Monday, January 24, 2011

Cookbook Review - Babycakes

BabyCakes: Vegan, (Mostly) Gluten-Free, and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York's Most Talked-About Bakery

You would think that after the holiday season--which included baking 50 snowman-shaped sugar cookies for the second grade classes at my son's school (that's 3 batches) and a batch for my own family--I would be all baked out. I admit, it did take me a little while to recover from my Christmas bakeapalooza and now we've got Valentine's Day class parties on the horizon. This past weekend, though, I felt like making bread. Not the sandwich bread I make every week in my bread maker but a nice, sweet quick bread. I pulled out a Christmas gift, Erin McKenna's Babycakesto look for inspiration.

Here's the thing about Babycakes, which features recipes used in McKenna's hugely popular New York City bakery: all of the recipes are vegan and mostly gluten- and (refined) sugar-free. I say 'mostly' because that's what the book's subtitle says. But really, if you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy you will want to read the recipes carefully because some of them do call for spelt flour. Anyway, because the recipes are vegan/gluten-free/sugar-free (and kosher) they call for ingredients like Bob's Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose baking flour, coconut oil, dairy-free milks and agave nectar. Most people don't happen to have these sitting around in their kitchens and they can be hard to come by (though they are becoming more mainstream--I've seen them at Target!). However, once you have McKenna's favored ingredients on hand you can use them for almost any recipe in the book.

Back in October, when I had this book from the library, McKenna's pumpkin spice muffins were my first attempt at baking the Babycakes way and I can't say it was my most successful baking attempt. It had nothing to do with the recipe itself and everything to do with the user: I had gotten it into my head that I wanted pumpkin bread, and nothing else would do. The thing never cooked through, even after leaving it in the oven well over the cook time. This time I knew better and the only modification I made to the recipe for banana chocolate chip bread was to use non-fat cow's milk in place of rice milk. All told, I could have baked it a little longer because the very middle was a little undercooked but the top was nicely browned and the toothpick I inserted came out clean. Maybe I have been eating gluten-free for too long, but I wouldn't have known the bread doesn't contain gluten. My kids ate it up and asked me to put slices in their lunch boxes for their snack today.

My five year old, mashing the bananas.

Banana chocolate chip bread, fresh from the oven.

While not specifically a kid cookbook, the recipes in Babycakes appeal to the whole family and offer peace of mind to families who are concerned about food intolerances and/or healthy ingredients. In the section on tools and ingredients McKenna explains why she uses things like evaporated cane juice, agave nectar and coconut oil in place of more common ingredients. My five year old helped me make the banana bread and was most enthusiastic about mashing the bananas.

My family's main concern is gluten-free recipes but I appreciate this book's focus on vegan and sugar-free ingredients as well. I have been known to bake for my sons' class parties and there are other kids who have dairy and/or sugar intolerances. I like that, in many cases, one recipe can meet all three dietary needs. My only criticism of the book is that there is no way to tell, without reading the entire ingredient list, which needs each recipe targets. A simple key at the top of each indicating whether it meets vegan, gluten-free and/or sugar free standards would be helpful for at-a-glance browsing.

Babycakes is published by Clarkson Potter, the same group that publishes Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, and like Garten's books it is printed on thick, glossy paper and features stunning full color photography. These are among my favorite cookbooks in my collection because they are well-designed and fun to look at (and they look good on my bookshelf). Good cookbook design makes the recipes look all the more appetizing. In an age where home cooks are turning to the Internet for recipes (I'll admit, I've got the Epicurious app on my iPad and I use it all the time) it's nice that publishers are still producing gorgeous cookbooks that appeal to all the senses.

Get this book: if you are gluten- or dairy-intolerant, vegan, or want to cut back on refined sugar but still enjoy baked goods from time to time.

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cookbook Review- Tiana's Cookbook

The Princess and the Frog: Tiana's Cookbook: Recipes for Kids (Disney Princess: the Princess and the Frog)

Sometimes I am left scratching my head at movie tie-in books. Sometimes publishers get it right. I love the way Disney/Pixar and Little Golden Books have collaborated to produce faithful and cooly illustrated adaptations of popular Disney/Pixar films. Other times I just wonder, what was the point? I've seen a few cookbooks based on random licensed properties but the recent ones based on Disney and Disney/Pixar films The Princess and the Frog (Tiana's Cookbook: Recipes for Kidsand Ratatouille (What's Cooking?: A Cookbook for Kids--which appears to be out of print but was available at my local library) get it right. Primarily because the central characters in these films have culinary aspirations. What better way to get kids involved in the kitchen than with a cookbook that features favorite characters and meals they might eat? Even better is when the recipes are for things you'd actually want to eat.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the Ratatouille cookbook. The recipes looked good and I think my older son would have enjoyed preparing some of them. However, most of the recipes relied on gluten-containing ingredients and just were not practical for the unique dietary needs of two of the four members of our household. It's not much of a kid-friendly cookbook if I have to take the additional step of adapting the recipes. However, the New Orleans-inspired recipes in Tiana's Cookbook were more celiac-friendly so it gets my wholehearted approval.

Full of New Orleans-inspired fare, Tiana's Cookbook is divided into sections for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, breads/sides/drinks and--most kids' favorite--desserts. I love that the New Orleans/cajun theme is carried throughout. How many kids' cookbooks have recipes for beignets or po' boy sandwiches? Obviously, the beignets don't work for us (without significant tweaking) but the sandwiches are doable if we use our gluten-free bread. The most useful section is the dinner section. Recipes for jambalaya and red beans and rice are easy for my seven year old to follow. Some steps (sauteing veggies in oil, chopping veggies) require my supervision but it's a step beyond assembling sandwiches. Each recipe includes a brief description (in the form of a "note" from Tiana) and photo. Illustrations of characters from the movie appear every few pages. I particularly like that there is a lot of healthier fare here: fruit salad, oven-baked fish, green beans, smoothies, oven-baled potato wedges . . . the healthier recipes provide a nice counter balance for things like mud pie and macaroni and cheese.

As far as the princess theme of the book goes . . . well, I have two boys. They will only grudgingly watch Disney princess movies with me (I am still waiting for them to acknowledge the artistic genius of Sleeping Beauty, my favorite animated Disney movie. I don't see it happening.) They saw The Princess and the Frog when it was in the theater and they enjoyed it but not enough to see it again. That's okay; my seven year old is still enthusiastic about taking responsibility for making some of our meals and to him, a recipe is a recipe, even if it's illustrated with flowers and princesses. Though I'm sure my boys would prefer a Batman cookbook.

Get this book: if you want a childrens' cookbook that offers something more than typical "kid" food or you have a princess-obsessed child. How fun would it be to create a Princess and the Frog themed dinner to be followed by a viewing of the movie?