[Friday May 22, 2009: I feel like the kid who comes to school, all big-eyed and sorry, with the story "the dog ate my homework."

I wish it wasn't so but here I am, empty-handed, with little excuse but to say that this last week has run right over me like a stampede of very-heavy animals. (See? I can't even come up with a worthwhile simile.)

Give me a couple of days and I'll be back. Until then, here's what we've been cooking - recipes from Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes. That's his barbecue sauce in the photo.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, May 28, 2009: All better now. Where were we? Ahh, Mr. Flay. Here we go.]

I have been overruled. Vetoed. If our house was an island, I'd surely be the one voted off of it.

Let me explain. I was offered the opportunity to review Bobby Flay's latest book, Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009, written with Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson). While I am not familiar with Mr. Flay's food, I accepted immediately with others' interests in mind.

My husband l-o-v-e-s a good burger, especially paired with a mound of crisper than crisp fries - the sort that crackle when tumbled out on a plate. Our three-year-old son Benjamin has inherited this burger-loving gene, and along with it that same sincere love of fries. So I could not, with good Mummy-Wife conscience, turn down the offer. The problem was, as much as I do enjoy the subject matter, I do not know if I am all that keen on this book. These two though, cannot praise it enough.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Rewind to a few weeks ago.

With the Victoria Day holiday just ahead of us, the long weekend would be the perfect opportunity to peruse the Mr. Flay's offerings. Nothing seemed better to flip through, and cook from, as you laze about around the backyard grill in the late-afternoon sun.

But that is where we ran into trouble. While I am ardent in my desire to eat these burgers, fries and milkshakes, I am not all that inclined to make them. Reading this book was like looking over the menu of a really, really good diner. The photographs by Ben Fink are in-your-face beauty closeups; burgers are lavishly-treated with toppings, you can see the grains of salt on the fries, and shakes look so good you want to lick the page.

My problem was, just like diner food, I want to go out for such meals with someone else behind the grill. I rarely want to cook them at home. As much as a burger piled high with golden onion rings, bacon, melted smoked cheddar and homemade barbecue sauce would be delicious (Flay's Cheyenne Burger), it is the something I would like to be served - preferably with his Blackberry Cheesecake Milkshake alongside. (Smart man, Mr. Flay, as he recently opened Bobby's Burger Place, with recipes from the book on the menu.)

Speaking of the barbecue sauce, after trying Flay's blend of ketchup, molasses, honey, brown sugar and spice, Benjamin christened the sauce "spicy ketchup", and I am inclined to agree with his description. The barbecue sauce is a good condiment, and is Ben's new favourite dip. But as far as an all-purpose grilling sauce goes it lacks the deeply sweet tones, the almost-sticky quality I look for in a barbecue sauce. It was simply too tomato-y for our tastes.

Another issue with this recipe was the instruction to purée the sauce in a food processor. I do not know if it is that Flay uses a vastly-superior appliance, but my Cuisinart was unable to smooth out the mixture to a classic barbecue sauce consistency. After multiple blitzes in the food processor, you could still detect distinct bits of onion and garlic, swimming in the liquid. A quick buzz with the immersion blender did the trick.

The burgers are good; really good, in fact. But as Flay prefers a simple burger recipe allowing the flavour of the beef to stand front and centre, with most variations using a standard patty recipe. After that's established, it really is just about toppings, with everything from the Napa Valley Burger (with Meyer Lemon-Honey Mustard) to the Arthur Avenue Burger (FraDiavolo Ketchup, FontinaFricos) to the Patty Melt Burger (Red Wine Onion Relish, melted Gruyère cheese, scratch-made Pickled Jalepeños). There are chicken, turkey and fish burgers, but these are obviously second string - the beef burgers are the stars.

The Fries chapter includes his "perfect" recipe, a Bistro twist (parsley, garlic), fat Steak Fries, and then versions using alternative starches like plantains and sweet potatoes. The section is rounded out by mention of onion rings, including the truly-addictive Shoestring Onion Rings; whisper-thin, buttermilk-bathed beauties fried to golden deliciousness.

The Condiments and Seasonings chapter was a surprise. It is a thoughtful inclusion, and in my opinion, the hidden gem of the book. The Homemade Dill Pickles or Horseradish Mustard Mayonnaise just two of the of simple recipes that would make any backyard cookout immediately special.

