I admit to a certain weakness for cute cookbooks, but there is an all too easily crossed line between cute and too cute; the two books of this post gaily skip over this line and leave it far behind. I blame the saccharine nature of these cookbooks on the publisher; the author, Sylvia Thompson, my opinion being based her other cookbooks, appears to be a delightful woman with good taste. Somehow, though, she got roped into a cookbook project with very bad yet colorful illustrations (courtesy of Brooke Scudder), and lots of cutesy contents (a page devoted to “Symbolism of Birthday Gems and Flowers? Please…). Once the recipes are extracted from all the surrounding dreck, they are of very mixed quality, running the gamut from bad through mediocre and pretty good, up to absolutely amazing.
Just to be positive, The Birthday Cake Book has a very nice size, six by eight inches, and a satisfying heft. Unfortunately, there are only twenty cake recipes in that heft. A recipe, however, might be spread over three to four pages, and there is unnecessary filler material: adorable quotes and poems, a list (see above), ugly illustrations, reports of supposed customs regarding birthdays, and a short section at the end on “European Water Ices” (with recipes) . The recipes are often unduly complicated, with fussy decorating instructions. When all the extraneous material is cleared away, one is left with a pamphlet of cake recipes, one of which might even be exactly the type of cake recipe for which one is searching.
I regarded Sylvia’s gingerbread (page 107) as a failure, although Danny liked it. I was attracted to the recipe because it calls for a lot of real ginger. My favorite gingerbread recipe (from Alice Medrich) also has lots of real ginger, as well as chocolate chips; I serve it warm with whipped cream and caramel sauce: yum! This gingerbread does not have chocolate chips, but instead has “Creamy Glossy Chocolate Frosting”. The gingerbread itself was too dry, and the frosting way too thick, one of those frostings that sit on top of the cake and can be peeled off. I didn’t even want to waste the caramel sauce and whipped cream on this one.
In contrast, “Tipsy Kentucky Bourbon Pecan Cake with Peach Sauce” (page 72) was great. The worst thing about this cake was having to read the subtitle on the recipe: “Fine pound cake studded with pecans, drenched in Good Company, and sauced with peaches.” Cringe. The cake was indeed a simple pound cake, fine enough, I suppose. I did not “stud” my cake with pecans as I could not find my bag of pecans, but used walnuts instead. I made the peach sauce, using frozen peaches and peach preserves, which I dutifully served with the cake (oops, I “sauced” the cake). There’s lots of bourbon, both baked into the cake, and then brushed on after the cake is out of the oven. Sylvia specifies “sipping-quality bourbon”, but what other kind is there? Oh yes, the kind that my father used to mix with sugar-free lime Kool-Aid and drink from Ulrich Wilamowitz-Moellendorf‘s silver cup throughout the day. The peach sauce was a distraction, but I couldn’t stop eating slices of the cake. [Go to the recipe.]
I am very happy with my regular carrot cake recipe, adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook (the main adaptation being a drastic reduction in sugar), but I was having a problem finding cakes in The Birthday Cake Book that we would enjoy eating, that were not too involved, and that would freeze well. Carrot cake, or rather “Old World Carrot Cake with Sour Cream Cheese Frosting” (page 59) met these requirements. This is a one layer carrot cake with raisins and pineapple; the recipe calls for walnuts, but the nuts are just sprinkled on top, not incorporated into the batter. I do not usually like raisins in my carrot cake, but used them anyway just in case; I still do not like raisins in my carrot cake. Although only one layer, the amount of frosting is quite enough for two layers; it was also a very soft frosting, which at first I did not like, but came to see its advantages. This ended up being a fairly good cake, but would have been better without the raisins. I left out the four yards of carrot-colored ribbon listed in the ingredients; the soft frosting would have destroyed the ribbon decorations (but I would not have used the ribbon even with a firmer frosting).
Following on the heels of the cake book, we have Festive Tarts, with all the flaws of its predecessor. For this book, though, I have more substantial complaints, other than picking on the production style (which some people might even like). The recipes in this book are divided into three sections: pastry, savory tarts, and sweet tarts. The first substantial complaint regards the pastry section: the directions for each crust are not in one place! Almost all refer to some number of steps on page 17; some also send you elsewhere for baking instructions: “bake according to the recipe.” I am not alone in wanting my recipe instructions all in one place. The second substantial complaint concerns the savory tarts: the fillings are not tart fillings! Tart fillings need to hold together; too many of Sylvia’s fillings are just thick stews that she puts in a crust in a tart pan. I made a couple of the fillings without any crust; the fillings would just have turned any crust soggy. As for the sweet tarts, not too many appealed to me, but the one that did appeal was so good.
