I have shelves of cookbooks, many of which I’ve read cover to cover like a novel, a few which failed to keep my interest and several more just begging to be dipped into over the holidays. The best cookbooks are not only engaging to read, but those I turn to over and over. One book that I’ve read with great relish and already regard as a classic in my kitchen is The Messy Baker by Charmian Christie, who also publishes a blog by the same name.
Now, I know Charmian slightly, having met her at two Food Bloggers of Canada conferences, and she’s one of the funniest and most charming people I’ve come across. While that makes her a great addition at the dinner table, it’s the translation of those traits to her book, plus a deep knowledge of and passion for baking, combined with refreshing inventiveness that makes this book a must-read.
I’ll explain why in a minute, but since I’m publishing this review just before Christmas, my advice to you is to get to your local bookstore today and buy three (or more) copies of this book. Here’s why you need three:
- Wrap one, put a tag on it that says “To [your name] from Santa” and put it under your tree. If you’re anything like me, you just may be able to forget you did this and actually surprise yourself on Christmas morning. (I’ve managed to completely surprise myself several times like this over the years, which is probably fodder for a post on a different sort of blog, but I digress …)
- If you still need to buy for someone on your list who likes to bake, or who would like to learn, or whom you would like to encourage to bake for you (yes, this is Machiavellian gifting, but so be it), wrap up the second book for them.
- And that third book? Wrap it up with a blank tag and, as inevitably happens, if someone gives you a gift unexpectedly or you need a last-minute hostess gift, just write their name on the tag, and voila, you have a gracious gift for them. No awkward moments while you dust off a vase and throw it in a gift bag or stopping at the drug store on the way over.
Now, let me get back to why you need to have The Messy Baker. Here are some of my observations about the book.
- Charmian’s sense of fun shines throughout, from her manifesto, “Never trust a person with a clean kitchen” to the header notes and even chapter titles like ‘sloppy,’ ‘drippy,’ and ‘crumbly.’
- Don’t let the humour fool you though: she knows her stuff and the book is well-organized. Each chapter has its own index of both savoury and sweet recipes, and there’s a comprehensive index at the back. She also includes all sorts of useful information like must-have and nice-to-have kitchen tools, substitutions for both ingredients and baking pans, a glossary and so on. Her practical approach to baking — no fancy gadgetry required — makes the book accessible for all.
- One of the things that impressed me is the breadth of recipes in the book. There are many cultures represented (I made the Many-Seed Lavash Bread and ate the whole batch myself — I’m not going to apologize — and will be making it again soon), treats like Crispy Root Vegetable Chips, several pizzas, three dips and many baked goods that you’d expect to find in a baking cookbook.
- That said, even in the more expected recipes, Charmian continues to surprise me with unexpected flavour combinations, inventive approaches and techniques that are new to me. Case in point, Cherry and Lemon Macaroon Meringues. Cherry and lemon? Macaroon meringues? The addition of boiling water? I’m completely intrigued with all aspects of this recipe and I’ll be trying it soon. I’ve been baking for over forty years (I started young, very young) and I was completely impressed with how much I learned from The Messy Baker.
- And the final reason I’m so taken with the book is the affection throughout it. Charmian dedicates the book to her mother, at whose apron strings she learned to bake, and the sense of heart for her first teacher and for baking itself is evident on every page.
I just made the Basil and Aged Cheddar Scones, and oh my. They’re light and the flavour of cheese combined with the aromatic freshness of the basil is a combination I’ll be craving in future. I think my photo above conveys how light and delicious they are. And my house smells. so. good. I made those in a bit of a rush, while answering a four-year-old’s endless stream of questions and my mind half on the dinner I’m cooking for Christmas tomorrow. And yet, they turned out just fine — a sign of a good recipe in my books. How do you think my photo compares to the one below from the book?
I know, it sounds like I’m crushing on this book, and I am. That’s why I think you need to get one and share many. Just sayin’.
(NON) DISCLAIMER: I wrote this review at my own discretion, and bought my own copy of the book. Charmian provided the photo of the book at my request, and her publisher has given me permission to reprint the recipe and photo below, again at my request. I am not being compensated in any way for this post, and I think it’s pretty evident that the opinions expressed in it are my own.
Basil and Aged Cheddar Scones
Recipe from The Messy Baker by Charmian Christie © 2014. Published by HarperCollins Canada. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
At the Wild Flour Bakery in Banff, Alberta, an artisanal café with a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains, I had a scone so good, I stopped my mountain gazing, pulled out my notepad, and jotted down flavor notes. Like the view-stopping Rocky Mountain scones, these are full of fresh basil, have a kiss of sugar, and provide a burst of sharp Cheddar. The only thing missing? Fresh mountain air and a bowl of tomato soup.
Commitment level: ready in an hour or less
2-1⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄2 cup cold butter, cubed
1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
4 ounces grated aged Cheddar cheese
(about 1 cup)
1 cup buttermilk
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Hand method: In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut the butter in until it’s the size of peas. Chop the basil finely and stir into the flour mixture to evenly distribute.
Food processor method: In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt with a few pulses. Add the basil. Pulse in 2-second bursts until the basil is chopped and evenly distributed. Add the butter and pulse until it’s about the size of peas. Transfer the flour mixture to a large bowl.
- Add the cheese and toss to evenly distribute. Add the buttermilk and stir until the dough forms a ball. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it just comes together. Roll into a round about 10″ wide and 3⁄4″ thick. Cut into 12 wedges. Place on an ungreased baking sheet about 2″ apart and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden. Serve immediately.
Note: Scones can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days but are really best within a few hours of baking. To reheat, split in half and pop under the broiler. Serve with butter.
Tip: If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, sour your own. Place 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar in a measuring cup. Fill to the 1-cup mark with milk and let sit for 10 minutes. Stir and use immediately.