As anyone who knows me would surely suspect, the Milkshake chapter was far and away the highlight of the book for me. These recipes were the stuff of childhood dream, truly decadent desserts masquerading as drinks. The Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake is like drinking the campfire treat, but creamier. The Dark Chocolate Milkshake with "Fluffy" Coconut Cream is a parfait-style showstopper, while the Blueberry-Pomegranate Milkshake is a tangy take on the traditional shake.

Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shake is a good book, a novelty for summertime reading, and it does offer up some inspiration for creative burgers. This is not everyday food, and in my mind, not once-a-week food. The recipes often verge on more labor-intensive than I prefer for a casual weekend meal, requiring multiple garnishes and some last-minute fuss. And while the milkshakes are delicious, they are a rare indulgence. It is the sort of cookbook I would pull out for if I was cooking for a true burger lover and wanted to treat them to something special. A signature burger for Dad on Father's Day perhaps?

That said, I do appreciate Mr. Flay's attention to detail, with each chapter beginning with a thorough discussion on ingredients, technique and his personal preferences. There is no doubt that Flay is passionate about the subject matter. And while I am just not all that passionate about the book, I am surely in the minority as my husband and eldest would be all-too-happy to tell you. Maybe its because I am the one doing the cooking.

Recipes

Cuban Style Burgers ( Miami burgers in the book)

Arthur Avenue Burger (video)

Bobby's Crunchbuger (video)

Tuna Burger with Pineapple-Mustard Glaze and Green Chile Pickle Relish (not exactly as in the book, but very close)

Basic Vanilla Milkshake (not exactly as in the book, but again very close)

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.

These Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars look innocent enough, but are two bites of true, gooey indulgence. Photos courtesy of Irene Powell.

Even though one may not mean to become caught up in things, sometimes it is unavoidable. Such was my case recently, as a (thankfully-mild) strain of the chicken pox made its way through our little ones, forcing our household into a state of quarantine and oatmeal baths for two weeks. This was followed closely by an infection that had Mummy curled up on the couch, slippers on and blanket pulled up tight, for another few days. Suddenly almost a month has gone by, and it seems all in a blur.

Now we are about ankle-deep in holiday preparations; events with family and friends are already scheduled, decorations are already being considered, and menu ideas are already floating around in my head. Where did this autumn go? It feels like Halloween was just yesterday.

Lucky for us, I had the book In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics standing by at the ready. In it, chef Anna Olson offers up meals and menus that have a nostalgic appeal; a bit retro, a bit kitch sometimes, but always tasty. This is feel-good eating at its best, and just the sort of food one craves when life gets a bit hectic.

While the book does include entertaining-worthy recipes like unctuous Mushroom Potato Brie Tarts and an impressive Garlic Roasted Turkey Crown with Chardonnay Pan Sauce, it is the modern classics like the Contemporary Cobb Salad, Ultimate Cheese Fondue and Baja Fish Tacos, that are, in my mind, the real draw.

Through the craziness over the last few weeks, I found myself turning to this book numerous times for inspiration. And rarely did it disappoint.

I have pledged my allegiance to steel-cut oats, but I tried Olson's version using the rolled variety when I found my cupboard was bare of the former. Surprisingly light due to the addition of oat bran, the oatmeal was delicious. So good in fact, that when mornings dawned cold and grey, I reached for this breakfast again and again.

The Rockwell Bake, a savoury bread pudding that combines all the flavours of Thanksgiving dinner, was hearty and soul-satisfying. Anna's Pot Roast was fairly-standard comfort fare, brightened through a second addition of vegetables towards the end of cooking. While good, however, what stole the show that night was the recommended accompaniment of Fluffy Dumplings. True to their title, these dumplings were pillowy-light, and an ideal way to sop up the roast's beer-soused gravy.

For those visiting the Niagara Region, Olson's two specialty food shops sell dishes from In the Kitchen with Anna as some of their prepared foods. It is a wonderful opportunity to taste some of the food before purchasing the book and also a testament to Olson's confidence in standing behind these recipes - a true mark of quality.

It was at her St. David's, Ontario, location that we were able to try the Beef, Caramelized Onion and Smoked Cheddar on Foccacia sandwich. Hot off of the panini press, the exterior was shatteringly crisp, giving way to melt-in-your-mouth slices of beef, accented by sweet onions, a slathering of grainy mustard and subtly-smoked cheese.

