Review of Starting with Ingredients: Baking: Quintessential Recipes for the Way We Really Bake by Aliza Green
Ambitious, informative (though take with a pinch of salt); and flawed or helpful, according to your wont
Hours earlier you could be heard baking in the kitchen. In fact, who could avoid it? That’s not you screaming as your arm is munched by the garbage disposal, but the food processor working, doing time. That thunk wha-thunk thunk isn’t zombies at the door, but the dough hook making its rounds. Now the guests are here, and the conversation at the table is, naturally, all about the food. “And the flour for this pizza came from Italy,” you say. “I bought it online from…” If this is you, then this book is perfect for you, with its “Quintessential Recipes For the Way We Really Bake”.
If you, on the other hand, like nothing better than a lie-down with a good cookbook and a cuppa, then this book could also be for you; it’s also thick as a bestselling trilogy’s Book 1.
“Butter & Other Animal Fats” is a typically well-written and informative chapter, wide in its scope, and accompanied by a global take on cornerstone recipes. Of particular interest to this reader are the recipes throughout the book that are from a region, such as borekas, gianduia, torta boscaiola, and the variations of my favourite cookie, maamoul. Green has tried in every case to allow the reader to make something that tastes authentic, using ingredients that might be exotic but are, supposedly, obtainable (her suggested substitutes, like using Asian spring roll wrappers instead of kufta, are reasonably priced, more internationally obtainable, and pragmatic). But she has most importantly to all of us who enjoy the people part of cooking, brought the history and movement of that recipe to the fore, up to the present day and the kitchens of people who carry on the tradition today, sharing her experiences with people who cooked as she watched. Textbox glosses with further historic details are often fascinating.
She has also included her own variations on traditional recipes, which will seem like travesties or deliciously fresh inventiveness, depending on your mindset and taste. And there are certain likes that Green has that can be annoying. Sometimes a pedantic peccadillo comes to the fore. For instance, zante currants (note: zante, not just any currants) come up time and again, including in two of the few recipes using chestnut flour (another exotic that can be made yourself from cheap dried chestnuts available in Asian groceries, instead of mail-ordering expensive chestnut flour).
If the book were only above, it would be a four-star treasure.
This reader found three drawbacks that greatly decreased the value as a cookbook that I would use; however, two of these drawbacks to me might be attractions to other cooks.
First, most recipes make full use of food processors / blenders / mixers. A great part of the cooking experience, to me, is the sensual process of turning disparate ingredients into something else. And this means I like to use my muscles, love wooden spoons and the like. I’m not a Luddite, but that wonderful cookbook that I recommend unreservedly, Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen, manages to keep all the romance of baking, complete with the instruction to get your hands in at times, and still has a “food mixer” waiting in the kitchen for the times when it must be heard.
And also, I don’t have the water to waste here, to clean up a food processor that’s just stirred, “for smoother texture” (it’s never anything less than smooth), the dulce de leche (caramel) made from boiling a can of condensed milk. This recipe was also infected with another modern overkill: silly over-cautious instructions (to punch the lid and then cover the tin with tinfoil—instead of just putting the unopened tin in its simmering bath) that made a classic, elegantly simple recipe messy.
A whole page is devoted to a quarter-page textbox titled ABOUT NEIL STEIN. (He’s a Philadelphia restaurateur.)
There are many more text boxes that read like advertorials (complete with their online addresses), such as those for a brand of cane syrup, mail-order pears, an emporium in Philadelphia, a grater, and that pizza flour from Naples. In the case of hard-to-find ingredients in which an online seller is mentioned (such as for malted milk powder) this reader thought that another ingredient/recipe might have been preferable as a quintessential instead of something that must be mail-ordered and isn’t some rare essence you use as sparingly as you would, asafoetida. Quite different are the instances where Green mentions suppliers for kitchen equipment, which Americans at least, could find useful (this book is for Americans, both in measurements and the consumer mentality).Thirdly, editing should have been a bit more thorough, and in such an ambitious book, there is bound to be some information that pedantic readers will cry foul to. Examples: the instructions for cooking empanadas are garbled (do prick or slash them to let the steam out if they are to be baked; but if you are going to fry them, do not make any holes in the pastry); confectionary should be spelled confectionery.
