Above, the Caramel Apple Pie. Below, A relish so versatile that I might make it year -round; Cranberry Chutney from Clean Food.

It's just after lunch on a chilly Sunday and I feel like this is the first moment I've had to collect my thoughts in a good, long while. I hope to coast my way through the rest of the afternoon, with time to stare at the leaves that have caught fire outside my window. Last week there were only sparks of colour flickering amongst branches of green. Now the scene is almost fully aflame.

Whenever the world gets the better of me, I find I rely heavier on the recipes of others. Do you do that too? It's the culinary equivalent of handing over the wheel, and when my mind is taken with the business of other things there's that certain feeling of relief in the ability to relinquish responsibility and to say "here, you drive."

On Thanksgiving there was a Caramel Apple Pie with a boozy applejack and almond crust inspired by Andrea. Believe you me, that pastry was a stunner. Then the other day I tried Nikole's Walnut Oats, which were exactly the thing one should make for breakfast on a grey morning, preferably with your woolen socks on and a broad-bowled spoon at the ready. Later this week I'm making Ashley's Chocolate Chip Cookies and I have a feeling they're going to be tremendous*.

Using their recipes feels like there is a friend with me in the kitchen. I like that.

Even if it is my hands that are doing the heavy lifting, their guidance is there - a voice in your ear through words on a page - and it is a comfort. It is almost as good as having someone there to cook for you. Yes, only almost, but not quite. But it is something.

In case of the circumstance that you too might need similar inspiration, I thought I would tell you about a few the new-to-me books and the recipes that have been filling our table and keeping us fed.

Happy reading. And eating.

* Psst. I made the cookies last night, and tremendous does not even begin to describe how good they are. They are deserving of every superlative imaginable.

Earth to Table (by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, Random House, 2009)

This book is as much of a treatise on seasonal, local cooking as it is a cookbook alone. And let me tell you, I will solemnly swear my allegiance the succulent perfection of their Braised Short Ribs; they are a lusty, gutsy affair with the braising liquid reduced to lacquer that coats the ribs in thick gloss. The robust combination of wine, port and balsamic vinegar is elevated by the firecracker brightness of Gremolata and the sweet subtlety of Apple and Parsnip Purée.

My adopted Irish roots grew proudly at a taste of Colacannon Potatoes, a shameless combination of potatoes, butter, wine, and bacon folded through with tendrils of Brussels sprout. The Heirloom Beet Salad with Feta and Pumpkin Seeds lives up to the quote from Tom Robbins on the facing page; these roasted beets beets are "the most intense of vegetables, ... deadly serious."

Recipes from Earth to Table

• A selection of recipes, including Roasted Autumn Fruits with Torched Sabayon and Mulled Cider and Cranberry, can be found here.

Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home (by Martha Stewart, Clarkson Potter, 2009)

It takes a lot for me to introduce a completely new, untested recipe to our holiday table. But leave it to Martha to charm her way into a seat at our Thanksgiving spread with her Gratinéed Baked Squash Halves. An acorn squash is cleaved in half and then anointed with sage and garlic infused cream. It's then baked in a shallow water bath, so that the steam turns the thick flesh tender but the dry heat causes the cut edges to curl and brown. Once soft, gruyère is grated over and back into the oven until its all golden and bubbling. Brilliant. It was so delicious that I made some more two days after the festivities for a particularly-sumptuous lunch. (Just so you don't worry about my health I should say that there was a salad of bitter greens as well, but the squash was the main attraction.)

