Getting baked with good friends

Browsing my friends’ bookshelves is always interesting but the books I love to get into (in more ways than one) are their baking books. Not every house has some but when I do come across a home with a well-stocked dessert-bookshelf, I can spend hours browsing and lingering over the lush photography. Puddings and cheesecakes and fruit tarts – oh my.

My love of baking books strikes my friends as strange because I own so few myself and I am a really terrible baker. Last week I tried to get my Nigella on and make brownies. I succeeded in making brown, far too much brown, great tracts of it that crawled out of the pan and attempted to envelope the wire rack like an Alien facehugger with chocolate chips. What remained in the pan completely lacked in the delicious gooey interior that makes a brownie so enjoyable and instead had a texture reminiscent of foam mattress.

It did not, it must be said, look like the brownie in the book. Nothing I bake ever does, because I am terrible at following instructions. Some people would have measured the ingredients and not substituted on an ad-hoc basis. Others might have looked at the timing and directions. Nigella, they would have reasoned, is an excellent cook and if, like me, you generally make cakes suitable for use as ballast perhaps actually following her directions would be a better plan than ignoring the book completely.

Me, I figured it would be fine once we beaten the gloop into submission, cleaned up the worst of the over-flowing tentacles, and added a little cream and chocolate shavings. And it was.

I have plenty of regular cooking books, and can make a great meal. Savoury food is simple to improvise but I invariably ruin the more structured sugary sweet treats I attempt. Sponges, flans, pastry, pastries; you name it, I have mutilated it. I am a terrible baker and this is probably no bad thing. The main problem with baking is the fact that, after you have done it, you have lots of baked goods available to eat. Sitting there. Tempting you. Demanding to be eaten and situating themselves lasciviously right next to the salted caramel sauce and big bottle of Baileys with a “come hither” expression on their steaming sugary surface.

There’s a reason they call them tarts, people.

I like friends with baking books, and I treasure my friends that do bake. I can only hope that they also welcome my enthusiastic advances on their cooking and admire my ability to enthusiastically munch my way through every mouthful they offer me, and then some. Because one bite of a sweet thing is never enough for me.

Maybe you are one of those saintly people who glide slim, smug and ethereal through life turning down unnecessary deliciousness. Maybe you just have a little of what you fancy – a nibble of the cheese, a square of the dark chocolate, just one canapé and a small glass of wine. You can open a pack of Pringles without needing to finish the tube, and throw leftover birthday cake out when it gets dry, rather than concocting a deranged high-calorie plan to make it wonderful again. (Microwave it, and then add some fresh cream with a little Bailey’s mixed in. You’re welcome.)

You can have your cake and eat it, but you’d genuinely prefer a nice piece of fresh fruit and a game of tennis. I would salute your temperance but I am too busy being filled with hate. And food. All the wonderful tasty delicious food.

Many of my friends are brilliant bakers with a cook-book collection to match. Browsing their shelves I find treats galore to tempt me. Cheesecakes. Sponges and flans. Tiny wonderful fat-filled enlardenating pastries. Wonderful brownie books and books on decorating. Cake pops, because normal cake just wasn’t fattening enough – they had to come up with a way to make it even more delicious and bad for you.

For me to have those books and be capable of making the contents correctly would be an invitation to non-stop baking madness and an additional 20 kilos or so to settle on my waistline overnight.  I already have a deliciously-fattening craft beer habit, a penchant for Thai food and a slightly disturbing fixation on spectacularly smelly cheeses.

I don’t need to another monkey – or a sticky-sweet baked gorilla – on my back. I’ll leave the baking books on my friends’ kitchen shelves. And just try to be in the neighbourhood when they decide to give them a go.

 

The I Can’t Cook Cookbook

The Cook's CompanionI both agreed and disagreed with a friend recently when they marvelled at the sheer volume of cookbooks available and decreed that the market couldn’t possibly support such numbers. Agreed, because I too wonder how there could possibly be so many incarnations of said books, particularly given how expensive the production costs and subsequent shelf prices are. But disagreed—or perhaps despaired—because regardless of how many there are or how sustainable the market may or may not be, I still can’t find a cookbook for me.

My cooking problems are myriad, and I recognise that my needs are less niche than, well, tricky and a little odd. But I’m putting out my cookbook issues and wish list lest anyone know such a book exists.

I can’t cook.

And I really mean that I can’t cook. In fact, I think any cookbook I create could and should be—to paraphrase from the similarly titled one already around—The I Can’t Cook Cookbook.

Jamie OliverI haven’t the time for cooking.

By the time I’m ferreting around in the pantry, there’s only one thing I want to do: find food and get it in me. I’ve neither the patience nor the blood sugar levels to sustain a two-hour food prep time. In actuality, any food prep time is spent snacking on ingredients so: a) there’s not much left for the actual meal I’m attempting to prepare; and b) I’m no longer hungry by the time said food is ready and it goes to waste. And no, I can’t start earlier. I’m busy.

