There’s no rhyme or reason why I selected this book first to review as I certainly have significantly older books, those with worn pages, splatter marks and so forth. I just grabbed it. I will say this that while this book is fairly new to my library, it has quickly become one of my favorites. So perhaps that’s why I grabbed it first. I’m just drawn to it.
The book is big; over 300 pages and full of dare I say… “love”. This book is so unbelievably well written that it’s as if you can feel Ms. Levine’s passion come through the pages. This was one of the few cookbooks that I literally sat down and read cover to cover, including the forward and introduction. It’s as if you take a journey with her from her days of making apricot orange marmalade (*side note.. this is AMAZINGLY good marmalade!) in a small New York apartment to how she turned a small storefront into a bakery and cafe that eventually lead to multiple locations.
Ms. Levine does something refreshing in this book is she teaches and explains the hows-and-whys of ingredients. She discusses the differences between flours, leavenings, to that all-too-confusing conundrum of ‘do I use cake yeast or instant yeast and what’s the difference???’ For me, being an engineer I’m a highly analytical thinker. I need to know how and why something works. So when I cook and bake I break recipes down and analyze the composition of it. How will this react with this and what will the end result be? Ultimately we want something great tasting but you have to keep in mind, we also eat visually. Food has to appear appetizing first before we trigger that ‘oh I need to taste that’ sense. Even beyond the ingredients she teaches you about the various pans, equipment, tools and over all methodologies about baking.
Now for those of you that could care less about practicality and methodology, don’t fret as there are TONS of pictures and step-by-step photos of how to perform the more difficult tasks.
The first section is for Morning Pastries. This book NEEDS to be scratch ‘n sniff! The photos for some of these recipes are blissful! Her first recipe in the book is for Puff Pastry and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recipe more clearly documented on how to turn, shape, fold and incorporate ingredients. Puff Pastry isn’t terribly difficult but it can be a challenge for the novice baker. However the way this recipe is written with the accompanying photos instills a sense of confidence in the baker to give it a shot. What most impressed me most about this section is the versatility of it. What I’m referring to is each recipe starts with a general base dough – croissant, danish dough, puff pastry dough, etc… Ms. Levine gives you the base and then shows you how to expand off of those – Fruit Danish, Pains au Chocolat and so forth.
The second chapter titled Muffins and More and boy does she give you just that! However before she jumps right in to giving you recipes, she gives you a brief lessons on muffins, pans and liners. I’ve made her Blueberry Crumb Muffins and her recipe is flawless! They were so moist and with the addition of orange to it, it took this muffin to a completely new level.
Chapter three is title Beautiful Breads. I think this is what made this fall in love with this book. I love bread and find it thoroughly relaxing to make something so amazing out of but a few sparse ingredients. Like the other chapters she starts off with a bread baking lesson which for me was more like a reaffirmation of what I already knew. I stress to anyone that isn’t a bread baker but wants to learn, don’t just jump into the recipes. Read the lesson on this first. It’ll make sense and will help you produce exquisite bread! While going through this chapter I wasn’t sure what to try first – her Challah, Rosemary Focaccia or her House Bread. I ended up making her Rosemary Focaccia but since I’m not a real big fan of Rosemary I cut the rosemary amount in half and added roasted garlic. This was insanely good! I mean INSANELY good! Keep in mind, when a recipe calls for a high-quality fruity extra virgin olive oil, definitely splurge on a GOOD ONE! It makes all the difference!
Chapter four is all about Everyday Cakes. What I love the most about this chapter is that it ‘classy-ups’ just basic cakes. How? Honestly as simple as altering the pan you use can make the presentation that much more gorgeous. And no, not every cake needs slathered with mounds of icing. A simple dusting of confectioner’s sugar, cocoa or even a glaze can make it so much more elegant. I HIGHLY recommend the Chocolate Souffle Cake recipe! It’s not the prettiest of cakes as the top is all crackly but that’s how it’s supposed to be. The addition of the chocolate whipped cream makes it over the top. I would say add a few chocolate curls to it as well.
