I am never one to pass up a good food driven narrative. A skilled writer can detail a dish or process so clearly that a reader can savor, taste and crave their work. This issue of Bookisshh features a memoir/biography, “Life Without A Recipe” by Diana Abu-Jaber and gorgeous book on baking cakes, “Layered” by Tessa Huff. Grab your forks and maps because we are traveling and snacking along the way!
Diana, born of Jordanian, Muslim father and Irish Catholic mother struggles with her identity as she makes her way into the world as a writer.
Diana is pulled between two poles, her father, Bud and her grandmother, Grace, both of whom who cope with life’s struggles through cooking and baking respectively. Bud demonstrates to readers how his Bedouin brethren cope with the scarcity of food and variety of ingredients and how garlic, tomatoes and lamb are among life’s essentials. Grace whose passion for all things sweet (excluding husbands) imparts to readers that eating sweet things brings people closer to God. As people and characters, they are basic and their back stories are difficult to piece together as Diana strolls through the forest of her life. Her mother and siblings serve as faded works on a wall. It is thought that through our children we become better people and this is evident in Abu-Jaber’s endearing relationship and presentation of her daughter, Grace. In the nurturance of Grace we see who Abu-Jaber is inside. I appreciate Abu-Jaber’s tactic in not exploiting Grace’s childhood while sharing the inspiration and healing that comes with her.
“Life Without a Recipe” has the makings of a powerful story, but is shy of the mark delivering one. Despite the title, and that life can be viewed as linear and non-linear, the flashes of memory for people and events and their lack of clear connectedness makes it a challenge to gauge her development of time and person. During her narrative, Abu-Jaber states that by writing the story of her father’s death, she is giving it reality and weight and therefore truth. This leaves her to do anything but write a story. While the detail and flow of Abu-Jaber’s writing is gorgeous, the fragmentation and lack of organization far defeat her purpose–to share her story. Family recipes are oft coveted as secret and secrets that fester are equivalent to leaving things in the oven too long. This reader prefers that she digs a little deeper and stays the path of time. Worth reading but not sure I will shelve this one.
Lift every fork and sing to “Layered” by Tessa Huff who instructively tantalizes and teaches amateurs and aficionados how to construct classic, whimsical, holiday and adventurous cakes. Warning: you WILL gain 20 pounds after reading through this!
Strengths in this book are many. The photography is all about the cake and keynote ingredients. Whiteware dishes and cake stands, bright lighting, simple linens and a smattering of flowers, honey, spices and nuts when they are so-called upon. Specific processes and changes to look for are sequenced in clear, thumbnail images which give the novice baker confidence that they are not paddling against the current. “Layered” begins with sections explaining and generalizing common and recurring ingredients, room temperatures, type of butter, egg sizes, her preferences for chocolate, flour and colorants. The instructions are vertically organized in columns so each process component appears side by side. There are always tips and troubleshooting located on the same page. Huff emphasizes the use of room temperature and pre-preparation so that the experience as a whole is always flowing. Her tips are incredibly helpful, I learned more about frosting and finishing a cake from her than I did my second generation bakery grandpa!
The book is organized by type of cake. Section one is Classic Cakes. The recipes featured include pastimes like Neapolitan Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Boston Cream Pie Cake, Black Forest Cake and Brooklyn Blackout Cake. Some interesting history regarding certain recipes is tucked in Huff’s introductory paragraphs which is entirely interesting and I wish she shared more information of this type. Section two is titled, Chocolate Cakes and the variation on chocolate is mind-blowing. Some of my favorites include, Chocolate Porter Cake which has actual beer, espresso and whiskey glaze, cream cheese frosting and peanut brittle. Another interesting one is called the Ultimate Candy Bar Cake which is a mocha spice cake with coffee butter cream and your choice of candy bar filling. Section three, Whimsical Cakes, include varieties of fruit, spice, S’mores and banana splits. Section four’s, Adventure Cakes, are described as boozy, savory, loaded with ingredients like, yuzu, pink peppercorns, chai, red wine, lavender and olive oil. These cakes less formal in appearance–not suffocating in frosting–are for discerning palates, though not over the top as the ingredient panel may suggest. Following adventure comes section five hosting Casual Cakes where honey, apples, peaches, sour cream, pineapple, raspberries and other amazing ingredients tumble onto the counter. Check out the Hummingbird Cake–a lovely Southern tradition featuring pineapple, cream cheese frosting, maple candied pecans and a banana-pineapple spice cake. Delicious! Wrapping up with Holiday Cakes, here the photography really steps up and you will adore the essence of red in pomegranates. Her Strawberry Rose Valentine Cake is one to dream over–sour cream chocolate cake with strawberry-rose buttercream.
Happy and inspired am I to have read, “Layered” and excited am I to purchase it in hardcover later this month. The experience Huff organizes is not one to be created via internet searches or Pinterest. Her concept oozes with philosophy, joy and a worldly approach. Give it a read!
“Let them eat cake” is the traditional translation of the French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, supposedly spoken by “a great princess” upon learning that the peasants had no bread. Since brioche was a luxury bread enriched with butter and eggs, the quote would reflect the princess’s disregard for the peasants, or at least a complete lack of understanding that the absence of basic food staples was due to poverty rather than a lack of supply. Enjoy this montage of her indulgence!
courtesy of Shambolique on You Tube 🙂