After those days of excess, the Tofu and Scallions in Mushroom Broth was a welcome change. Simple and straightforward, dried shititakes bring character to the broth. Even though The Warm Swiss Chard and Bacon Dip is suggested as a part of a larger menu, it does make a fine, fine addition to a lazy Sunday afternoon of watching movies. An icy beer as its partner isn't a bad thing either. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Recipes from Martha Stewart's Dinners at Home

• A slideshow of menus and recipes from marthastewart.com

• Watercress-Cauliflower Soup

Chicken Paillards with Walnut Sauce

• Gratineed Baked Squash Halves

Clean Food (by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, 2009)

This is the book I wanted to cook from when summer began to wane. Full of healthful recipes and an emphasis on whole foods, it offered the substance sought as the cold sets in, but still with a produce-centric perspective that celebrated fall's harvest. The Refried Pinto Beans with Chiles were a quick dinner alongside the Skillet Cornbread and some chopped tomato and avocado. In the beans, the unmistakable tang of lime brought dimension, the classic match to the grassy notes of cumin. As for the cornbread, the texture was light and bouncy, with only a slight sweetness from a modest pour of maple syrup. Leftovers made a merry weekend brunch, with a fried egg perched upon the beans with fresh pico de gallo, and the cornbread toasted with butter alongside.

The Wild Rice, Barley and Arame Salad is what I'll be eating until the winter comes I think, the hearty combination of grains and nuts is somehow soothing and restorative at the same time. Finally, Walters' mother's Cranberry Chutney was the second untried recipe to make its debut on Thanksgiving Day; full of autumnal flavours of maple and ginger and spice, the addition of apple and celery brings a freshness and subtly that allows its easy pairing with the other dishes of a holiday meal.

Recipes from Clean Food

• A selection of recipes are available on Walters' own site.

CRANBERRY CHUTNEY

As a child, I insisted on store-bought cranberry sauce – no chunks, just that smooth roll, complete with indentations from the can. When I finally tasted my mother’s homemade chutney, I was converted. I now make it in huge batches, give it as gifts around the holidays and even freeze it to have throughout the year. It goes great on a turkey sandwich with avocado and honey mustard or with vegetable pot pie. Once you taste it, you’ll understand why I’m addicted. - Terry Walters

I chose to dice all the ingredients so that the chutney cooked into a softly-textured relish. - Tara

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup sucanat
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 medium apples, cored and chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

METHOD

Combine cranberries, raisins, sucanat, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and water in Dutch oven. Place over medium heat and cook 15 minutes. Stir in onion, apples and celery and cook 15 minutes more. Remove from heat, fold in lemon peel, and serve.

Chutney can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container in the freezer.

Makes 4 cups

Note: Coincidentally, all three books are organized by season; I have only been cooking from the Fall chapters of each. Author biographies and further information about the books can be found through the links provided. Cover art and recipe reprinted with permission from the respective publishers.

trio

So here's my trouble. I wanted to tell you about Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009). To chat about my impressions, my likes, my dislikes, the nitty gritty details of this cookbook devoted to the small.

But my attention has been captured by someone small, a small one who is getting bigger every day. Happy Birthday to you, our William - today is your first, and I can hardly find the words.

All week I have been vacillating between my heart bursting with pride and my chest tightening with emotion. Such is the state of Mummyhood. The First Birthday is an event met with a mile-wide grin and cheers of joy tempered with the sob-sniffle-wail of "my goodness, this is all too fast."

And fast it has been. Our Littler Man is walking.

William took his first tentative steps a few weeks back, and has now fully embraced the notion of upright locomotion. The rapid-fire thwack of his hands and knees on the floors of our home has been replaced with the padded rhythm of confident footsteps. And confident he is, as Will is not one to toddle.

In a manner unsurprising to anyone who has met him, our William has the audacity to promenade. His walk is so spirited, his step so lively, there is most surely a song in his heart.

Oh there now, I've digressed into ridiculous levels of Proud Parent Mode. My apologies.

Where was I? Oh yes, cupcakes. With William's first 1st birthday party planning underway, Martha Stewart's Cupcakes was a wealth of imaginative cake ideas, all on a scale befitting the occasion. Silly me though, I put Benjamin in charge of selecting the flavour to try - and again as my children are nothing if not consistent, he chose the most basic of recipes, chocolate upon chocolate.

But his choice was surprisingly astute, as our previous favourite chocolate cupcake was the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005). Now One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes are in the new book, but it is a different recipe.

