5.14.2021

My Favourite Books About Baking Cakes

I've baked cookies, pies and puddings, crisps, crumbles and cupcakes. But there is something about baking a cake that just feels so good. Part nostalgia, part curiosity, the act of baking a cake is something I enjoy immensely. Many of the cookbooks in my home library contain recipes for cakes that I love. And there are cake recipes from friends and family that will always have a special place in my heart. But to have a book (or two, or four) devoted exclusively to the art of cake baking is essential to the home baker, I feel. 

The focus on that one particular confection - how to make it, how to decorate it, how to store it - is really invaluable for the home cake baker. Below are the four cake cookbooks that I have come across so far that really engage my interest and spark my appetite for a beautiful and delicious piece of cake. 

Yossy Arefi has been a contributor to Martha Stewart Living and Bon Apetit magazines, but I had not heard of her until her book was mentioned by her colleague Claire Saffitz in one of her "Dessert Person" video blogs on YouTube. (I highly recommend Claire's YouTube channel, by the way, as well as her "Dessert Person" cookbook). 

"Snacking Cakes" might just be the most perfect little book on straightforward cake baking you will ever encounter. By definition, a snacking cake is a simple, single-layer cake that can be made quickly. The book is perfect for the beginner but sophisticated enough to keep even expert bakers engaged. Each of the recipes can be made in one bowl and baked in one 8-inch square cake pan. The ingredients can all be easily found at your local supermarket and the equipment used to make them is minimal - no stand mixer required! 

Arefi also provides pan alternatives, which is so helpful. If you want to make any of the cake recipes in a loaf pan or a round pan, you can. Arefi provides the alternate cooking times for each type of pan.

The recipes are perfect for weeknight baking, something Arefi stresses in her introduction, and are ideal to bake for potluck dinners, school bake sales, or just to have at home for dessert or a quick pick-me-up with a cup of coffee. The book was published last year and is beautifully photographed and well-designed. The recipes are divided into sections devoted to cake types: Fruit Cakes, Warm and Toasty Cakes, Chocolatey Cakes, and Not Your Average Vanilla Cakes, which is simply one foundational white cake recipe with multiple variations for different frostings and additions. Brilliant!

I admire the devotion to simplicity without compromising on flavour. Favourites include the Berry Cream Cheese Cake; All The Spices Cake; Powdered Donut Cake; Salty Caramel Peanut Butter Cake; Sparkling Gingerbread; Espresso Chocolate Chip Cake; Red Velvet Cake, and Fudgy Chocolate Cake. 
I discovered Zoe Francois on Instagram early last year. Beautiful images of her extraordinary-looking cakes kept popping up on my feed and I was quickly seduced. When I found out she was publishing a book on cakes, I knew I had to have it. And I'm so glad I do! 

One of the book's best selling features, for me, is the vast amount of information about the art of cake making itself. The first 60 pages of the book are devoted to in-depth discussion of cake-baking techniques, ingredients, and tools. There is even a whole "Cake Academy" section with extremely detailed tips and hints for the best batters, frostings and presentation techniques. It's this kind of expert advice that is so lacking in those online repositories of recipes, and why I feel cookbooks are still so necessary for the home baker. 

The book is beautifully organized and photographed (by Sarah Kieffer) with chapters divided into cake types: Pound Cakes, Quick Breads and Bundts; Fruit-Studded Cakes; Soaked Cakes; Cake Layers, Loaves and Sheets; Light-as-Air Cakes; Layered Cakes; Rolled and Fancy Cakes; Icings; Fillings and Flourishes.

It seems to be intended for the intermediate baker, although even beginners will find some delightfully-simple cakes to try, such as the zucchini cake and its dark-chocolate variation. And if you really study the "Cake Academy" section before you start any of the recipes, you'll already have a huge head start. Each of the recipes, too, refers back to the "Cake Academy" section if you need a refresher about a specific technique along the way, which is a very thoughtful addition. There is also a "Baker's Note" at the end of each recipe with more guidance if you're unsure of a certain step. 

Favourites in the book include the aforementioned Zucchini Cake (the chocolate one too!) as well as the following: Lemon-Curd Pound Cake, Apple Cake with Honey-Bourbon Glaze, White Cake, Yellow Cake, Ultimate Carrot Cake, and Black Forest Cake.
I don't know if this book will be for everyone, but it's definitely for me! The camp cover with all its citrus exuberance, and its cheeky title, alludes to the fun that lies between its two covers. Martha Stewart, it seems, agrees, as she contributes an effusive foreword, extolling the virtues of Jason Schreiber, whom she has collaborated with on several culinary projects, both as a recipe developer and stylist. 

