First off, let me begin by saying a couple of Things.
Thing One: I was asked to review this book and was sent an e-copy by the delightful Anna Balasi, Online Marketing Associate with Little, Brown and Co. She has graciously agreed to send a Lucky Reader a Real Live Copy of the book, so check out How to Enter to Win at the end of this post.
Thing Two: I am a Fan of Emily Luchetti. I even own her wonderful Four-Star Desserts book in which she states that she bakes desserts because it makes people happy to eat them. Best reason to bake, hands down.
Okay, let's get on with it, shall we?
First, the basics. The premise of this book is that many people who love to cook are terrified of baking. Luchetti bakes alongside friends and family memberswho are less-than-confidant when it comes to baking, hoping to turn terrified bakers into fearless bakers. It is supposed to be a beginners' guide to baking. Luchetti asserts that it just takes patience and concentration to be able to bake.
I really love the idea behind this book. Luchetti goes to a "Fearful Baker's" home and stands alongside them, answering their questions and giving instruction when necessary. Weiss actually took notes and recorded the baking sessions, and many of the recipes are accompanied by segments of transcribed instruction. They then sat down and made sure that the recipes had enough information so the baker wouldn't be confused but not so much that they would be overwhelmed. Luchetti says that after reading all the dialogs that we will have had our own comprehensive baking lesson.
Those of you who have stuck with me for awhile surely know that taking the fear out of baking is one of my goals, so I was Rather thrilled to be able to dive into this book to see if Luchetti and Weiss really delivered on their promise.
And the answer? Well, yes and no. On the Hooray side, she has provided a Very Ton of what appear to be excellent recipes. Chapters include Cookies, Bars, and Bites; Cakes; Pies and Tarts; Fruit; No Oven Required (candies, puddings, mousse, ice cream creations, etc); Best Dessert Sauces; and Breakfast. Breakfast?! You heard me right. A lot of these recipes could be served for breakfast or dessert. Or for Dessert-for-Breakfast: turnovers, coffee cakes, scones, and muffins abound, not to mention the Attractive and Alliterative Pain Perdu with Plums.
Another thing that I like about this book is that Luchetti offers a wide array of tasty recipes and ideas that don't require an oven. Some people who have a serious fear of baking need to kind of sneak up on the oven through the back door. But who wouldn't give Bittersweet Chocolate Nut Clusters or Brownie-Brown Sugar Parfaits at least a chance, knowing that they don't need to turn on their oven? I think of it as a bridge chapter to get people into the kitchen and closer to their ovens before they actually Buck Up and turn the thing on!
On the Oy side, I personally didn't find the transcripts of the baking sessions to be very illuminating. Most of the exchanges were instructions in conversation form. Instructions that could have been written into the recipe itself. But, I concede that some bakers might find it more instructive to read these conversations.
I also had an issue regarding her initial premise: that patience and concentration are what you need to be able to bake and that the instructions were fine-tuned to be useful without being overwhelming. I assert that the backbone of baking is learning how ingredients work and how to mix ingredients together to achieve desired results. For me, this would require some solid chapters about ingredient function and on mixing methods and techniques. When learning techniques, as far as I'm concerned you can't have too much information, and even if I concentrate so hard that I began to sweat, if I don't know what "softened butter" should look like, there's a good chance I might screw something up. (She does describe what softened butter should look like on p.427 in one of the conversations--easily missed, however. I believe that a vital description like this should have appeared in one of the chapter introductions).
If I were a beginning baker (and even now that I'm not) I would ask why? a Very Lot. Why does this work? Why do I have to keep the water cold? Why shouldn't I overwork my dough? As much as possible, I tried to read this book as if I were a beginner, and many of my questions remained unanswered. Granted, I am a Food Science Junkie, and as such, I might not be representative of the book's intended audience.
One instruction that I take serious issue with is that not all ingredients for baking a cake need to be at room-ish temperature. In the introduction to the Cakes chapter, Luchetti says that having room-temperature eggs will produce a better cake (but doesn't say why, although I'm sure she knows) but wants us to bake anyway, using eggs straight from the fridge or after sitting in hot water for a few minutes. I agree with the hot water instruction, but friends, please don't ever use straight-from-the-fridge eggs to make your cake. And she doesn't even mention the milk/buttermilk/sour cream, etc. at all, leading a beginner to believe that it would make no difference to the outcome of the recipe if 8 ounces of 40F dairy along with 4 or so ounces of 40F egg gets dumped into 16 ounces of beautifully creamed 68F butter and sugar.
One last Oy-Making thing: There are at least three times in the book where ganache shows up--once as a frosting, once as a dessert sauce, and once as a glaze. Never once does she call it ganache. Seems to me that that would be a good Thing To Know.
I do not mean to sound like I am slamming this book. Far from it. Emily Luchetti is a joyful baker with a ton of knowledge and expertise who wants to share her joy with as many others as she can. But while her initially Fearful Bakers said they turned into Fearless Bakers, I doubt that many of them could name the steps in the creaming method--not one mention of The Creaming Method in the whole book. Believe me, I checked.
I would heartily recommend this book to intermediate and advanced bakers who already understand how ingredients work (there is no chapter on ingredient function), the importance of salt (not every recipe that needs it calls for it), baking terminology (there is no glossary of terms) and how to perform mixing methods, but for its intended audience of beginners, it falls a bit short in terms of instruction.
And now, a preview of some of the Very Promising Recipes you will find in The Fearless Baker:
- Apple Crisp Bars
- Cardamom Shortbread
- Truffle Brownies
- Chocolate Cake with Peanut Butter Frosting
- Coffee-Orange Angel Food Cake
- Olive Oil-Pecan Bundt Cake
- Lemon Meringue Pie
- Double Strawberry Cream Tart
- Peach Custard Tart
- Brown Butter Crepes
- Key Lime Pudding Cakes
- Red Berry Pavolova
- Almond Sundaes with Espresso-White Chocolate Sauce
- Frozen Chocolate Mousse Cake with Chocolate-Covered Pretzels
- Mango-Raspberry Yogurt Terrine
- Milk Chocolate Affogato
- Peach-Blueberry Breakfast Upside Down Cakes
- Pain au Chocolat Sticky Buns
I know, right?! You want to try them all. And trust me; there are a Ton of recipes in this book--probably close to 200, although I didn't count. I have the e-copy of The Fearless Baker, but if you'd like to win a hot-off-the-presses Real Live Version (with covers and Everything), please leave a comment. I'll randomly choose a winner on Monday, May, 9! If you would like two chances to win, please tweet about the giveaway with a link back to this post and a reference to @onlinepastrychf.
Update: This giveaway is now over. Thanks for all the wonderful comments, and congratulations to Marieke! Please send me your email address (it is mysteriously absent from my inbox) so Anna can send you your very own copy of The Fearless Baker!