Since Olson is famous for her desserts, far be it from me to ignore that chapter. The Lemon Cheesecake Mousse tarts had an beautifully light texture with the perfect sharp citrus note. They managed to be delicate but luscious, all at once. Dangerously-easy to make are the Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars (photographed above, please see recipe below); to call these rich would be a gross understatement. A sturdy crust of oats and graham is scattered with both toffee and chocolate, then almonds, and finally a blanketing of sweet condensed milk. This modest effort results in a bar cookie that is tender in its belly, but slightly burnished and crisp above. Ridiculously addicting stuff.

Only one recipe fell short of expectation; the Artichoke Asiago Squares. The appetizer, somewhat akin to crustless quiche, is billed to taste like the popular dip of the same name and readers are urged "if there is no other recipe you make from this book, please make it this one." With such an introduction, these were a definite must-try. But while the squares are good, none of my tasters thought them great. The consensus was that they were best served warm, but even then the texture was not a favourite and some found the asiago could have been more pronounced. I would not call this a failure, but I would say that there are stronger dishes in the book.

The book itself is bright and colourful. The food looks fresh, shot simply, but beautifully, by Ryan Szulc. Minimally styled by Olson, the images are homey and inviting, with little fuss marring our look at the the food.

I particularly enjoyed how the recipes were laid out. Accompanying each was not only general notes included in the header, but also a three-part footnote outlining the taste, technique and tale of that particular dish. This additional information included more in-depth information about the ingredients or preparation, and also were a peek into the personality of Olson herself; the chatty, convivial tone was charming to read.

From the every day to almost every celebration, for lazy weekends and when the weekdays are flying by, In the Kitchen with Anna: New Way with the Classics includes recipes that are excellent additions to any cook's repertoire. Showing us easy, accessible cooking with touches that make each dish feel special, Olson makes a lovely kitchen companion.

CHOCOLATE ALMOND TOFFEE BARS

This recipe is one of my most requested, so I'm happy to include it in this book. — Anna Olson

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/4 tsp (1 ml) fine salt
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup (250 ml) Skor toffee bits
  • 1 cup (250 ml) chocolate chips
  • 1 cup (250 ml) sliced almonds
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and line an 8-inch (2 L) square pan with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the sides of the pan.

Stir the oats, graham crumbs and salt in a bowl to combine, then stir in the melted butter. Press the crumbly oat mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle Skor bits evenly on top, followed by chocolate chips and sliced almonds. Pour condensed milk evenly over pan (it will sink in as it bakes) and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are bubbling. Cool to room temperature in the pan, then chill for at least 4 hours before slicing into bars.

Store toffee bars in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Makes one 8"x8" pan.

Taste

This is decadence in a pan. The sinful combination of chocolate, toffee and almonds enveloped in condensed milk that caramelizes as it bakes is irresistible. At least these have oats in them to redeem themselves, just a little bit.

Technique

This is a simple recipe to execute—you gather the ingredients and layer them, basically. The challenge is in waiting for them after they've finished baking!

Tale

My head pastry chef at Olson Foods + Bakery, Andrea, brought this recipe to my attention. She is an excellent baker, and we go way back. She started with me as a high school co-op student, while I was just picking up professional baking myself on the job, so we learned together. That was about 15 years ago, and after her stint at cooking school and gaining other work experience, I'm thrilled that we are working together again after all these years.

Additional recipes from

In the Kitchen with Anna: New ways with the Classics

Huevos Rancheros

Pot Roast with Dumplings

Luncheon Sandwich Torte

Permission to print recipe and cover image courtesy Whitecap Books.

(Photo courtesy Irene Powell)

"Want to go to the cottage?"

One phrase, six words, and the ability to transport the listener to a whole other reality. Come summertime, there is no sweeter sound to my ears than the promise of a leisurely weekend of food, friends and family, and the opportunity to let concerns of the every day fall away.

While the fall may almost be upon us in the Northern Hemisphere, there still is a part of me that is thinking about the summer sun and afternoons on a deck somewhere. Inspiration for the menu would not be hard, with Marty's World Famous Cookbook (Whitecap Books, 2008) nearby. This cookbook offers up the sort of crowd-pleasing fare that is made for a long weekend of relaxation. And it is not surprising, considering the fact that the author, Marty Curtis, owns and operates the highly-popular Marty's World Famous Café in Bracebridge (located in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario, a popular cottage destination).

The book features many of the café's specialties; included are the recipes for their chicken stock and house bread, with notes brewing the perfect cup of coffee. If pressed to find an adjective for this book and its author, I would have to say "likeable." The food is casual, the sort that inspires guests to roll up their sleeves, put their elbows on the table and dive in. Few of the recipes would be considered daunting or demanding of the home cook and the writing is conversational and welcoming.

