I WAS really looking forward to this book — sorry, bible. It deserves this epithet in terms of the range of recipes, detailed introduction about the type of equipment a baking adherent will need (although Annie Bell is a big fan of 20cm nonstick baking pans with loose bottoms, which I cannot find anywhere), and wonderful photographs.
That said, and as any baker will tell you, baking being more sciencey than other areas of cooking doesn’t mean things will come out right first time, no matter how precisely you stick to the recipe and no matter how "triple-tested" they are, as in this book. If they haven’t been triple-tested by you in your kitchen, you’re still really winging it.
And sticking strictly to the recipe isn’t always possible. Bell — who was a chef before becoming a full-time cookery writer and author, spent several years as cookery writer for Vogue, then as food writer on the Independent, and now writes for the Mail on Sunday’s YOU magazine in the UK, and was winner of the UK’s Guild of Food Writers’ Cookery Writer of the Year Award in 2003 — has access to myriad different sugars that I’m not sure even exist in this country, such as light muscovado sugar, unrefined caster sugar, and brown caster sugar. Experimenting is thus unavoidable, as is the frustration and cost that comes with it.
For instance, her salted caramel flapjacks were a flop; there was always going to be too much liquid for the amount of oats. As expected, I got a lovely golden crisp top above a soggy mess of oversweet porridge. But it hasn’t put me off; one must simply tweak until it works.
She also seems obsessed with baking powder; her lemon drizzle cake required two teaspoons of the stuff — added to self-raising flour! I couldn’t bring myself to use more than one (which wasn’t needed), lest the cake float out of the oven never to be seen again.
Her tips at the bottom of each recipe can be helpful, but they tend to be about cooking style or storage. I would like to know what ingredients, if any, I could replace with something else. Can the prunes in her Far de Breton be replaced with a different destoned fruit, for instance? I’m sure they can, but I’d still like to hear it from the expert.
Having said that, her soft-bake chocolate-chip cookies, as per the recipe, were a tremendous hit at the office, with colleagues inhaling a batch of about 20 in as many seconds.
Her blondies — a blonde version of brownies — were great; sweet and syrupy and indulgent, but next time I’ll reduce the baking powder and increase the amount of white chocolate chips. The point being that there will be a next time.
The do-overs are inevitable and should in no way be held against the author. The book already has most pages with the corner turned down for more recipes I want to try, such as the flourless chocolate torte, lavender shortcake and summer-wine custard tart.