Is your pie crust recipe falsifiable?

The art of cooking is actually the science of chemistry, and chemistry demands proof by way of experimentation. This textbook-style cookbook by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated and Guy Crosby provides it. Not just for the Alton Browns among us, it is for anyone who has despaired over a rubbery pot roast, has wondered if there is an easy middle ground between ‘crunchy’ and ‘grey’ when it comes to broccoli, or dares to hope that the surface of homemade cheesecake might not have to resemble a meteor-struck landscape with its indentations and cracks. There is surely something for every devoted-but-not-infallible cook in this hefty, surprisingly reasonable (under $30) volume. The book explains fifty separate concepts (e.g. ‘Concept 13: Salty Marinades Work Best’) that cover the effects of heat, moisture, time, fat, sugar, acid, and salt on food along with instructions on how to manipulate these variables to the most delicious effect. The presentation of each concept adopts a common formula: a page-long discussion of the science, a description of a test-kitchen experiment in which identical ingredients are treated differently, and the results. For example, we learn under Concept 13 that, among other things, salt ‘restructures the protein molecules in the meat, creating gaps that fill with water to increase juiciness’; an experiment involving the comparison of a plain, baked chicken breast with other breasts marinated in four different sauces (wiped off before baking) follows; and the conclusion is made that marinades add very little flavour, but salt improves texture. Recipes employing the concepts follow. Illustrations, charts, and photographs drive home the importance of ingredients, temperature, and time in cooking, often forcefully: a lumpy, sugarless sherbet looks positively grotesque next to the smooth creaminess of its well-sugared counterpart; a delicate omelet crushed beneath a two-pound weight demonstrates the value of using butter by stark comparison with its resilient, weight-lifting, butterless sibling.

Thanks to the concepts, hockey puck hamburgers have been forever banished from my repertoire and eating pork chops is no longer a marathon of chewing. My holy dread of salting dried beans before cooking them has been exposed as mere superstition and I am now a convert to the school that expounds soaking beans in weak brine. I have learned why my potatoes sometimes go green and that resting my pancake batter for 10 minutes before frying makes them better (this is true even when I use my old recipe instead of the one in the book). Every recipe I have tried has been good, many of them very good, and some of them even great: the pizza dough, a revelation of simplicity and deliciousness, has rescued my pizza stone from lonely disuse. Pesto, once a dark and slimy disappointment, has returned to me green and pungent. ‘Chicken en cocotte’, which is a chicken, an onion, a carrot, a stick of celery, and a few garlic cloves baked in the oven for two hours at 250 F, the sort of recipe I would have formerly imagined as promising little except salmonella, is as well-cooked and succulent as promised.

I will not spoil the excitement of discovery for everyone else by listing other winners. Yet all is not perfect. Since it is more of a cooking book than a recipe book, it rewards the one who reads from front to back rather than flipping pages. The index is unwieldy; finding recipes a second time can be a frustrating experience. Readers will soon notice that ‘ultimate’ and ‘classic’ vie for the position of Favourite Descriptive Adjective in recipe titles. This, along with the science-as-panacea aura to the title, sometimes promises more than is delivered. The ‘Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie’, for example, which involves browning the butter, several rounds of ‘resting’ the batter, and an orphaned egg white, is merely good enough. In the editors’ pursuit of ‘chewy’, they have provided instructions on how to make a homemade cookie that approximates nothing so much as a high-quality store-bought cookie. Is this an irony or an intention? The instruction to make cookies as big as dessert plates suggests the latter. Whose grandmother ever made chocolate chip cookies bigger than the palm of a child’s hand? It is in fact at these collisions of science and nostalgia that the book falls down. It is at its best when it explains why some traditional recipes or preparations are so pleasing; for example, the fantastic recipes for breads imitate Italian and French baking with their few ingredients, wet doughs, long rises, and hot ovens. The book is least successful when it attempts to make ‘ultimate’ dishes that have long been much simpler (and more delicious) by the addition of complicated steps, many dirty dishes, and little bits of lots of ingredients. The recipe for pie crust, for example, involves butter, shortening, vodka, and a food processor to gain the effect that (in my humble opinion) could be gained simply by using lard, water, and your fingers.

