cookbookskristina gill

cookbook reviews with kristina: sweet tooth

by Grace Bonney

So you’ve looked at Joy’s recipe and are ready to indulge your sweet tooth- so this week’s cookbooks are all about baking. It’s what I do the most of at home; my refrigerator is full of wrapped sections of cake (quarters for a tube pan, halves for a loaf) labeled with the type of desert and the book it came from. My husband has a very easy time every few days just going and pulling out what he’d like to have for breakfast or with his tea. The past few weeks, the second freezer drawer has enjoyed goodies from these three books below- I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did! –Kristina

Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees (Wiley). Baking Unplugged is the hands down winner in my spot recipe testing. The recipes are good, easy, and practical. The simple philosophy behind the book is that you can make great desserts without any electrical equipment (except an oven, of course). The preliminary chapters at the beginning review tools, ingredients, methods, and how to read a recipe. The books chapters are then divided into types of baked goods, with no dearth of explanation of technique. The book is clear and concise, easy to understand. I wish I had had this book when I started out baking. This is a book for anyone who wants to get back to basics in the kitchen, someone who has a small kitchen with only a few tools, someone who is lazy and doesn’t feel like plugging in the equipment. It’s a perfect book for beginners– I am a firm believer in the ‘learn in the manual way’ in order to excel in the automated world. I really really like this book. One last important note– there are no photos at all in the book. But please don’t let this discourage you.

All Cakes Considered by Melissa Gray (Chronicle Books). For one year, the author (a producer at National Public Radio’s program All Things Considered) brought in a cake to work every Monday, and this book is the result. It is a fantastically entertaining book. The recipes are a mix between previously published recipes, and the author’s own (bequeathed by friends and family, or tweaked and ‘co-opted’ for personal use from other sources), so of course they have been tested and retested. What I love about the book is the author’s voice, the way the instructions are written, the stories, all of the written text. What I do not like about the book– you need a 10″ tube pan to make the majority of the recipes, or you need shortening. If you live in a place where it’s difficult to find either (especially the latter), you’re out of luck. Comb the internet to find a shortening alternative. If you can get over those two things (I’m still smarting), then this book is a winner. There’s even a chapter on non-cakes (cookies etc)!

The Craft of Baking by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox (Clarkson Potter). [TOP IMAGE ABOVE] I was so looking forward to this book, a collection of recipes which are a bit less common than you’d normally find in American baking books– recipes like like Lamington cupcakes, pine nut tart with rosemary cream, nut and cherry nougat. As a whole, the collection of recipes is elegant- definitely a notch above average. You’d make a great statement if you served one of these recipes to your friends. And although I had a bit of difficulty with the Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (The cooking time didn’t work out for me?), my shortcoming has been like a challenge to me, which has made me want to come back and try more recipes in the book, maybe toward Christmas when I usually try to bake up five to ten different baked goods and give little boxes of mixed goodies to friends as gifts (You always want unique things people haven’t tried before in those gift boxes). For people who like to experiment with different flavors and adapt recipes for different types of desserts, you’ll appreciate the notes after each recipe which offer tips on how to do just that! In sharp contrast with Baking Unplugged, there are plenty of pictures in this book of the final recipes up close, so you can compare and see how your efforts measure up! While the recipes are generally quite easy to execute, this is definitely the type of book for the person who believes that a tiny bit more effort can produce great desserts.

Suggested For You


  • Seriously, there is a shortage of Crisco in New York? Shop in a working-class neighborhood (probably not Brooklyn), and you’re bound to find Crisco.

    If not, you can always substitute lard. Available in any Mexican grocery/bodega worth its salt.

  • I should clarify that the only 10″ tube pan I have is a Bundt, and after being spoiled by Baking Unplugged, I became too lazy to prep the Bundt to avoid sticking, and looked out for the recipes that used other pans!

  • I’m from the south and I would have never imagined that there was a place where you couldn’t get shortening! Wow! I guess that’s why we have such good biscuits. :)

  • As a southern cook, my shortening dilemma was solved by this most excellent product. I hope it’s ok to post a link. http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/organic_palm_shortening.htm
    It’s definitely not hydrogenated. Not sure about availability overseas or if they ship there, but it’s well worth hunting for or inquiring after. Finally I can get the texture only a bit of shortening can bring! Happy baking, tis the season. Yum.

  • Ah, thank you for the clarification, Grace.

    Lard probably is available in Italy for traditional cooking. Really, shortening was devised as a substitute for lard, so I would think the conversion would work just fine. Not for the vegetarians among us, however.

  • since when is it hard to find crisco? or are you saying the recipes call for tallow or lard or something? seriously don’t understand the complaint about shortening… crisco is partially dehydrogenated but you shouldn’t be using a ton of it. and where is it hard to find a tube pan? did you try any of the recipes in the melissa gray book?

    • wadcity

      kristina, who writes our recipe column, lives in rome. not exactly crisco city. please read the comments above you before you start calling someone out on their valid “complaints”.


  • @beth @Katie @Jackie thanks for your suggestions! Whenever possible, I try recipes as they are written before I experiment with substitutions. I will try lard and/or butter and see what I come up with!

    @Wadcity – Yes I did try a cake from the book, and it was fantastic! Very easy to make. It didnt require a tube pan or crisco. My “complaint” about Crisco is not a complaint, though. I was only pointing out my own -personal- setback. If I lived where Crisco and a good quality regular 10″ tube pan were easier to locate and more affordable, I would use this book every week.

    Hello? Santa are you reading?

  • I live in the UK and while Crisco is only available at a few special american shops (and for a high price) I have found that they sell vegetable fat for baking in the cold section next to the margerines and butters. It is basically the same as crisco in a block and comes in lots of different brands, but all say “for baking” so people know they are not to spread on their bread. I didn’t know it was there for a couple years though! And no one knew what I meant when I called it shortening. Maybe Rome has something similar?