Thursday, January 12, 2017

Voracious: Review (+ a Recipe Review, too!)

In a world where everyone and their mom has a quirky Harry Potter or Game of Thrones inspired cookbook stashed in their kitchen pantry - no shade, my fave is Downton Abbey themed - it seems that whether it's from the screen or the page, we like to imagine fictional foods better, when we can see them on our plate.

The transformational aspect of transfiguring fictional foods into the real world is the subject of plenty of blogs and YouTube channels already - including one of my faves, Nerdy Nummies with Rosanna Pansino - but not many have ventured beyond the sort of pop fiction and fantasy genres. Barring Dinah Fried's photography book Fictitious Dishes, I don't think I can think of any that tackle the subject of general literature.

But with Voracious, from Cara Nicoletti - a pastry chef and professional butcher - the principle is elevated, by bringing forth the foods from her English major-oriented palate of preferred reading material. By opting for a buffet of titles ranging from Pride and Prejudice to Strega Nona to Gone Girl,  we get not just a treat for the taste buds, but callbacks to some of your favorite reads, from contemporary titles, to childhood classics.

All, of course, are delicious.

reading it as a book

The subject of Voracious was borne from Nicoletti's popular blog of the same nature: Yummy Books. Of course the topic would flourish in the online space: there are plenty of book blogs, and food blogs, right? Who wouldn't want to read about both at the same time?

Personally, I vividly remember elementary school classroom lessons, with treats as a prize for finishing the stories we would read after we came in from recess. Molasses and Turkish Delight are probably the most memorable of said desserts, as they were ultimately determined to be worth far less than what characters had been willing to trade for them.

Nicoletti's book descriptions originate from similar ranges of personal experience: her recipes are based as much on original stories and individual viewpoints as they are on the books that reference them directly. What results is a happy marriage of both her own life lessons and the products of our favorite tales.

Some were delightfully literal. While I don't think I'll ever possess an appetite that would make pig's head seem palatable, its important ties to the narrative of William Golding's Lord of the Flies cannot be overlooked. Others were extrapolated outwards, like "Hansel and Gretel" serving as inspiration for a tasty gingerbread cake. I was vindicated Pride and Prejudice was included for the "white soup," because I had just finished reading it, as well, and had been wondering the same thing. Missing was a roasted leg of lamb, a la Roald Dahl's "Lamb for the Slaughter."

If anything, I wish that there was greater context given to the actual fictional material, instead of forcing me to Google things I was unfamiliar with.

reading it as a cookbook

But we can't just evaluate Voracious strictly as a memoir... a third of its pages are solely dedicated to detailing the recipes of the foods! So, in the pursuit of fairness, I only thought it was right to review it as a cookbook - a subject with which I am very familiar - as well.

In terms of quality of the foods themselves, we're talking high caliber cooking, which makes sense, because our author was both a butcher and a pastry chef, professionally. Both of those occupations denote specialized skill sets, which, in turn, also require specialty ingredients and more involved production schedules.  The lack of elements of recipes familiar elsewhere - such as, given substitutions for perhaps ingredients that were a little too special - surely indicates the intention that the readers would already know what might serve as suitable substitutions. Unfortunately, I wasn't so well-versed. (You'll hear about that later.)

Additionally, the book is exclusively print-oriented, with little affordances made for visual cues, save the adorable illustrations scattered throughout. Unfortunately, that means the recipes come with zero photography to speak of, so you don't really know what your food is supposed to turn out like when you're done. As many are unfamiliar with both baking and butchery, pictures could only serve to help in this aspect.

(However, I also think that more pictures would definitely tilt the book as a whole more towards cookbook than memoir, and it would definitely avert more of the words from their intended focus. Still, since pictures play a factor on her blog, it would have made sense to include them here, as well!)

Being that part of evaluating a cookbook partially relies on your ability to actually use it to construct something edible, I took on a good-looking recipe for a favorite read of mine: currant buns, in honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden

To any and all seasoned bakers who might be reading this, feel free to laugh at my expense.

I had most of the ingredients in my pantry, but found a couple to be at a higher cooking level than I was used to baking with: bread flour, and dried currants. My quest for such specialty ingredients lead me to make a couple of really, really dumb decisions, but at the time, I left the grocery store in high spirits, believing myself all the more capable - because only adults purchase flours with dedicated uses - and that chopping up dried tart cherries might be a suitable stand-in for the still-elusive dried currants.

I realized somewhat belatedly that chopping up dried cranberries would have made a lot more sense  than cherries, but that's still only the second stupid thing I managed to do. After gazing at my
dough in utter wonder as to why it looked more like choux pastry, then waiting with bated breath for it to rise not once, but twice, which it only seemed to do in spreading outwards considerably, I turned back to my ingredients to investigate as to what was the matter with it.

In my excitement over buying bread flour, I had somehow managed to overlook the words "gluten free" stamped neatly above it. Idiot.

The result: undeniably, a sub-standard product, which occurred by no one's fault, really, other than my own. Dry, unsweetened, and English-scone-like in texture and appearance, I quickly attempted to resuscitate my failed recipe into something edible, and finally, by topping each with a thick glaze and crust of sugar, they kind of pass for morning scones, which still would have probably have tasted better with cranberries in them.

The book, however, was wonderful. 

Would you ever read a book like this one? What's your worst cookbook screw-up? Anyone care for a scone? Let me know, in the comments below! 

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