Still, this has become the book that I consult the most frequently for method even when I do not follow the recipes: the results of my old favourite recipes have been improved in countless ways, often by things that I formerly dismissed as inconsequential, such as letting a bread dough rest for a few minutes or adding the salt at the penultimate stage or altering the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Although it is not worth the time or effort to yield to it in every instance, science does indeed have much to offer the art of cooking.

Pauline Ripat brines beans in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Blowing up the George Lucas Canon (In a Good Way)

 

A New Dawn is the first Star Wars novel to excite me since High School. They are pedestrian at best in their writing, and I always had better books to read. However, this novel, and the cartoon Rebels featuring the same characters, are the first introduction to the new post-Lucas Star Wars universe under Disney. As The Empire Strikes Back (and the Clone Wars, and Knights of the Old Republic) prove, Star Wars is best the less George Lucas has to do with it. As an unrepentant fanboy, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store.

A Note on Star Wars Canon

For those of you who don’t care, skip this section. But Star Wars canon (or, more accurately, its demise) was a big reason for my excitement about this book. I used to work for a gaming company that published Star Wars material, and canon mattered a great deal.

All Star Wars information ever presented publically in anything was put into a database known as the Holocron and assigned one of five levels of veracity. Each level of canon superseded the levels below in legitimacy if there were contradictions. The most recent versions of the films were the ultimate canon (G-canon, IE George canon). That meant yes, Greedo still shot first.

The whole canon idea was a valiant, well-intentioned mess.

Disney did away with canon. They announced the movies and Clone Wars cartoons were immovable objects, and put all previous material under the “Legendary” heading. New books, movies, shows, comics and games will be coordinated. That means boo, no Heir to the Empire, yay, no Vector Prime and double yay, no more canon chaos. Everything new is planned and holds equal weight in Star Wars history.

If you skipped the above section, you had a significant other way before I did.

The (Spoiler Free) Plot

A New Dawn takes place twenty years after Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi have been hunted to near extinction and the Republic has fully transformed into the Galactic Empire. Kanan Jarrus, a Jedi padawan who escaped death during the purge, is now a sarcastic drifter plagued by the death of the entire Jedi order. He survives by hiding his Jedi skills and never forming attachments, moving constantly from job to job. On the distant mining world Gorse he encounters a Twi’lek pilot named Hera who is gathering intel for the nascent Rebellion. She follows the cyborg Count Vidian, an Imperial bureaucrat dispatched to squeeze every resource from Gorse for the new Imperial armada. Vidian’s tactics against the local populace are brutal, and soon Kanan and Hera lead a small group of locals to save the planet and thwart Vidian’s plans.

The Verdict

The prose itself is unassuming and straightforward, which is to be expected. But I don’t consume Star Wars to appreciate the art. I consume it for the adventure, the grand sweep of a space opera in a galaxy far, far away. To my glee, A New Dawn delivers as promised.

Kanan and Hera are both well fleshed-out characters with clear motivations and backgrounds. Both, but Hera in particular, are mysterious enough that the cartoon has ample room to expand. Kanan plays the rogue well, trying to remain flippant and aloof while unable to hide his altruistic bent, or shed his inner pain. His struggle to obscure his Jedi abilities struggles with the reader’s wish to see him throw stuff around with the Force and whip out his lightsaber. The two protagonists are robust enough that I can forgive the “unrequited love interest by the boy” relationship stereotype. The characters stand well on their own.

Count Vidian is not your stock “more machine than man” villain, either. At first I recoiled at him being an efficiency administrator (horrors of Episode One “trade disputes” and other boring conflicts still haunt me), but when his first act of efficiency is to beat an incompetent middle manager to death in front of his stormtroopers, my fears evaporated. He embodies the terror of the Empire in all its dark, ruthless glory. His backstory and motivations also lend him an element of sympathy, which all good villains need. When other rival players in the Empire start back-stabbing him for their own gain, at times you root for Vidian to prevail–even if prevailing means he blows up an entire planet.

The supporting cast is just as engaging. Not only do the two protagonists’ accomplices stand well on their own, they also represent archetypes of the galaxy’s rebels. Some are more than willing to fight, some only do so when the Empire wrongs them, and some are forced into rebellion and are reluctant to the very end. The characters in this book are a microcosm of the Rebellion itself. Those on the side of the Empire serve as the same, from ambitious captains to government stooges to leaders not afraid to betray a rival for their own gain.