So it was settled, the dessert menu chosen for our celebration. The recipe itself warrants little description; it is a standard cocoa and buttermilk cake, with only a scant amount of oil. The method is as demanding as a boxed cake, with the dry ingredients whisked in a bowl, then the eggs, buttermilk and oil poured over. A few stirs, and it is done.

This recipe yields cakes that look the example of cupcake perfection; each rose with the same rounded cheek, bulging slightly at their edges but with a gentle slope. Best of all was their colour - a true, dark brown, exactly how a chocolate cupcake should look.

As we did not have the recipes side-by-side for comparison, we had to rely on (unreliable) memory for our verdict. While everyone enjoyed the cupcakes, they were not met with the same knee-buckling adoration of the previous version. When I first made the Baking Handbook incarnation of One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes, I recall thinking that these were simply the best cupcakes ever. This time, not so much. They were good, but not exceptional.

It should be said though, that I am terribly finicky about my chocolate cakes so it takes a good deal to impress. While I shrugged at the taste, there was nary a complaint from our guests. Approximately 5 minutes after the Happy Birthdays and candles blown out, there were quite a few happy faces smeared with whipped ganache frosting.

While my personal assessment of the cupcakes was lackluster, my overall impression of the book from which they came is not. I did not test many recipes from the book (honestly, even I can only eat so many cupcakes) as I would have liked, but I can tell you that the book Martha Stewart Cupcakes is full of fun.

There is an obvious, infectious merriment in the way that the subject matter is treated, and the variations on the theme simply make me smile. One cannot help but be made a bit happier by pages upon pages of sprinkles and gumdrops, marizpan ladybugs, and coconut-feathered chicks.

What's more, the cookbook is inspiring. Ingeniously, the book pushes the boundaries of cupcakery to include all manner of small cakes, and even cookies and meringues, as long as they are baked in that distinctive shape.

There are filled cupcakes, layered mini-cakes, cookie-crusted cheesecakes, and simple pound cakes. Not all cakes are frosted, such as the Tiny Cherry and Almond and Pistachio-Raspberry teacakes, making these gems the ideal everyday treat to be tucked into lunchboxes or enjoyed as an afternoon snack. The combination of flavours, specific decorating techniques and helpful guides (including clip art templates) could all be adapted and developed to suit your specific tastes, and could be applied to the creation of full-sized cakes.

One caveat, as with Martha Stewart's Cookies (Clarkson Potter, 2008), much of the content included in Martha Stewart's Cupcakes has been previously featured in the various publications of Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Personally, I enjoyed having the recipes available in a single source, but others may disagree and might have preferred a wholly originally collection.

Time to get back to the business of being Mum to a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Oh my. So big. So fast. So wonderful.

Happy, happy day.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From the book Martha Stewart's Cupcakes.

Recipe

crossed lines

More photos from this series shot by my brother and sister-in-law can be seen here.

Now you didn't think that I'd forget to announce the winner of our Martha Stewart Cupcakes giveaway, did you?

Without further wait, Mr. Random.Org took the honour of selecting ourwinners, as follows.

The First Prize Winner will receive one copy of the Martha Stewart Cupcakes and one copy of Martha Stewart Cookies:

Chocolate Shavings

The Second Prize Winners will each receive a copy of Martha Stewart Cupcakes:

Dor and Michelle R.

I would like to thank everyone who entered, and highly recommend the checking out the fantastic conversation taking place in the comments section. To the winners, please e-mail me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net, with your contact information at your earliest convenience.

This photo was part of a series shot in January, the last time I baked cupcakes from Martha Stewart.

I have three (main) places I keep cookbooks.

There are those stored in the bookshelves that line our den (also where I keep my magazine back issues). I consider these the reference books, those that I turn to for a specific inspiration or if I am looking for a particular recipe. The top shelves are reserved for my most treasured-tomes, the coffee table styled works from authors I admire; they sit alongside the dog-eared, aged copies of cookbooks from my childhood and before.

The second is our dining room table, much to the chagrin of my dear husband. Our dining room is often the resting place of books in transit, those making their way from the kitchen back up to the den. I would be lying if I told you that books do not sometimes take up an extended residence on that table, or if I denied my errant desire to line that room with bookshelves as well.

