Welcome to Urban Cottage Bookshelf, where I review cookbooks — old friends that I’ve been turning to year after year, and new friends that I’m excited to welcome into my home and onto my bookshelf. Today, I’m excited to introduce a new friend that already has a prominent place in my collection: All the Sweet Things: Baked Goods and Stories from the Kitchen of Sweetsugarbean by Renée Kohlman.
As a rookie food blogger some years ago, I often heard the names Sweetsugarbean, and Renée Kohlman floating around in Canadian food blogging circles. After all, the National Post named Sweetsugarbean one of Canada’s best food blogs in 2012. I may have been a little awestruck. But at last year’s Food Bloggers of Canada conference, I was seated next to Renée at the opening night dinner, and enjoyed the opportunity to chat with her. She may be a big name in food blogging, but she’s also a lovely, unassuming person.
I had known that Renée was writing a cookbook, and when I saw that it was available for pre-order, I purchased it, fully expecting that it wouldn’t be delivered until this week, when the book is officially being launched. To my delight, the book arrived about three weeks ago.
Not only is it big, at 305 pages with over 100 recipes, but the cover is colourful and fun, with a bit of old-fashioned vibe, too. Those plates, those cups and saucers! And inside, each recipe is accompanied by a full-page photograph, taken by Renée herself, with her iPhone, no less! Take heart, those of you who think you have to have expensive equipment or hire a photographer to produce a cookbook!
But happy colours and pretty pictures don’t make a cookbook. For me, good writing that tells a story (and, of course, conveys information and directions clearly) is a requirement. I also appreciate writing that makes me feel like I know the author. And that’s exactly what All the Sweet Things delivers. I read this book, cover to cover like a novel, in a couple of days. Renée writes not just skillfully, but with such heart and openness, about food yes, but also about her life, her mother, her friends … I feel now that I know her very well indeed.
The recipe headnotes are gems, and throughout the book there are small personal essays, like Small-Town Saturday Nights (oh, I can relate to the irresistible lure of driving up and down the main drag), Giving Thanks (pull quote: “Sometimes I don’t know how to deal with bumps in the road. Sometimes I just bake a cake and do the dishes.”), and The Healing Power of a Doughnut, which is about a rough breakup. Oh yes, major relating going on here.
When you get right down to it, the final component of a good cookbook is the only one that truly matters: rock-solid recipes. And wow, does Renée deliver on this front. As you can see from my photo of the book, I’ve marked many recipes that I’d like to try. If I were to describe the book as a whole, beyond saying it’s about baked treats and other desserts, I’d say it has an old-fashioned sensibility that’s enlivened by modern twists.
There are classic recipes like we would find in our mother’s and grandmother’s recipe boxes, but some of them have been lovingly updated. Yes, there are the prairie classics Flapper Pie and Puffed Wheat Cake, and heirloom recipes like Jam Jams, but there’s also Coconut Chia Pudding with Blueberry Ginger Compote, Buckwheat and Olive Oil Molasses Cookies, and Sour Cherry and Mascarpone Perogies. I love a cookbook that has a distinct style but also demonstrates respect for a variety of dietary needs and beliefs. Classic baking meets vegan meets gluten free meets delicious. There’s something for everyone here.
I made three recipes in preparation to write about All the Sweet Things. Aren’t I lucky? I get to call my baking “testing” and that makes it sound all scientific and noble.
I thought that all the recipes worked well, and found the directions clear. If there’s one thing I’d like to see done differently, that would be to provide weight measures as well as cups for chopped chocolate. Weights would have made me feel more confident that I was using the right amounts. That said, the two recipes with chocolate that I tested turned out well.
And one more little thing that’s actually a book design issue. The serving yields for the recipes are printed on the left side of the page, horizontally and facing the margin. So that meant I was reading them more or less upside down unless I twisted my head or moved the book. A little thing, and if I didn’t have an old whiplash injury that resurfaces from time to time, I might not have thought twice about it. But I do and I did, so here it is.
Dark Chocolate and Cherry Energy Bars (page 68)
I’m doing my best to avoid refined sugar these days, and dates and maple syrup are among my principal sweeteners. So I was delighted to find this recipe for energy bars with no added sugar beyond dates and what’s in the dark chocolate (I used 70 percent, as Renée suggests in the pantry section) and the dried cherries (I used sour cherries). I’ve been puttering around with my own version of chocolate energy bars lately, and was planning to add dried sour cherries to the next version. Maybe I don’t need a next version now, because these bars are rich and chocolatey, with a wonderful cherry tang. I used pistachios and almonds, as the recipe calls for, but added in some pecans to make up for a pistachio shortage in my pantry. As noted in the recipe, there are a variety of substitutions you can make for the dried cherries and the nuts. I like a recipe with options.