All this works within an adventure yarn that never slows down. This is a page turner, moving swiftly from crisis to crisis in every storyline. It also maintains a gritty and dark edge that I found welcome. The ever-present Empire is always spying to catch dissidents, always preparing to crush opposition, always there to enforce its will. The novel portrays the forces of evil in a more deadly light than any of the Star Wars prequels did.

Star Wars: A New Dawn is no scholarly piece of literature, but it has no aspiration to be. It’s a fun, fast-paced space adventure in a galaxy desperate for a refresh. It checks all the boxes that a Star Wars story needs to. If this novel is the blueprint for things to come, this galaxy far, far away is getting brighter and brighter.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy

Star Wars, The Wonder Years, and what went wrong with your parents: Min Kamp’s prequel.

Boyhood Island begins with a scene from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood that he can’t possibly remember. He is an infant, and his parents, still quite young, are arriving at the place that will serve as boyhood home until early adolescence. The scene lasts only a few pages, but its inclusion in this novel is a reminder to the reader, and perhaps to himself, that this book is not autobiography, or even memoir. We are reading a novel, a novel generated by the materials of the novelist’s own life, but a novel all the same. This may be nonfiction, but Knausgaard is imposing an arc on his own life. In the vocabulary of silly American movie blockbusters, this volume is the prequel. Or in the parlance of the golden age of Hollywood, this book functions as a giant flashback.

Narrative regression—whether in Star Wars or in high literature—usually functions in the opposite way to our usual understanding of narrative. We have been given the ending, now we are going back to the beginning, with the ending in mind. Such a beginning, in many cases, only has narrative value if we know the ending. Otherwise meaningless incidents take on narrative significance. Small gestures, a word said in anger, a lost swimming cap, a glass of wine too many, are all freighted with the knowledge of what will happen twenty, thirty years later. In Aristotle’s classic understanding of the beginning, middle and end of any story, these beginnings become the middle, or even in some rare cases the end. And thus Knausgaard puts his beginning squarely in the middle of his own autobiographical arc.

Perhaps Star Wars comes to mind, however bizarre a connection that might be, because we discover in Book 3, that, much like George Lucas’s space opera, My Struggle is a six-volume meditation on the Oedipus Complex that began in medias res. A Death in the Family covered the gruesome death of Knausgaard’s father from alcoholism in its purest, most suicidal form. That novel  hinted at his father’s abuse of his sons, his near near manic need for control. Book 3 takes us back to those moments when a television becomes the battleground to maintain ironclad domination over a small boy. Sons mount their defiance in the only way that they know how, using only the petty, yet strangely vicious weapons afforded to offspring. The mother is a warm  presence, and as readers we long for the absence of the father so that we can enjoy her comforting embrace in peace.

The novel should not be understood only in these overly earnest terms, however: I laughed long and hard while reading this book. Much of the book can be understood as a coming of age story of the artist, a Küntslerroman, and a hilarious and beautiful one at that. Knausgaard does not shy away from the most embarrassing moments of his own childhood. A good chunk of the novel is about his kindergarten year, and he captures all of the hilarity of such an early age. First encounters with porn, first girlfriends, his own self-satisfaction at his literary skills in elementary school: much of the novel reads like relentless self-mockery. He also perfectly renders the intensely sensual world that children live in, the way that their lack of clearly developed social priorities allow them to be in the physical world in a way that adults—with their constant social preoccupations and anxieties—rarely can. The pop-culture antecedent in the English speaking world is The Wonder Years, but Knausgaard writes with a white-hot honesty that that sticky-sweet piece of sitcom nostalgia was never able to achieve.

Layered among these aspects of the novel is a meditation on a profound generational split. The radical shift between the World War 2 generation (Knausgaard’s grandparents) and the Baby Boomers (Knausgaard’s parents) makes for a haunting leitmotif within the novel. Especially on Knaugaard’s mother’s side, we see an earlier, more rural, agrarian community that put a lot of emphasis on the extended family. Knausgaard’s parents, for good and for ill, are moving into the consumer-based culture that framed much of the boomers’ early adulthood. Neighborhood developments replace farms, nuclear families replace extended family, and work animals are discarded in favor of pets. Knausgaard is only a few years older than myself, and like much of my generation, he seems to be reaching middle-age, looking at his grandparents and parents, and asking “What the hell happened?

