The time after the winter solstice is a time for rebirth. The days are getting longer - even though I can’t tell it in Seattle where 7:15am is so dark it might as well be 2:15am. It’s time to plan for a New Year. And for me, that means joining the NaKniSweMoDo – the National Knit a Sweater a Month Dodecathon – 12 handknit sweaters in 2009! (It wouldn’t be me if I weren’t planning on some insane project, right?)
It also means making some more down to earth plans for the new year, which I’ll share with you over the coming days. But mostly, this time between Christmas and New Year’s is always a time of nesting – staying at home, being warm, eating comforting things, getting ready.
Which is why today, instead of a review of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father (which seemed an appropriate book to review when I announced it back in October), I bring you something a little more tasty:
I picked up this book this past summer, when I first moved into my new apartment, and was suddenly feeling domestic. I baked a lot of cookies in a few short weeks, put on a few pounds, and then reality set in. I went back to my non-baking life, started ordering food in, and put on a few more pounds.
Last week, I hosted a small cookie gathering on Boxing Day, and got to baking again. I know that it is simply not healthy to bake all the Christmas cookies I like to bake and try to eat them all before they go bad. You have to share. And who better to share with than a group of knitters?
Well, I made my favorite recipe so far from Great Cookies: Joanna Preuss’s Molasses Spice Cookies – which can be summed up in one word: yum! This book is worth it for that recipe alone.
If you are at all interested in baking cookies, brownies, bars, biscotti, and the like, this is a great book. The recipes are organized according to the style of cookie, so that you can learn the techniques required to bake that kind of cookie well. It starts out with the easy ones (drop cookies), then moves on to hand-formed cookies, to more involved cookies like piped cookies and rolled out cookies, and so on until we get to meringues and macaroons. This is a great way to organize the recipes, because it allows the baker to pick and choose a class of recipes based on how complicated she is willing to get on any particular baking day.
The recipes themselves are accompanied by beautiful pictures – the kind that aren’t cosmetic – rather they show the detail of the final product, so you can tell what you are aiming for. Moreover, each recipe includes key “Cookie Characteristics” that help you to quickly select recipes that suit your baking needs. Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, for example, are described as “homestyle” with a “moderate shelf life,” and they “travel well.” Curled Butter Wafers are “festive” and “fragile.” Coconut-crusted Key Lime Napoleons are “versatile” and “temperature-sensitive.” Recipes also have difficulty ratings, and at a glance info such as baking time and pan specifications. This is a cookbook that is clearly designed with the home baker in mind. You can quickly flip through and select the right kind of recipe without ever having made it before. Love it!
Each recipe also includes some extra tips for serving or storing, or a short story about how the recipe made its way into the book, or what culture it comes from. So, if you are just browsing, it makes for an interesting read.
But the clincher for the cookbook is the section after all the yummy recipes. In that section, Walters goes into detail about the pluses and minuses of different ingredients (e.g. which kind of flour you use, whether you substitute for butter, and so on), what kinds of equipment you should look for, and how to perform various techniques – from measuring your ingredients, to chopping nuts, to rolling dough, to packaging cookies to put in the mail!
The very best page is page 402 – the troubleshooting guide. Everyone who has tried to bake cookies has run into problems at some time. Cookies that don’t bake evenly, cookies that are too dry, cookies that don’t hold together, cookies that don’t have the chewiness you wanted. Here, encapsulated on a single page, Walters gives you tips to adjust your baking to fix all of these common problems. More than worth the price of admission.
The one glaring gap in this book, and something which is often missing from cookbooks, is any attention to how to adapt recipes for higher altitudes. Having baked cookies in Seattle, and then tried the same recipes in Denver, I know from experience that baking doesn’t always work the same way. Even if there are just straightforward rules for high altitude baking that any baker could look up on the web, I think a book about baking isn’t really complete if it doesn’t include that sort of advice. (It’s no wonder that Walters is from San Francisco! This book could never have been written by a baker in Colorado.)
But, really, that is a small omission. There are so many tasty looking recipes in this book, and the ones I have tried have turned out just as good as the pictures, and much, much yummier! So, if you are looking for a good cookie cookbook – one that includes all the comforting cookies you know and love – from super-sized chocolate chip cookies to lemon squares to ginger snaps to spritz cookies – but also pushes you to do more fancy and more challenging cookies for special occasions – then this is the cookbook for you!