Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cookin' the books

Everyone has their favorite cookbook for specific occasions.

My go-to method book has always been Fannie Farmer, even though I possess a Joy of Cooking – Fannie synthesizes things in a way that speaks to me.

My favorite Italian cookbook is Romeo Salta very unpretentious and most of the recipes remind me of the way the old Italian ladies used to cook when I was very little. Inspiration-wise – Nigella Lawson, hands down.

For cake baking, though, I seem to gravitate toward this.

This was the second cookbook and last item my mother bought for my Hope Chest.

Those of you too young to know about Hope Chests, back in the day mothers began compiling housewares for their daughters from the time they were born to be used when they married. I have stress the word “married” because the Hope Chest was not to be used when the daughter moved out of the house upon adulthood. That’s because “nice” Italian girls didn’t move out of the house unless it was to get married.

I was comparatively old when my mother started my Hope Chest – she didn’t have the money when I was little. And her period of collection was rather brief because she again didn’t have the money once she got sick and everything went toward medical care. So we’re talking a window of, say, three years.

The first item of my Hope Chest was also half my gift for graduating junior high -- a Good Housekeeping Cookbook (Roget’s Thesaurus was the other half, thanks to Papa, and the gift I had asked for). Then I got this Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook along with a casserole dish.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, comprises the entire contents of my Hope Chest, which wasn’t really a chest so much as a cardboard liquor box.

I am well-versed in baking layer cakes and they do have their place for birthdays and so forth. But I find an interesting 13x9-inch cake with interesting texture, flavor and toppings is always more versatile than a meticulously decorated, filled and frosted layer cake.

So I am constantly turning to this book, where I can always find cakes to make from scratch that feature ingredients I always have around the house.

The sad thing is that they come out with this book for every Pillsbury Bake-off held, yet none of the other books has ever been quite so convenient as this one. It has a nice balance of no-fuss and incredible cakes – often it’s as easy or even easier to make one of the cakes in the book than it is to make a simple cake mix.

I might add, cake mixes have their place, especially in this family. I must, at all costs, have something dessert-like around or, budget or no, disgusting grocery store pies and Little Debbie crap will find its way into the house. At least if I bake, I can control to some extent portion size and content. So when I find a really good sale on mixes, I stock up and use it when I don’t have the brain power to devote to measuring out baking powder. (Here's a tip: When making chocolate mixes, toss in about a teaspoon of instant coffee. You can't taste it, but it makes the chocolate taste richer and almost -- almost -- homemade. I keep a tiny jar of Taster's Choice around for just this purpose. It works most excellently on those dirt-cheap brownie mixes you can get.)

But I normally bake from scratch, since I don’t like the artificial taste of mixes – I think it’s the vanilla they use. The rest of the people around here are not quite as picky, though I think they appreciate the fresh stuff the most.

(Incidently, do not bake a cake mix and then ask me to comment on how much it tastes like a scratch cake. I will be too polite to tell you the truth.)

I really like this for weekends, because it's as good for breakfast as it is for dessert or, better, a nighttime snack shared with a loved one straight from the pan while watching Inherit the Wind. Or something. Anyway, Martins had a sale on cream cheese, so I made this crumb cake that has the unfortunate name of “Crumbscious Cake.”

Though – ya know – let’s bring back the word “scrumptious.” Then maybe people will stop using all the forms of “yum” – which annoys me no end.

*I apologize for the lighting in the cake photos. By the time we cut the cake, it was dark out. I wanted to get the picture, though, and it doesn't look like there will be any left in the morning when the lighting is better.

1 comment:

Gwynne said...

I miss my Fannie Farmer cookbook (lost in my a husband who said I cooked "without soul" can one forgive such a thing?), but I still go to the Joy of Cooking for basics (like when I need to know what to do with a whole goat). I wish I had the patience to make all my cakes from scratch but I agree with you on the use of a 9 x 13 pan instead of layers (unless I'm making banana cake in which case the extra layers make for a good excuse to make extra frosting). :-)