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

Sunday Soup
By Betty Rosbottom
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008, softcover, $21.95; 168 pages

THE PARTICULARS

Who would like this book? Anyone interested in expanding their soup-making skills beyond opening a can of Campbell’s.

Cooking skills needed: Yes, you have to know how to boil water, but beyond that, anyone with an adventurous approach to cooking will find some great recipes here. Rosbottom offers numerous tips on how to prep ingredients, what substitutions might work, how much time the soup will take to finish cooking, what can be done ahead, and what to serve alongside.

Equipment: Large stock or soup pot with lid, fine-mesh strainer or sieve, food processor, blender, food mill or immersion blender for pureeing, and a ladle for serving.

IT’S A SOUPER LIFE

I like soup about as much as my cozy lamb’s wool-lined slippers and the bright red flannel pjs my sweetie gave me one long ago Christmas. I hate sleeping in pjs, but I love schlepping around in them when it’s cold outside and I don’t feel like dolling up for anybody. But I digress. We’re talking soup here and like so many baby boomers, I grew up with Campbell’s: Loved the chicken noodle, loved the tomato with lots of crushed saltines thrown in, but truth be told, was not so crazy about the vegetable soup. Back then, I loved squishy white bread and Velveeta blackened slightly under the broiler, too. I’m so grateful that our palates grow up with the rest of us.

Sunday Soup is for avid soup lovers, and Rosbottom provides recipes that cover all the seasons: fall brodo with acorn squash, swiss chard and bacon; chickpea and pasta soup with rosemary; white bean soup with chorizo and kale; spicy pork chili with cumin polenta; asparagus soup with tarragon cream; paella soup; thai-style lemon grass soup with shrimp; avocado soup with fresh tomato salsa; zucchini vichyssoise.

Soups aren’t hard to make, but your ingredients have to be top-notch. Home-made broths and stocks are best, of course, but Rosbottom  offers a great suggestion to pump up the flavour of store-bought: simmer for half an hour with celery, carrots, onions, parsley and bit of thyme, strain and proceed with your soup recipe.

SOUP SECRETS

I’ve had many great soups, some cooked by others, some coming out of my own kitchen: bouillabaise a la Julia Child, delicate spring pea soup, smoked tomato soup, spicy tortilla soup with bits of fresh cilantro and tiny cubes of avocado floating in it, even the wonderful bread soup of Tuscany, which is really more like a savoury pudding than a true soup. And I’ve been roasting chicken, turkey and even duck bones for delicious stocks for years, stocks that add wonderful flavour to both soups and sauces.

I’m not a fan of the “throw all the leftovers into the pot” kind of soup though. I’ve tried it and, well, it usually tastes like a bunch of leftovers thrown into the pot. That’s not to say you can’t use leftovers to make a great soup. You just have to be judicious about it. Soup should have structure, it should hum with the flavours and textures of what you’re putting in. Too many different things in, or not the right combination of things, and all the ingredients start to fight with each other. You end up with slop rather than soup.

Not that I’m a total soup purist. I own a well-worn can opener and although canned soup is generally only brought out in emergencies at our house these days, I still have fond memories of the canned tomato soup (and yes, it had to be Campbell’s; the no-name just didn’t cut it) I used to fix for my kids when they were little. Instead of water, I would use milk and add a little knob of butter and a shake of garlic powder. The kids loved it and so did I.

My latest secret soup vice is Lipton’s chicken noodle soup mix. On its own , I find it far too salty, but just a little doctoring, and it takes on a whole new personality. It’s a quicky version of the Greek soup, avgolemono. You need cooked, cold rice, fresh lemon juice (about half a lemon’s worth, more or less depending on how zingy you like it) and a raw egg. Do the soup thing according to the package directions. Add the rice (about ½ cup) during the last minute of cooking. When the soup has finished cooking, stir in the lemon juice, then place a spoonful or two of the soup in a bowl and whisk in the egg. Pour the mixture into the cooked soup and whisk quickly until the egg is cooked. This takes only a few seconds and your soup is ready. Served with gooey toasted cheese sandwiches (no Velveeta anymore, please) and it’s delicious, especially on a cold blustery day.

Do you have any quick and easy, secret soup recipes? Share them with us. We’d love to hear from you.

Here’s a recipe from Sunday Soup using fresh asparagus, which — hallelujah! — are now available. Rosbottom suggests serving this with crab and avocado sandwiches, or veggie pitas with goat cheese and fresh herbs.

Heavenly Asparagus Soup with Tarragon Cream

1 ½ lbs. medium asparagus
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
½ cup chopped shallots
4 cups chicken stock, plus a little extra if needed
½ tsp. kosher salt, plus a little extra if needed
Scant 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/3 cup long-grain white rice, uncooked
½ cup creme fraiche
1 ½ tbsps. fresh tarragon, plus several sprigs for garnish

Cut off and discard tough bases from asparagus. Cut spears into 1/2-inch thick pieces.