The third cookbook habitat is our kitchen itself. Behind the closed doors of a built-in cabinet live those books I use most often. These are the books I feel lost without, the ones that best reflect the way I cook and the way we eat. The selection rotates now and again, with titles being promoted and demoted, but there are certain regulars that never lose their place.

I am not yet sure as to where Martha Stewart's Cupcakes will land up, but I'm aiming to find out. With William's first birthday next week (so big!) and celebrations planned, I will be turning to Ms. Stewart for cupcakery inspiration.

And here's the best part - you, my dear friends, will be able to partake in the fun. Below are links to the recipes from the book which are currently available online, so you can get out your muffin tins, cupcake liners and get to baking. But wait, there's more! Random House Canada has generously provided the booty for a contest to celebrate the book's launch. What's there to win? Hold on to your hats:

Grand prize: A copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakesand a copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies (one to be awarded)

Secondary prize: A copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (two to be awarded)

To enter, simply comment at the end of this post; maybe we can chat about our favourite cookbooks or cupcakes or cupcake memory - you decide. But leave your comment by midnight Wednesday, June 10, 2009 (EST), and please include both your email address if not signed in, and a note of your desire to enter (this way, non entrants can still join the chat). If you do not want to sign in, nor do you want to publish your email, please comment then email me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net, with the name you used to comment.

The winner will be selected by at random, and announced the next day. One note, due to distribution regulations, this contest is only open to residents of Canada. My apologies to international readers (this might be a good time to ask your Canadian friends to do you a favour).

Good luck!

Psst. It got mentioned in the comments, so I'll add a note - here's my review o fMartha Stewart's Cookies from way back.

Recipes from the book:

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Tiramisu Cupcakes

Mrs. Kostyra's Spice Cupcakes

German Chocolate Cupcakes

Snickerdoodle Cupcakes

Black Forest Cupcakes

Triple-Citrus Mini Pound Cakes

Lemon Meringue Cupcakes

Candied Hazelnut Cupcakes

Flourless Chocolate Cupcakes

A fine balance; salty, sweet, savoury and all-around delicious, Ina Garten's Maple Roasted Butternut Squash from the book Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.

Martha. Ina. Nigella. Three first names that hardly need last names to be recognized. Three names that are now entities unto themselves; brand names, names that are used as verbs ("I Martha'd up something to decorate the mantle"), as adjectives ("That's such an Ina tablecloth"). Names that have been carefully-cultivated in their marketing to evoke a sense of familiarity and, almost, friendship.

Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson have turned cookbooks into cooking shows, cooking shows into housewares lines, specialty food products, magazines and much, much more. I am surely not alone in saying that these women are each a huge influence to me in the kitchen; in the way I cook and, in many ways, the way I look at food.

It seemed as though the holidays had arrived early last month, when all three of these prolific authors published cookbooks - all coming out within a two-week span. As you can imagine, an admitted fan like me was in food heaven.

True to their established brands, the ladies did not disappoint with their offerings. Martha Stewart is once again the teacher with Martha Stewart's Cooking School; Ina Garten is the ever-gracious host, who doesn't stray from her roots, with Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics and Nigella Lawson continues her role as the ebullient gal pal in the seasonal Nigella Christmas.

Here's a peek at each:

Martha Stewart's Cooking School (Clarkson Potter, 2008), lives up to its name; the hefty book not only feels, but also reads, like a textbook. Although publicity material would like you to consider Martha at your side, guiding you through the recipes, the book instead delivers a vaguely school-marmish incarnation of Stewart at the head of the classroom. After a fairly welcoming introduction, it is down to business and the book dives into its curriculum. First off, a summation of the rules of the kitchen, laying out gentle reminders of what one should keep in mind when approaching a recipe, stocking a kitchen, and while cooking. Following that is an in-depth, expansive list of suggested baking and cooking equipment for the well-prepared cook.

