What sort of a general cookbook do bakers come up with after writing a great baking cookbook? The two authors we consider in this post and the next post are Rose Levy Beranbaum and Joanne Chang. In leaving the baking world for the general cooking world, are these bakers floundering about, out of their element, or does their excellent food sense triumph?
After Rose Levy Beranbaum hit the big time in Cookbook World with her amazing Cake Bible, she wrote a very good cookie book, Rose’s Christmas Cookies, and and then followed with a translation and adaptation of a French chocolate book, A Passion for Chocolate. I imagine what happened next. Her fans wanted more, her publisher wanted more, and perhaps Rose herself wanted more, but Rose did not have that much fresh and new to say about baking and desserts: thus the foray into new territory. The two cookbooks we consider here are the results of that foray: Rose’s Celebrations and Rose’s Melting Pot, and the verdict is mixed. It is interesting to note that after these two cookbooks, Rose returned to the world where she is an undisputed master, coming up with The Pie and Pastry Bible, The Bread Bible, and, most recently, a long awaited sequel to The Cake Bible, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.
I bought Rose’s Celebrations twenty-one years ago because I wanted more of Rose’s cakes. I was disappointed then, and now, looking the book over again, I am still disappointed. There is just not that much I want to cook in this book. The book is arranged by season, with menus for selected holidays and random life cycle events within the season. I dislike the tyranny of seasonally arranged cookbooks and the tyranny of menu cookbooks, so before even looking at any recipes, that’s a double whammy. Most of the menus are very meat oriented: a meat main dish, some insignificant side vegetables, and a dessert. Again, not that useful for me. Many of the cakes are elegant display desserts, so no matter how good they taste, there will be a rather low taste to trouble ratio. My final complaint about this book is the finicky approach to ingredient lists. In The Cake Bible, it made sense to give very precise measurements, both volume and weight, in well organized charts. But Rose herself says, in the introduction to Rose’s Celebrations, “When you bake, you are, of necessity, a trusting slave to someone else’s recipe; when you cook, you are free to improvise and make the recipe your own.” Why, then, in the recipe for “Elliott’s Favorite Three Bean and Corn Salad”, call for 191 grams of chopped onion, or 9 grams of Dijon mustard? I am sure that Rose would say that her readers should merely take these amounts as rough guidelines, but it is all too easy to picture an OCD Rose fan deciding to replicate exactly the “Labor Day Barbecue”, and losing sanity while measuring .25 ounces of salt and .75 ounces of garlic for the barbecued chicken.
I realize that all of the complaints in the preceding paragraph are specific to me; anything I do not like may be exactly what someone else is looking for. (This is probably true of anything I like or don’t like about a book, but more so for the matters discussed above.) The real question is, as ever, how good are the recipes? Despite the carnivorous tilt, I did find four recipes to try.
I’m always willing to try a new cole slaw recipe, so “Mom’s Healthy but Delicious Coleslaw” (page 203) was on the menu. It’s just a standard cole slaw, a bit carrot heavy, with olive oil and lemon juice, and for sweetness, dried currants. No one at the table was particularly impressed, and if anyone thought, as I did, that the currants looked suspiciously like mouse evidence (as we say euphemistically in our house), they were too gracious to mention it.
“Elliott’s Favorite Three Bean and Corn Salad” (page 139) was, however, a hit. This recipe calls for black beans, chickpeas, and flageolets, which I could not find and so decided to use mung beans, which are also green. I was feeling rebellious and my dishwasher wasn’t working, so I just cooked all the beans together, despite knowing perfectly well that they all had different cooking times, and the black beans would turn the other beans a dirty purple. If I was trying to ruin the dish, this backfired. The mung beans did turn to mush, which added a nice element to the texture, and my guests admired the strangely colored chickpeas. There is also some pasta in the salad; I used whole wheat pasta. I think the sun-dried tomatoes were the real reason this salad was popular, as sun-dried tomatoes make almost anything good.