The only spice in them is cardamom, which I rarely use. I have to say, that might change since I’m enjoying the exotic, slightly floral note it adds to these bars.
Renée notes that she hasn’t tried freezing these. Well, I have — because I simply cannot be trusted with an 8-inch square pan of them — and I’m happy to report that I’m eating a previously frozen bar right now and it’s just fine! Beyond fine, actually. These things are decadent. Like a chocolate bar, but filled with wholesomeness.
Aunt Helen’s Big Batch Buttermilk Bran Muffins (page 94)
It seems that Aunt Helen didn’t mess around when it comes to bran muffins! This recipe makes about three dozen muffins. I started out using my really big steel bowl, and had to transfer the batter to my ginormous bowl so I could finish adding ingredients and mixing. It’s a big batch indeed.
But don’t worry about a glut of bran muffins … the batter keeps in the fridge for up to two weeks. This means you can have freshly baked muffins whenever you like. You also have the option of baking them up and freezing the baked muffins for up to a month. Versatility!
I just now saw the note that it’s best to let the batter sit overnight before baking the first batch … well, I made my first batch right after I mixed up the batter (so much for paying attention) and they turned out great! The muffins are moist, and the oatmeal in them adds a welcome chewiness. And I’m surprised at how much flavour they have. There’s only a bit of cinnamon for all these muffins, and no additions like raisins or blueberries, and they’re delicious. The idea of topping them with a mixture of four different types of seeds is genius. Not only does it look great in a photoshoot (oh, we food bloggers have one-track minds) but it adds textural interest too. I didn’t have the poppy seeds on hand, so substituted chia seeds with good results.
Chocolate Marshmallow Pie (page 184)
Oh yes, oh yes indeed, this is a fun recipe. And it’s just what it says it is. Chocolate. Marshmallows. In a pie. Oh, did I mention the whipped cream? Um, hello. Three of my four Little Misses were over yesterday, so I decided this would be a fun project to make with them. What child doesn’t want to see marshmallows melting into a pool of chocolate? And to help stir such concoction?
To keep things easier in the mayhem, I decided to purchase a pre-made pie shell even though I really wanted to mix up the Large Batch Pastry that’s on page 158. Just think, enough pastry for six pie shells in one batch! And I know it would have tasted better than the one I bought, but sometimes we just need to be kind to ourselves and take a shortcut (such as when there are three children six and under racing about the place).
So, back to the pie. One of my tasters (older than 6) called it “a triumph.” Well, high praise indeed! This is a fun pie to make and to eat, and it’s really quite easy. The girls were happy to help me — in addition to helping with the stirring, they were indispensable in the counting marshmallows department. Oh, and in the tasting marshmallows department too. So, thank you to Renée for helping me give my granddaughters good memories of fun time in the kitchen with Nana.
I have not asked the publisher for permission to share any of these recipes, but Renée has made the Chocolate Marshmallow Pie recipe available here. (Hey, please come back after you’ve looked at it, because something tells me you’re going straight there!)
Recipes I’d Like to Try
So, I mentioned all those bookmarks. Here are a few more recipes I’d like to make before long. Just a few, because there are so many more! And given my experience so far, I know each will deliver what I expect and more.
- Ginger Peach Crisp
- Brown Butter Lemon Poppy Seed Madeleines (I’ve never made madeleines, and now I must!)
- Maple Pumpkin Seed Brittle
- Carrot Cake with Maple Pumpkin Seed Brittle and Brown Butter Cream Cheese Icing
- Chocolate Tahini Cookies (gluten free)
Other Book Elements
Other helpful material in the book includes The Essential Baker’s Pantry, Other Housekeeping Tidbits, and Useful Tools and Equipment. There are also Metric Conversions at the back of the book. And may I just point out that the very first chapter is called Dessert for Breakfast? Hello!
I know that absolutely no suspense has built up about this. All the Sweet Things is a beautiful book with a great collection of recipes and a level of writing and storytelling that takes the book to the next level. It has pride of place on my bookshelf and belongs on yours, too!
All the Sweet Things: Baked Goods and Stories from the Kitchen of Sweetsugarbean
Published by TouchWood Editions
Copyright © 2017 by Renée Kohlman
Hardcover, 313 pages
Available at bookstores and online
This is not a sponsored post and I am not being compensated for it in any way. I purchased my copy of All the Sweet Things, and no one asked me to review it. You could call this a labour of love (and good eating!).