Birchbox Book Club: December 2014

JoyTheBakerThis month’s book was holiday-appropriate: a baking cookbook!  This one is Homemade Decadence: Irresistably Sweet, Salty, Gooey, Sticky, Fluffy, Creamy, Crunchy Treats by Joy Wilson.

I don’t know exactly how one reviews a cookbook.  My writing classes did not cover this as a skill.  However, here is what I can tell you:

I got the Kindle version.  Yes, of a cookbook, which will necessitate having an electronic device with me in the kitchen while I bake.  It won’t be the first time almost all my devices have served me in this capacity at some point.

I didn’t find the cover to be breathtaking, but that’s ok.  It’s fun and imparts a feeling of low-key, low-stress, fun desserts.  Interestingly, this is a fair indicator of the style of writing regarding the recipes themselves.  The blurbs included with each recipe are fun to read and lighthearted.

As I turn to a random page in this book, I find a recipe for Breakfast Cobbler with Oatmeal Drop Biscuits.  I’m trying very hard to convince myself that oatmeal is a breakfast food, right?  And cobblers are made with fruit, right?! So this would be a brilliant idea!  The author’s written description says:

“In my family, cobbler is a big deal.  It’s a big deal when my dad starts to root through the kitchen cabinets looking for the large cobbler pan.  This dessert is usually reserved for the big Easter arty, the all-family cookout, or Christmas.  You know there’s going to be a lot of happy gathering when that special pan emerges.

Leave it to me to find a way to turn cobbler into breakfast.

Breakfast is totally a special occasion, right? In this cobbler incarnation, we’re combining juicy berries and drop biscuit batter.  It’s sweet and juicy, hearty and special.”

This is what I love about cookbooks. The power of food and descriptions of the origins of those foods, their stories.

Since I randomly chose this recipe (location 542 of the Kindle ed.), this will be the recipe I test this month for the book club review!  The only things I don’t keep on hand: 4 cups of fruit (frozen, thawed and drained is ok) and buttermilk.  I need to hit the grocery store.

BreakfastCobblerAuthorPhoto
Doesn’t this look divine?

I woke up grumpy and not really wanting to cook breakfast.  That is normal.  I do not like breakfast.  The recipe looked more daunting than I remembered: “16 ingredients? How many bowls and dishes am I dirtying?! Really?!  This early in the morning…”  Despite my internal grumbling, the recipe was really easy to follow and assemble.  I used a frozen fruit blend with cherries, blackberries, and blueberries.  I also (mistakenly) grabbed the fat-free buttermilk at the grocery store.  It did not take very long to prepare (the longest part was probably finding the cardamom in my spice cabinet).  Interestingly, this recipe had you pre-bake the fruit, then add the drop-biscuit topping, and bake again.  The drop-biscuit dough alone was yummy.  After the second baking, it needed to cool for 20 minutes.  This is a form of torture, but is a really good time to go do some yoga or something.  If you’re a morning person, clean up after your cooking.

I’m not as good at staging food photos as I’d like to be.  Maybe I’ll take a class.

This was very tasty, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that I wanted a scoop of vanilla ice cream with it and that it was dessert.  It was also a little too sweet.  If I were to make this again, I would reduce the amount of sugar and probably eliminate the salt.

Calculated by MyFitnessPal based on ingredients list
Calculated by MyFitnessPal based on ingredients list

My one complaint about this cookbook is that it does not have nutritional information, even a basic calorie count.  Granted, if you’re eating cobbler for breakfast, calories probably aren’t something you’re worried about, but I prefer to know.  So here is the nutrition facts label for this recipe (courtesy of MyFitnessPal): And holy geez!  I knew with a stick of butter that this was not a healthy dish.  The most shocking thing in this dish was the sodium level–half a day’s worth!  That’s why I would reduce or eliminate the salt next time around. It’s also half a day’s worth of fat, so that’s pretty high too, but I expected that with a stick of butter and buttermilk in the ingredients list.  This was calculated with low-fat buttermilk, and your choice of fresh/frozen fruit may also cause the calorie content to vary.  For the love of your blood pressure, make sure you use unsalted butter.

Would I make this again?  For dessert, sure, with less sugar and sodium.  And half a serving.

How does this reflect on the book?  Good question.  A randomly-chosen recipe turned out tasty and was easy to make and follow.  The dish looked just as good as the picture promised, but required no creativity on my part.  The calories etc. put this dish firmly in the “rare treat” category for me.  I couldn’t help but think of the story while I made and ate this dish, so that too was a success.  I like the book, but I think it will be used rarely since these are self-described Decadent Treats.

 

 

For Tatyana Lobova… Cream of Tartar!

I just got home from my departmental Christmas party.  It was fun!  One of the strange questions I got was “what is Cream of Tartar and what is it for?”

Yes.  I have this in my spice cabinet.  Chemically, it  is potassium bitartrate:

Image from Wikipedia entry Potassium bitartrate
Image from Wikipedia entry Potassium bitartrate

 

 

 

 

From the chemical structure, you can see a three half OH groups (the half is the O).   The bitartrate ion shown here is therefore fairly alkaline.  When you throw this molecule into water, those 3 hydrogens pop right off (apparently), forming H+ ions.  That makes it an acid, and according to the illustrious Wikipedia entry, it creates a pH of about 3.557 in water.  Thus, tartrate and tartaric acid form a conjugate acid/base pair.

Some uses for cream of tartar in cooking:

  • Often used in meringue.  This helps to stabilize the egg whites as they foam during beating.  Note that Oregon State University has the pH of egg whites listed as about an 8, so they’re naturally alkaline.  Adding the cream of tartar shifts the pH and causes the egg proteins (albumin, mostly) to denature (solidify, in this case), so you get stiffer peaks that last longer.  You could get the same effect with vinegar or lemon juice, but that wouldn’t taste very good.
  • Also used in creating icing and smooth sugar solutions.  This chemically helps keep the sugar from forming regular crystals and solidifying.  It’s a geometry thing.
  • Ingredient in baking powder: the third ingredient of baking powder along with baking soda and corn starch.  Kind of makes you wonder why recipes call for both–usually, that has to do with pH again.  Baking soda neutralizes acids, including cream of tartar, when they’re mixed in liquid form (not as much happens in the dry, crystalline powder forms).
  • Leavening: this means it’s an ingredient that can contribute to rising/fluffiness.  Did you ever make a vinegar and baking soda volcano as a kid?  It’s the same chemistry here: acid + base = bubbles!  Those bubbles cause breads and other baked goods to rise without using yeast.  Unleavened breads usually refer to ones made without yeast, although some may still use these chemical leaveners (pita is a good example).
  • Sometimes used in whipped cream: what a waste!  Whipped cream is best enjoyed fresh.  However, it will denature milk proteins just as well as it will egg proteins.