I wasn’t going to ignore the baking recipes, and so I made the “English Gingerbread” (page 183). I did not realize how much I like gingerbread until I made this recipe. Rose developed this recipe for the British edition of The Cake Bible. Instead of molasses, the recipe uses golden syrup, which Laurie Colwin recommends for use in gingerbread in More Home Cooking. Dark (black) treacle is the more usual ingredient in English gingerbread, but golden syrup, which is just light treacle, works very well, thank you. As one can see in the picture, this is a cakey type of gingerbread; the cake is shiny because of the sticky lemon glaze. I followed the recipe fairly closely, but used white whole wheat flour instead of regular whole wheat flour, and more lemon juice in the lemon glaze. I also baked the cake in a larger pan.
“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,'” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well–“
“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
The last recipe I mention from this book is also a cake recipe, “Freckled Angel” (page 121). This is the recipe that I zeroed in on when I first got this book, and I have been making it ever since. It’s just an angel food cake with grated chocolate added to the batter. Rose uses unsweetened chocolate; I usually use dark chocolate, because that is what I have on hand most often. This cake is simple but delicious, and with Rose’s meticulous instructions, you cannot fail.
I like Rose’s Melting Pot a lot more than its predecessor. It is arranged in the way I like a cookbook to be arranged: chapter headings are “Soups and Appetizers”, “Bread”, etc. Although there may be more meat recipes in this book than in Rose’s Celebrations, and Rose goes to town with the trayf seafood (“Spicy Linguine with Clam Sauce”, “Shrimp, Squid and Chipotle Pasta”, “East Coast Soft Shell Crabs”, …), I still have the feeling that there are more recipes in this book that I might like to cook. There is one fancy display cake, “The Bar Mitzvah Cake”, but the other decorated cakes and desserts are simple yet beautiful, and there are plenty with no special embellishments. Although Rose presents recipes from various countries and traditions, the best recipes (at least in my opinion) are those from her own Jewish tradition.
All I had made from this cookbook until a few weeks ago were the mushrooms (dried shiitakes reconstituted with a bit of soy sauce and sugar) from the recipe for “Japanese Chirashi Sushi” (page 101), that is, “scattered sushi”. The recipe consists of sushi rice topped with various sushi fillings; in Rose’s recipe, the aforementioned mushrooms, omelet strips, edamame beans, as well as shrimp and eel. This time I tried the entire recipe (without, of course, the shrimp and eel), and it was quite satisfying. Even Henry, our resident picky eater, liked it (after picking out the edamame beans).
I am inclined to agree that “The Very Best Luchshon Kugel” (page 184) is indeed the very best. For those not familiar with this dish, it is a pudding with egg noodles, eggs, and cottage cheese type cheeses. Rose’s kugel has just the right amount of sweetness and a delicious topping with almonds and apricot preserves. I halved the recipe, used dried cherries instead of raisins, and omitted the cream cheese (since I had forgotten to get any), increasing the other cheeses to compensate. I also used a homemade ricotta, following the suggestion of Jennifer Perillo to use buttermilk instead of vinegar or lemon juice as the curdling agent. It was quite delicious, and the leftovers disappeared at a very satisfactory rate.
Years ago I made the sticky buns from The Cake Bible. These were so good, and yet so obviously fattening, that I only made them once. They were made with a brioche dough, a dough which reappears in the recipe for “Dairy Dinner Crown Challah” (page 63). Despite Rose’s apparent assimilationist tendencies, I must give her credit for pointing out that challah must be made without dairy products if it is to be served with a meat meal, and so this “challah” (very very dairy) should be served only with dairy dinners, at least for those who follow Jewish law. My own opinion is that “dairy challah” is an oxymoron; if your bread is dairy, it is bread but not challah. Nevertheless, this recipe turned out some very beautiful braided loaves. Rose’s instructions are easy to follow, and with her method it is a pleasure to make this usually difficult dough. I ended up using slightly more flour than in the recipe, and should have used more salt. Also, if I make this again, I will use a different cooking method, as I like a thinner crust. I use a six strand braid for my loaves; here are some diagrams for bread braiding.