Chapter five gets all fancy schmancy on us with Party Cakes and Company. Now anytime any of us entertain we again, want the food to taste great but also look great. I mean when people rave over something we make we beam with pride. It’s simple human nature. If you want to truly wow someone I would make the Chocolate Truffle Cake. It’s not really that difficult but will require some planning as you need to make this the day before to allow it to set up and become firm. Now I did change this recipe as it calls for the cake base to be Chocolate Orange. I’m not a big fan of this flavor combination so I ended up using a raspberry coulis in the batter to give it that fruity undertone. In addition I made a raspberry syrup instead of the orange syrup. If you wanted, you could easily make this with mocha, mint or chocolate – layer the flavors of chocolate. For me this section needed more photos and maybe a few step-by-step for the novice baker. She did a great job on the Lemon-Raspberry cake with the photos however readers would have benefited greatly on photos for the Mille-Feuille with Summer Berries.
Chapter six is all about Pies and Tarts. It’s funny how so many people are intimidated by making pie crust from scratch. There really isn’t any magical secret to making it. It’s common sense really – ice cold ingredients, not handling it very long and chilling it. Now people need to keep in mind is that not all pie crusts are the same – you have your sweeter flakier crusts for pies and tarts, you have more dense crusts for savory pies, crusts can be nut based, made for tender pies or for sturdier crostattas.
Plain and Fancy Cookies make up chapter seven. I love how this book, this chapter specifically, talks about tools and methods on cookie baking. I get asked all the time “how do you get them so round and evenly shaped?” or “how come mine flatten and yours are so thick and chewy?” Ms. Levine talks about this to some detail. If you want perfectly shaped balls of dough, use a stainless steel scoop. I’m a huge believer in chilling or even freezing certain cookie dough. You want the butter to almost ‘re-form’ and not be all soft when you bake a cookie. You want the butter to melt as it bakes, not already be melted. I shudder every time I see someone leave butter sit out over night or better yet, microwave their butter to soften in. Want a trick for this??? Grate your butter! From this chapter you must, must, MUST make the Chocolate Chubbies. Now for me I omitted the walnuts as I personally don’t like walnuts in anything. Instead I used all pecans. This is majorly chocolate cookie.
Spoon Desserts take us into Chapter eight. I feel that every home cook should know how to make Creme Brulee. It’s elegant and classy plus any dessert that gives you a reason to have a blow torch in your kitchen rocks in my world! For me, this was probably the least favorite chapter. It was a tad lack-lusterish for me. It just felt like it was missing “something”.
Now with summer approaching Chapter nine titled Frozen Desserts is a welcome addition. It seems nowadays everyone has an ice cream maker. I’m on the fence with these things. Yes I have one but I think I’ve used it only a handful of times in my life. I have issues with having to keep the containers in my freezer at all times if I ever get the whim to whip up a batch. For me it takes up precious space and doesn’t allow for spur of the moment sweet attacks to be satiated by home-made ice cream. I do love however Ms. Levine’s recipe on making your own sugar cone. People think that you HAVE to shape them as cones. You don’t, really. Keep them flat and add a fried ice cream ball on top for added crunch. Let them dry flat and then break them up into pieces. When they come out, brush them with melted butter, sugar and cinnamon and enjoy a great crunchy treat!
Finally we hit Chapter ten, Spreadable Fruits. I turned the pages of this chapter ever so slowly, hoping.. praying for Ms. Levine to share her orange apricot marmalade recipe. *sigh* No such luck I’m afraid. I mean I don’t blame her really. That is her cash cow and one of her signature items. Kind of like me and our Signature items.
Last but not least we hit Chapter 11 – Frostings, Fillings and Sweet Sauces. I was THRILLED to see how she makes her Buttercream. I abhor the ‘Americanized’ way of whipping butter/crisco and confectioners sugar and calling that true buttercream. THANK YOU Ms. Levine! Seriously.. the picture of this buttercream on the beater… I so wanted to just dip a finger in that bowl and grab a big ol’ scoop of it! Most of these recipes require only a few ingredients but the end result packs such incredible flavor. A great recipe doesn’t need 90,000 things in it to be good. Her Raspberry Sauce uses 3 ingredients and it’s outstanding. And OMG… you have GOT to read her recipe and instructions on Plumped Vanilla Beans.
Now not every recipe has a photo but if you are okay with leafing through the book it does reference other photos that utilize the same technique. For some this may be an annoyance but for others it seems rather practical and smart. Why repeat steps if you’ve documented it elsewhere, right?! For me this book was refreshing, educational, inspiring and honestly exciting.
A great chef is not just someone who can cook and bake exceptionally well; a great chef is one that can cook and bake exceptionally well AND teach at the same time. Ms. Levine does just that in this book!