Heat butter in a large, heavy pot (with a lid) set over medium-high heat, until hot. Add shallots and cook, stirring until softened, for about 2 minutes. Add asparagus slices and cook, stirring, 1 minute more. Add stock, ½ tsp. salt, cayenne pepper, and rice. Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat, cover pot, and cook until vegetables are completely tender, for about 20 minutes.

Puree soup in batches in a food processor, blender (note: be very careful to do only small batches in a blender or you’ll have scalded soup all over yourself and your kitchen) or food mill and return soup to the pot (or use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot). Place creme fraiche in small bowl and stir in the chopped tarragon. Whisk 1/3 of the tarragon creme fraiche, a little at a time, into the soup. Save the remaining creme fraiche for the garnish.

Taste the soup and season with salt, if needed. If soup is too thick, thin it with a few tablespoons of the extra stock. (The soup can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat.)

To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Garnish each serving with a dollop of tarragon creme fraiche and a tarragon sprig. Serves four.

From Sunday Soup

A Harvest of Pumpkins and Squash
By Lou Seibert Pappas
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008, hardcover, $17.95; 96 pages


I never warmed much to squash as a kid, and aside from pumpkin pie, I don’t know too many kids who jump for joy when they see squash on the table.

Unless there were great lashings of sugar and spice involved, squash, particularly winter squash, always tasted, well, too squashy to me when I was little.

That was then. As my picky palate matured, I began to open up to an expanded  world of wonderful flavours. I always liked pumpkin pie, but I was amazed to discover I liked pumpkin soup even better.  And when a dear friend introduced me to kabocha squash (also known as Japanese pumpkin), I found I liked this sweetly delicate vegetable almost as much as I used to like candy.

And now, of course, there’s the added bonus of knowing just how nutritious these brightly coloured vegetables are: Winter squash is bursting with beta-carotene, vitamin C, potassium, dietary fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and various B vitamins.

But how many times can you serve squash if you only ever bake it with a little butter and perhaps some brown sugar or maple syrup? This book rides to the rescue.

Lou Seibert Pappas has written more than 50 cookbooks, many of them themed collections of recipes focusing on one food, such as this one.

Pappas offers a great introduction to the wide variety of both summer and winter squash, gives us a rundown on the history of squash, and offers hints on buying, storing and cooking the vegetables. Summer squash, in the form of zucchini and other tender-skinned varieties, has enjoyed a long love affair with foodies, but aside from pumpkin and acorn squash, most winter varieties aren’t as familiar to us, as witness my introduction only a few years ago to the sweet seductions of kabocha.

But with more people interested in locally grown produce, and more small growers willing to try heirloom varieties such as delicata, sweet dumpling  and mini-hubbards, they are becoming more widely available. All the squashes I’ve just mentioned I found at a lovely farm in Agassiz recently.

Squash can be baked or steamed and served as a side dish. Or it can be cooked until soft, pureed in a blender or processor and used in cakes, muffins, cookies, pies, soups, souffles and salads. Pappas has recipes for all these in her book. Here’s one featuring the kabocha, my favourite squash. Pappas suggests serving this hearty soup with crusty sourdough bread and an arugula and goat cheese salad. You can substitute butternut squash or sugar pumpkin, if you like.

Moroccan Meatball, Chard and Kabocha Squash Soup

Meatballs
1 lb. ground lamb or ground beef
3 tbsps. cornstarch
1 large egg
3 tbsps. minced fresh cilantro
½ tsp. ground allspice
1 clove garlic, minced

Soup
1 bunch Swiss chard (about 12 oz.)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 stalk fennel or celery, chopped
2 tsps. grated peeled fresh ginger
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 ½ quarts beef broth
2 cups diced kabocha squash (3/8-inch dice)
5 tbsps. tomato paste
6 red or yellow plum (Roma) tomatoes, sliced
Salt to taste
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

To make meatballs, in a bowl, combine the lamb, cornstarch, egg, cilantro, allspice and garlic and mix lightly. Shape into 3/4-inch meatballs.

Remove the ribs from the Swiss chard and slice thinly crosswise. Chop the leaves separately; set aside. In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add chard ribs, onion, carrot, and fennel or celery and saute until limp (about 5 minutes). Add ginger, allspice, cumin, pepper, broth, squash and tomato paste; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, carefully drop meatballs into hot broth. Add chard leaves and tomatoes. Simmer for 5-6 minutes longer or until vegetables are tender and meatballs are cooked through. Season to taste with salt.

Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with cilantro and serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

– From A Harvest of Pumpkins and Squash