Chapters are structured as studies of specific ingredients; highlighting the particular techniques and recipes that best showcase the qualities of that ingredient. For instance, the Egg chapter has the master technique of scrambling, followed by a recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell cups. The "extra credit" for the lesson is a walkthrough on mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

What makes these chapters wholly appealing to contemporary palates is the range of influences that are covered. So while the Soup chapter might focus its attention on the proper method for making Basic Brown Stock and Glace de Viande, there is also instruction on preparing Dashi. Further along in the book you'll find recipes for Sole à la Meunière alongside Fish Tacos, and Duck Confit a few pages before Lobster Rolls.

Since the book is aimed at both the novice and expert alike, I asked Sean (a capable but infrequent cook) to review Martha Stewart's Cooking School as well.

He felt the book more than a little intimidating. From its size to the textbook-like layout of the pages, it is an impressive tome. The photographs, save for intermittent chapter title page shots of Stewart smiling obligingly, are simply styled with little adornment to the food or setting. The pages are often crammed with details; step-by-step photos, notes on procedure and ingredients, and companion recipes all fight for space in recipe margins.

Despite the jam-packed information, there were a few lapses in accurate instruction. Sean astutely noted the frequent instruction of "season with salt and pepper" might be simple to the accomplished cook, but to the novice, the lack of measurement (even as an estimate) is troublesome. In another instance, a companion recipe omitted the instruction to preheat the oven at the start; this oversight, again something one used to cooking might assume, left Sean's prepared dish waiting for the oven to come to temperature.

Those slight issues aside, while this might not be the sort of cookbook one wants to cuddle up with on the couch for a good read, it is a well thought out, comprehensive course. The information is dense, but the scope and depth of topics covered, and attention to finicky elements of technique and nuances of ingredients, makes this a valuable resource guide for the home cook.

Chapter headings (or in as labelled here, lessons): Introduction • Basics • Stocks and Soups • Eggs • Meat, Fish and Poultry • Vegetables • Pasta • Dried Beans and Grains • Desserts

To summarize: Cooking basics, but not basic cooking.

Recipes: A selection of recipes from the book can be found here.

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is Ina Garten at her generous, welcoming, best. Ina is, for me, the author I often turn to when looking for a dish that will be a resounding success. French-influenced and unapologetically old-fashioned, her cuisine is elegant yet straightforward; Garten believes in the best ingredients, often prepared simply, to their best effect.

This book continues upon her mantra of "turning the volume up" on dishes, seeking out and amplifying flavour to its maximum potential. Garten discusses the need to season and taste throughout the cooking process, often stressing the importance of a last hit of something - acids, herbs or something as simple as a smattering of coarse salt - as the finishing accent to a dish.

Those familiar with Garten's style will not be surprised to find that she makes good use of butter and cream for fortifying richness, lemon juice and zest for their puckery brightness, and thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley are her essential herbs. Particularly in this book, more often than not, Garten turns to roasting as the best way to bring out the full depth of flavour of an ingredient.

For example, the Roasted Tomatoes with Basil are promised to recreate summer's taste with winter's supermarket plum tomatoes. Soused with a healthy sprinkle of sugar and syrupy balsamic to mimic sun-ripened sweetness, then blitzed in a hot oven for a short 30 minutes to concentrate and caramelize, the tomatoes emerged slumped and slightly shriveled, but still brightly crimson. When eaten alone, I found the tomatoes were good, but lacking in the savoury-sweet complexity of their slower-roasted cousins. However when eaten alongside other dishes (meats as recommended by Garten and tossed through hot pasta with shavings of Pecorino as recommended by me), the tomatoes were surprisingly well balanced, contributing an acidic hit that paired nicely with richer counterparts. While not 100 per cent August splendor, these were a bright bit of sunshine on a December table.

Still on the roasting, the Mustard-Roasted Fish was rich but pleasingly piquant. The sauce, mustard and crème fraîche, is lifted by the salty burst of capers - accentuating the acidity of the Dijon mustard and bringing much-needed counterpoint to what otherwise could be a stodgy dish. Although Ms. Garten might clutch her pearls at the thought, I have also tried this recipe with sour cream in place of the higher fat crème fraîche, to equally-successful results.

