These “niche” cookbooks take baking to awesomely sweet heights
Let me start with a story. I once listened to a jazz musician talk about his craft. He was a master in improvisation, adept in experimenting and playing from the heart. When asked about this talent, the musician said his improv skills came from many years spent learning – memorising, even – the basics.
Baking is a lot like jazz: nail the basics, then get creative.
Flicking through this week’s cookbooks for review – The Pie Project and Impressive Bakes – I couldn’t help but draw a parallel. The tomes might sound niche in their premise (I mean, how many sweet pies can a person make?), but they actually contain more creativity and cunning than many conventional cookbooks with multiple cuisines and courses.
Thing is, the authors – Phoebe Wood and Kirsten Jenkins penned the pie book, and Caroline Griffiths wrote Incredible Bakes – have spent years cutting their teeth in the food world and learning their trade. It’s clear they know their subject matters from top-to-bottom so, naturally, they can experiment – and experiment deliciously well.
Jazzed-up flavour combinations are plentiful in both books.
Let’s start with numero uno: Incredible Bakes *That Just Happen to be Refined-Sugar Free. Written by cook, nutritionist and stylist Caroline Griffiths – who has an astonishing 25 years of food industry experience – the book is true to its title. It is not a healthy dessert book, but rather a sweet tooth satisfier that skirts around the sugar debate by using alternatives, such as natural whole and dried fruit, rice malt syrup, stevia and dextrose. If you’re interested in knowing more about sugar types and sweetener substitutes, Griffiths provides an easy-to-swallow breakdown in the book’s introduction. That’s where the explainers stop. Other cookbooks might condemn sugar’s usage, but Griffiths isn’t here to proselytise.
These aren’t your average desserts, but CWA aficionados will be pleased all the same.
Aside from its lack of refined sugars, Incredible Bakes takes a left-of-centre approach to many classic sweets – carrot cake comes in biscuit form, banana chai blondies feature cannellini beans, and melting moments are made with passionfruit cashew cream. But don’t be fooled into thinking this book is vegan, paleo or raw. Heck no! You’ll find cups of cream cheese, flours of all persuasions and plenty of browned butter. (If you are avoiding gluten, though, the rosewater-spiked almond cakes with chocolate glaze and pistachios are right on the money.)
After working her way through easily achievable bakes (biscuits, slices, cakes and the like), Griffiths takes us into the realm of true sweet sensations – you know, those multiple-tiered, colourful, textural masterpieces designed for special “Let me Instagram this!” occasions. (It’s in this section the cover star croquembouche sits.) If you’re after dinner party desserts and family favourites, skip to the penultimate chapter, ‘Sweet endings’. From crumbles and tarts, to a clever coconut and pandan crème brûlée, this is where incredible is at.
Now, pies! 60 sweet-as pies.
The Pie Project, as mentioned earlier, is the brainchild of Phoebe Wood and Kirsten Jenkins. If those names ring a bell, it’s possibly because Wood was the former Food Editor at Feast magazine and Jenkins was a regular recipe contributor. (Find their full catalogue of Feast recipes here and here.) Aside from being seasoned professionals, the pair are seriously good friends, and it comes across in their recipes, words and images (shot by the talented Jenkins).
If you’re questioning how much you’ll use – or learn from – a book dedicated to sweet pies, stop right there. I too had a little scepticism, but after scanning the catalogue (and post-it noting like crazy), I had a light bulb moment: “There are so many amazing pies in this world!”
Want proof? It’s in the pie...
One of the things I love most about this book is its complete lack of pretension – recipes are split into super obvious chapters: Hot, Cold, Cheats’ and Hand (pies, that is). There’s also a handy “lattice how-to” for bakers wanting to brush-up their grandma skills.
The Pie Project speaks to home cooks with a penchant for satisfying, honest-to-goodness food. If you’re after elegance or cheffy techniques, move right along. While some of the pies include a pastry sub-recipe, many recommend store-bought shortcrust (which you could totally make at home), or use filo, puff or a blitzed-up biscuit base. These shortcuts or “cheats”, mind you, don’t take anything away from the bold flavours or beauty in this book.
The hot pies – mostly fruity, and usually with a twist – are ideal for wintery, couch-bound nights. Think peach, white chocolate and bourbon slab pie; rhubarb, orange and pistachio; or a Nutella number that’s all kinds of evil. The cold offerings, meanwhile, shout “summer entertaining!” – light, bright, fruity and fun. We can’t take our eyes off the peach Melba ice-cream pie (bookmark for Aussie occasions), salted peanut banoffee, and a baked ricotta, orange blossom and date pie that is “very close to being my absolute favourite in the book”, according to Jenkins.
So, if you had to choose one, which would it be?
Ultimately it comes down to one question: what, exactly, are you after? If the answer is recipe variety – bikkies to make with the kids, cakes you could serve at a wedding, and so on – plus ingenious ideas and sugar-free sweetness, Incredible Bakes is for you.
But, if you’re seeking after-dinner desserts and edible gifts that’ll attract “oohs”, “aahs” and “I want to put my face in it!” squeals of delight, take a punt on the pies. By the time you’re that musician’s age, you’ll probably be freestyling pie recipes like nobody’s business.
Cook the books
The Pie Project
Recipes and images from The Pie Project by Phoebe Wood and Kristen Jenkins (Hardie Grant Books NZ, $29.95 hbk) and Incredible Bakes *That Just Happen to be Refined-Sugar Free by Caroline Griffiths (Simon & Schuster, $39.99 hbk)