Before I read Knausgaard’s work, I was tempted to dismiss My Struggle as a bizarrely ambitious work of utter narcissism, a self-indulgent hymn celebrating everything that was wrong with my generation and the one that came after it. After having read the first three volumes of Min Kamp, I’ve come to the conclusion that these books are an important and honest look at our current age, and at my own generation. Knausgaard’s own life might be the canvas, but our social zeitgeist is what is actually being rendered. We stand on the cusp of a new age, and Knausgaard’s alchemical blend of the elements of autobiography and fiction may be the perfect artistic herald. Much like the Romantic poets anticipated and participated in an age of revolution, upheaval, migration, chaos, and backlash, Knausgaard’s narrative art provides perspective on an age when we are reconceiving the concept of the individual self yet again.

Nathan Elliott works in Georgia, lives in Newfoundland, and spends much of his time taking care of a small, beautiful boy. 

Click here to visit Powell's Books!

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under General Literature

Classic Fridays: The Forever War is for the Ages.

I am going to make a bold statement.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best science fiction novels–one of the best novels, period. More than Dune, more than Foundation or Hyperion, and yes, more than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I enjoyed it with the same fervor as other better-known works like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet to my surprise, not only have not many people read it, they haven’t even heard of it.

So let’s fix that.


The Forever War
follows soldier William Mandella through an interstellar war against a seldom seen and barely understood enemy. In actual non-Star Trek space travel, to reach the enemy takes decades, even centuries. But thanks to relativity, Mandella ages only a handful of months due to time dilation at near light speed. (If you would like a detailed explanation of how this works, pick up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time.) Mandella experiences a millennium of war in objective time, which he subjectively experiences as a few years. He loses everyone he knows and loves to death, either through war or time, and suffers changes in government, the military, sexuality, and even language every time he returns home. And each and every time he returns, he is promoted, told he must serve for one more mission, and sent out again to a pointless war that claims the life of almost every soldier that fights in it.

Mandella is a fabulous character and a great filter to show this war to the reader. He starts out as a private in the 1990s, and by the end of the book a thousand years later, he’s a major after a few years of military experience and a total of four actual battles. He’s a war hero, the only surviving soldier from the war’s beginning, and is often treated as a quaint, eccentric relic of centuries past. At his heart he is a pacifist, and the last thing he wants to be is a hero or a leader. But the one time he returns to Earth leaves the service, society has changed so much that he re-enlists because he can’t adjust. His sexual orientation also adds complications along the way. At times homosexuality is condoned (a shocking idea in the 70s), encouraged or even mandated for population control, and he has to adjust to those attitudes each time he returns from a mission.

Haldeman’s prose is smooth and well-paced, and he does a fabulous job of handling the science in the book. Since time dilation is the major underpinning of the plot, he has to. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves a ship traveling at near-light speed toward a base the crew is supposed to attack. Not only do years pass outside between each turn the ship makes to avoid enemy missiles, but the missiles themselves improve with each shot. The enemy makes years of technological breakthroughs every few minutes the ship is en route. When the ship is finally hit, no one even knows what hit them because it’s so advanced. Haldeman injects poignant moments through science as well. Mandella forms relationships and love interests at first, but soon learns that if his friends and lovers are ever reassigned or stay behind on a planet, time dilation ensures that he will never see them again. This is hard science fiction at its best.

The best part of this book, though, is its commentary on war and society. It was written in the 70s when the Vietnam War was coming to an end. The war in The Forever War is even more pointless than Vietnam. Fighting a thousand-year war against an enemy you have never talked to, never even met except on the battlefield and with battles happening decades apart, is as close to stupidity as anything I can think of. This is the true power of good science fiction: it examines what is happening in our society today. Science fiction can accentuate any situation or philosophy in an otherwordly context, and expose the true ludicrousness or value of it. I see parallels in The Forever War to our current conflicts around the globe, and this book was written thirty years ago. It’s just as poignant now as it was then.