"Fruit Cake", of course, is devoted to cakes with fruit in them. So, if you don't enjoy fruit-infused cakes, then this book will be lost on you. The book's subtitle, "Recipes For the Curious Baker", perfectly sums up its aim and ethos; the recipes are designed to intrigue and, at times, even baffle! But that's what is so much fun. Schreiber makes you want to jump in with both feet and give his creations a try. I would not recommend this book for beginners, even though there are some very simple recipes inside. The overarching theme of the book is one of experimentation and idiosyncratic whimsy, beautifully demonstrated in the highly-stylized photography and the occasional Schreiber poem, inscribed between recipes.

The book is divided into chapters that speak the cakes' virtues: Constant Cravings, Out of Hand, Showstoppers, All Rise, Soaked, and a Basics section with all the fundamentals: curds, frostings, meringues, etc. 

Among my favourites in the book: Banana Tiramisu; Raspberry Tea Cake; Applesauce Cake; Fig & Date Snowballs; Orange-Currant Zaleti; Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake; Chocolate, Cherry & Orange Cake; Fig, Port & Chocolate Cake, 

To me, the book perfectly sums up what cake should be about: fun, whimsy, curiosity and delight.
This one should look familiar to a lot of you! Martha Stewart's Cakes was her first book on bundts, loaves, layers and coffee cakes (published in 2013) and it has been a favourite of mine ever since. With more than 150 recipes, it has all the bases covered. So far, it's the best collection of cake varieties that I've come across, spanning the whole gamut of cake types, from cheesecakes to icebox cakes. If you're looking for a simple coffee cake, this book has it. If you're looking for a basic pound cake, this book has it. If it's a three-layer birthday cake with fancy flourishes you're looking for, well, this book has it too! 

I think it's a very good book to invest in if you intend to explore the universe of cake baking. You can bake your way through it over time, starting with the very simple recipes and advancing to the more difficult ones. As with most of the other books mentioned above, this book is divided into cake types, making it simple to navigate: Loaves, Bundts & Tubes, Coffee Cakes, Single Layers, Cheesecakes, Icebox Cakes, Cakes with Fruit, and Layer Cakes. Each recipe is accompanied by a full-colour photograph (always helpful) and there is a Basics section at the back with fundamental recipes for frostings, curds, meringues, lists of essential tools and basic techniques. 

I've tried quite a few cakes from this book and these are my favourites: Basic Pound Cake (my go-to pound cake recipe, always); Maple Cake; Applesauce Cake; Strawberry Cake; Blackberry-Cornmeal Cake; Tender Lemon Cake; Buttermilk Cake with Chocolate Frosting; Pumpkin Layer Cake; Vanilla Layer Cake; Double Chocolate Cake; and Carrot Cake.

I highly recommend this book.
If you have any cake books you love, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. 

4.25.2021

Pre-Order Martha's 99th Book

This September (on the 28th, to be exact) Martha will publish her 99th book: "Martha Stewart's Fruit Desserts." It is now available for preorder at numerous online bookstores. The book promises to deliver over 100 recipes for pies, cakes, tarts, crumbles, buckles and crostatas - all of which put the best seasonal fruits to exceptional use. 


Here is a description of the book from the publisher:

From perfectly ripe peaches and plump, tender figs to crisp, honey-sweet apples and bright, juicy citrus, Martha Stewart's Fruit Desserts celebrates easy-to-prepare recipes that highlight the fresh, vibrant flavors of fruit at its peak. In spring and summer, delight in warm-weather desserts such as Red-Fruit Pavlovas, Vanilla-Rhubarb Tart, and Double-Crust Peach Slab Pie. When the days grow shorter and cooler, enjoy cozy comforts including Apple Fritters, Fig and Almond Crostata, Poached Pear and Cranberry Pie, and Polenta-Grape Snacking Cake.

Whether you're in the mood for an old-fashioned countertop classic or a modern treat with an elevated touch, these comforting, delicious desserts will gratify all year long.

4.17.2021

The April Issue

I was pleasantly surprised by the cover of the April issue when it arrived in my mailbox: a radiant image of Martha's cutting garden at her farm in Bedford, New York. It had been a very long time since a garden had graced the cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine - especially during a month when Easter usually takes center stage  - and it was a welcome glimpse of the verdant outdoors after a year of so much indoor time. (Easter still plays a big role in the content of the magazine, however). The issue, on the whole, is a welcome breath of fresh air with spring cleaning tips, new takes on salad and a delicious spread on citrus desserts that had me taking notes. 

