Bibliobites in November/December: Flour Power

Local legend/pastry queen/James Beard Award winner Joanne Chang is a very busy baker indeed.  In addition to running the nine locations of her well-loved Flour Bakery and Cafe, she’s written five cookbooks, and with her husband, chef Christopher Myers, she owns Myers + Chang, a pan-Asian restaurant in Boston.   Plus, she’s recently somehow found the time to appear as a judge on the Netflix series Baking Impossible.  I’d say it’s her daily schedule that must verge on the impossible!  Way back in 2015, our group reviewed Ms. Chang’s first baking book; this month we tackled her newest, Pastry Love.  After spending more than a month with butter, sugar, and plenty of chocolate, did we think this title was a worthy successor?

The book itself was praised for its production values: nice heavy paper, stunning photography, and the typical large format.  The contents cover a wide range, from breakfast treats to breads to confections.  We loved Ms. Chang’s writing style; she’s clear and precise, and her instructions are very detailed.  We also liked that her recipes feature both volume and weight measurements, so no matter which method you prefer, you don’t have to waste time on tedious conversions.  On the downside, the font is fairly small and the text color is light gray, rather than black.  We’ve noticed this trend towards gray printing in cookbooks, and while it’s visually pleasant, it is more difficult to read.  Cookbook editors, please take note!

Once the oven was turned on, and our ingredients were properly at room temperature, did our group of mostly non-bakers enjoy the results of their efforts?  For starters, the breakfast chapter was a winner, featuring yummy treats that were quick and easy.  Three people made vegan carrot-ginger muffins; these were “hearty” and “really good warm” with plenty of flavor and texture from the carrots, raisins, and walnuts.  One person tried reducing the sugar, but this didn’t improve things; the resulting muffins were “bland.”  Even better were the vegan chocolate-banana muffins, “absolutely delicious–a keeper!”  Maple-blueberry scones also more than made the grade; these jumbo-sized treats feature whole-wheat flour and plenty of blueberries, “we ate lots!”  Two people tried  ricotta-cherry scones; these were “very tasty” and looked gorgeous, too.  Two caveats: the scones contain some expensive ingredients (frozen and dried cherries, creme fraiche), and the scones are of the biscuit (rather than the flaky) style– which one cook realized is not her preferred type.

Moving on to the ever-enticing cookie department, we enjoyed several recipes that are the convenient slice-and-bake variety; we discovered that all of these doughs freeze well, definitely a bonus.  Pecan sandies were a “really good…not too sweet” version of this classic.  The dough was a bit crumbly but manageable, and the cookies kept well.  Lemon-polenta cookies, a signature treat at the bakery, had a bit of pleasant grit from the cornmeal, and bright lemon flavor.  These also remained fresh-tasting for at least a week and were just right with a cup of tea. Spiral shortbreads are perfect for the sesame enthusiast; they feature both black and “regular” tahini and are rolled in sesame seeds.  These cookies were rich and subtly savory, and also had a nice trompe l’oeil effect– they look like they’re chocolate and vanilla, but they aren’t!  Black tahini isn’t widely available, but Asian markets carry it, and of course it can be ordered online.  We baked drop cookies, too: thin, crispy chocolate chip cookies were just that– large, buttery, and loaded with chips, “will definitely make again!”  Our cook thought they were maybe “a bit too sweet” but it was a minor complaint.  And in the warmer months, “they’d be good to use for making ice cream sandwiches.”  Vegan almond macaroons used aquafaba, that trendy egg substitute, but all did not turn out perfectly.  The dough was quite sticky and therefore a bit difficult to work with, and the cookies were reluctant to turn brown (the doneness test), so they wound up overbaked– beyond crunchy!  Gluten-free Persian love cookies were “pretty good” with their almond flour base; our baker changed up the flavorings to accommodate what she had available, so they weren’t really “Persian,” but they were good enough that, “I will try again.”   And if you enjoy rich, dark chocolate flavor, try the double chocolate rye cookies.  These are a little bit fussy to make, but worth every minute, with their slightly crisp edges and tender mousse-like interior studded with chocolate chunks.  Most definitely a keeper!

We didn’t venture far beyond breakfast and cookies; but one person did make olive oil cake with fresh grapes.  Our intrepid baker didn’t have any grapes on hand, but made the cake anyway, and then discovered “it really needed the grapes” for both sweetness and acidity.  The cake was fairly dense and “a bit greasy” which can happen with oil-based cakes.  This was a recipe that would benefit from some personal tweaking to accommodate particular preferences.  Japanese cotton cheesecake turned into a bit of a flop, partly because of the pan called for: an 8″ x 3″ round pan.  Many of us might have an 8″ round pan, but your standard cake pan is only 2″ deep.  So, our baker used a springform pan which (as they sometimes will) leaked a bit, and also allowed water from the water bath to seep in.  It was really an engineering problem, not a recipe problem; but this and other complications resulted in a cake that was not fluffy as advertised.  After a frustrating afternoon, “I might try again!”

Overall, we enjoyed this title.  Even those who only had the time or energy for just a little pastry love thought that “everything looked so good!”  We liked many of the author’s takes on classic recipes, and it was fun to bake treats that we’d seen/eaten at the bakery.  As much as some of us like to bake, what we all really want is a Flour Bakery a little closer to home.  What about it, Ms. Chang?  Isn’t it time to branch out to the real suburbs (as in, out along 95/128)?  Everyone in our group would undoubtedly become a loyal customer.

Our voting reflected our positive experiences, and the good vibes generated by Ms. Chang’s friendly and genuine “voice.”  We averaged out to a 3.8 (out of a possible 5).  That’s a pretty stellar score for this group!

We’ll next meet via zoom on Friday, January 28 at 11 AM.  This month’s theme is “Choose Your Own Adventure:” pick a title from a reserved cart of books at the main circulation desk, or choose one of your own.  The idea is to try something new and/or different.  If you would like to attend and are not on our email list, you can sign up here to receive the zoom link.

Happy New Year, and see you on the 28th!