Garten's Roasted Potato and Leek soup is a rustic, earthy take on the classic Vichyssoise, has already commanded repeat performances at our dinner table. The Maple Roasted Butternut Squash has a mellow sweetness perfectly complimented by salty pancetta and aromatic sage; I found this combination nothing short of addicting.

It is not all roasting in Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, though. Garten stays close to her standards with perfectly-textured Easy Sticky Buns, buttery Wild Mushroom Risotto stained golden with saffron, and (though she forgoes the title of crisp) a juicy Plum Crunch - a classic Barefoot Contessa dessert. With a chapter devoted to the Cocktail Hour, Garten is in her usual fine form.

The books' styling also follows Garten's preferred style; full-colour, full-page photographs accompany each recipe, helpful hints and tricks are organized at the start of each chapter, and recipe notes are filled with her personal anecdotes.

Ina Garten's recipes simply work; when using her books you are pretty much guaranteed delicious food that is almost-always as easy to make as it is to eat. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics follows the high-standard of her previous books, and although some recipes may seem well-trodden, Garten serves them up with such aplomb that one would hardly notice - and if you do, you're far too busy eating to care.

Chapter headings: Cocktail Hour • Soup • Lunch • Dinner • Vegetables • Dessert • Breakfast • FAQs • Credits • Sources • Barn Sources and Resources • Menus

To summarize: Basic need not be boring; get ready to roast.

Recipes:

Roasted Tomatoes

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash

Bruschetta with Peppers and Gorgonzola

Parker's Beef Stew

Honey Vanilla Pound Cake

Nigella Christmas (Knopf Canada, 2008) is like having Ms. Lawson over for the holidays, as her latest publication is more a guidebook to eating, drinking and socializing your way through the season than a simple cookbook alone.

Lawson has written the book as such, eschewing traditional chapter subjects like Starters and Mains for sections that reflect event-based needs. From the days leading up to the holidays to the days that follow, Nigella Christmas has the recipe for the occasion. This choice in organization makes for an enjoyable read, as Lawson walks us through her own Christmas reminisces, but for future reference the Index is essential. It would be hard to remember (for example) if the Christmas Rocky Road appeared in the chapter about open houses and entertaining, or if as a suggested food gift (the answer is the former).

Like Martha and Ina in their respective books, Nigella travels through known-territory here; trifles, pavlovas, roasted hams and Christmas puddings, pomegranates and Proseco and Italianate influences - all of these are part of Lawson's established repertoire and have a presence here. And yet, whether it is that the reader is distracted by the fanciful wrapping or not, the book feels a fresh revisit to well-loved traditions. Some are classic (Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts, Roast Rib of Beef with Port and Stilton Gravy), some are gloriously-kitch (Bacon-wrapped Chipolatas, Fully Loaded Potato Skins), but all are Nigella doing as she does.

Generous in its size, the books' coffee-table-suitable proportions make it seem a gift in and of itself. As always, the book is pages full of her usual literary wit, mellifluous prose and engaging manner. And despite its dimensions, Nigella Christmas is just the sort of cookbook one reads as a work of fiction - it is that charming. The book is gorgeously-styled; each and every image of food sparkles with holiday cheer. A prevailing palette of cranberry reds, golden yellows and deep chocolate is set off by snowy whites and glistening lights. Cheeky photographs of the author, dressed in festive garb and perched in holiday surroundings, appear often. I particularly enjoy the photo of Lawson, resplendent and serene as she reclines on a couch with a set of novelty reindeer antlers upon her head. It is through this tongue-in-cheek fun with her own image that Nigella comes across as inviting rather than narcissistic.

Nigella Christmas is a gift best-suited to those already-fans of Nigella Lawson. It is so firmly entrenched in the Nigella lexicon that those unfamiliar with, or simply not fond of, her often visited pantry staples would most likely find this book far too specific in its scope. This is not an introductory course to Lawson, nor is it a portrayal of a generic holiday - it is an unabashed, celebratory romp in the world of Nigella, as bedecked and bodacious as we have come to expect.

