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Entries in cookbook (13)


Kitchen aid; reviewing In the Kitchen with Anna by Anna Olson

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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.


At home Italian; a review of Giada's Kitchen by Giada De Laurentiis

Made for lazy afternoons; Spiced Americanos with Cinnamon Whipped Cream. From the book Giada's Kitchen: New Italian Favorites.

As the parents of two children under the age of three, I will admit that my husband and I do not frequent restaurants as often as we'd used to. We do still enjoy a meal out now and again, but I have to say that we do not mind the change from eating out to eating in. In fact, we're all too happy to entertain at home.

Lucky for us, this shift in our lifestyle looks to be on trend with cookbooks as well. Case in point, Giada De Laurentiis, Food Network's resident expert in all things Italian, recently released Giada's Kitchen: New Italian Favorites (Clarkson Potter, 2008), focusing on a fresh, modern versions of classics from the Italian home kitchen. The famed-chef's fourth book, Giada's Kitchen promises 100 recipes which offer "the pleasures of Italian food without feeling weighed down ...[and] inspiration for delicious, hearty yet healthy weekday meals."

Chapter headings are fairly standard, but with some particularly thoughtful additions that help tailor this book to not only weekday family fare, but also to casual entertaining. An entire section on first courses and appetizers include elegant little bites such as Crispy Smoked Mozzarella with Honey and Figs - perfectly crisp phyllo parcels of melting cheese are served alongside succulent honey-warmed figs. Cheese is a popular theme for her first courses, appearing in a goat cheese and tomato strata, a savory cheesecake, crispy crackers and in a decadent Gorgonzola and apple crostata. In this, and a few other chapters, De Laurentiis ends with a drink; this time an Apple and Thyme martini that is both unexpected and delicious.

The next two sections, Soups, Paninis and Snacks and Salads and Vegetables are far and away the stars of the book. Here you will find fantastic lunch and light supper ideas like a Tuscan White Bean and Garlic soup that is buttery and rich, perfect for a cold afternoon. A sandwich that pairs warmly-spiced chicken salad with sharp radicchio and crisp pancetta is brilliant; the saltiness of the pork playing well against the aromatic chicken and brightened by the bitter chicory. Of particular success were the Spiced Armericanos (pictured) - a simple preparation that has now become our drink of choice this autumn.

From the Salad and Vegetables chapter, the Spicy Parmesan Green Beans and Kale are said to be a Thanksgiving tradition in the De Laurentiis' household; after tasting them, I understand why. The perfect amount of heat, along with the richness of the cheese, compliment the vegetables wonderfully. A great way to get your greens. Fregola, those fine beads of semolina pasta similar to couscous, are dressed up in a salad with a tangy-tart orange oil, grapefruit and a generous amount of herbs. Although the Broiled Zucchini and Potatoes with Parmesan Crust were flavoursome, I do question the technique here. As written, the recipe requires boiling, sautéeing and finally broiling the vegetables; three cooking methods for one dish seems a bit much, even if tasty. I tried the recipe a second time, this time roasting then broiling the vegetables, for a similarly-delicious result.

Surprisingly, even though solid, the remaining chapters were almost a letdown after the standouts of the first three. Orzo-Stuffed Peppers boast good textural contrast, while the Linguine with Shrimp and Lemon oil is fairly standard.

Meats, poultry and fish are dressed with herbaceous and acidic accouterments like the Spicy Parsley Tomato Sauce paired with roasted beef sirloin, chicken grilled with a mouth-puckering Balsamic Barbecue Sauce, halibut adorned with a grapefruit and fennel salsa, and turkey treated to an Osso Bucco-style preparation, complete with a rough-chopped gremolata to finish. A self-proclaimed fan of butternut squash, De Laurentiis uses the vegetable-like fruit in a Marsala-soused beef stew, a vanilla-flecked risotto and a golden-hued rigatoni with prawns.

Those familiar with De Laurentiis' many television programs and previous books will know her for her sweet tooth. Her chapter on desserts must surely tempt that weakness; the Ricotta Cappuccino was dangerously quick to come together, but luxurious in its finish. Creamy, sharp and with a touch of spice, it was a perfect end to a casual meal. The Berry Strata is a brighter version of the classic bread pudding; I especially appreciate the way the juices of the fruit stain the custard in tie-dyed patterns. Gorgeous for breakfast or dessert.

A chapter on cooking for children rounds out the book, and as much as I understand the desire to please fussy palates, many of these dishes fell flat in testing - but were not without merit. The Proscuitto Mozzarella Pinwheels were easy to assemble, and a fun recipe to try with children. Sadly, a filling of slick, chewy meat can be difficult for little ones to chew. The Orecchiette with Mini Chicken Meatballs was great, after I tweaked things a bit. The recipe itself calls for minimal seasoning, and in my mind it verged on bland. However, once tailored to our tastes by concentrating the sauce, a touch of salt and a hefty sprinkling of red pepper flakes, it is a recipe I would make again.

