Before our most recent warm spell, I got into baking frenzie. Not only did I accomplish the May Daring Baker's Challenge, but I decided to explore a new book called The Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Murphy.
I will confess that I was sent this book by Penguin Books for review. But those of you who are my regular readers know that getting something for free does not mean I will give it a favorable review. My last foray into book reviews was not a pleasant experience, so once bitten, twice shy I say.
One of the things that gave me hope for this book from the beginning was the picture on the front cover. I believe the recipe is of the Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake. It looks like something I could serve at home. It's not perfect looking - it's no Ace of Cakes creation but it looks like something you would make for a family gathering were all the old hen aunts would criticize the way the cake was all "cracked up" then cluck at you for the recipe once they had tasted it. Them's the kinda recipes I like.
And it's the kind of recipes that Melissa likes too. In her forward, Melissa stated she wanted to use her training to infuse home style baked goods with a French pastry flair - thereby "making every one's favorite desserts better than they've had them before". An admirable cause in the advancement of baking if you ask me. Nothing like burning down the house. And thankfully, she decided to spill the beans so that people like me - out in the heart of the Midwest - could learn make her recipes.
Just to give you a little bit of background, Melissa started her bakery Sweet Melissa Patisserie ten years ago. It was the culmination of her culinary training that started at her mother's knee. She received her formal training at the French Culinary Institute then went out into the big wide world and worked her way up to owning her own store. Personally I am a little jealous of those who live within driving distance of her locations Brooklyn.
Her bakeries are all full service offering everything from those highly decorated fondant covered creations that set the standard for special occasion cakes these days to the homey desserts featured in this book. Some of those recipes include Toasted Almond Lemon Bars, Double Dark Chocolate Cherry cookies, and Caramel Apple Turnovers.
So why should you buy this book? You already have a million cookbooks - and they have recipes for things like Toasted Almond Lemon Bars, Double Dark Chocolate Cherry cookies, and Caramel Apple Turnovers. Yeah me too. I can't help myself. I love buying cookbooks. However, I have set some pretty high standards because otherwise I would be pushed out of house and home by my book collection. So how do I judge whether a book will be added to my collection? I am glad you asked!
First - It is long on food porn and short on text? There are a lot of cookbooks that rely on how pretty their food looks to sell copies. You know the ones I am talking about - Big color picture on the left page, two paragraph recipe on the right. I am not saying that these books are bad, but I like detailed instructions with my recipes. As a baker I am a little above the "hold my hand through every step" level, but if it is something I never baked before I like to have visual and tactile cues included to help guide my judgment. Examples would be to bake cookies until they are "golden around the edges" or "stir constantly over medium heat until the mixture just begins to thicken".
Second - Ingredients. Am I going to have to take out a second mortgage to purchase the items to make the recipes out of this book? Yeah 25 year old Basalmic may be freaking fantastic over fresh ripe melon and prosciutto. It may be freaking organismic. But my checkbook will never get to find out, as I refuse to spend that much on one ingredient. So what it comes down to is - do I already have the ingredients? If not, are they readily available and easy on the pocketbook?
Third - Difficulty level. Even though I am a member of Daring Bakers, I will admit that I am not the world's most accomplished cook when it comes to certain things - I can't make a good meringue (much to my great shame). I would say I am a intermediate cook - maybe just about ready to go into advanced stuff if I had the time to focus. So when I pick up a book, I look for things that I can either a) whip up with out any problems or b) are just enough of a challenge to advance my culinary skills without overwhelming me.
Fourth -Recipes. Well that is the whole reason huh? I've picked up cookbooks and didn't see anything that got my juices going. Too exotic :"Nope - nope - just can't see myself making anchovy and lemon biscotti." or too overdone: "Do I really need another recipe for Fettucini Alfredo?" I kinda think of most cookbooks as being like a wedding: Something old, something new, something borrowed and something that will make the salivary glands moisten up. (Hey, blue food is scary!) Also, are the recipes well written. Can I read them over and get a pretty good idea of what the whole procedure is? Are the ingredients listed clearly? Are there instructions on how to store the finished product and do they tell me how long this thing is gonna last (if it makes it that far)? If it is a "healthy" book, does it give me a nutrition breakdown?
Lastly - who wrote the book? Yeah it can be important. I am not a fame snob - just because you are famous doesn't mean that you can write a cookbook or more likely have one written for you under your supervision (Like a certain celeb chef who initials are RR). So does this person have the chops to write a book? How many years experience does the person have in the kitchen? Did she have formal training? Is he an experienced writer and/or have good editors? (A good publishing house can go a long way to making what could have been a mediocre book into a good one - an experienced editor is worth their weight in dark chocolate.) One of my favorite cookie books is by Richard Sax. (Most folks aren't familiar with his work. Sadly, Richard passed away back in 1995.) It looks like a tiny little toss away paperback book. The cover is really kitzy, it has no pictures of the food but the moment I read the recipes, I knew this guy had chops. I still make recipes from that book twenty years after I first purchased it. Quality will show itself when you read enough crap.