And the box devoted to Mrs Beeton could make Eliza Acton turn in her coffin. Mrs Beeton is indeed the most famous name now for cookbooks of her time; but one point Ms Green does not mention is the name of the book: Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. This 1112-page whopper was not just a cookbook, but a voluminous guidebook to everything from breeding chickens to how to deal with smelly drains. These encyclopaedic tracts were a feature of her Age. when a rising middle class wanted clear instructions about how to run a household with the look of lots of help. There was also a yearning for specificity and admiration for regularity that fit the industrial age. Isabella Beeton was not a cook, let alone a cookbook writer as much as she was what in polite society would be labeled a compiler (read wholesale plagiarist) of recipes from real cooks who wrote valuable cookbooks such as Eliza Action, and all the rest of that wealth of information, from many other authors’ guidebooks; so this reader bristled at the textbox devoted to Mrs Beeton’s recipe for seed cake, which most certainly isn’t Mrs Beeton’s. (I highly recommend the meticulously researched and utterly engrossing The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes.)
Another example of what I’d call misinformation is the shocking (to this reader) statement in an otherwise superb chapter, that gooseberries “must be cooked before eating”. Although early gooseberries and some varieties can be too hard and tart to eat out of hand, just as some apples are bitter and hard, but grown for cider, it would be a crime not to at least try any gooseberries you are lucky enough to get your hands on, as they are. Smell that perfume! Hold up a fresh gooseberry—that translucent striped balloon of jade green or blood-in-the-water red—then pop it in your mouth, hearing that crunch as your teeth break that fresh skin that tastes slightly like Italian-plum skin spritzed with lime; and feeling those seeds clothed with tart-sweet flesh explode in taste and texture. There is nothing like it. A hint of green apples, such as green applies used to be. Tart and sweet, slippery and as crunchy as a good grape with seeds. A gooseberry is a quintessential berry to one who appreciate tart flavours and unusual textures, to one who loves, say, a sunwarmed slightly hairy peach, a crisp kosher pickle, a stinky cheese, an ear of corn that tastes like corn should, not more supersweet candy. Anyway, this reader found that instruction to cook before eating quite offensive to this most magnificent treat, though many readers would agree with Aliza Green.
One aspect that readers might like is Green’s mention of the gluten content. There are many gluten-free recipes here. This leads to this reader’s surprise at the omission of that most delicious, versatile, and internationally popular flour made from chickpeas (garbanzo beans) also known as gram flour and besan and channa ka aata (available cheaply in any store with Asian and Middle Eastern ingredients as well as from ‘health stores’ and easy enough to make yourself from dried chickpeas). From those simple and popular streetfoods, the socca of Provence, and panissa or farinata of Liguria, the tortillitas de camarones of Cadiz, to the Moroccan quiche known as Kalinti, to the sweet and savoury favourites that make Indian food so moreish: chilas, bhajis, pakora, and those melt-in-the-mouth halvas ‘fudge’, and shortbreads, besan burfi and besan ka laddoo, this flour is a quintessential ingredient that would have fit perfectly in this book. Indeed, it is even much easier to find than the chestnut flour that was included, let alone those zante currants.
I don’t recommend this impressively thick tome as a basic cookbook for anyone any more than I would, a piping bag in a snowstorm. I do recommend this book as being most useful for Americans who like using their time-saving devices (to typically, cream for 6 minutes) and are fervent mail-order shoppers. people who think the Slow Foods / Eat Local scene is for hair-shirt wearers who gorge on raw broccoli (in season).
For people who like the sensuality of cooking in a more hands-on way, who prefer the sound and look of a whisk to a food processor, who prefer to knead by hand than to use a dough hook, I would recommend first, Darina Allen’s aforementioned gem (you can deal with the British measurements, yes you can! even if you can’t get to forage in those rich hedgerows) and that you also get, if you have basic cooking skills, the beautifully written, modestly presented treasure, The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger Henderson.
For internationals who love exploring recipes and history, especially from the Mediterranean, I do most heartily recommend Starting with Ingredients: Baking: Quintessential Recipes For the Way We Really Bake if you have many cookbooks including at least two of Claudia Roden’s and the superb Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen by Sonia Uvezian. In that case you can also thoroughly enjoy this history- and culture-enriched collection as you use this cookbook for ideas, adapting its recipes to suit the way you really bake.