This section does include a gem of a recipe for Chocolate Chip Pound Cake. Dense without being heavy, with easy preparation that can all be done by hand, the deeply-flavoured treat will definitely be making its way into my gift-giving this holiday season.

The book is well designed, with an open and easy-to-read page layout. With one recipe per page, there is a generous amount of space devoted to backstory and specific notes in preparation and methodology. The majority of dishes feature accompanying full-colour photographs by Tina Rupp, shot simply and beautifully. Now and again, double page spreads of step-by-step photos complement specific dishes, and work well as a subtle showcase the photogenic author. The styling is homey and welcoming, with a touch of a feminine prettiness fitting De Laurentiis' established aesthetic.

Well-suited to the types of foods that many of us are looking to serve in our homes; dishes are fresher, with a strong emphasis on vegetables and creative uses of healthier lean proteins. The book Giada's Kitchen is a timely addition to a cook's library, with satisfying meals that would make almost anyone feel right at home.

Reminiscent of the cascade in a well-drawn pint of Guinness, softy-whipped cream slumps, swirls, and finally melts into aromatic espresso.

Recipes from Giada's Kitchen

Crispy Smoked Mozzarella with Honey and Figs
Artichoke Gratinata
Fregola Salad with Fresh Citrus
Beef and Butternut Squash Stew
Orecchiette with Mini Chicken Meatballs
Giada's Carbonara
Apple and Thyme Martini
Berry Strata
Hazelnut Crunch Cake with Mascarpone and Chocolate
Spiced Americano with Cinnamon Whipped Cream

Cover image courtesy Clarkson Potter.

Note: In addition to the book, De Laurentiis ended her five seasons of the show that made her famous, Everyday Italian, to begin a new program, Giada at home. The new series premiered in the United States on October 18, 2008.


Cottage cuisine; a review of Marty's World Famous Cookbook

A decadent brunch from Marty's World Famous Cookbook, Eggs Benedict with Melted Brie and Asparagus (vegetarian variation with cremini mushrooms). Photo courtesy Deep Media.

"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
Lemon, blueberry and cream cheese muffins
Eggs Benedict with melted brie and asparagus

Cover image courtesy Whitecap Books.


Quick fixes; reviewing Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking and Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals

Eric Akis' Skillet Mac and Cheese (yes, I know, I used penne and I served it in ramekins; I am quirky like that).

It is interesting how the world works sometimes. Just before our household grew from three to four, I was offered the opportunity to review not one, but two books on the subject of quick meals for busy cooks.

Everyone seems to be talking about how hard it is to find the time to cook. Sandra Lee has become a household name thanks to her "semi-homemade" mantra, Donna Hay has two books devoted to "instant" cooking and entertaining, and almost every magazine on the shelf is emblazoned with promises of "10 meals in under 10 minutes" or "faster takes on family favourites." Of course, there is also the juggernaut that is Rachel Ray, promoting under-30 minute cooking through her multi-media empire.

What is even more interesting is that, as it happens with any campaign, there are factions in the quick-cooking industry. Some believe it best to simplify the ingredients and methods while others make use of prepared foods to do some of the work for you.

As luck would have it, the two titles that came across my desk, Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals (Whitecap, 2008) by Eric Akis and Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking (Ebury Press, 2008) by Delia Smith, each represent a side to these seemingly divergent approaches.

Because I received these books pretty much simultaneously, and because of their similar subject matter, I could not help but compare and contrast their styles as I looked over their content. And so, I thought it might be interesting to review these books side-by-side, as this really is such a huge market in the food world right now and this was an opportunity to study the two camps of this "fast" food movement.

I have chosen to break my analysis down into categories, for ease of quick comparison.

The authors and their philosophies
Eric Akis, food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist, seeks to inspire the home cook to tackle cooking after work or preparing meals ahead of time. His is straightforward and simple cooking, with (mostly) short ingredient lists and quick-to-prepare instructions. While there are a few intermediate recipes in terms of procedure and cuisine, Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals focuses on giving the reader a repertoire of basic meals that allow for personal variation and are most likely appealing to a larger audience.

Akis positions himself staunchly against packaged and/or processed convenience foods. His introduction spells out his feelings quite specifically, mentioning his concern that too much sodium and preservatives in packaged foods can compromise the palate, and that the frequent use of what he calls "instant" meals colour children's perception of what food is supposed to taste like. His aim is to take the stress and worry out of midweek meal preparation, believing that with a well-stocked pantry and shortcut recipes even the busiest person can find scratch cooking a pleasure instead of a chore.

