Book Recommendation – Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking

It’s been a couple of months since I have written about a cookbook, and I must say, this book is worth the wait. The book came to my attention as part of the #rainydaybitescookbookclub on Instagram. I know I have written about the club before, but Deborah Balint, the creator and host of the club has impeccable taste, so we all benefit from her ability to curate amazing books! Cheryl Days’ Treasury of Southern Baking is the type of book that I know I will be reaching for over and over again.

Cheryl Day is a self-taught baker and co-owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. She comes from a long line of bakers including her great-great-grandmother Hannah Queen Grubs, who was born enslaved, and her great-grandmother Queen. Both women were gifted bakers who created successful businesses. Clearly, these gifts have been passed on to Cheryl as this is her 3rd bestselling book. The book was recently named as a James Beard Award nominee, which is the second nomination for Cheryl.

So, what have I baked so far? Several things, and every single one has been delicious. The first thing I made was Cheryl’s version of Bill Smith’s Famous Atlantic Beach Pie. After some research, I discovered that in North Carolina and much of the south, this pie is very well known, but this was the first I’d heard of it. I was intrigued by the mere notion of a saltine cracker pie crust. I’d never heard of such a thing, but as someone who delights in sweet treats with a sprinkle of salt included, I knew I was in. The pie has a lemon custard filling and what I believe is Cheryl’s master stroke, buttermilk whipped cream. It fires up the taste buds on several fronts – it is buttery, salty, sweet and tangy all at once.

Bill Smith’s Famous Atlantic Beach Pie

Next up was something savory. I decided to make Bacon Cheddar Scones. This would be my first attempt at baking scones, and I was enthusiastic about trying something new. It actually could not have been easier and the results were delicious. There are 3 other scone recipes in the book, but who are we kidding? The recipe that includes bacon was a must bake, and baking one of the others would mean giving up the bacon!

Bacon Cheddar Scones

Leftover bananas? Cheryl includes 4 banana recipes in the book. The recipe I chose to make was Banana Chocolate Cake. I can honestly say that this was the best banana anything I have baked. It was perfectly moist with a light and tender crumb.

On to snacks! Included in the book are quite a number of crackers and other snacking items. I made the Parmesan-Rosemary-Pecan Shortbread recipe. These are the perfect little nibble to add to a charcuterie. Along with the self-explanatory ingredients there was a pinch of cayenne, which was the perfect backdrop for the shortbread.

Parmesan-Rosemary-Pecan Shortbread

Most recently, I had the pleasure of making Butterscotch Pudding. As mentioned in a previous post, this family loves butterscotch. The recipe starts by making a caramel on the stove top and is finished by baking in the oven using a water bath, which was another method I had not used before. The result was a rich and decadent dessert that fires up those taste buds again. Caramel, salt, and fresh vanilla bean are all evident in the final product.

Butterscotch Pudding

The only recipe I’ve baked so far that has not been perfect was a batch of Chocolate Chip Cookies. I’m not sure if it was the temperature of my butter, or the half an egg that flew out of the mixer right as I was adding it to the dough (I see people on TV add eggs while the mixer is on, but clearly, that is not for me), but my cookies did spread a lot. However, the end result was a flat, somewhat square shaped, yet absolutely scrumptious cookie, so it doesn’t actually qualify as a fail, does it?

The book contains over 200 recipes. There is everything from Flaky Butter Biscuits to Green Tomato Preserves. I have only scratched the surface, but I have baked enough from the book to know that this will now be a staple for me. The recipes are not overly complicated, the instructions are clear and well written, and flavor rules the day.

Book Recommendation – Carpathia: Food From the Heart of Romania

This month of February, I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Most of that time has been spent exploring a new cookbook – Carpathia: Food From the Heart of Romania by Irina Georgescu. This book was selected as the February challenge for the Rainydaybites Cookbook Club hosted by Deborah Balint. To be entirely honest, I resisted at first. Did I have space for another cookbook? Not really. Have I actually spent the amount of time I wanted with my newest cookbooks? Not even close. Did I have time? Well, yes. Was the book club fun? Of course. But still, I was thinking of taking a short break from the club. Then something happened… Deborah published the first challenge. It was anything from the “Breads and street-food bakes” chapter. She posted pictures of some of the choices, and that was it. I was putty in her hands. I was seduced, and it was so easy for her. Bread week was my weakness, and she had exploited that weakness. So, I quickly got on Amazon and ordered the book. Nearly a month later, I’m so glad I did.

The very next day I received the book which is absolutely beautiful. It is full of beautiful pictures of not only the food, but of Romania itself. The author grew up in communist Romania and shares her story and her love of her culture with the rest of us. Not only do we get wonderful recipes, but we also get a glimpse into the heritage of Romanian cuisine.

