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River Cottage Handbook Book Review

Today’s post is by guest blogger Marisa Ingram.

Have you ever fallen head-over-heels in love with a cookbook? I’ve had just that experience with Pam Corbin’s Cakes (River Cottage Handbook.) From the moment I cracked it open and landed on the recipe for “Cornish Fairings, a close cousin of the gingernut” it was love. It is such a lovely and charming little recipe book (and it is little, part of a series of small handbooks from the UK’s River Cottage http://www.rivercottage.net) that I took it to bed with me the first night in favor of the novel in which I was currently engrossed. I read of such things as Welsh Cakes, Jammy Dodgers, and Golden Syrup Cake. And as a lover of all things British, this book stoked my Anglophile (is Britophile a word?) fires right along with my palate. This is a good time to note that this book is imported from the UK and so it follows that the recipes in this book are in the metric system and use some seemingly (to my American ears) unusual ingredients. But I was in luck as I took an extremely useful class last year at Book Larder http://www.booklarder.com called “Baking in Translation – How to Bake British Without Freaking Out” taught by Paola Thomas who blogs at mirrormirror.typepad.com. One of the key takeaways from that class (that will undoubtedly help you with any British baking book) was that the “self-raising flour” called for in British recipe books is NOT the same thing we see on American shelves called “self-rising flour.” Fortunately, for us Paola has spent some time perfecting a substitute that you can make right at home – 1tsp baking powder to one cup or 150g all-purpose flour. If you are unfamiliar with British cooking terms and metric measures, the plethora of information on the internet will be your guide.

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Here are some of my top picks from Cakes:

– Flapjacks are an altogether different entity in Great Britain than they are in the US. A British flapjack is more closely related to a granola bar – a softer, chewier and much more indulgent version (although the instructions do note you may cook them longer for a crisper flapjack.) Do make sure you aren’t greedy and impatient like me though. Make sure to let these cool in the pan completely, otherwise they may fall to pieces.

– Rhubarb Pudding Cake with Custard is possibly my favorite recipe in the book. Served warm from the oven and drenched in a pool of custard (I made mine from scratch but feel free to cheat with Bird’s tinned custard powder) this is all that a cake should be. Not too rich, yet warm, cozy, and comforting. And the distinct taste of rhubarb added that extra oomph to brighten this up into a lovely springtime dessert. This is one that I will return to again.

– I’ve long been a lover of scones but was almost entirely unfamiliar with their Welsh cousin, so I was quite intrigued to try my hand at Welsh Cakes. The ingredients are very similar as is the preparation of the dough, however a Welsh cake is fried up in a griddle – just a few minutes per side until it is a warm golden color. It is also much thinner than a scone and surprisingly tastes almost like a scone crossed with a pancake. Quick and easy to prepare, I have no doubt I will be making these lovely little cakes again soon. Corbin suggests these may be eaten with a bit of butter or some jam but they were so tasty just as they were.

– Cardamom Cake, redolent with a warm, cozy spice, this doesn’t sound like a springtime cake. However the spice in this cake is so light and bright that I was proved wrong. The cake may sink a bit in the middle, but as Corbin says, “don’t worry, just think of this as another of its charms.” And let me tell you, it has many. One being this is an understated cake, in the very best sort of way. While it is a spice cake, the flavor is perfectly balanced – leaving a subtle spicy aftertaste on your tongue after the last bite has been (sadly) consumed. Secondly, this cake has a delightfully crusty exterior that gives way to a wonderfully moist and delicate crumb.

If you can’t tell – I absolutely adore this baking book. I have baked quite a few of its other treats and none have disappointed, and I have an ever growing list of not-yet-trieds. This book is filled with simple yet supremely tasty baked goods. If you are looking for something fancy, you will need to look elsewhere for it does not put on any airs. It is a book to turn to when you are looking for a slice of comfort – something that can be made quickly and with relatively few ingredients on those days when you are craving a homey treat. This book and its recipes will warm you up from the inside out and have you dreaming of a cozy English kitchen with an Aga in the corner and a cup of tea.


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About the author of this post:

Marisa has been an indispensable part of the Foodportunity team for the last two years.
She has a lifelong passion for home baking and a growing interest in all things fresh, local, organic, and seasonal. Though a native Washingtonian, a love for history took her to Charleston, SC where she obtained her degree in English from the College of Charleston. She works in human resources by day, but would love to give it all up for a life of travel.


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