I lose patience with fiddly, time-consuming steps.

In spite of the fact that I can’t cook, I invariably get part of the way through cooking something and decide that some of the steps and/or ingredients are superfluous. So I skip them. Because clearly, in despite my complete lack of culinary training, I know better. If a recipe’s got more than about five steps, it’s all over.

I only like plain food or sweet food.

This one’s self-explanatory. I need a cookbook that skips anything that could be remotely considered a spice or a distant relative of a spice, and that instead hones in on anything plain or sugar-filled. Yes, this means that I lean towards cake cookbooks. Given my penchant for eating while I cook, cake mixture and I are old friends.

Moosewood CookbookI only eat one food at a time, so I need to be able to prepare it in bulk.

There are some things you don’t really want to be famous (read: infamous) for, but it’s well known among friends that I tend only to eat one food at a time, eat it until its death, and then never eat it again. There was the blueberry muffin phase. There was the sushi phase. There was the vegetable cannelloni phase. I can now neither eat nor even stomach the smell of all three. Regardless, when I was eating them, I needed them to be easy and quick to prep and able to be prepped and stored in bulk. I’m currently auditioning new foods to fill their places.

I can’t cook if I can’t see what I’m cooking.

No, I don’t need glasses—my eyesight’s fine. I need glossy, expensive-to-produce, food stylist-created pictures. For every single recipe. Because if I haven’t got something visual and salivation-inspiring to aspire to, I’m not interested.

MasterchefI’m a vegetarian.

Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but I tend to forget that this isn’t how everyone operates. I’m reminded of that the hard way when I forget to order myself ‘special’ meals on long-haul flights. Either way, I don’t eat any animals—that includes chicken and fish (don’t get me started on those faux vegetarians); in short, anything with a face—and things like eggs or dairy only in the smallest amounts, and only then if they’re part of the bigger food picture. Think cheese on a pizza or eggs in a cake, but never on their own or as the primary part of the meal.

I’ve found that the problem with most vegetarian cookbooks is that they assume you live on a commune, grow your own vegies, run your own health food store, have limitless time for preparing things like lentils, which take days upon days to cook, and that you have a fully stocked pantry of specialised vegetarian ingredients. Where are the vego cookbooks for time-poor, inner city-dwelling writers, I ask?

I’m after low fat.

Isn’t everyone? After all, our diets are so saturated with artery-clogging, thigh-expanding fat that if we’re not after low fat, we’re probably in health trouble.

I hate capsicum, eggplant, and herbs.

Particularly herbs. Particularly rosemary, the all-powerful, all-tainting herb that recipe books always seem to contain and that restaurants not-so-conveniently forget to include on their list of potential meal selection ingredients. All three are deal breakers for me, at both cafes and in cookbooks. I realise that I could omit them from recipes, but it’s the principle that matters here. Vegetarian cookbooks are always loaded up with eggplant- and capsicum-featuring recipes with serious helpings of herbs to ‘add flavour’. Purchasing such a cookbook would be like giving the publisher a thumbs up for creating such a horror.

Skinny Bitch in the KitchI haven’t the interest or the inclination to chase all over town for quirky ingredients.

The moment you say ‘vegetarian’, recipe books say ‘expensive, almost-impossible-to-find ingredients’ that you’ll spend days trying to source, will only need a pinch of, and that will spend the rest of its shelf life attracting weevils to your cupboard. Case in point, the Skinny Bitch in the Kitch vegan cookbook. Add in the fact that the hard-to-find ingredients have American names and you have to use Google translation to decipher what they’d be called in Australia and where precisely on this continent you might find them, and you can understand why the book ended up gathering dust on my shelf and I ended up eating rice crackers for dinner.

Sigh.

I realise that this is an eclectic and entirely embarrassing list of needs and tastes and that the word ‘fussy’ springs to mind. Either way, it’s incredible how difficult it is for someone with my tastes to find a suitable cookbook.

I say vegetarian. They say impossible, specialist ingredients + herbs.

I say vegetarian. They say bland, cheaply produced cookbook without pictures.

I say low fat. They say spicy to get your metabolism going and bucket loads of protein, i.e. meat…

Nigella LawsonI mean, forget Masterchef cookbooks—they’re too over the top and too meat-filled. Forget The Cook’s Companion—alluring as it is with its new stripy cover, it’s much too large and overwhelmingly intimidating for a newbie to cooking like me. Forget anything Jamie Oliver-ish—he’s cute and his books are beautifully produced, but they include far too much meat replete with pictures about how to kill it [the cute farmyard animal pictured just a few pages before] and carve it. Forget anything Nigella Lawson-themed. We all know that’s just gastroporn. And forget Moosewood Vegetarian Cookbook—it lacks glossy pictures and is chock filled with tricky-to-find ingredients with American names.

The question is, is there a low fat, plain + sweet, herb-, capsicum-, and eggplant-free, quick-and-easy cookbook for people who can’t cook out there in the market? And if so, can you please tell me its name?