A few days later, Deborah hosted a live stream with author Irina. She demonstrated how to shape a Colac, which is a braided celebratory bread worthy of winning any episode of The Great British Baking Show. Irene talked about her life growing up in Romania, and Romanian traditions. She was warm and enthusiastic, which only served to enhance my enthusiasm for the challenge.

The first thing I made from the book was a cheesy polenta with sour cream and runny fried egg – a full Romanian breakfast. It was absolutely delicious. It reminded me of a breakfast bowl I’ve eaten many times at a trendy local restaurant serving southern cuisine which features goat cheese grits, but in this case I was at home, still in my pajamas, which made it all the more wonderful.

A Full Romanian Breakfast

When bread week came, I couldn’t choose only one thing for the challenge. I settled for three. I made Covrigi, which is a little bread that lies somewhere between a pretzel and a bagel. These little beauties were fun to shape, and Tom suggested that we use everything bagel seasoning on some of them instead of the traditional poppy seed, which was a good call. I also made “Salties” which are cheesy breadsticks topped with salt and caraway seeds and are the perfect marriage to a nice cold beer. Lastly, I made Scovergi, which is a yogurt and cheese flatbread that Irena calls “Romanian popcorn”. This is by far the best damned “popcorn” I’ve ever eaten! I caution you though, these are downright addictive.

Romanian Popcorn

So far, I’ve made two of the main courses in the book. Ostropel de Oltenia is chicken in garlic tomato sauce with polenta dumplings. What struck me about this dish was just how much flavor it packed considering its limited amount of ingredients. A couple of nights ago I made an oven-baked pearl barley pilaf with chicken and mushrooms, which was so good it prompted me to go ahead and write this post now even though I have many, many things I still want to make from this book.

One piece of advice I would give when cooking from the book is to pay attention to what type of polenta you are using. There are several recipes featuring polenta as it is used a great deal in Romanian cooking. I used a coarse longer cooking polenta, but with at least one of the recipes, I think I would have been more successful using a quick cooking polenta.

Oven Bake Pearl Barleu Pilaf with Chicken and Mushrooms

All in all I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It is the ultimate in comfort cooking. Don’t resist like I did. Just get it.

We Joined an Instagram Cookbook Club!

Confession. Until this past spring, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I was checking out my Instagram feed and saw a post by @zoebakes aka Zoe Francois about her new cookbook, Zoe Bakes Cakes being chosen by @rainydaybites for the May and June cookbook challenge. Zoe gave a great description of the cookbook club and how it worked. I clicked the links and was impressed to see all the beautiful bakes that had been produced and thought the concept sounded fun, but I was late to the party as the challenge was halfway over. The way the club works is that a particular cookbook is chosen, a specific recipe or recipes are chosen from the book, and participants post photos of what they made on a specific date. It was something I wanted to do, but to be honest, I was late to the party several times. Finally, I decided to take the plunge and make sure I didn’t miss out again, and asked Ray if he wanted to join in. He also thought it sounded like fun and agreed to participate.

The book selection for November and December was Baking for the Holidays: 50+ Treats for a Festive Season by Sarah Kieffer. That sounded liked a perfect selection as we both expected to bake a lot during these months. Once we made the commitment to one another, I ordered the book right away and was delighted to receive my beautiful copy. A quick look through is all I needed to know that I would be making many of the recipes from this book outside of what was chosen for the club.

The first recipe for the club was Lemon Pull-Apart Bread. Well, that sounded delicious! So, I gathered my ingredients and went to work. First the dough had to be made. It needed to be made ahead of time and placed in the refrigerator overnight or up to 72 hours. That flexibility ended up being a godsend as family obligations interfered with my plans the next day, but my dough was still waiting for me when I was ready. On baking day, things appeared to be going well at first. I followed the instructions and admired the slices of dough as they sat in the pan for the final rise. All was great!

Lemon Pull-Apart Bread Dough

Then came time to bake. I’d already seen what Ray had produced, so I excitedly placed my loaf in the oven. After several minutes, I turned the oven light on to take a peek. Well, it didn’t quite look like what I was expecting. It was the opposite of Ohio – high on both ends and round in the middle. At the midway point I decided to tent the bread with foil to control the browning. The bread still had the odd shape, but the smell of butter that wafted up was heavenly! Once the bread was finished baking, it had a greater resemblance to a bouquet of flowers than the neatly stacked image that was in my head.