The first flan I ever had was made by Fidelia F.; smooth and sweet, with the caramel taste that I love. I was too intimidated to try making it myself; I just didn’t understand how the caramel sauce was liquid and not hard and sticky. Recently when Alan was home from school, he and a friend cooked dinner for us. For dessert was flan! It was still smooth and sweet, and his caramel sauce was just perfect. Thus, reasoning that if Alan could do it, so could I (true perhaps in the realm of cooking; very not true in many other realms), I decided to cook Rose’s “Spanish Creamy Caramel Flan” (page 279). The results were ultimately quite satisfying, but I have several complaints about the recipe in this book. My first attempt at making the caramel I had to discard because I ended up with evil sugar crystals, which could ruin everything, on the side of the pan. For the second, successful, attempt, I buttered the sides of the pan in which I was making the caramel. Rose merely points out in a note at the end of the recipe not to get sugar crystals on the sides of the pan, without telling us how to achieve that. In her recipe, Rose uses ten egg yolks, telling us that yolks make a smoother custard than whole eggs. Maybe, but whole eggs make a very nice custard also, and do not leave one with the problem of what to do with ten egg whites. Finally, the seeds from the vanilla bean are too distracting. I think only vanilla extract is a better choice.
Despite some good recipes in these two cookbooks, I think that it was a wise decision for Rose to return to the world of baking. If she ventures out again from this familiar territory, I suggest that she might want to explore Jewish cooking more thoroughly.
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum, Rose’s Celebrations
1⁄2 cup butter
11⁄4 cups golden syrup
1⁄4 cup dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons orange marmalade
2⁄3 cup milk
1 cup cake flour
1 cup less 1 tablespoon white whole wheat flour
11⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ginger (dry powdered)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons butter
Juice from 1 lemon
3 tablespoons sugar
Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 9-inch square pan, line with parchment paper, and butter the paper.
Melt the butter with the golden syrup, dark brown sugar, and orange marmalade. When the butter has melted, remove from the heat and stir in the milk, then whisk in the eggs. Mix all the dry ingredients together, then add the wet ingredients (that is, the egg and butter mixture), stirring together just until uniformly combined. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes.
Shortly before the cake is to come out of the oven, melt the butter with the lemon juice and sugar. When the cake is done (it should be firm but bouncy in the center), remove from the oven, and while the cake is still in the pan brush with half the syrup. After 10 minutes, invert the cake out of the pan onto a rack and brush with the remaining syrup. If you like your cakes right side up, reinvert onto a serving plate; this you can do while the cake is still warm. Yum!
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum, Rose’s Melting Pot
3 tablespoons butter, melted
8 ounces egg noodles
2 tablespoons sugar
1⁄2 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1⁄2 cup ricotta
1 cup milk
1⁄2 cup dried cherries
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄3 cup almonds, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1⁄2 apricot preserves
Preheat the oven to 350°. Use a little of the melted butter to butter an 9 inch square pan (or any pan of comparable size; I used a deep 8 inch square pan).
Cook the noodles in boiling water until barely done; drain. Beat together the eggs, sugar, sour cream, cheeses, milk, and the rest of the butter. I like this to be really smooth, with no obvious curds. Stir in the cherries and salt, then mix with the cooked noodles. Scrape this mixture into the prepared pan, and put in the oven for 30 minutes.
About 5 minutes before this 30 minutes is up, mix the topping ingredients together in a small pan, and heat on top of the stove. Take the kugel out of the oven (after the 30 minutes), and spread the topping on top; this is best done by dropping down gobs of topping, then gently spreading all over the top. Put the kugel back in the oven for another 45 minutes.