The only thing that detracts from the book is its cheesy ending. I may think it’s cheesy because it’s relatively happy, in contrast to the nearly hopeless tone of the bulk of the book. After several courses of rocks for dinner, a dessert of Vegemite is downright delectable. I’m sure if it was the ending of a more lighthearted book, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Even in this book, its effect on my opinion is hardly noticeable. And after taking a huge dose of reality delivered in a hard sci-fi package, giving the reader a ray of sunshine at the end does have its value.

The Forever War is not as well-known as other science fiction classics like Dune, 1984 or A Brave New World, but is just as poignant and meaningful. If you have even a passing interest in speculative fiction, The Forever War deserves a prominent place in your library.

William Reid is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy

Why you only ever see the backs of Kenyans when you run a marathon.

On 28 September 2014 Dennis Kimetto won the Berlin Marathon in a jaw-dropping world record time of 2:02:57. For many sports fans, the least surprising aspect of Kimetto’s incredible performance was his nationality: Kimetto is a Kenyan, and Kenyans have come to dominate middle and long distance running in a way that few nationalities have ever ruled over a sport. Of the ten fastest male marathoners since 2004, eight are from Kenya (the other two are from neighbouring Ethiopia). Of the ten fastest female marathoners since 2004, three are from Kenya (including two of the top four). In the year 2011, the twenty fastest marathon times around the globe were run by Kenyan men and there were seventy Kenyans who ran faster marathons than the fastest European runner. Nineteen of the last twenty-four male winners of the Boston Marathon have been Kenyan, as were eleven of the last fifteen female winners of that race. At Olympic Games and World Championships during the last 25 years, Kenyans have been heavily represented on the podium in races from 800m all the way up to the marathon. How a relatively poor country that has fewer than 46 million of the world’s 7 billion people could be so remarkably over-represented among the world’s greatest runners provides something of a mystery.

It is a mystery that English writer Adharanand Finn seeks to shed light on in his Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth. Out of a desire to realize his full potential as a runner as well as to unlock the secrets to Kenyan distance running greatness, Finn convinces his rather tolerant wife and three small children to uproot themselves and move to Iten, Kenya, for six months. During this time he wrote a blog and contributed articles about the experience to the Guardian. Iten is a small town of around 4,000 people, about 1,000 of whom are dedicated full-time athletes. Many of these athletes live in camps where they dedicate themselves completely to running. Here Finn forms a team of runners who train together for the challenging Lewa Marathon, a race that takes place in the high elevation and heat of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. During his training Finn interviews athletes, coaches, and locals to find out more about the lives of Kenyan runners. The reasons that Kenya is able to produce such a large number of great athletes are numerous and complex. Social, economic and environmental factors predispose many Kenyans to have running talent, while a pervasive running culture, the presence of many role models, and a well-developed training and coaching infrastructure helps and encourages focused and dedicated runners to make the most of their abilities.

In his discussion with athletes and coaches, Finn finds that a high proportion of the top Kenyan runners come from poor, rural backgrounds. From a very early age they are engaged in hard work for their families, running and walking everywhere, usually at high altitudes. Describing 5000m great Mercy Cherono, Finn argues that “simply from the inherent physical toughness of her daily life had come a talent to outrun the world.” Another runner told Finn of his childhood “We were training already without knowing it.” Kenyan children grow up eating diets of ugali (a doughy substance made with maize flour and dipped into sauces or stew), beans, rice and vegetables, and very little of the fatty foods that make up so much of the western diet. Finn also makes much of the fact that many Kenyan children run barefoot, teaching them to strike the ground lightly and develop beautiful forefoot-first running form. Kenyan runners get far fewer of the stress injuries that plague western runners. Although as they get older many Kenyan runners opt to train in bulky running shoes, by this point they have already developed the good habits of barefoot running.

The presence of so many great runners and the existence of a culture of admiration for running provides ample incentives for children to build upon these talents. During his stay in Iten or while running on its running trails, Finn continually runs into world champions and famous marathoners. The presence of so many running role models, individuals whose prize money provided a better life for themselves and their communities, gives young runners something to strive for and the confidence that they can win. Finn interviews Brother Colm, who through his St. Patrick’s Boarding School has coached and mentored a great many future champions. Runners who can run fast enough might get signed by a manager, which will enable them to live at one of the many training camps. At these training camps, room and board are provided and the athletes dedicate themselves completely and absolutely to training, pushing each other to work harder. In Kenya, for the most part running is not a simple hobby, but something that athletes devote their lives to with an intense focus.