Curtis' enthusiasm for his food is evident in the anecdotes and tips that are scattered heavily through the pages, often accompanied by evocative location photographs by Allen Dew. The subjects are far-ranging, reminiscent of the wandering conversations of a long weekend. He covers everything from the importance of mental preparedness in the kitchen to the parable of stone soup to how to improve at fishing.

By his own admission, Curtis believes it is best to "go big" - serving up generous 14" pies, jumbo pastries, and showcasing bold flavours at every turn. It is apparent that Mr. Curtis is a man of specific tastes, with an evident love of citrus and aromatic spices. Most notable though is Curtis' preference for the mix of salty and sweet; the combination appears in many recipes with varying success.

To that end, this book seems stranded in a middle ground of being simply nice. The indulgent breakfast and desserts were standouts, but I found many of the main dishes fell short of expectations.

The enormous Lemon, Blueberry and Cream Cheese muffins were tender and moist. With a good deal of sharp lemon to balance the richness of the cheese, these showcased the blueberries quite well; most likely the perfect breakfast for any fan of cheesecake. Eggs Benedict are made even more unctuous through the addition of brie - blitzed momentarily under the broiler, the cheese melts lusciously over the eggs and asparagus. Once napped with Hollondaise, the dish was good but overly-rich to my palate. To that end, I chose to add a splash more acid and a tablespoon of hot water to thin the sauce. Lovers of indulgence might not feel the need to make such alterations.

Marty's Best Brownies were another winner. The rich batter bakes up dense and fudgy, with a deeply crackled top. Walnuts, freshly-roasted and sprinkled with kosher salt, are a tasty addition. The nuts are buttery but with saline crunch that adds punctuation to the sweetness of the dessert.

I would be remiss to review this book without mentioning Marty's World Famous Buttertarts. They are an evident passion; gracing the cover in their golden glory, garnering 16 pages of photographs, notes and recipes within. Not only are they one of the main draws to the café, but they also seem to be the embodiment of Curtis' food philosophy - they are unapologetically large, sweet with warm spices and featuring a hit of citrus. Although I have never been to Mr. Curtis' shop, I had to try these at home. The lard-based pastry (which is also used for sweet and savoury pies) came together quickly, was easy to work with and produced wonderfully-flaky results. While everyone loved the pastry, the buttertarts as a whole received mixed reviews. Some found the filling unlike their opinion of the archetypal treat and so were disappointed, while others found these to be a welcome departure from heavier versions.

I think buttertarts, like the perfect apple pie, are deeply rooted in personal preference and so the idea of tacking down a universally-loved ultimate recipe is virtually impossible.

From the Fishin' Muskoka section, the BBQ Wine and Herb Salmon was succulent and moist, however the highly-flavoured marinade (while delicious) verged upon overpowering the the fish iteself. The same could be said of the Candied BBQ Asparagus from Barbecue Classics. The tangy-sweet sauce contains both sugar and balsamic vinegar; a tasty combination but one that overshadows the asparagus flavour. As one tester put it, "this is really good, but it isn't about the asparagus."

The Barbecue Classics section is also home to the intriguing idea of Buttertart Burgers. A mix of meats retained moisture and texture, but the seasoning (including Curtis' Buttertart BBQ Rub) was one that took the savoury and sweet combination a step too far. Disappointing as that was, it was further troublesome that the Buttertart BBQ Rub, and its related barbecue sauce, is required in a number of recipes in this chapter - after the experience of the burgers, these other dishes were unappealing.

With well-shot food photography by Douglas Bradshaw, a number of solid dishes and featuring contributions from Martio Batali, Michael Smith and Ted Reader, Marty's World Famous Cookbook is as easy-to-like as its author. Straightforward and not particularly challenging, the book is suited to easygoing weekend cooking - or whenever you want to have a bit of a vacation in your own kitchen.

Recipes from Marty's World Famous Cookbook

Fluffiest omelettes ever

World famous bean salad (scroll down to end of article)

The ultimate Canadian back bacon sandwich

The original big sandwich

Pancakes

Lemon, blueberry and cream cheese muffins

Eggs Benedict with melted brie and asparagus

My apologies; I had said that the review for Marty's World Famous Cookbook would be up today. However I foolishly made the statement without looking at the weather forecast. Little did I expect that the remnants of Hurricane Ike passing through Southern Ontario last night would leave us without power for the last 21 hours or so; with no leads on when it will return. I'm currently posting remotely, and will be back as soon as possible. Ours is only a minor inconvenience, with only a refrigerator of food to worry about; my best wishes to those who have been truly effected by this storm. Cheers.