The Good Things section opens with a fun take on the Easter egg: blending one of our favourite flooring materials (terrazzo) with Easter jubilance. A matte adhesive holds multi-hued craft flakes to the surface of wooden, ceramic, blown-out or hard-cooked eggs for a sophisticated look, with a nod to interior design. 

In the Good Living section, it's all about ways to 'green' your indoor spaces, room by room, by making smart choices when it comes to the materials you surround yourself with, how often you reach for the light switch and the air-conditioning dial, and choosing cleaning products that are as eco-friendly as they are effective. When choosing soaps and detergents, for instance, avoid ones with damaging additives, such as formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate and synthetic fragrances - which are basically just pretty-smelling chemicals.

The Everyday Food section was a nod to nostalgia - at least for me - with fresh takes on some of my favourite, classic Easter dishes, such as baked ham and scalloped potatoes: a perfect pairing, in my opinion. Innovative ways to incorporate frozen seafood into quick and delicious weeknight dinners, such as crispy oven-baked fish wraps and wild salmon Kedgeree, appealed to my sense of adventure and my love of pescatarian meals.

I loved seeing Martha's cutting garden at her farm in Bedford, New York, in full bloom. This area was once her vegetable garden but a mole-cricket invasion several summers ago forced a change; the area is now planted with hundreds and hundreds of breathtaking perennials.
Many of the climbing roses that once bloomed at her home in East Hampton, Lily Pond Lane, now reside in this garden, cascading over archways and trellises. 
I also really loved the Easter feature, which employed traditional Japanese craft techniques and artistic philosophies to decorate Easter eggs. There were some beautiful examples of Shibori, Sashiko, Sumi-e, Temari, and Kintsugi - all used on the delicate surface of the humble egg at Easter time. 

I'm not the biggest salad eater, I must admit - although I do love vegetables. Still, the interesting recipes in "Salad Days" got my mouth watering, especially those that incorporated a mix of unusual ingredients and dressings. 
In the words of cookbook author Claire Saffitz, I'm a dessert person. I cannot tell a lie. I often eat smaller portions of my dinner just so I can indulge a little more sinfully in the dessert course, which is inevitably the best course. Therefore, the feature on citrus desserts, was the perfect closer for the issue with beautiful photographs by Paola + Murray.

APRIL ISSUE HIGHLIGHTS:


Favourite Recipe: Citrus Upside-Down Cake


Favourite Feature: "Garden of Delights" by Melissa Ozawa and Ngoc Minh Ngo

4.06.2021

Martha Moments Readers Celebrate Easter

Who would have thought, as we celebrated Easter last year under the thumb of a global pandemic, that we'd be here again the following year facing many of the same challenges. While there are now several vaccines for COVID-19 and an overall decline in its spread, many parts of North America (and beyond) are still in lockdown. And masks aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Still, I'm always so heartened to see how the optimism of spring manages to shine through, even when times are tough. The wonderful members of the Martha Moments Facebook Group have yet again proven that where there's a will there's a way: Easter was celebrated with as much beauty and festivity as ever before, even if the guest list was short - or nonexistent. Below are some of the photographs shared on the group's page. Enjoy!

Todd Hall in Arkansas celebrated outdoors amid the tulips and daffodils in his garden. 
His guests (just two) dined on Martha's Wedgwood "Flourish" dinnerware and each received a beautifully-decorated, personalized Easter cookie.
Tim Obert set a beautiful spring table at his home in Salem, Massachusetts. 
Bountiful charcuterie and fruit plates were among the stars at the home of Brian Utz in Texas. 
Laura Guisbert-Clark made individual goodie bags for her guests to take home with them.
Jim Eber made alcohol-ink Easter eggs for his centerpiece this year. 
This beautiful arrangements graced the mantel of Deborah Ann Hrubesh.
Daniela Stypula-Rowe set this beautiful table for her guests. 
Martha's glittered eggs looked so festive on the mantel of James Richmond in California. 
His delicious-looking Easter meal was equally attractive!
Ken Puttbach made Martha's Outrageous Chocolate Cookies and displayed on them on one of her new Jadeite cake stands. 
This beautiful egg-shaped cake was the star of the show at Christine's house. 
Bernie Wong and Dennis Landon in Wisconsin displayed some of their treasured spring acquisitions from the missed Martha by Mail catalog. 
An assortment of decorative Easter eggs from Martha's new line of housewares were used in some of their  centerpieces. 
For my own Easter dinner I made Martha's yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting. It was also a birthday cake for my brother's 42nd. 
We served the slices on festive bunny plates from Anthropologie.