Finn describes the joys and struggles of training and racing in a way that will be very familiar to many runners. I especially enjoyed his account of the physical and emotional roller coaster that is running a marathon. Finn is a very good runner, but he describes experiences to which runners at every level can relate. In one passage Finn captures perfectly how runners talk ourselves into running, and how at the end we are always glad we did:

Right before you head out running, it can be hard to remember exactly why
you’re doing it. You often have to overcome a nagging sense of futility,
lacing up your shoes, telling yourself that no matter how unlikely it seems,
after you finish you will be glad you went. It’s only afterwards that
it makes sense, although even then its hard to rationalise why. You just
feel right. After a run, you feel at one with the world, as though some
unspecified, innate need has been fulfilled.

My main critique of the book is that at times it was a bit uncomfortable to read about a privileged and wealthy white man who takes a vacation to run alongside people who are in the most literal way desperately running away from poverty. Throughout the book there are moments when Finn acknowledges feeling awkward about his privileged position and the extraordinary amount of deference and respect that he and his family receive because of the whiteness of their skin. A freelance journalist, Finn is continually treated like a visiting dignitary in Kenya. This could have been addressed more directly, and perhaps greater acknowledgement made of the terrible legacies of colonialism that created many of the underlying conditions in Kenya. He points out that many Kenyan runners train with such focus and determination in part because they see racing as a potential way out of poor economic circumstances. This might be a recipe for creating elite athletes, but it is hardly a model other nations would wish to emulate. That said, this is a book that nearly all runners will enjoy reading.

Christopher Frank will be participating in his first Boston Marathon this April, but he certainly won’t be running with the Kenyans.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under Sports

Cool Whip and Despair, Oreos and Joy: the emotional funfetti of a baking addiction

First off, let me just say that if you are currently trying to cut down on the amount of white sugar that you are eating, or you are thinking of switching your family to a gluten-free diet, this is probably not the cookbook for you. If, on the other hand, you have no moral objections to using Oreos as an ingredient to make other desserts, or think that putting a half cup of sprinkles right into the batter, rather than waiting to put them on top of cookies after baking (where they will only fall off and get wasted) is genius, you might want to take a look at Sally’s Baking Addiction. This cookbook, based on a popular baking blog, is filled with ways to increase the amount of joy in your lunchbox or dessert offerings, while probably expanding your waistline as well. Sally has a certain “more is more” philosophy, where squares have not only icing but extra glaze on top and banana bread is not complete without a crumble topping largely composed of butterscotch chips. Many of the cupcakes have an extra surprise inside like a dab of jam or Nutella that elevates them from the everyday.

I have to admit, I first approached some of these recipes with a certain snobbishness. When confronted with the fact that I would have to purchase boxed yellow cake mix in order to make the Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Cookies, the inner foodie in me recoiled (“Cake mix? Really? Isn’t the whole point of a baking cookbook to avoid buying packaged cake mix? Am I embarking on some sort of terrible Sandra Lee downward shame spiral into the land of Cool Whip and despair?”).   I tucked the box of Duncan Hines into my cart, grumbling, but the cookies were worth any sacrifice of baking street cred. Sweet, soft, chewy and fantastic, they do taste exactly like a vanilla funfetti birthday cake somehow transformed into convenient cookie form. I made the oatmeal butterscotch “scotchies” over and over until my husband told me to stop, as he had no willpower to fight against their caloric onslaught. The cookies are all very popular with children and not too challenging to the palate (read: generally very sweet with lots of chocolate chips, melted chocolate and/or icing) but the recipes all turned out and were quickly devoured in our household.