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Authortara


François Payard's Chocolate Meringue Tarts in miniature; photo courtesy of Deep Media.

When I was little, I took piano lessons to little success. Even though I could manage to replicate notes on the page, I never had the 'sense' for the keys that makes one feel in ownership of the music. Nonetheless, I would spend the requisite time practicing on the keyboard at home, repeating the disjointed notes over and over until I hoped I had mastered them.

It was during these practices that my father would sometimes wander into the room and take over the keys; though wholly self-taught, he had such an ear for music that he could easily reproduce my melodies in their entirety. What's more, he would infuse them with nuance and a character deeper than the notes themselves.

In that simple exercise I saw what it mean to be an artist.

I had a similar feeling of revelation when I had the opportunity to review François Payard's third book, Chocolate Epiphany (Clarkson Potter, 2008). Though a fairly-proficient home baker, I could not help but be awed by the chocolate creations featured within. From the straightforward to the fanciful to the elegant, Payard (with Anne E. McBride) presents confections as beautiful as they are delicious.

Though focused solely on chocolate, the book covers a surprising breadth of recipes. After the helpful introductory guide, breakfast and brunch dishes are offered first, followed by chapters highlighting specific dessert forms (cookies, cakes and mousses, among others). The recipes encompass both the traditional and the unexpected, with classic favourites placed alongside inventive combinations of flavours and textures. There is no prejudice regarding chocolate varieties, with white, milk and dark all given the opportunity to shine.

As to be expected with his pedigree, the acclaimed pastry chef, James Beard Award winner and owner of a collection of pâtisseries/bistros includes recipes that are somewhat intimidating at first glance. These require a good deal of patience, reasonable skill and, in many cases, specialty equipment.

For example, the American Opera Cake calls for no less than four separate component recipes and three pages of instructions. That said, the expertly-detailed steps allow for stunning results that merit the effort. Between the chocolate cake layers Payard ingeniously switches the classic coffee buttercream filling for a peanut version alternated with a decadent peanut butter ganache. If that was not enough, a dark chocolate ganache is finally poured over all. The finished cake is a masterpiece of textures and a show-stopping celebration dessert to say the least.

Equally impressive are the Chocolate Pavlovas with Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. Here Payard innovates by reconfiguring the form from a simple flat base into a full sphere of meringue filled with liqueur-laced mousse and topped with a flourish of mascarpone cream. Again, this is a recipe that one should carefully read before attempting, but the instructions are well laid out, concise and easy to follow.

Amongst these rather grand recipes Payard sprinkles in some beatifully-simple ones. Triple Chocolate Financiers (recipe) are a perfect little treat alongside coffee, Chocolate Rice Crispies are a bit of kitchy fun, and Chocolate Blinis elevate breakfast to a whole new level.

I was particularly fond of the Chocolate Meringue Tart (pictured, above). A cocoa makeover of the lemon meringue version from his childhood, Payard creates a recipe that is easy to assemble but with outstanding results. His Sweet Tart Dough comes together quickly and is a joy to work with. It is baked until golden, then filled with a luscious dark chocolate filling and crowned with peaks of scorched Swiss Meringue. Absolutely delicious.

One caveat, I did end up with an excess of filling even though I followed the recipe to the specific weight measurement of each ingredient.

Rounding out the contents is an indispensable chapter of basics; buttercreams, Crème Anglaise, doughs, and often-used base cakes are explained here, with tips and tricks usually only learned with years of experience. For those wishing to replicate the exquisite decorations that adorn many of the desserts, there are also step-by-step directions to creations like chocolate fans, drops, sticks, and shards.

The sumptuous photographs by Rogerio Voltan are tempting to say the least; with tightly cropped images that beautifully convey the various textures and elements of the recipes. My only complaint is that I could not find photo captions for the desserts featured on the chapter cover pages. While this information is included in the general index, the omission of labels alongside the specific images might be frustrating to those who find it difficult to match the photos with the corresponding recipe.

Nonetheless, Chocolate Epiphany is decadence at its best; truly an opus of cacao bean, with a Maestro's passion and expertise leading the way.

Some recipes from the book can be found online here and here.


Cover image courtesy Clarkson Potter.

Can a cookbook be more than just an instruction manual? What if it could also be a travel journal, photo essay, cultural study, political commentary and a love letter to a country and its cuisine, all in one?

