Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review - Cookwise

Books are great treasures in our home. Every member of my family always receives at least one book as a gift at Christmas and usually for birthdays as well. A couple of Christmases ago, my husband gave me Cookwise -  The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great Tasting Recipes by Shirley O. Corriher*.

CookWise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking, The Secrets of Cooking Revealed

I've always considered recipes to be more guidelines than actual rules, and I've never hesitated to alter one to suit my family's taste and the state of my pantry. I've always been something of a science geek, being far more interested in how and why things work for my own good. I also consider myself a very accomplished and experienced cook and baker, so this book taught me a bit of humility about how much I don't know about cooking and baking.

At the time my husband gave me the book, I was thinking about how to modify a cookie recipe I had to make it more like some cookies we liked to buy (I tell that story here.), but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I hadn't said anything to Eric about what I was trying to do. But he knows me so well, he chose the perfect gift for me without me telling him!

From Chapter 2 "how rich it is - the amazing roles of fats", section 2 (cookies), I learned the role each ingredient plays in making a cookie. For example:
Sugar makes cookies tender, contributes to browning, and can make cookies crisp. ...corn syrup browns at a lower temperature than table sugar. Substituting as little as 1 tablespoon of corn syrup for sugar will make a cookie browner. Corn syrup also makes the surface of the cookie crisper. (p129)
This was exactly what I needed to modify my cookies! I was trying to make a very crisp, thin cookie. But that's not all I learned. I learned that eggs will make a cookie puffy (which I did NOT want), so I substituted milk for the egg in my recipe.  As a result, I was able to make exactly the kind of cookie I wanted.

After my success at altering a cookie, I decided to read chapter one, "the wonders of risen bread". Now I am very proud of my breadmaking ability. I've blogged about it here. I knew that I was looking for help with my cookie modification, but I didn't think dear Shirley could teach me anything about baking bread. Well, I soon learned how wrong I was.

Chapter one begins by detailing the different types of flour  - whole wheat, all purpose, unbleached, bread flour - even the differences between flours grown in different parts of the country (or the world). I learned about gluten, where it comes from, and when and how to add it, protein content of different flours and how to measure it myself. There is a section on dough additives - from vitamin C (helps gluten development) to spices (not just for taste, but to enhance yeast activity).

I learned about sponges (wet mixture of liquid, yeast and a portion of the flour from the recipe) and why it's important to let it stand for 30 minutes to 3 hours before continuing to mix the dough. This one change has increased the quality of my bread more than I can tell you!

Chapter 3 is called "eggs unscrambled" and is devoted to meringues, custards, cheesecakes in addition to basic information about eggs
"Eggs perform many cooking tasks, from holding foods together to leavening. But precisely because they are such a basic ingredient, it's easy to overlook how important egg know-how is to fine cooking. Knowing how to use eggs - not just whole eggs but also whites and yolks separately - can mean the difference between an ordinary and an extraordinary dish." (p191)
Other chapters are "sauce sense" (purees, reductions and emulsions), "treasure of the earth" (fruits and vegetables), "fine fare from land, sea and air" (meat, seafood and fowl cookery) and "sweet thoughts and chocolate dreams".

If you are comfortable in the kitchen and just want some geeky science facts about the recipes you use, this book is for you. If you're a beginner and want step-by-step instructions for your first pie, this book is for you too! 

From the introduction:
"I am thrilled when I learn something that is a major help in improving a dish. When I first learned how important air bubbles in the fat are (the creaming step where you beat the butter and sugar to make a cake), all kinds of things became clearer to me...No wonder I made terrible cakes; I barely stirred the butter and sugar together...CookWise contains a lot of basics like this...When you know how to estimate the right amount of baking powder, you can tell just by looking at a recipe that a cake is overleavened and may fall. When you know how many eggs you need per cup of liquid for a firm custard or a soft custard, you can see that a quiche doesn't have enough eggs. This kind of know-how puts you in control...Everyone who cooks benefits from knowing how to 'fix'  problem recipes and how to make ordinary dishes extraordinary." (p xi)
*If you're a fan of Alton Brown's Good Eats, you've met Ms. Corriher. She's the "food consultant" he relies on to explain arcane food knowledge in several episodes.


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  1. I tried creating my own healthy recipe and it was a big failure, but I think this book would have helped me a lot! Very interesting, thanks for posting :-)

  2. Thanks SO much for joining my Foodie Linky Party!! I added you to the Blogs I Follow on my blog! So excited to get to know you better!

  3. How cool! I love this kind of stuff!
    I'm an avid cookbook fan and I think this sounds like it would be right up my alley! Something fun, informative and useful!


  4. Sounds like a great book for a newbie like me. Wishin I had ventured out and been a little more brave with cooking when I was younger.

  5. I think I need this book! I do so love to tweak! :)

  6. Thanks for sharing you book review on Topsy Turvy Tuesday!


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