Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Expert Chocolate Cookbook Fails

This review today, Sisters and Brothers, is both a book review but also will serve as a Special Sacramental Review since I'm including a wonderful product a chocolatier sent to me in the final recipe I'll cover.  As always with cookbooks, I tried three different recipes for three different types of products if there is enough variety to do so.  There is a lot of variety in Greatest-Ever Chocolate Cookbook so I chose a cookie, a pie, and a cake to try each for a special occasion. Luckily I made a lot of other things to eat and drink for those parties and we had fun games because the recipes from this book did not turn out very well.

Let me start with some good things about the book.  It is 224 pages long and the majority of that are recipes all with lovely photographs.  There is a section on the history and evolution of using cacao worldwide as well as a section with all the various techniques and reused cream, frosting and sauces several recipes share.   This technique section had very good photographs showing you how things were done, a trait I wished the recipes themselves had had.

The book is a hardcover though you might be able to find a soft cover version but wasn't so big it couldn't lay flat with some help.  At 11" bu 9.75" though it doesn't fit well in most cookbook holders I've seen.  The recipes include both American and what I think of as European measurements mostly based on weight.  That's both good and bad because I found it distracting until I got used to looking at the recipes myself.  The book has five general sections organized by type of recipe including "small bakes and cakes," "large cakes and loaves," "hot desserts," "cold and frozen desserts," and "sweets and drinks". That made it fairly easy to chose three recipes from.

The first recipe I tackled was for "Chocolate crackle-tops" on page 21 for our holiday party back in December 2009.  It turned out that this type of cookie, which I'd never heard of let alone made, was one of our guests favorites but he took one look at these and wrinkled up his nose.  Let me show you way with a side by side comparison below.  On the left is what the cookbook showed, the right is what happened when I followed the directions:

Following the directions, whose only moisture was some butter, three eggs, and a tsp of vanilla, the cookies didn't flatten out at all.  They tasted dry but otherwise I was told they were very chocolaty. I burst out crying when I saw them come out of the oven.  Later I went looking for other versions of this recipe and they all said to either flatten out the cookies a bit or they had more moisture in the recipe.

The next recipe I tried was for January 23rd which is "National Chocolate Pie Day" and you may remember I took votes the day before on which recipe to try.  "Black bottom pie" was the winner and that recipe was on pages 136-137 of the cookbook.  The directions just were off for someone who had never made this particular recipe.  Heaven help you if you'd never made a pie crust or a whipped topping because the directions were just a bit too vague about what the finished product should look or feel like.  But I tried to stick as close to the directions as possible for this review including using what I felt was an ungodly amount of dark rum -- I couldn't taste anything but rum myself though others claimed it did taste like chocolate also. At least it wasn't dry this time though the next recipe would revert to that problem.

The wonderful folks at Guittard very generously sent us four different types of their baking chocolate and I used the 38% Cacao variety for the final recipe -- that's the upper right hand 20 square bar that you see in the photo to the left. I'll review the other three cocoa content baking chocolates in the future as I use them.  I compared a squares of this to Baker's Chocolate squares and determined they were approximately the same amount, one ounce if that 's correct then there are 20 ounces of each of these.  As you can imagine I felt truly blessed to receive these offerings.  The feeling increased when I used the 38%.  It melted quickly, smoothly and evenly in the microwave or a sauce pan.  It melted just as well alone or with added ingredients.  It tasted great by itself and in recipes as well.  I had a lot of this so I experimented beyond the recipe I'll now critique.

One of our Followers here on The Chocolate Cult, a woman whose culinary skills I hope to reveal to you all one day, is also a personal friend of mine and we live in the same town.  March was going to be busy for all of us so I asked if we could host a birthday party for Emilie and if I could make a cake from scratch.  I chose the "simple chocolate cake" recipe on page 71 which is supplemented by the instructions for a "Chocolate buttercream" on page 184.  By this time in using this cookbook I had this feeling something was not going to go right.  The cookies were wretched, the pie was too intense, but I prayed nothing too bad would happen for her birthday.

Following the recipe as closely as I could but fearful something would go wrong I was first pleased that I had become so familiar with the two measure system that I could easily navigate it which did make it strength for this book. It mixed up easily, it poured easily, and the buttercream worked out too though I must confess I added more of the Guittard's to both as well as more moisture -- that turned out to be a good thing.  As  you can see in the photo the layers turned out fairly even but even with added moisture they were still dry.  The recipe suggests just using powdered sugar and cocoa on the top but given how dry this was I just knew it would get even dry exposed like that.  Plus my friend Emilie loves this baby pink color so I got to play with coloring frosting.  The cake did indeed taste chocolate but everyone agreed it was dry.

That was the common experience with all three of these recipes.  While they might have tasted fairly good, at least to some of those who ate them, they looked very off, were dry, or frankly just didn't match my expectations.  The result is that I have to be harsh at the end of this review.  Greatest-Ever Chocolate Cookbook does not fulfill the first part of the title.  Chocolate yes indeed, but to use this well I think you need a lot of experience with chocolate and all these types of recipes to compensate for missing instructions, lack of ingredients and just odd things about each treat it is supposed to teach you how to make.  I bought this with some birthday money but on close-out at our local Borders bookstore.  If you see it, pass it up, that is really my best advice unless you think you can overcome the difficulties in this book.

Sisters and Brothers, may you, too, take the time to slowly appreciate what the Divine and human ingenuity have offered you in chocolate.


Cacao-Me said...

it's always so sad to see good chocolate get wasted on bad recipes.

TheChocolatePriestess said...

As I try to make clear I'm not a chocolatier or a chocolate retailer. I'm like most of my readers, average to slightly above average skills in the kitchen. I think that's a good test of a cookbook myself because an excellent one will help the average cook achieve great tastes and a starter learn to be average.

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