And despite the inclusion of Nilla wafers, Nutella, Oreos or other packaged ingredients, this is a pretty traditional home baking cookbook. For those intimidated by baking, Sally outlines a very short and sensible list of kitchen equipment, and includes photos of every finished baked item, as well as some photos of stages of preparation. She gives clear instructions on how to cream butter, why dough should be chilled before baking, how to properly shape cookies and time their baking exactly. For those who like to measure ingredients by weight – and really, I will give a plug here for the digital scale as the one piece of kitchen equipment that will change your life – she includes gram measurements for dry ingredients, and imperial as well as metric measurements.

There are a few nods to current trends in desserts, particularly the combination of salty and sweet that has been showing up in bakeries and café menus. There is a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that includes crushed potato chips for salt and crunch, and one for peanut butter cups topped with salted pretzels.   Sally uses salted caramel as a component in a number of recipes, including rice krispie treats and a cheesecake dip made of cream cheese and swirled caramel that would surely make one the most welcome guest at any party. She suggests serving the dip with apples or pretzels, but one can imagine people simply eating this by the spoon or handful until it is gone. Some of the recipes I found too sweet even for an indulgent treat. One fudge mixture of marshmallows, melted chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and graham crackers is a dentist’s dream of sugary stickiness, and Sally helpfully suggests variations where those who do not find the fudge decadent enough could add candy cane pieces or crushed Oreos to the mix if desired.

As you might sense by now, this is a cookbook of unapologetically indulgent treats. Even the so-called Healthier Choices section includes skinny banana muffins that contain one cup of butter and two cups of sugar, and a Peanut Butter Swirl Chocolate Snack Cake that I’m sure a nutritionist would categorize as healthier than few things beyond gnawing on a pure stick of butter. As befits such rich treats, many of the batches are relatively small in size, producing a small loaf, 12 cupcakes or 16 cookies. So in sum, this is a nice cookbook for those new to baking, or for those looking for a new twist on brownies or cookies. It is not hugely sophisticated or challenging in its goals, but that is its charm. These are solid, home-baking recipes that turn out and would be welcome at a bake sale or pot luck dinner.

Sarah Elvins is a historian living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She cooks, bakes, knits, reads, runs and nags her three children in her spare , time.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under Food

Classic Fridays: HWJC (How Would Jacques Cook It?)

Have you heard of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique? Or La Methode? If you are as serious about French cooking as Julia Child, you have been sleeping with them beneath your pillow since they were first published in the late 1970s. If you are like me, you have learned of Jacques Pépin considerably later with the resurging interest in French cuisine thanks to the works of Anthony Bourdain and books like Julie and Julia. I confess with shame that I have owned Complete Techniques for more than five years but haven’t bothered to look at it until recently; my cooking aspirations are exceeded only by my inertia when it comes to improving skills that I think I already possess in passable measure. But let me assure you: it is worth taking the time to look at Complete Techniques closely. Yes, it is informative and astoundingly well-illustrated with step-by-step black-and-white photographs, yes, the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and yes, you will learn many (309!) very valuable cooking techniques and basic recipes from a culinary authority. But the real pleasure in this book is its ability to take you away, like its contemporary Calgon, from the harried nature of the North American kitchen. Farewell meals made from three cans and a package of instant noodles whose only virtue resides dubiously in its ability to be ‘thrown together’ and eaten out of an old yogurt container over the sink! Retreat into the pages of Complete Techniques, a place where food is meant to be delicious and beautiful, cooking enjoyable and creative.

It is true that at first glance Complete Techniques does not strike as a book about creative cooking. It instead strikes as the instruction manual that it is. Take Technique One, for example, ‘Holding a Knife’. It turns out that, according to Jacques Pépin, I have been holding a knife incorrectly all of these years. Would Jacques Pépin praise me for my freestyle chopping? Unlikely. This is because Complete Techniques approaches food the way that great musicians approach music: in order to be creative, one must first understand – really know – the elemental components and the traditional arrangements; only then can one emulate, respond, and innovate. Complete Techniques is therefore devoted to inculcating the basic skills necessary to prepare ingredients well so that they may be arranged into pleasing constellations of flavour and texture.