Lemon Pull-Apart Bread

What went wrong? I don’t know if I should say anything went wrong. What I got in the end was actually delicious. Tom likened it to a lemon Danish, which he said was one of the few breakfast pastries he likes. I wondered if I let the rise go longer than I should have? There was a range of 45 to 60 minutes, and I let mine go the full 60. More is better, right? I also think in retrospect, that I could have been much neater when placing my strips of dough into the pan. Nonetheless, I completed the icing and took additional pictures and posted one of them to Instagram. The response was so positive! I had many likes and warm comments. Both Sarah Kieffer and Deborah of @rainydaybites gave very nice compliments. I’d been reluctant to share, but Ray had nudged me to post, and I’m glad I did. This was so much fun, and the cookbook club is a really kind and supportive community. I’m definitely in for round two!

Let’s see how the experience went for Ray…

Let me start by picking up where Karen left off. I really wouldn’t say she had gone wrong in any way either. We discussed what we had done differently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean her following my exact path would have produced the same end result. I only did 45 minutes for the final rise, but would that have changed things for her? Probably not. There are many factors that could come into play. Perhaps the strength of the yeast she used was better than mine. Maybe her kitchen was warmer than mine which resulted in a more powerful final rise. Who knows?

I will also echo her thoughts regarding the nice group of people that were baking along with us! I had finished and posted mine much earlier in the day than Karen and had spent the rest of the day checking in from time to time and watching the results unfold. So many people (including Sarah Kieffer and Deborah of @rainydaybites) gave my end results likes and took the time to comment and I enjoyed replying to their comments and commenting on their work as well.

These friendly exchanges and the camaraderie within the group were the reason I encouraged Karen to go ahead and post her results. Of all the results posted, no two looked alike – some of the participants even talked about crazy results and slices of dough popping out of place as well! They posted their work proudly and with good humor and it really made for a fun and great experience for all.

As for my results… In our family since the very early days of Karen becoming my sister-in-law, we have teamed up to make a dessert or two each Thanksgiving. Baking is a very precise thing and I believe in following recipes, but after making a particular recipe several times, I am known to consider changes to the process. There is one pecan pie recipe that comes to mind. We choose new recipes each year, but this particular pie became a favorite of our nephew, so we still make it most years along with our other selection for that year.

Like most pecan pies, you fill the pie shell with toasted pecans before pouring the filling over them. In this particular recipe it calls for an extra step – after putting the pecan halves in the pie shell, you are supposed to add some chopped pecans to the filling before you pour it over the other pecans. After a few years of doing this I began to wonder what is the point of it? It has become sort of humorous traditional exchange between us when preparing the pie.

Karen: “Now we need to add the chopped pecans.”

Ray: “Is this step really necessary? Do we really need to do it?”

Karen: “Yes, that’s what the recipe says to do!”

Ray: “Fine, we’ll do it!”

Family anecdote aside, I did follow the recipe to the letter and I ended up with amazing results! One of the fun things about the club is that if there are variations in the book for a chosen recipe, you can make one of them instead. I like lemon desserts, probably better than my family, but I knew I would get a better response to one of the other options. In order to save myself from having to eat the bulk of the lemon bread alone, I decided to make the cinnamon version.

Cinnamon Pull-Apart Bread – Final Rise

After the final rise was complete, it was all set to go in the oven. While it was baking the house filled with an amazing cinnamon smell and my son couldn’t stop asking me how much longer it would be before we could eat it. I understood how he felt – I couldn’t wait to try it either! When it was done baking and topped with icing, I was amazed at what I saw – it was probably one of the nicest looking things I had ever made.

After snapping a few pictures, we tore into it. It was truly delicious and in short order the loaf in the picture above was half its former size! My son asked for more and my wife said it reminded her a bit of Cinnabon – I agreed. It took a great deal of restraint, but we wrapped it up and set it aside for the next day when we enjoyed another slice. The author states that the bread is best eaten the day it’s made. While that is no doubt true, especially if you plan to serve it to company, it was just as good the second day after a few seconds in the microwave.

Round one really was a lot of fun and I am looking forward to the second challenge next week.

Book Musings – Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

This past summer Tom and I had my mother and brother over for dinner, and while we were sitting at the table, my mother brought up my birthday. “What would you like us to get you for your birthday?” my mother asked. “Let me think about it,” was my reply. It is a pretty standard reply from me and sometimes I really never come up with an adequate response, but on this occasion, in the interim, I did come up with something. I was still basking in the glow of having watched Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy and discovered that he had an upcoming book. So, that was what I wanted.

On the next visit, the question came up again, and this time I had my answer prepared. I told them I wanted Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci, that it needed to be the signed copy, and that meant it needed to be purchased through Barnes and Noble. Then I fielded questions such as, “Is that all?”. Yes. “You know it won’t be out until October?” Yes. “You know it only costs $28?” Yes, it doesn’t matter. It’s what I want.

