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On fairytales and cakes

"Baking is Life. So when you describe what you're making, you must describe life. Do you see? It's not just recipes." Jenny Colgan

My third and last birthday present cookbook is a bit of a curiosity. It's called Fairytale baking: recipes and stories and is by a German lady called Christin Geweke. I'm pretty sure it's a German book translated into English, though to be fair from the publishing information it does seem to be of English origin. However, in some ways it is fairly Germanic. It is sumptuously illustrated with the most divine photographs, like this one of Chocolate and Espresso Biscotti. These, I am going to make one day. And yet the cover of the book is relatively plain, although it does sparkle a bit. Which I guess is magical.

I think one of the things the author wants to convey is the magic of baking and she talks about this in her introduction.

"Once upon a time, many moons ago, there was a little girl who discovered her love for baking. I was not even four years old and absolutely entranced by my mother mixing and kneading all sorts of different doughs and batters. I loved to help her cut cookies and - oh, the sheer delight of it! - to wipe the various bowls clean with my fingers afterwards, licking streaks of melted chocolate, little mounds of whipped vanilla cream and sticky batters off them. I would then sit cross-legged in from of the oven, entirely transfixed. I would watch batters and doughs fluff up and rise and change colour like magic, slowly baking to perfection and filling our entire home with an irresistible aroma. ... These moments were imbued with magic that delighted all of my senses and are among my fondest memories. They bring up memories of warmth and belonging - like snuggling up to hear a fairytale."

She is absolutely right about the magic. Indeed when I think about it, it is mostly cakes and other desserts that have this kind of cooking magic. A stew or a roast doesn't quite have the same magic does it? Yes it transforms a bit, and smells delicious but it doesn't become something so completely different from what it was when it began, or from the mix of ingredients. In taste perhaps, but not so much in looks.

"Baking may be regarded as a science, but it's the chemistry between the ingredients and the cook that gives desserts life. Baking is done out of love, to share with family and friends, to see them smile." Anna Olson

And it is indeed true that this is the kind of cooking that we first introduce our children too is it not? I have those same memories of watching my mother or grandmother cook cakes, and being allowed to join in with some of the processes - stirring, pouring stuff into a bowl, pushing flour through a sieve, cutting out cookies - or biscuits as we called them. There aren't generally any dangerous things like dealing with knives and flames, involved in cooking a cake or a cookie (biscuit to me). And yes we do generally make cakes to show love - much more than the main dish of the day. Cakes are special. We don't make them every day.

"A party without cake is really just a meeting." Julia Child

Indeed they are so special that as I grew into cooking I became daunted by how difficult they were. There were all those rules about measuring correctly, keeping things at the right temperature, not mixing too hard, or not enough, cooking at just the right temperature or for just the right time. Some early experiments were disasters. I still can't make meringues no matter how many fail-safe recipes I've tried. But then I discovered Claudia Roden's orange cake and I no longer have total fear. Just a bit - I don't attempt sponges or meringues, even if Nigella does say:

"Cake baking has to be, however innocently, one of the great culinary scams: it implies effort, it implies domestic prowess; but believe me, it's easy." Nigella Lawson

Mmm. Indeed the recipes in the book don't look that hard. I could have a go at lots of them.

But before I get to the recipes, let me get back to the book itself and its fairy tale theme. It is indeed a book of recipes for cakes and cookies, and the occasional pudding like a Blueberry clafoutis or an Apple tarte Tatin, but it also is a book of fairy stories. There are five sections to the book - Classic beauties, Sweet and scrumptious, Icing sugar and chocolate, Divine baking and Airy Delights. Pretty meaningless really and truth to tell I can't really see how one section differs from another - except perhaps for the chocolate one - which is very chocolatey. Witness these Chocolate rolls with apricot sauce. I'm going to make them some time soon too. Definitely.

Each of those five sections is preceded by a fairy tale - told in full by the author I'm guessing. They're a tiny bit twee - but then I guess fairy tales are. She might say that fairy tales are comforting because they all end happily, but they can be a bit grim along the way. The fairy tales are actually one of the reasons why I think this is really a German book, because they are not the really famous stories, other than Hansel and Gretel, and they are all from the Brothers Grimm I believe. You would also think that in the section following Hansel and Gretel there would be a gingerbread recipe and there is at least one in the book, but not in this chapter. Interesting I guess to include the stories, but sort of why? Unless you are really involving your children in the process I suppose. I'm inclined to think they are a bit of a styling gimmick.

