|The Craft of Baking: Cakes, Cookies & Other Sweets with Ideas for Inventing Your Own|
|Publisher: Clarkson Potter, Country: US|
|ISBN: 9780307408105, Year: 2009|
|Link to publisher’s page or site|
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|This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.|
Karen DeMasco’s The Craft of Baking aims to inspire the home baker to try new variations of homely desserts and sweets, and is successful at encouraging creativity to some degree. There is a wide range of recipes and some modest but interesting suggestions. However, it is lacking in helpful explanations and is too narrow in its selection of ingredients and special brands, and the use of US-centric measures and terminology may be frustrating to international readers.
It can be hard to find the balance between encouraging creativity and giving sufficient guidance. Karen DeMasco’s The Craft of Baking (written with Mindy Fox) takes the pastry chef’s enthusiasm for seasonal ingredients and homely sweet snacks and desserts, and tries to show home cooks how to broaden their “craft”. Although the book has many interesting recipes, it isn’t groundbreaking, instead feeling quite safe and reassuring in its appeal to familiarity and memories of good food.
DeMasco, formerly of restaurants such as Craft and the Gramercy Tavern, and now at New York’s Locanda Verde, is perhaps unusual in being an acclaimed pastry chef whose first book is about distinctly “comfort” baking. DeMasco’s approach is about keeping it simple and doing it well.
The book isn’t just about baked goods, but also covers many other types of desserts and sweets. After chapters describing ingredients (The Craft of Baking Pantry) and techniques, there are chapters for muffins and a range of quickbreads and breakfast items, small baked goods, tarts/pies/cobblers, cakes and cupcakes, custards and puddings, frozen dishes including ice cream and, lastly, a range of fruit dishes.
The pantry and technique sections are reasonably good, but with some omissions of explanation. There’s little mention of substitutes (e.g., for cake flour), some definitional problems (marcona almonds aren’t really a Spanish fried and salted almond; Saigon Cinnamon is a type of cassia), and the explanation of tempering chocolate needed some simpler explanation or wrap-up summary. DeMasco’s focus on brand-name recommendations has the potential to frustrate readers with limited shopping options, and it’s disappointing that, yet again, a good dessert book from the USA only provides US volume measures.
Each chapter opens with a recipe (e.g. Chocolate Chip Scones, Almond Pound Cake) and then explains some basic ideas and potential for modification of that first dish. This recipe-then-explanation approach is unusual, but probably a relief for those home cooks who don’t like wading through rules before getting their hands dirty. Following the explanation page(s) are other recipes that don’t get this special treatment. Many recipes have “varying your craft” and/or “combining your craft” sections, adding suggestions or linking recipes for new ideas. These are often fairly lightweight, but may nonetheless help readers think outside the page. Some add-ons at the end are also where more classic forms of some dishes might be found (e.g., the main tarte tatin is a banana version).
The range of recipes is considerable, from Chocolate Cake Doughnuts with Chocolate Crackle Glaze to Ricotta Beignets, Banana Malt Ice Cream to Apple Butter to Rum Raisin Scones. Variation on a theme is a noticeable characteristic of the book at times (beyond the “craft” suggestions mentioned above), particularly in the early chapters – six of the dishes in the first recipe chapter build on a brioche dough. There are few, if any, explanations of what is actually happening in a recipe or dough to achieve a result, so the effect of acidic ingredients in scones is unmentioned, and the reasoning behind using a water bath for custards is no more advanced than describing stove-top custard making as being “rough and tumble on the custard”. On the other hand, there are occasional endearing tips, including the definition of different stages of cooking sugar in terms of the colours of dogs (golden retriever, Irish setter, etc.).
As a non-US reviewer, I was very irritated by the limited range of ingredients (don’t expect tropical fruit or adventurous flavours), the specific brands, and the narrow US-specific terminology and measures. This is a very parochial book, written exclusively for a USAmerican audience. International readers would need to keep their wits about them to avoid slipping up on ingredients like US “apple cider” and the author’s use of active dry yeast and kosher salt. Despite that, I enjoyed browsing through the recipes and increasingly felt inspired to try many of them, or to use them as inspiration for something new, so the book is a success in at least one of its objectives.
The personal mix of recipes and the quest to create a resonance of familiarity (whilst innovating homely sweet dishes and extending the reader’s repertoire) are what make The Craft of Baking a book worth having. It doesn’t challenge and the innovations are modest, which are perhaps what many home bakers would actually welcome. At the same time, the level of explanation is a little uneven and the potential for the book was greater than the final product. It will probably suit cooks who want to feel modern-but-homely in their sweet cooking, but not challenged or too adventurous.
|: 3. Recommended – some flaws
: Quite nice
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