July 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


Seventeen Tablespoons of Butter

There isn't much creativity invested into cookbook titles, so I try not to judge based on title alone, but Amber Rose's Love, Bake, Nourish is precisely the kind that scares me away. The subtitle, Healthier Cakes, Bakes and Desserts Full of Fruit and Flavor also made me skeptical. But the book was pretty, which is why I noticed it at the bookstore, and I kept returning to it to flip through its pages. One of the booksellers came over and raved. "My friend has been baking me desserts from the book," she said. "It's amazing." "Really?" I asked. "Really," she told me, wholly serious. And since I knew that my ingrained aversion to "healthier" desserts was a little juvenile, I ended up bringing it home. Maybe working in a few virtuous alternatives into my repertoire wouldn't be a bad thing.

Rose states up front that the book is aspirational, which is refreshing to see in a cookbook, especially one so stylized. But she also says that it's achievable and after reading through the recipes it didn't seem like a false claim. Even the instructions for crystallizing your own rose petals seemed reasonable, and now that my rosebushes are in full bloom, I'm ready to give my desserts that extra beautiful and fussy touch.

Most of Rose's cakes follow a similar formula: all-purpose flour is replaced with spelt, refined sugar with maple syrup or honey. But there's still butter (a cup or more in a single smallish cake) and the end results rely heavily on dollops of heavy whipped cream. Some cakes require more exotic and expensive flours like chestnut or hazelnut, but for the most part the reliance is on spelt, and after picking up a bag from the grocery store I started baking. My first cake, flavoured with maple syrup and lemon zest and topped with cream, honey, and strawberries, baked up nicely and looked as pretty as the picture in the book. The cake wasn't as light as I hoped, and the spelt gave it a distinctly "healthy alternative" taste, but it was still smothered in whipped cream and fresh fruit, which makes anything taste good. The spiced plum and honey cake was more successful on its own, although it's hard to think of it as virtuous when the nine-inch cake required seventeen tablespoons of butter. Maybe we can all just agree that virtue doesn't belong in a dessert.

Recently my favorite desserts have come from First Prize Pies by Allison Kave. While Love, Bake, Nourish is ethereal in its beauty, First Prize Pies is playful and sweet. It's split up by month so that you're not tempted to buy out-of-season strawberries in December just to make something from the book. I made the Creamsicle chiffon pie when it was still snowing and winter citrus was in season, but the lightness of the chess pie filling and the precise orange and vanilla flavor replica of a Creamsicle tasted just like summer. I'm still waiting to make the stunning spiced fig pie -- one crust so that you can see the pile of quartered fresh figs baked in their juices, but there are plenty of other options in the meantime.

A good pie seems like a distinctly American phenomenon, but some of the more interesting recipes have other countries' roots. The Melopita is a Greek pie using myzithra cheese and wildflower honey and the Not-Quite-Kulfi pie uses condensed milk, pistachio paste, orange blossom water, and cardamom. But there's Sweet Potato, too, and Shoo-Fly, and a Girl Scout-inspired Samoa pie. The riff on apple involves peanut caramel.

These desserts are more complicated than the regular pie-crust-plus-fruit-filling combination, but Kave patiently walks you through the steps. Most pies play off a different kind of crust; in addition to the regular classic crust, there's cornmeal, chocolate, a vegan pate brisee. The crumb crusts require baking the cookie first before crumbling it up -- your own graham crackers, gingersnaps, vanilla wafers -- and despite the additional work, the end results are always so much fun. The book made me think of Grace Paley's poem, "The Poet's Occasional Alternative":

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

I thought of this especially on afternoons when I'd planned on working on my own writing. Why write when I could make a chocolate lavender pie instead? Like in Paley's poem:

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

Sometimes one needs excuses to not write, and First Prize Pies provides a book full of them, and they'll probably make you more popular, too.