread to chocolate bread pudding to bittersweet chocolate-rum icebox cake.

Perry says the following cookies were created for a friend who had just discovered her sweetheart had grown sweet on someone else, hence the name. The chocolate surely helped ease the pain a little. And you can take out the “Not” if your romance is still intact. These dipped cookies are best within 3 days and should be stored at room temperature, says Perry. Undipped cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks, or frozen up to 2 months.

He-Loves-Me-Not Valentine Hearts

Cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup ground almonds
¼ cup premium unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tbsp. premium unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Large pinch salt
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ tsp. pure almond or vanilla extract

Dipping chocolate
3 oz. premium dark chocolate, chopped
1 tsp. vegetable shortening

In medium bowl, whisk flour, almond meal, cocoas and salt until well blended. Set aside.

In stand mixer  or with a hand mixer set on medium speed, beat butter until creamy. Add sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in almond extract until well blended, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. On low speed, slowly add dry ingredients and beat until just blended, again scraping down the bowl as necessary. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter and scrape the crumbly dough onto one half the wrap. Fold the wrap over the dough and knead 3 or 4 times. Flatten dough into a disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or leave it ungreased. Remove dough disk from fridge, unwrap and cut in half. On pastry cloth or a lightly floured board with cloth-covered rolling pin, or between 2 sheets of heavy-duty plastic wrap, roll out one half the dough to a ¼-inch thickness. Using a two-inch heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut a cookie, pressing the cutter straight down into the dough. Repeat, cutting cookies closely together to avoid rerolling. Using a spatula, carefully transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate cookie sheet and bake until firm to the touch, about 12 minutes longer. Repeat with remaining dough.

Pull parchment paper with cookies onto counter and let cookies firm and cool slightly before transferring from parchment to wire rack to cool completely. If not using parchment, let cookies firm and cool slightly on the baking sheet before transferring.
To make dipping chocolate: Place chocolate and shortening in tall, deep heatproof bowl and set in a wide pan or skillet of hot water. Set aside for 5 minutes, stirring 4 or 5 times, and let chocolate melt completely. Stir until smooth.

Meanwhile, place two wire racks on sheet of parchment or waxed paper to catch drips. Dip half of each cookie into chocolate and allow extra chocolate to drip back into bowl. Place cookies on racks to set, for up to 2 hours, depending on room temperature. For a fast set, after 10 minutes, you can slip the wire rack into the fridge to chill for no longer than 5 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
– From Deep Dark Chocolate

Puff: 50 Flaky, Crunchy, Delicious Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts Made with Puff Pastry
By Martha Holmberg
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008; soft cover $21.95; 144 pages

The word “flaky” is often used to describe behaviour or bearing that is bizarre or eccentric. But there’s nothing bizarre about biting into something that crunches lightly but spectacularly, then melts into a buttery caress of flavour.

That’s the stuff of perfect puff pastry, something Martha Holmberg, the food editor for the Oregonian in Portland, describes as a cook’s “secret weapon”. Yes, homey pie crusts, delicate pate brisees and cookie- crumb bases are a wonderful way to enclose a savoury quiche, enrobe fresh fruit, or give a sturdy base to a rich cheesecake. But all bow down before the queenly bite of the sensuous puff.

Puff pastry isn’t as easy to make as any of the above, so Holmberg devotes 10 fully illustrated pages to taking you through the entire process. She even gives two versions: the classic French butter and flour mixture (known as pate feuilletee) that, by the time you master it, will give you 2,187 layers of flakiness (Holmberg says she did the math); and something called rough puff pastry (demi-feuilletee), which is much easier to make and works just fine for quiches, galettes, turnovers and potpies.

Not up to rolling butter so thin, it could probably cover a football field? There’s no shame in buying ready-made puff pastry, Holmberg says, and the challenge of making your own is just that. You feel you’ve accomplished something, but when you have other things you’d rather do, go out and buy a slab of frozen puff pastry and try some of her recipes. The key to using puff pastry successfully, particularly   store-bought, is to make sure it’s completely thawed by putting it in the fridge overnight before rolling it out, she says.

Once you have the finished product — whether home-made or store-bought — puff pastry is a cinch to work with, says Holmberg. “It’s surprisingly not that delicate, it isn’t sticky and you can refreeze the scraps.”

Imagine a tray of appetizers that includes melt-in-your-mouth spicy parmesan puffs, spiced samosa puffs with cilantro-chile dipping sauce and caramelized onion, crisp bacon and roquefort tarts. Or go for an irresistible main course such as swiss chard and goat cheese tart, or melted leek tart with fennel sausage and goat cheese, or wild salmon in pastry with savoury mushroom stuffing and lemon-caper beurre blanc. Even pizza can be taken to new heights with a flaky rough puff crust.

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate puff indulgence: dessert. Holmberg has recipes for brown sugar and brandy pear turnovers, honey-spice walnut tart, profiteroles with coffee cream, rich chocolate-espresso sauce and toasted almonds, sugar-crunch palmiers and roasted pineapple and ginger napoleons with salted caramel sauce.

Enough talking. Try a bite of the following.

Spiced Samosa Puffs with Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1 ½ lbs.Yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
3 tbsps. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 medium onion)
Kosher salt
2 to 4 tbsps. minced fresh chile, such as jalapeno
2 tbsps. minced fresh ginger (from one 2-inch piece)
1 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw)
Juice of half a lime or lemon, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 sheets (about 9 oz. each) frozen puff pastry, thawed
Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce (optional; recipe follows)

Place potatoes in pot of generously salted water, bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Scoop out  about a cup of the potato water, then drain potatoes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat; add onion, season with salt and cook until very soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add chile, cook for another minute, then add ginger and garam masala and cook until mixture is fragrant, another minute or so.

Dump the drained potatoes into the pan along with the butter. With a rubber spatula, fold to blend (it’s fine if the potatoes get a bit mushy), adding enough of the reserved potato water to make the mixture a bit creamy, then add peas and lime juice. Fold until well blended. Taste and season generously with more salt and some pepper. Let cool slightly, then fold in cilantro.

Heat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats (you’ll probably need to bake these in batches if baking all 36 in one session).

On a lightly floured counter, roll a sheet of pastry into a 14-inch square. Cut it into thirds lengthwise and thirds crosswise to make 9 squares. Roll one square to enlarge it to about 5 by 5 inches and cut in half to make two triangles. With a triangle in front of you at a right angle, spoon about 1 tbsp. onto the pastry just to the lower right of centre. Moisten the edges of pastry with water. Bring the top corner to the bottom corner to create a smaller triangle and pinch all around to seal tightly. Repeat with remaining squares and the second sheet of pastry.

Arrange samosas on the baking sheets and bake until lightly puffed and rich golden brown, 18-20 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes on a rack, then serve hot, with or without Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce. Makes 36.

Make Ahead Note: You can make samosas and keep them in the fridge for one day before baking, or freeze the unbaked samosas for up to one month. Bake them directly from the freezer and add a few more minutes to the cooking time.

Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp. minced onion or shallot
½ tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 to 2 jalapenos, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
2 cups lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
Put everything in a food processor and process until creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning. Chill for at least 30 minutes to let flavors blend. Make about 1 cup.
From Puff