So, it is now October and I have my book. Was it worth the wait? Indeed. I’ll start by saying that this is not a cookbook. Although there are some recipes and cocktail recipes peppered throughout the book, it is a memoir. A memoir that is very relatable. How is it relatable you ask? While I certainly have never dined with the great Marcello Mastroianni nor gallivanted around Normandy with Meryl Streep, there are other things I can relate to. He is just a few years older than I am, I know what it is like to view my life with one foot planted in the US and the other in England, and I married into an Italian American family. So, yes, it is relatable.

He begins the book as most memoirs begin with his childhood as an Italian American kid growing up in New York and takes us on his journey to the present. Throughout the book are many family interactions that made me laugh out loud or suddenly feel the need to read aloud to Tom. Let’s face it, Stanley Tucci has charm and wit in excess and this book shows it off to its best advantage. He also name drops shamelessly which adds to the hilarity.

Occasionally, Mr. Tucci does let some of the charming and funny veneer drop and shares with the reader some of the reality of his life that is not quite so glamorous. This of course, makes him all the more relatable and takes him from “movie star” to fellow human being.

As for the recipes, I will certainly be trying some if not all of them. Actually, my plan was to make Spaghetti with Lentils last night until I found out there was a recall on onions and decided that it would be wiser to revisit at a later date. There is the recipe for the Spaghetti con Zuchinne alla Nerano which was definitely a “I want to make that” for both Ray and me when watching Searching for Italy. There is also Timpano, which Ray listed as one of his cooking aspirations in his post about Big Night, which of course is written about extensively in this memoir. So, at this point I will propose to both Ray and Marie that we attempt to make Timpano when we finally have a reunion sometime in the nebulous future. To make sure you are both prepared, Marie and Ray, you will be receiving your copy of the book before the weekend is over.

The last comment I will make about this book is that Stanley Tucci reveals that on Christmas mornings before any unwrapping takes place, he is at the ready with a plastic bag to swiftly and immediately dispose of any and all of the wrapping paper. I’ve seen this behavior from only one other person in my life and that would be my husband Tom who is lovingly but accurately nicknamed “The Family Grudunza”. I felt slightly bewildered that there was another sole that fixated on this rather than be “in the moment” on Christmas Day, and Tom felt fully vindicated.

Book – The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Let me begin by saying this is not a review, but a recommendation. I am sure that I won’t be including all the things that are expected of a book review – I don’t want to. I just want to share my experience with a book that has been a source of joy and satisfaction to me for the past few months.

Like many people, when the pandemic hit I was consumed by what needed to be done to provide for my family during lockdown. Whereas many people immediately launched themselves elbow deep into yeasts and sourdough, I found an amazing producer of bread machine mixes and resuscitated my 22 year old bread machine. Really. It is 22 years old! Eventually, though, I decided to try my hand at baking a loaf from scratch. My initial efforts were decent enough to please my family members, but not of a standard that I was satisfied with so I looked further. I found a Craftsy class featuring Zoe Francois called Artisan Bread in Minutes. It seemed almost like cheating, but I decided to take the class anyway and have never really looked back.

After enjoying her classes and having some successes in the kitchen, I decided to find out more about Zoe and that is when I discovered that she had several books co-written with Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. I decided to purchase The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I already knew the basics from having taken Zoe’s class, but was blown away by the extent of this book once I got it home and started reading it.

The general premise of the book is that you can make beautiful and delicious loaves with only minutes spent on the process each day. Who wouldn’t be on board with that? It is actually an extensive exploration of the no-knead bread concept. In this case, you mix a large batch of dough, let it rise for a couple of hours and then store it in the refrigerator for one to two weeks depending on what type of dough you are making. As the dough sits, it develops more flavor and is at the ready whenever you are. The master dough upon which the whole concept is based on can be turned into all sorts of different breads depending on the method used to bake it and any additions used such as olives or cheese, but this book goes way beyond that concept and includes peasant loaves, flatbreads, pizzas, gluten-free breads and enriched breads and pastries. So far, I have made white bread, an olive couronne, pain d’epi, cheese bread, peasant bread, rye bread, breadsticks, fougasse, naan, and oatmeal pumpkin bread. I have not even scratched the surface of what is in this book. I think it will keep me occupied for years.

Olive Couronne

Just this week I decided to explore the recipe for bagel dough. The recipe makes about 4 pounds of dough and can be made into bagels, bialys or soft pretzels. So far I have made my first batch of bagels and pretzels. The pretzels were quite tricky to work with as expected because no-knead dough is quite wet, but although they didn’t look as I had imagined, they tasted good. Next up will be bialys. I have never had a bialy before, but from what Ray and Tom have told me, I will love it!

Everything Bagel

To sum it up, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in baking bread whether experienced or not. It makes bread baking accessible and is a great way to try explore new types of bread baking.