October 27, 2011


Sugar, Sugar: Every Recipe Has a Story. By Kimberly “Momma” Reiner and Jenna Sanz-Agero. Andrews McMeel. $29.99.

OMG Pancakes! 75 Cool Creations Your Kids Will Love to Eat. By Jim Belosic. Avery. $20.

Gluten-Free Makeovers: Over 175 Recipes—from Family Favorites to Gourmet Goodies—Made Deliciously Wheat-Free. By Beth Hillson. Da Capo. $19.

     One of the most delightful cookbooks to come along in quite some time, Sugar, Sugar by Kimberly “Momma” Reiner and Jenna Sanz-Agero not only includes a batch of delicious recipes but also offers something equally tasty: the stories behind the food. There are wonderful cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, candy and more here from around the United States and from many generations, each submitted by a person for whose family the goodies have a special meaning. The connection between food and family is what makes this book so outstandingly tasty – and the food itself is mighty good, too. Reiner and Sanz-Agero explain their personal differences and similarities in the introduction: the former prefers fruit flavors to chocolate, while the latter does not like berries; the former likes French or Belgian chocolate, but the latter uses Baker’s; the former says her husband rarely tries her sweets, while the latter says her husband always does. The two “sugar mommas” also offer comments and suggestions on the various recipes, including ways to modernize some of the old ones – for example, using muffin pans instead of cake pans to make “Everything but the Hummingbird Cake,” a concoction of pineapple, bananas, pecans or walnuts, vanilla and cinnamon, with cream cheese frosting. The difficulty of the recipes varies quite a bit: the “Hummingbird” recipe is on the complex side, for example, while “Strawberry Celebration Cake” is made from boxed white cake mix and packaged strawberry gelatin such as Jell-O. The stories behind the recipes vary quite a bit, too. “Bev’s Fraîche Fruit Pies” trace their heritage to pies made for a New Orleans restaurant in the 1970s, while “Boobie Cookies” (which have pointy tips) were named by two grandchildren, and “Kossuth Cakes” have a lineage dating to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Reading about the recipes, either before choosing ones to try or while the goodies are baking, makes this book far more interesting than typical cookbooks. And a number of the foods here, coming as they do from family recipes handed down over many years, will be genuinely new to home bakers. “We think every ancestral study should include the family sweets!” say the authors – and on the basis of Sugar, Sugar, home bakers are likely to agree.

     The sweets in OMG Pancakes! are for breakfast only, and are intended primarily for children, but Jim Belosic’s recipes will be plenty of fun for adults, too – both when making the pancakes and pancake creations and when eating them. Belosic started creating pancakes in unusual shapes and colors for his daughter, who was then three years old, and then he started chronicling his creations on a Web site, and now, more than four million “hits” later, there is this book. Kids generally do love to eat pancakes, so this is scarcely a book for tempting picky eaters – it has more to do with bonding with a child by making him or her something special and unusual-looking. There is nothing surprising in the basic pancake batter here (Belosic also suggests such variations as whole-wheat pancakes, pumpkin pancakes, banana pancakes and blueberry pancakes, but those too are scarcely out of the ordinary). What is offbeat is how Belosic cuts, colors and arranges the pancakes: this is as much a book about art (or artistry) as it is one about food. An alligator pancake, for instance, starts with natural green food coloring added to pancake batter; uncolored batter is used for teeth and eyes; the eyeballs are chocolate chips. “Mr. Pigsley” also gets chocolate-chip eyes, plus a body made from batter colored with natural red food coloring. Belosic shows what the parts of each animal look like when they come off the griddle, then indicates how to assemble them into the finale shape. Some of those shapes are three-dimensional, and they are more difficult to make. A grasshopper, for instance, requires only natural green food coloring plus those ubiquitous chocolate chips for eyes, but “the tricky part is not the pieces themselves, but attaching them patiently, properly, and precisely to make it stand as a 3-D pancake.” Expect to spend some time experimenting with these creations, especially the three-dimensional ones, but rest assured that even failed experiments taste just as good as successful ones. To adults, anyway.

     Sweet foods, whether cakes, pies, cookies or pancakes, almost always include flour, and that can be a serious issue for people who want to or must eat a gluten-free diet. For them, Beth Hillson offers Gluten-Free Makeovers of biscotti, brownies, cookies, cupcakes, pies and such non-sweet foods as rolls, scones, biscuits, pizza, soups, pasta, stuffing and main courses. This is a limited-audience book that gets a (+++) rating, but that does not mean it lacks value – in fact, for those who need to avoid gluten, it will be most welcome (although it is scarcely the only book offering a gluten-free guide to many of these recipes). Many of the basics here involve creating your own flours – from amaranth flour and cornstarch, for instance, or from chickpea flour and brown rice flour. Xanthan gum, tapioca starch, sorghum flour and similar ingredients are also must-haves. From the homemade flours, made individually or as a blend, Hillson shows how to make popovers, dairy-free pumpkin apricot muffins, and a “Nearly Puff Pastry Crust” that becomes part of such recipes as “Baked Brie with Fig Spread en Croûte.” There are even pancakes here, although scarcely Belosic-style ones: these are made from homemade self-rising flour, buckwheat flour and other ingredients, with or without fresh blueberries. Gluten-free cooking and baking has come a long way in the last few years: the foods prepared according to these recipes need no longer be dry, tasteless or grainy. And a careful analysis of foods that do or not contain gluten has made many preparations easier – for instance, Hillson says a simple dipping sauce for chicken can be made using ordinary ketchup, mustard and garlic powder, plus one or two teaspoons of gluten-free soy sauce. Hillson, president of the American Celiac Disease Alliance, does a great favor for home cooks and bakers seeking good gluten-free foods with this book; and if the preparations are unlikely to have general appeal, at least the foods will taste fine if prepared by someone who cannot consume gluten and served to someone who can.

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