The book is divided into seven chapters ‘The Basics’, ‘Shellfish and Fish’, ‘Vegetables’, ‘Poultry and Meat’, ‘Carving’, ‘Breads’, and ‘Pastry and Dessert’. Each section contains numerous instructions on preparation of ingredients – seeding a tomato, skinning and filleting fish, filling a pastry bag, that sort of thing – and a variety of foundational recipes ranging from timeless onion soup and chicken pie to the probably less timeless salmon molded in aspic. Yet what Jacques Pépin considers ‘basics’ are themselves telling of a more gracious cuisine than the food that slouches upon many a modern table. Some inclusions, say, Technique Thirty-Two, ‘Scrambled Eggs’, are expected and almost superfluous (until you read them: I have been scrambling eggs improperly too, it turns out), but others will chasten those of us who want to post to Facebook when we manage to pull off a garnish of minced chives. Take Technique Forty, ‘Mushroom Fish’, that is, mushrooms that are made to look like fish, or Technique Forty-Four, ‘Flower Vases with Squash’ which are exactly what you think they are. When was the last time I put flowers on the table, even in a vase that has not been hand-carved from a butternut? I can’t even think. Why have I not been making use of Technique Forty-Two, ‘Cucumber Turtles’? I realize that my cooking has been positively grumpy in its utilitarianism. Perhaps my picky-eater children would regard dinner less as a punitive event and more as a pleasure – and so would I – if I were to appeal to at least four of the five senses with food instead of doggedly pursuing just the one, flavour, whose presence yields too often to concern over fibre or fat anyway. But limited time demands no-nonsense austerity, my inertia counters. Where will the time to put together ‘Olive Rabbits’, Technique Forty-Five, come from? From practice, Jacques Pépin would respond. Instilling proficiency is one of the stated aims of Complete Techniques (pp. vii-viii): you learn and rehearse the techniques and they become second nature, quick. Culinary sophistication and visual appeal are not sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

It will perhaps be clear that reading through Complete Techniques can be a personal journey. This is in spite of the fact that the book is entirely about the food and not about the cook’s ego. Far be it from me to blame you for feeling proud of yourself if you manage to create sugar ‘Angel Hair’, Technique Two Hundred Forty-Eight, which involves waving hot sugar over a wooden spoon handle suspended over a newspaper-covered floor while standing on a stool for extra height. But Complete Techniques is not about fostering the cook’s self-esteem or smugness, it is about training a food lover to make food worth eating. Take chicken, for example. Jacques Pépin will not wheedle you into using a whole chicken instead of a package of boneless skinless breasts because recent studies demonstrate such-and-such health benefit of eating meat with bones. Instead, he provides directions on how prepare a whole chicken for different methods of cooking. The point is the chicken and how you are going to treat it, not the other way around.

Yet Jacques Pépin is careful to encourage his reader-student and is in fact endearingly supportive and understanding. He sympathizes with the difficulty of finding good cooking vessels that are both affordable and won’t discolour food (pp. 1-2). ‘Cooks often get confused when they hear names such as “brown sauce,” glace de viande (meat glaze)…jus, “broth,” “bouillon”, and so forth. In fact, it is confusing,’ he empathizes, and then launches into twenty pages of instruction on meat stocks to disentangle their mysteries. He worries about his readers damaging their skillet handles in the oven (p. 331: ‘be sure to cover it with several layers of aluminum foil,’) while making potatoes in the shapes of small soaps. He allows you a shortcut when things really might get frustrating or emotional, assuring the reader-student that ‘[t]hough we show you how to skin a rabbit, your butcher will do it for you if you prefer.’ And lest you feel like a failure if your first attempts at French bread are disappointing, he points out that ‘[v]ery simple recipes are often the most deceptive because they are the hardest to make well…Yet these ultra-simple recipes demand years of practice to achieve perfection.’ By the time you get to Technique Two Hundred Thirty-One, ‘Multilayered Mocha Cake’, and you read ‘[while h]olding the cake flat on one hand, ice all around. Turn the cake on your hand against the direction of the spatula,’ you know he will forgive you for the many cakes that will plummet to the floor as you work to conquer this technique. And if it is possible with patient practice to master icing a cake by using your own hand as a turntable, what recipe could ever again seem too demanding to try?

Most cookbooks expand your repertoire of individual recipes. Jacques Pépin will inspire you to be a better cook. Do yourself a favour and let him.

Pauline Ripat teaches Classics (when not practising cucumber turtles) in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Sell your books to Powell's

Shop Indie Bookstores

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Fridays, Food