3.10.2021

The March Issue

The March issue of Martha Stewart Living has been out for a couple of weeks now but I always like to do a brief review/synopsis of each issue of the year: a monthly check-up, as it were. 

If you read this column regularly, you'll know that as a longtime subscriber I've been really happy with the quality of the magazine over the last three years or so. I feel Elizabeth Graves has done an excellent job as the editor-in-chief. Her job, by the way, is not at all simple. She must keep pace with the times while simultaneously avoiding trendiness; she must keep her finger on the pulse of Martha's longtime readers while simultaneously attracting new ones to the fold; she must encourage advertising while keeping the content as authentic and grassroots as possible; she must incorporate Martha's content while not making the magazine solely about her. And she must perform all of this within the parameters of a strict budget during a global pandemic under the management of a larger magazine publishing corporation (Meredith Corp.) I applaud her because the magazine isn't just 'surviving' - it's thriving. 

The March issue is just another example of this well-choreographed balancing act; somehow it achieves it all. There are excellent recipes, plenty of decorating and homekeeping advice, lots of "Martha", plus the introduction of new faces, as well some familiar ones, including Martha's niece, Sophie Herbert-Slater, who was a regular on Martha's early television program.

For this issue, the publishers opted for two unique covers: one for subscribers and one for the newsstand. I am, of course, partial to the subscriber cover with its beautiful photograph of an arrangement of hanging plates and platters in one of the sunny rooms at Cantitoe Corners, Martha's farm in Bedford, New York. The newsstand cover is also warm and inviting with boules of radiant-looking sourdough loaves nestled into a large wooden bowl: the comfort of warm browns and the implied aroma of freshly-baked bread is never a bad thing. 

I don't recall exactly when food and recipes were incorporated into the Good Things column, but I'm not mad at it. Oftentimes it is the simplicity of the technique that is the Good Thing in question, such as the "Cheater's mac-and-cheese" dish featured on the opening page of this section, which takes just 20 minutes to make. It looks and sounds delicious! Other ideas in the column focus on St. Patrick's Day (cloverleaf ice-cubes, growing oxalis) as well as organizing and repurposing ideas focused on your tool box and hardware. 
I always look forward to the Good Living section. In this issue it's all about introducing hits of colour into mostly-neutral rooms to achieve a bit of pizzazz and interest. The simplicity of the projects make them easy to try for a spring refresh in those dozy rooms in your house that seem to be crying out for a bit of fun. 
Speaking of fun, the Everyday Food section includes a recipe for something I've always wanted to try making: traditional gnocchi. The recipe is simple and straightforward enough to entice me to try it this time! There's also a nice section on sheet-pan dinners with an emphasis on getting dinner on the table fast without much fuss or cleanup, although never compromising interesting flavours and deliciousness. 
The quote on the splash page of the magazine is by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950 for her book of poems called Annie Allen. She is also a United States Poet Laureate and the recipient of the Robert Frost Medal. I think the magazine is doing a nice job of incorporating black voices (and faces) into the magazine's content without feeling performative or didactic. It feels genuine, stemming from a legitimate and appropriate interest in amplifying black voices in its pages. 
The well of the magazine opens beautifully with a look at how Martha has refreshed and repurposed several of her rooms at Cantitoe Corners during the pandemic (with the help of her friend and colleague, Kevin Sharkey) to become better suited to her changing habits and needs. Once a small formal dining room, the room shown above is now a bright sitting room just off the kitchen servery where Martha can sit and read. At the other end of the room, a small dining table is ideal for conducting Zoom meetings or enjoying a simple breakfast or a cup of coffee, overlooking the farm. 
In Martha's large Brown Room, at the other end of the house but still connected to the kitchen, Martha used a set of curtains she found in Palm Beach to upholster the seat cushions of the English leather sofas, shown above. The remainder was used to redo the Georgian love seat and sew a few accent pillows. Changing up the house to suit your current living habits is such a good idea, as is using old finds in new ways. And spring is the perfect time to do so. 
A feature on braising results in some delicious-looking recipes in this food feature. The turkey meatballs in apricot sauce with mint and almonds, shown above, look so good! I think they would be excellent in a meatball sub!
Sourdough everything! If you were locked down at home during the pandemic and had an inclination to bake, the word "sourdough" surely became part of your culinary vocabulary. It emerged as one of the biggest food trends of 2020. Sophie Herbert-Slater, Martha's niece, was one of the many sourdough aficionados who became enchanted by its many uses. She, along with Martha and food editor Sarah Carey, expand its uses into unexpected offerings in this feature, including croissants, banana bread and chocolate-chip cookies! 
The issue closes with a feature on a beautiful, windswept garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sown by an ambitious couple who wanted a full-fledged garden for the first time. The results are stunning, with undulating grasses and wildflowers on a rugged ridge of land overlooking the mountains. 