Chapter headings: The More the Merrier • Seasonal Support • Come on Over • The Main Event • Joy to the World • All Wrapped Up • A Christmas Brunch for 6-8 • A Bevy of Hot Drinks • Dr. Lawson Prescribes • Stockists

To summarize:Nigella Christmas is as bright, bold, and bedazzled as the Christmas Tree in Rockafeller Center.

Recipes:

Ginger Glazed Ham

Pumpkin and Goat's Cheese Lasagne

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (as labelled in the book)

Gloriously Golden Fruit Cake

All cover images courtesy of their respective publishers.

Shown here surrounded by toys at a family picnic, Martha Stewart's One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes and Beatty's Chocolate Cake from Ina Garten were combined in a multi-layer cake. Photos courtesy Deep Media.

As anyone familiar with the recipes and columns featured on this site might assume, I am pretty much my family's unofficial baker. One could also rightly assume, seeing my penchant for chocolate, that this fondness might run in the family.

And so, with birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, family reunions and all other manner of festive events, I bake a lot. Not that I am complaining; far be it in fact.

Sometimes there is nothing I would rather do than to pull out my beloved mixer and spend the afternoon measuring, beating and baking. Nowadays I am most often aided by the efforts of my rather endearing assistant, who particularly enjoys sifting dry ingredients and feels it his birthright to lick the bowl whenever possible.

But I digress. Back to the chocolate. Since this love for all things to do with the cacao bean seems to be part of our familial DNA, chocolate cakes are often the request for our celebratory events. Every time I am asked, these words activate my June Cleaver gene; I become consumed with the desire to make the most delicious, most gorgeous, most towering creation of irresistible, indulgent cake and decadent frosting imaginable.

A few years ago I started making the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook to satisfy this task. They were met with resounding accolades as everyone proclaimed them to be the "best ever." I made these for picnics, frosted with chocolate buttercream and decorated with accents of Martha Stewart's signature jadeite green. Truly a one-bowl wonder, I made them in a layer cake variation for a joint birthday party and was later told tales of attendees fighting over the last slice.

Then along came Beatty. I never met her, but was introduced to her legacy by Ina Garten on the show The Barefoot Contessa. It seems that this wonderful woman, the grandmother of Ina's friend Michael the florist, made a fantastic chocolate cake. Like Martha's, hers came together with a single bowl and beater and was advertised as delicious. Who was I to argue with Ina? So the next family event rolled around, and out rolled Beatty's cake. Now this recipe was deemed supreme, and all others were said to pale in comparison.

"What about Martha's?" I asked my family.

"This is better." They replied.

The problem was, I know better than to trust my family and friends. See, I know them. They are a fickle, fickle bunch. Easily swayed by the power of chocolate, give them a slice of homemade cake and they will pretty much say whatever you ask them to. They know cake that is in front of you will always be far superior than the cake that has long been eaten.

I had to find out for myself.

It just so happened that recently I was contemplating the task of a cake for an annual family picnic. It was to celebrate a six-year-old's birthday, and when I asked for particulars I was told "chocolate, no nuts." Armed with this instruction, I decided that purity was the way to go; chocolate upon chocolate. And layers. Lots of layers. What child (or adult for that matter) doesn't catch their breath just a little at the sight of a towering slice of birthday cake?

I was perusing recipes when I realized the opportunity at hand. I could finally settle my chocolate cake conundrum - whose cake was better, Ina's or Martha's? I did the math - one single layer 9"x13" cake (or double layer 9") serves about 16 people. If I took two recipes for cakes that size, I could easily serve my 30.

Then I ran into a problem. If I did one layer of each cake, they may bake up to different textures or colours. That would not work. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a stickler for consistent results in baking.

But I did not want to pass up this chance to finally try these cakes side-by-side. I considered my options and came up with an unorthodox plan.