So - enough of my soap box - on to the main event.
So how did The Sweet Melissa Baking Book measure up under my critical eye?
Pretty darned good actually. (Yeah I know you were all waiting for me to trash it - HA!)
Criteria number one: Food porn - There is some. Just a slim section of full color pages. I like it best when you have a centerfold. A little "cheesecake" goes a long way.
Criteria number two: Ingredients - Nothing here that is too exotic, nothing you would have to order from the Internet if you lived in the wilds of rural Ohio. True, there are some things you would have to lay out some $$$ for such good chocolate or fresh raspberries (unless you have a line on that kinda thing), but nothing that will make you take out a second mortgage on the house.
Criteria number three: Difficulty - This book would be accessible from an intermediate beginner on up. I say "intermediate beginner" (is that an oxymoron?) because if you don't know what creaming, sifting and folding is - you need a book with some training wheels on it before you get to this book. Would this book challenge an advanced cook or professional? Most likely not.
Criteria number four: Recipes - The mixture of recipes is good. It fulfills all the requirements for a good marriage - old (ginger snaps and butterscotch pudding), new (Bee Stings), borrowed (black bottom brownies) and mouthwatering (ummm - almost everything is the book made my mouth water...)
Criteria number five: Author - Until I got this book, I had never heard of The Sweet Melissa Patisserie. I had never heard of Melissa Murphy. While she has never published a book before, I do like the fact that she is a working pro and that the recipes are from her personal collection. It means the recipes were tested on real people before she published them; and that she has been in business ten years tells me she understand what people like. The way the book is written has a quiet confidence without tooting too much horn. The whole product is very welcoming and accessible.
Verdict: If you like to bake and need some solid recipes to add to your repertoire, then this is a book you need add to your collection. I know there are several other items that I want to make when autumn rolls around - and once the folks at work tasted my trial recipe, they wanted to borrow the book too. The Sweet Melissa Baking Book is definitely a keeper.
So all the being said: what the hell did I make out of the book you ask? (That was a long way to go for just a recipe and a crappy picture of some food wasn't it?)
Sweet Potato Bread with Cinnamon-Rum-Orange Glaze
I picked this recipe for several reasons:
- This recipe seemed to be tailor made for my pantry - except for the canned sweet potatoes. I like my sweet potatoes fresh and oven roasted. (And yes - I did have rum in my pantry. I always have rum in my pantry!)
- I have a real soft spot for home-style baked goods. This is one of those cakes that would show up at a ladies' bible study or something like that.
- If the author is to be believed, the fact this is a staff favorite was a good sign that it would be a winner.
- And last - it seemed really quick. I need quick at this point in my life. I don't have the time to make multiple layered pastries with homemade icings and glazes on a regular basis - and I am betting most people don't either. I figured that this recipe is one that would get used again and again. (I was right too - the hubby has been begging me to make it again.)
SWEET POTATO BREAD WITH CINNAMON-RUM-ORANGE GLAZE
Every Friday Jessie, one of my top bakers at Sweet Melissa’s, makes quick breads and loaf cakes for those customers getting ready to go out of town for the weekend. They stop in on their way out to the Hamptons on Long Island or the Jersey Shore and pick up a stash of Sweet Melissa's treats to nibble on. I love the thought of my cakes and cookies in their beautiful kitchens with ocean views.
This quick bread has "home sweet home" written all over it. One of the many things I like about this recipe, which is based on a recipe by my all-time favorite pastry chef, Andrea Lekberg, is that it is so inexpensive to make and is one of the best things you'll ever eat.
The staff at Sweet Melissa's goes crazy for sweet potato bread. We make an extra one just for slicing so we can all get our fill (which is very good for morale!).
Makes one Bundt pan
FOR THE BREAD
Two 15-ounce cans sweet potatoes, drained
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
FOR THE CINNAMON-RUM-ORANGE GLAZE
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup rum
1/2 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
BEFORE YOU START
Position a rack in the center of your oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 10-cup Bundt pan.
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on low speed, mash the sweet potatoes until smooth (this will make about 2 cups). Add the sugar and oil and mix to combine. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt. Add the flour mixture into the sweet potato mixture in three batches, mixing well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Do not over mix. Stir in the pecans.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan. Spin the pan to level the batter. Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes before inverting onto the rack for glazing.
4. For the glaze: Combine the orange juice, rum, sugar, and cinnamon sticks in a small nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat and reduce by half. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly before glazing.
5. Using a pastry brush, brush the glaze generously over the still-warm bread. Wait for 10 minutes and glaze again.
Serve at room temperature. Sweet potato bread keeps well wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 3 days. For longer storage, freeze wrapped in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil for up to 3 weeks. Defrost still wrapped at room temperature.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book by Melissa Murphy. All rights reserved. Copyright © Melissa Murphy, 2008.