Martha Stewart Living always takes its readers on a journey and I think that's what I most enjoy about it, aside from all the specifics of design and content. It is that feeling that you're being shown something interesting, taken somewhere intriguing or encouraged to try something different. The March issue is yet another gateway to one such journey. 

MARCH ISSUE HIGHLIGHTS:

Favourite Good Thing: Cheater's mac-and-cheese


Favourite Find: Mercury Mosaics

Favourite Feature: "Change is Good" by Elyse Moody and Pieter Estersohn

3.01.2021

Martha's "Green Room" at Bedford

A 1925 three-story farmhouse, which Martha calls the "Winter House", is the main abode on her Bedford, New York, property and is the one she uses as her primary residence. At the west end of this house, just off the main entrance, is a cozy, sunken parlour used as a formal sitting room. With a recessed fireplace and six tall windows on three of the four walls, the room is naturally bright and welcoming. But it is made even more so by the verdant shades Martha has chosen to use in its decoration. She refers to the room as the "Green Room."

Photo by Pieter Estersohn

The room can only be accessed by a single entrance that leads from the main entry hall. It is also the furthest room from Martha's very active kitchen, giving it a secluded, quiet atmosphere, tucked away from the daily comings and goings. Guests descend three steps into the spacious, rectilinear room and find themselves surrounded by the most beautiful shades of green on the walls and fabrics. The green is grounded by dark oak floors covered by a sturdy sisal rug. Punctuations of muted gold and brass used in the decorative accessories and lighting add sparkle. 

Photo by Pieter Estersohn. The marble fireplace anchors the room while two opposing Irish Georgian sofas, wall sconces and two Greek Revival pedestal columns lend an element of formal symmetry. 

The feel of the room is decidedly Scandinavian with its clean lines and sparse decoration, although Martha has never said this style of design was the inspiration for the room.  Still, the parallels can be drawn. Scandinavian design often employs the use of a single, saturated colour throughout a living space. This was a technique historically used to combat the winter doldrums that often accompany the darker days during long winter months. In Martha's case, this hue is green, which is used on every surface of the wood-paneled walls in decorative painting techniques, such as faux-bois on the wood veneer panels.  An antique brass Austrian chandelier and several antique Swedish gilt pieces, such as a wall clock and a cornucopia mirror, add further structure to the Scandinavian theme. 

Photo by Pieter Estersohn. An antique Swedish wall clock holds court between two sunny windows.
Photo by Kevin Sharkey

Martha has said that she loves how houseplants look in this room: the green foliage accentuates the mood of the space while also adding layers of leafy texture. Throughout the year, tropical plants from her greenhouse are brought to the main living spaces in the Winter House to liven up the rooms with their interesting foliage. Plants thrive in this bright room with its south- and west-facing windows. 

Photo by Kevin Sharkey: A beautiful glass vase showcases a bouquet of Japanese sweet peas in a muted shade of coral.

The shades of green used in the room were inspired by a green matcha tea and a swatch of linen Martha found in Kyoto, Japan. All of the wood trim is painted the same shade of matcha green in a slightly higher gloss than the veneer panels.

The Green Room is certainly a spot I would love to have a cup of tea in on a cool winter afternoon with a fire going and some of Martha's fluffy cats at my feet.

Photo from The Martha Blog: Here is a view of the room from the landing of the main entrance. Flanking the fireplace (which does not have a mantel, interestingly) is a set of triple-hung windows that face the west terrace outdoors. 
Photo by Kevin Sharkey: Christmas is another time of year when this room really shines! The windows are kept unadorned. Opaque pull-down shades keep out intense sun while still allowing light into the room.
Photo by Kevin Sharkey
Photo from The Martha Blog: Another view of the room from the landing, this time sparkling with Christmas lights!
Photo by Ryan McCallister: During the pandemic, Martha has frequently used the room to conduct Zoom calls and meetings, as well as make appearances on various talk shows. She looks quite content here, as she should!
Photo from the Martha Blog: The Green Room is located at the west end of the home with windows facing in three directions: north, west and south. 

POST SCRIPT:
For an excellent book on Scandinavian design, I highly recommend "Lars Bolander's Scandinavian Design." Bolander is a Swedish interior designer and furniture dealer with a shop in Westport, Connecticut. He has written several books on design. Martha contributes a blurb to the back of this book and recommends it as well.