Six years after retiring from the cookery world, famed British cookbook author and television personality Delia Smith returns with the reworking of her 1971 debut How to Cheat at Cooking. In contrast to Akis' manifesto, Smith features recipes that promote grocery store shortcuts (specifically in the form of prepackaged foods and already-prepped ingredients) that are then used in the assembly of other dishes.

She considers the ability to produce meals, with minimal effort and time invested, a liberating experience. Smith encourages the use of the storecupboard and the freezer, seeing these to be invaluable resources to the hurried cook. Why stir slowly-caramelizing sugar, when someone else will make it into toffee and jar it for you? The same goes for slicing onions, grating cheeses and making tomato sauce. But this is only the beginning; Smith proudly dons the currently-unfashionable mantle of one who takes premade a step further, introducing the reader to tinned minced lamb, purchased pancakes, sachets of risotto and, what looks to be Smith's favourite ingredient - frozen mashed potatoes. She not only uses these ingredients, but she is also exceedingly particular about them; indicating the exact product, by brand name, that should be used in the recipe. Substitutions are frowned upon.

The books
Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals seems to follow the style of the predecessors in the Everyone Can Cook series (it should be noted that I am not very familiar with the other titles). Vibrant colours and casual settings reinforce Akis' comforting home-cooking style. The photos, shot by Michael Tourigny and styled by the author himself, are cropped closely with the food usually filling most of the frame. Clearly laid out and easy to read, each recipe header includes the preparation time, cooking time and number of servings - a helpful tool for the truly time-starved.

Even though the book's sections can be a bit kitch in their titles ("Splendid Sides" and "Nifty Noodles", for example), they do cover a good deal of subject matter. Chapters on pantry staples, types of meals, various cuisines and cooking methods, offer the reader a well-rounded course in quick-cooking basics. That said, the more experienced cook may find this book to be too limited in its offerings. While it is not explicitly aimed as a book for beginners, notes on subjects such as what makes a vinaigrette and how to purchase fish might be redundant to some. Furthermore, dishes like breakfast parfaits are simple enough that they hardly require a recipe.

Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking is a very pretty book; the typeface, the layout and styling all work together beautifully to create a very modern, slightly spare aesthetic. It is beautifully designed by Vanessa Holden, and John Kernick's evocative photography accompanies almost every recipe. The result is a cookbook that looks pared down, refined, and very much in keeping with prevailing trends in cookbook and food publications.

After a lengthy section of introductions that outline in detail Smith's thoughts on shopping and cooking, the chapters are arranged in a loose interpretation of seasonal divisions and food for specific moods. For example, "Cool!" is the chapter containing recipes for the balmy days of summer, while "Capers in the Larder" explores the possibilities of the pantry. As to be expected, "Asian Express" and "Pronto Italiano" cover dishes from their respective cuisines. The book finishes with an extensive list of suggested ingredients to always keep on hand, and there is a repeated notation throughout the book that this list is kept up-to-date on Delia Smith's own website.

The recipes
Eric Akis has filled this book with dishes that would appeal to a wide audience. These are comfort-food basics, with few exotic ingredients or complicated techniques. Pastas, soups, stews and sweets are all well represented. Casual and satisfying, Akis' food is the sort you would want to eat curled up on the couch after a long day.

The chicken-fried steak with pan gravy is rich and hearty, with a simple white sauce as the decadent counterpoint to crispy double-dredged steaks (dried sage is a particularly nice addition to the coating mix). Chickpea Burgers are kept moist thanks to tahini and grated vegetables, and are well-seasoned with cilantro and curry. The fish tacos are family-friendly, especially when topped with the optional homemade guacamole. Fresh and bright with lime, the creamy spread goes beautifully with Akis' marinated baked fish. Tangy and creamy, the Easy-Peasy Lemon Pie would be far from daunting to the novice baker, and the results match up well against more complicated versions.

Of particular interest was the roux-less Skillet Mac and Cheese (pictured, above). Promising a cook time close to that of most boxed macaroni and cheese dinners, it comes together first on the stovetop and is then quickly blitzed under the broiler for a crust similar to long-baked recipes. While the dish did not offer the same creamy, savoury depth as more labour- and time-intensive versions, it was a reasonably good stand-in for a midweek meal.

While far from ground breaking, Akis' has compiled a solid set of recipes that can be prepared by a novice cook.

In Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking the recipes are far-reaching in their scope. Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Chickpeas appears alongside Caribbean Chicken with Salsa and Chicken and Leek Pot Pie. Asparagus with No-Panic Hollandaise turns the original on its head, opting out of the time consuming vinegar reduction and then emulsification for a tangy mix of crème fraîche, lemon, egg yolks, softened butter and cornflour. With less fat and no risk of splitting, the sauce did provide the unctuous mouthfeel of Hollondaise without the stress of its preparation. Sprightly Vietnamese Spring Rolls are stuffed with prawns, crunchy vegetables and herbs, and studded with peanuts; these are perfect for a light lunch or snack. Chocolate mousse is not out of Smith's reach; hers is made with ricotta cheese blended with crème fraîche for its base and is delicious but light. I had hoped to try the recipe for chocolate cake that called for 6 discs of mashed potatoes as an ingredient, but I could not find the kind required.

Herein lies the problem that comes up over and over again in Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking; as the author has been so adamant in her instruction to use brand name products, those in areas where these are unavailable are seriously disadvantaged. A worldwide audience may be unable to source products from the UK and Europe easily, rendering many recipes useless. Substitution is at times impossible as trademarked spice blends are used as the primary seasoning or the measurements are based on the portion size of specific products. If similar-sounding items can be found to swap in, it is uncertain how close result would be to the dish that Smith had intended.

This reliance on prepared foods sometimes seems unnecessary and almost creates as many problems as it solves. Although time is saved in the kitchen, even Smith herself admits that shopping takes longer as trips to multiple shops is necessary to find the particular brands.

Finally, the brand-particular favouritism inspires a new type of food snobbery (something Smith admonishes in her introduction); Italian packets of risotto are assumed to superior to a domestic product and onions sliced and softened in Spain are essential. But how can one with good conscience, in a world where concerns of carbon footprints and the support of regional agriculture are paramount, actively choose imported ingredients when local might be available and possibly taste better than those from abroad?

The conclusion
As much as I am tempted to consider these books mutually exclusive, neither truly are; there is a large middle ground. Though Eric Akis rallies against packaged foods, his stance is not without exception. He uses canned beans, pestos, curry sauces, bought stocks and tinned fish. While we may not think of these as convenience items, they do technically fall into that category and are likely to be staples in most homes. At the same time, Delia Smith includes recipes that are completely homemade and that simply employ tricks to expedite the preparation process. And in an ironic coincidence, these two books include recipes for the same dishes.

Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals is a good beginner's guide to easy meals that can be prepared in a short time. Akis' approach is friendly and easy to follow, making it an accessible resource for those looking for healthy home-cooked meals. His tips are relevant and those packaged ingredients used are readily available.

Smith gives the readers time-saving reworking of well-known recipes, even as she expands the uses of prepared foods with the book Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking. Poshly presented, the book appeals to the foodie at heart, but one without the time, the desire or possibly the skill to prepare meals from scratch. She positions herself in a field outside of television cookery or vaulted art; Smith calls this an opportunity to "revolutionize your life" - with canned bisque firmly in hand.

Either way, it is evident that there is a desire to make food preparation faster, it is up to the reader (or the cook) to decide their speed limit.

Skillet Mac and Cheese
Excerpted with permission from Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals by Eric Akis (Whitecap, 2008).

Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 9-12 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

Here's a quick stovetop way to make macaroni and cheese and still have the heavenly crust of an oven-baked version. I serve it with whole wheat dinner rolls and a platter filled with raw fresh vegetables, such as celery, carrot and cucumber sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets and cherry tomatoes.

2 cups (500 ml) macaroni
2 cups (500 ml) milk
3 tablespoons (45 ml) all-purpose flour
1/4 (1 ml) teaspoon paprika
2 cups (500 ml) grated cheddar cheese
salt and white pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until just tender, about 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile place the milk, flour and paprika in a bowl and whisk until lump-free, Pour into a 10-to-12 inch (25 to 30 cm) nonstick ovenproof skillet and set over medium heat. Cook the mixture, whisking frequently, until it gently simmers and begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Mix in 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the cheese; season with salt and white pepper. Cook and stir until the cheese melts; reduce to low heat. Place an oven rack 6 inches (15 cm) beneath the broiler; preheat the broiler.

Drain the cooked macaroni well and mix into the cheese sauce. Stir in a little extra milk if you find the consistency too thick. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup (125 ml) of the cheese overtop and place under the broiler until it's nicely browned, about 3-4 minutes.

Eric's Options
• To add some protein to this dish, mix in a can (6 oz/170 g) of chunk tuna, drained well and coarsely flaked, or 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of cubed ham or cooked chicken.

Recipes from Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking

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

Cover art courtesy of Whitecap Books and Ebury Press, respectively.


A master's work; a review of Chocolate Epiphany

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.