Make each recipe to the letter, or at least to the letter of the notes I have made over the years. Take one 1 1/4" ice cream scoop of each batter and bake until done in a miniature muffin pan. Take the rest of the two batters, combine them, weigh them, then divide them evenly between three 9"x13" pans for baking. I would have two pure testers to compare, and three identical layers for the picnic.

It was just crazy enough to work. And, well, require a heck of a lot of dirty bowls and two nights of staying up well past my bedtime. And yes, I am fully aware of my obsessiveness.

But it was so worth it. Battle chocolate cake has a winner - Martha*.

I wish I had taken a photograph of the miniature cupcakes, but it was later than I would like to admit and there was no way I was pulling the camera out at that hour.

Take my word for it, Martha's baked up with a beautiful, glossy-smooth crown and sprang back jauntily to the touch. Ina's was slightly more reticent to recover and flatter on top - a trait helpful in layer cakes, but for a cupcake it looked a little depressed. However, the dark, peat-like colour of each was strikingly similar when compared, as was the crumb. Both cakes boasted a texture that was well-formed, open and moist. If I was pressed to note a difference, Ina's was ever so slightly more moist and delicately-elastic to the tongue.

And now the taste. While Ina's did have a prominent cocoa flavour balanced by a subtle coffee undertone, Martha's was somehow more intense, without being overbearing. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something that gave the latter more character. I am sorry and mean no offense Beatty, but something about your cake (while exceedingly tasty) was a smidge reminiscent of a boxed cake when put up against Martha's. Truly, Ms. Stewart's was that good. It was richer, deeper, chocolateyer. I found it was every -er I could hope for.

I knew it was not a good idea to listen to family members on a chocolate high. Sometimes due diligence, along with a bunch of eggs and a box of cocoa, is the only way.

* Some commenters are surprised at Martha's win. To be frank, I was too; I love Ina's cake. Upon reflection, I wonder if Ina's was a victim to its texture; its light sponginess melts in the mouth, while Martha's edge in structure allows it to linger. In short, you simply have more of an opprtunity to taste the latter. It should be noted though, that I did alter Martha's original recipe (see below), so the victory is subject to a condition.

Epilogue:

For those wondering what the layer cake was like after I combined the two recipes, it was sinfully yummy. The layers baked up exceptionally even, but their size and tenderness did make them a somewhat delicate to handle.

I am fairly sure that the number that ended up at the event was somewhere closer to 50, and the cake served the crowd handily. Everyone came back with glowing reviews. I would almost hazard to say the cake was better than Martha's cupcake, but I am scared to start down that slippery slope. Goodness knows, I can't make a behemoth like this one for every event, now can I? With results like this though, I won't say I'm not tempted.

You will note I have not included the recipe for the frosting, because that research is still ongoing. In this instance, I used a loose adaptation of a few recipes for chocolate buttercream between the layers, covered with an improvised ganache smoothed over top.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

As the recipe is subject to copyright, I have only included my notes here. However, a quick search does find it published online (not through the official site, not the one that begins with 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder).

Notes:

  • In lieu of milk alone, I use 1/2 cup sour cream plus 3/4 cup milk. Alternatively, I have had success swapping in some buttermilk.
  • As many may remember, I am an addict when it comes to espresso and chocolate in combination; so I use about 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder dissolved in the warm water. If espresso powder is unavailable, I recommend at least 1/2 cup of prepared coffee substituted for the same amount of water (combined with enough warm water to meet the recipe's specification).
  • If using kosher salt for baking, I sometimes will stir it into the liquid ingredients instead of sifting it into the dry. This way you ensure that it is fully dissolved.

You know a new cookbook is a good one when you find the excuse to bake twice in one week, just so you can try another recipe.

(As labelled in the book) Milk Chocolate cookies from Martha Stewart's Cookies. Thin and crisp at the edges but still tender at the middle, these cookies have just enough deep chocolate flavour to feel a treat but not overly-indulgent; a dangerous trait, to be sure. In my opinion the cookies I took out after about 11-12 minutes, rather than the recipe's instructed 15, were the perfect balance of chewy and crunch - but this is a matter of personal taste.

To read a full review of Martha’s latest cookbook, please see my previous post.