“Tart of Black Beans, Corn, and Three Colors of Sweet Peppers in a Blue Cornmeal Crust” (page 45) was one of those tarts that did not need a crust, even if the crust was a cornmeal crust. I made the filling and spooned it over ready-made polenta. The filling was, however, not all that tasty: just black beans, corn, and sweet peppers. There wasn’t much else for added taste: some jalapeños and cilantro; no tomatoes, no cheese, no complex spices. I could not resist topping with cheese, but that wasn’t enough.
One of the few savory tarts with a proper tart filling was the “Bouquet of Vegetables Tart” (page 40). Sylvia has us arranging ham (which I obviously omitted), tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, and leeks in separate concentric circles in the tart shell, then pouring a custardy binder (eggs and milk) over the vegetables and baking. The whole preparation bit was way too involved; I tried for the concentric circles but ended up just dumping my vegetables in the crust. Although the cooked filling was sufficiently solid to qualify as a tart filling, it was, like the bean filling, quite tasteless.
The filling for “Niçoise Zucchini and Eggplant Tart” (page 43) had no place in a tart. It did, however, find a very good place in our stomachs. The filling is a ratatouille type stew; all the taste that was missing in the two previous recipes shows up here, in trumps. There are the requisite eggplant, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash, and also olives, anchovies, thyme, Parmesan, and a full head of garlic. This was great food, but the idea of letting it sog up a crust is idiotic. [Go to the recipe.]
Dessert tarts don’t get much better than “Bourbon’d Bittersweet Chocolate Walnut Tart” (page 112); I’ll even forgive Sylvia and her publisher for the word “Bourbon’d”. I have never tried any recipe for chocolate pecan pie, because I have a flawless pecan pie recipe (courtesy of John Thorne, in Outlaw Cook). But Sylvia does not use pecans in this recipe, but walnuts. She also adds almost half a cup of bourbon. The rest of the recipe is very pecan pie-like, with eggs, butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup. I decided that the end result would be different enough from pecan pie that I would not resent the chocolate, which was indeed the case. This was a very powerful tart, especially when served with the Humphry Slocombe vanilla ice cream.
Whiskey Nut Pound Cake
Adapted from Sylvia Thompson, The Birthday Cake Book
2¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 ounces butter
1½ cups sugar
6 tablespoons bourbon
2 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped
½ cup sugar
1 cup bourbon
Preheat the oven to 350º. Generously butter a smallish bundt pan.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg. Add the flour in three parts, alternately with the bourbon, beginning and ending with the flour, mixing gently until each addition in incorporated. Stir in the walnuts. Pour the batter into the bundt pan and bake until done, approximately one hour. Remove to a rack, leaving the cake in the pan at first.
Make the syrup by heating the bourbon and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Poke holes in the top of the cake (still in the pan) with a fork, knife, or tool dedicated to this purpose. Brush on half the syrup, allowing it to sink into the cake. Turn the cake out of the pan, and brush the remaining syrup over the cake.
Exciting Eggplant and Zucchini
Adapted from Sylvia Thompson, Festive Tarts
1 eggplant (about 12 ounces)
2 zucchini, sliced
2 yellow squash, sliced
1 onion, chopped
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
2 ounces oil packed anchovies
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon thyme leaves (fresh)
½ cup olives, chopped
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
Peel the eggplant (or not), cut it into cubes, and toss with one or two teaspoons of salt. Let the eggplant sit for at least 30 minutes; an hour is better. Rinse and drain the eggplant, squeezing gently. Heat some olive oil in a large skillet; add the eggplant and cook until the eggplant is soft. Remove the eggplant from the skillet. Add the zucchini and squash (and more olive oil, if necessary) and cook until the vegetables are soft and brown in places. Remove the zucchini and squash from the skillet. Heat a little more olive oil, and add the onion. When the onion starts to soften and brown, add the garlic and anchovies. Stir while the anchovies dissolve. Now add the tomatoes, thyme, olives, the Aleppo pepper, and all the vegetables: eggplant, zucchini, and squash. If it looks a little too dry, add some water. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve with Parmesan cheese, if desired.