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's latest book, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China presents the reader with all of that and more, wrapped up in a gorgeous (albeit heavy) package. For those familiar with these James Beard award-winning authors or any of their other five works, it is not surprising that this new title is a distinctive entry into the cookbook genre.

The third in what seems an unofficial series, Beyond the Great Wall is an exploration of the marginalized cuisine of China's non-Han people. It follows a similar template to their previous books that featured the foods of Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent; an encyclopaedic introduction sets out the historical, geographic and cultural foundations for the rest of the book, with meticulous attention to detail and helpful illustrations whenever appropriate.

From there the recipes (organized in sections such as condiments, rice and by various proteins) are interspersed with the authors' travel journal entries and evocative location photos. These essays and images, the former written over a span of 25 years and featured chronologically, continuously bring the reader back to the book’s anthropological leanings, as it follows Alford and Duguid’s personal experiences with a country, its cuisine and its people. Their reflections are poignant vignettes, capturing intimate moments frozen in the otherwise kaleidoscopic pace of change China has experienced since the mid 1980s.

While it could be considered their most political book to date, Beyond the Great Wall still manages to refrain from obvious agenda; the authors’ diary-style entries are offered as spontaneous impressions without context to specifically steer the reader’s opinion. Nonetheless, their inclusion does create a tension in the narrative as one cannot help but consider the juxtaposition of these traditional recipes and compelling images against Alford and Duguid's reflections on contemporary realities.

All of this aside, the heart of this book is the food. With its imposing stature (the book is a substantial 376 pages and a coffee-table worthy 11.4x9.6x1.5 inches) it would be all too easy to simply consider it an art object and never think to try a single dish. The food photography is simple, rustic and stunning, as captured by Richard Jung. My only wish would be that there were more of his images, as the dishes that are featured look nothing short of mouth-wateringly good.

That said, the recipes themselves are wholly accessible and too tempting to resist. Extensive headnotes provide additional inspiration, including detailed instruction, personal anecdotes on preparation, and ingredient sources and substitutions where necessary.

This is not the cuisine of central China; there is no mention of char siu or Beijing's famous roast duck. Many recipes require only a handful of ingredients and are well-suited to the kitchen of the home cook, with little required by way of speciality equipment.

Mongolian Lamb Patties (pictured, recipe below) are rich without being overly unctuous; the heaviness of the meat is undercut by fiery bits of ginger and garlic, along with a good handful of bright herbs. The grilled result offers a golden brown exterior with a satisfying bit of crunch and against a moist and flavourful centre. I served these alongside the Market Stall Fresh Tomato Salsa (from the Guizhou province), a surprising four-ingredient wonder that cleaned the palate beautifully.

I have to admit a deep and personal love of dumplings of all kinds; steamed, in soups or fried, I adore them all. You can imagine my excitement then as I poured over the dishes featured in the chapter on noodles and dumplings. Steamed Tibetan Momos, succulent parcels beef or lamb, could be dangerously addicting. The deep-fried version feature salty goat's milk cheese encased in a golden crust; perfect little bites to serve alongside the myriad of suggested condiments and a cold beer.

I had been wholly ignorant of the presence of tandoors and Indian-reminiscent nan in Xinjaing (home of the Uighur people) or another variation in the Pamir Mountains (home of the Tajik). The former version, stamped decoratively with a studded device, is baked at a high heat until golden and boasts a flat centre and a puffed rim. The latter is much more soft and pliant, due to a yoghurt-fortified dough and longer rising time.

There were other discoveries too; I would not have expected the absolutely straightforward Deep-Fried Whiting and Dai Grilled Chicken, or the simplicity of a Napa and Red Onion Salad from Inner Mongolia.

The list goes on. The recipes are thoughtfully-arranged for variety of textures and tastes; with each chapter the reader is inspired and intrigued again and again. As a fitting end, the book finishes with an afterword on travel with suggested itineraries, a comprehensive glossary and source guide.

Beyond the Great Wall is both absorbing and enlightening; the food makes you want to eat, the vistas make you want to travel, the stories make you want to explore and the faces make you want to understand. A wholly-satisfying journey is bound within its pages, and one feels benefited for having taken the trip.

Mongolian lamb patties
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Available through the recipe section of Alford and Duguid’s official website labelled, as Savory Lamb Patties; scroll down for the details.

Note: Please consider making a donation to campaigns in aid of those effected by the recent devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province; the Canadian Red Cross is just one of many international organizations co-ordinating relief efforts.

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