Another slightly different thing about this particular book in comparison with all those celebrity chef kind of cookbooks is that there is no introduction to each recipe. No suggestions for how to make it easier, or what you could swap in instead. No comments about where it comes from, or what it might mean to the author. And no connection made to a fairy story. Which is not to detract from the recipe itself - admirably laid out - a recipe per page with an accompanying gorgeous photograph, with the recipe divided into numbered steps. Easy to follow.

As to the look of the book - well it is absolutely beautiful, but again, I don't think it can quite decide on the fairytale or the baking aspects. Scattered amongst the full page illustrations of the cakes - except, curiously, one - White Chocolate Caramel Cake, which has no photograph - are photographs of various aspects of nature, which do indeed have a vaguely fairytale feel to them. And scattered amongst them are various double-page spreads of various ingredients and bits of equipment that you need for baking. They are just gorgeous, and photographed by a lady called Yelda Yimaz, who seems to live in Hamburg where she created the Hamburg Food Swap "where people from all walks of life come together over a shared dinner to taste and exchange recipes and home-made delicacies." Another example of the caring and sharing aspect of the book.

The author herself, also lives in Germany, in the countryside and is actually a freelance cookbook editor but also 'a passionate baker'. So you see why I think this book is German. Maybe as an editor she had edited some pretty ordinary books and thought she could do better herself. I wonder whether she will do another one. I mean this is pretty good and seems to be available in lots of different bookshops.

We don't see a lot about German cuisine do we? But they do make wonderful cakes. I remember them well - and I have only visited Germany briefly. Mostly just passing through on the way to Yugoslavia and back again. And there are lots of German favourites in this book - or rather variations thereof - like these Mini gingerbread kugelhopfs. Here's the gingerbread. In the section following a half-hearted retelling of The Princess and the Pea. It's an Airy Delight. Well that's what the section is called. It should have been with Hansel and Gretel I reckon.

As you can see there is an attempt to make the cakes look magical and fairy tale like, through the lighting and the sprinkles of icing sugar, etc. I think the biscotti at the top of the page look a bit fairy like.

And there are, of course, fairy cakes - cupcakes you call them now, of various kinds. These are Macadamia cupcakes, but there are some Salted peanut ones and some Chocolate Bourbon ones as well. They're supposed to be light and floaty aren't they - isn't that why they are called fairy cakes? And I guess these look pretty light - and there's gold too. There's often gold in fairy tales.

But then I remembered that in the final edition of her magazine Donna Hay had included a section on cakes, called Once upon a Time, and I have to say, that as far as the photography goes, she may have done a better job - see below:

Rather more mysterious and magical I think. Running through this section of the magazine was a very abbreviated fairy story, with a few words on the opposite page. For example opposite the French cornflower meringues was "Beyond a tangle of sweetly scented rose bushes and long-forgotten twisted vines, she happened upon a treasure trove ..." So I suppose if you were only interested in the effectiveness of the fairy-tale connection then she wins. Don't know about the cakes though - they look complicated, particularly in their presentation.

And a cookbook is really about the recipes isn't it? And if you've got the bonus of a few fairy stories plus magnificent pictures to entice you into making the product then who cares if the connection between fairy stories and baking doesn't quite gell.

Love it Nicole. Next time we meet - when the lockdown is over, I shall be making something from it. Maybe some Mini lava cakes or a Quick nut cake or one of those things I have previously noted. I reckon I could master any of those. I think the first thing I might try though is a banana cake, because I've got some bananas that are about to go off.

And I just have to include this little 'fairy story' that I found in my 'research'

"God made men by baking them in an oven, but he forgot about the first batch, and that's how Black people were born. And then he was so anxious about the next batch, he took them out of the oven too soon, so that's how White people were made. But the third batch he let cook until they were golden-golden-golden, and, honey, that's you and me." Sandra Cisneros

Well it's not me, but having watched Jennifer Lopez in film last night, you can understand why it's true.


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