Many people, in todays make it quick from a box society, are simply terrified of baking anything from scratch. Although they long for the home cooked desserts like mom and grandmother used to make, they are so intimidated by thoughts of mixing several ingredients in a bowl and placing it in the oven, that they will go without the desserts they love rather than enter the kitchen with baking in mind. Worse yet, they stoop to buying pre-made sweets from the grocery store that "look" good but taste like lard and sugar on a cracker.
Never fear all you baking phobic people. Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees is here to calm your fears and ease you into the joy that is baking. This is the third book Rees has written in her valiant effort to demystify the how to of home baked goodies. Her other works include Understanding Baking, and The Baker's Manual: 150 Master Formulas for Baking, and with her current work, Baking Unplugged, she continues her efforts to simplify the baking process.
The book begins by starting with the bare bones of the subject by listing those cookware and pantry items that one should have as the minimum requirement of kitchen basics. Such items include what type of bowls , knives, measuring cups and spoons, nut grater, et als you should have in your cupboards, as well as going into detail about each item to be sure the reader gets what is necessary to do the job. In the section on the pantry she does a very nice job explaining the difference between such things as single and double acting baking powder, and why the pH of cocoa can make a difference in how the finished product can look. I have been baking for years and was unaware that the reason Dutch cocoa mellows the flavor is because it is treated with alkali which raises the pH.
After getting the cupboards and pantry stocked, she goes into some beginner's basics on the proper way to measure, mix and blend, even how to read a recipe. She also tackles some more intimidating subjects like egg separating and making meringue. She not only teaches you the way to do this but also explains why she tells you to do things a certain way, and gives you a bit of the science of cooking.
Once you have conquered these first steps, the recipe section begins with morning baked goods, cakes, cookies, pies and other wonderful comforting desserts. Some of the recipes, such as, Moist Vanilla Pound Cake include 5 variations of the same cake so it makes it easy to find a family favorite and then make it new again. The suggested variations of this recipe include Blueberry, Cranberry-Walnut Streusel, and Eggnog with Spiked Glaze pound cakes to name just a few.
Prior to listing the ingredients, Ms. Rees includes a few words about each recipe. These notes vary from her experience with this recipe, to possible serving suggestions, or small variations. While I found some of these entries to be wordy and unnecessary, I wouldn't try to assume that everyone would. Those who have never baked before may not know what things would contrast nicely with cranberries or that some items can be frozen for use at a later date, or why a bitter walnut works well in a grownup version of a childhood favorite butterscotch pudding as a Butterscotch-Walnut Tart. The recipes are extremely simple to follow and are laid out in a step by step format. The instructions go so far as to suggest the type of spoon to mix it with or the proper pan to use, and never come off as a "know it all" attitude as I have noticed in other book of this type.
One thing that I found greatly disappointing was the total lack of photography within the book. The only photograph in the entire publication was on the cover, and while that is enticing enough to make you want to open the book I think the author could have really assisted the new or inexperienced baker by giving them some idea of what the recipe should look like at completion. Even as an experienced baker I find myself gravitating towards those recipes that I can see are pleasing to the eye; especially when cooking for company or a special family occasion. Having made many items at least I have the ability to visualize what an item may look like as a finished product but this book's intended audience may not have the ability to do that.
I would also have liked to see just a few more challenging recipes included so that the book would grow with the reader. The recipes the author has included are wonderful to get comfortable with but seem to stop at the basic or just above basic level. Many are just variations on a theme as with the many tart recipes included in its pages. Perhaps for the author's next how-to book she might consider a "challenge" recipe at the end of each chapter which tests several of the techniques demonstrated in a section. That would have given the reader not only a goal to work towards but also a sense of mastery or confidence once completed.
That being said, I found this book to be a wonderful tool to help those who are somewhat reluctant to, or believe you have to be born a baker to bake a loaf of bread or a cake. I found myself remembering home economics class while reading this book, and I mean that in a good way. Ms. Rees is never condescending to the reader and doesn't assume that the reader knows baking terms or techniques. She eloquently provides a calm approach to baking in all its basic elements, and I would definitely buy this book for my baking challenged friends or family.
Recipe: ANZAC Cookies
ANZAC is short for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp, and these cookies are reputed to have been invented to honor them during WWII. If you haven't heard of them, don't worry – it's not too late to become addicted to these crunchy golden cookies that taste intensely of caramel and butterscotch. The recipe is a good excuse to buy a jar of Lyle's Golden Syrup. There's nothing quite like Lyle's – it's neither bland like corn syrup nor darkly spicy like molasses, not is it intensely sweet like honey. It's more like a light caramel. Cookies that contain it will brown quickly, much more readily even than cookies with added corn syrup, so check for doneness ahead of the final baking time. Because the cookies brown on the bottom fast, bake them on two baking sheets (aka "double-panning") for better insulation or bake in the upper quadrant of the oven, where the tops will get the greater amount of heat. The cookies may look underdone in the middle, but it is important to take them out of the oven once the edges are golden brown. Don't worry – they'll set up perfectly.
Makes 2 dozen cookies.
½ Cup unsalted butter, soft
¾ Cup sugar
2 Tab. Lyle's Golden Syrup
½ tsp. salt
1 Cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
¾ Cup old fashioned rolled oats
¾ Cup sweetened flaked coconut
¾ Cup lightly toasted walnuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and let cool for 1 minute. In the same saucepan, beat in the sugar, Lyle's Golden Syrup, and salt until smooth. Stir in the flour and baking soda until almost combined. The sough will appear shaggy and sort of mealy – it's okay, don't worry. Stir in the oats, coconut, and walnuts until evenly distributed.
Line baking sheet with parchment paper and place mounds of dough (1 ½ tablespoons) onto the baking sheets, spacing at least 1 ½ " apart. Press and flatten into disks about ½" high. Bake the cookies for 9 to 10 minutes, until not quite set but browned on the edges. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
Recipe courtesy "Baking Unplugged," written by Nicole Rees, published by John Wiley and Sons, 2009