At last count, I have about 250 cookbooks on my bookshelves—outnumbering even the number of gardening books. I haven’t cooked my way through all of them and never will. In fact, there are some cookbooks I keep that I haven’t tried a single recipe. That’s because I read cookbooks the way some people read novels. I read them for entertainment and inspiration. I have spent many happy afternoons reading cookbooks, then put them all away and made dinner based on ideas from the books.
Other times, however, I will pick up a cookbook and think, “I want to cook every single one of these recipes.”
Though she doesn’t boast of it, Layanee is a very good and prolific cook, so I wasn’t surprised that she had already tried several of the recipes in the book to feed the family and friends that often fill her house. She gave the book a definite thumbs up, which is all I needed to order up another cookbook for my collection.
Between the two of us, Layanee and I have baked 16 of the 112 recipes in the book. That doesn’t qualify us as a test kitchen, but I think it does mean we have had a good sampling of the recipes. I think I can safely say that we can heartily recommend the book, even if you aren’t already an experienced baker.
Flour is the creation of Joanne Chang of Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe. According to the biography on the Flour Bakery website, Chang is a bit of an overachiever. She has a degree from Harvard in applied mathematics and economics. She also competed in every Boston Marathon from 1991 to 2006. What’s relevant to this review, however, is that she has won numerous awards for her work in the kitchen.
Flour is all about sweets. There are chapters for breakfast treats, cookies, cakes, pies and tarts and other sweets. There is a chapter thrown in at the end on breads—a bit of an odd P.S. in what is otherwise a dessert book.
Chang seems to like taking familiar tastes and giving them a new, homemade twist. She includes a recipes for homemade Fig Newtons that call for two pints of ripe Black Mission figs. (Cha-ching$$) There are also homemade Oreos, homemade s’mores and a Milky Way tart.
Among the recipes I tried, I made the Homemade Nutella Tart, which recreates that familiar Nutella taste with ground hazelnuts steeped in heavy cream and plenty of milk and semisweet chocolates. The result is divine and extremely rich. You’ll want to make small slices of this tart or follow Chang’s lead and sign up for the Boston Marathon.
The Nutella tart is made with Chang’s recipe for a pâte sucrée, a very fragile dough of butter, sugar, flour and egg yolk. I have made this pie shell several times now, including for the Rich Chocolate Cream Pie recipe. It’s a tasty base for tarts and pies. But if you’re a novice baker and decide to give this a whirl, don’t be surprised if the dough cracks or falls apart as you move it from counter to tart pan. You can try rolling it out onto a piece of parchment or wax paper to ease the transfer, but it is still likely to fall apart. No worries though. You can always do what Chang instructs and just patch it together in the pan.
If you are a cookie lover, Layanee and I highly recommend the Flour Snickerdoodles recipe. Buttery and tender, they are absolutely delicious. I made the dough balls about 1.25″ in diameter and baked them for nine minutes—much shorter than the 15 to 18 minutes cooking time Chang specifies.
In fact, cooking times for nearly all the recipes we tried were too long. Not by a little either. A lot.
I was concerned that my oven temperatures were off and bought a new oven thermometer to check. No, it’s not my oven. It’s the cooking times. So do what all good cooks do and cook it until it’s done, but no more than that. Use a cake tester on cakes. Bake a test batch of cookies and let them cool to test for texture. Watch those pie tarts to make sure they don’t get crispy.
I also recommend that you carefully read the opening chapters of the book on techniques, equipment and ingredients—a good habit to get into when using any cookbook. These chapters will clue you in to important ways to prepare and execute the recipes.
For example, one of my favorite recipes in the book is for the Yellow Birthday Cake with Fluffy Chocolate Ganache Frosting. I made the recipe using the standard little cake pans we all have from K-Mart. Unfortunately, because those cake pans have woefully short 1″ sides, you’ll have to make three rather than two layers, resulting in a less moist and fluffy cake. If you try squeezing all the batter into two layers, it’ll overflow in the oven.
I ended up ordering the Fat Daddio’s professional-type cake pans with the 3″ sides, which work beautifully and give a nice golden brown finish.
You’ll also need the 3″ sided cake pan to make the Classic Carrot Cake. The cake is baked in a single layer, which is then sliced in two for finishing. It’s worth the extra step because the cake is incredibly moist and much more carroty than your standard carrot cake. Again, the cooking time was off. The recipe called for baking the cake for an hour and 20 minutes, but it was ready in just 50 minutes.
Similarly, Layanee cooked the Homemade Oreos ten minutes less than the recipe stated. The Deep, Dark, Spicy Gingerbread she cooked for 35 to 40 minutes rather than the 50 to 60 minutes called for in the recipe. The Granola Bars took 20 minutes in Layanee’s oven—much less than the 30 to 40 minutes stated in the recipe.
Layanee says the Flour’s Famous Banana Bread is much more moist than other banana bread recipes she has tried. I can’t say the same for the French Lemon-Poppy Pound Cake. It was one of the first recipes I tried and I hadn’t figured out the cooking time problem yet, so it may have been over-cooked. Layanee says the same for the Chocolate Cupcakes she made. She also said that the boast that the Crispy Magic Frosting will form “a delicate sugary crust” never happened.
If you like to bake for your four-legged friends, Layanee’s big boy dogs liked Chang’s Homemade Dog Biscuits. They are filled with healthy stuff, like bulgur, whole wheat flour and corn meal. My little Papillons weren’t so crazy about them. They seem to prefer treats with bacon. And really, who doesn’t?
Warnings aside, I think you can tell from the fact that we have been baking our way through the book that we recommend it. So go for it. Chang’s second book Flour, Too, is now available for pre-order from Amazon. I have ordered my copy!