Cookbook Review: CakeLove by Warren Brown

CakeLove by Warren Brown
Published in 2008 by Stewart, Tabori, and Chang
ISBN: 978-1-58479-662-6
List Price: $27.50

Rating(1 = Worst,
5 = Best)
Depth of InformationPracticality
ValuePermanent Library
Gift GivingLevel of DifficultyAverage

I picked this book up on a whim at the library the other day. The title, Cakelove, just jumped out at me. Who doesn’t love cake? I’d seen it around a few times, but never had the chance to take a look at it. Since I brought it home, I’ve read through it several times, yet I’m still at a bit of a loss for what to say about it. It’s one of those books that I have mixed feelings about. There are things I really like about the book, yet the same things also turn me off from it. Could that possibly make any sense?

I almost skipped over the introduction, thinking it would probably be more of the usual, “this is a spatula. This is chocolate.” I’m glad I didn’t, because it’s the first introduction to a cookbook I’ve read that I felt like I actually learned something from. Finally! A book with a bit of science behind it! So many books merely list ingredients and tools, never telling you why you’re using certain ingredients or why you’re doing certain steps. As a bit of a science nerd, I appreciate that Cakelove goes into details about ingredients and their role in baking, such as the different kinds of flour, their gluten content, and the effect that they have on your cakes. It’s the first time I’ve read an introduction all the way through and actually enjoyed it.

This is about where my admiration for the book and its science textbook feel comes to an end though. I do like that the instructions in each recipe include both conventional and convection oven temperatures and times, that there are adjustments for high altitude baking, there are both mass and volume measurements, and variations for alcohol-free recipes. But it’s some of the directions themselves that bother me. One step in the directions for each recipe reads, “Mix on medium speed for 15 to 20 seconds to develop the batter’s structure.” There’s just something about that statement that grates on me. Yeah, it's telling me why I'm doing certain things, but really? Develop the batter's structure? I could have done without that explanation. There are other little comments here and there throughout the book that just strike me funny, and make me feel like it’s gone past the point of knowledgeable, and bordering very closely on pretentious. If only the textbook feel had stayed within the confines of the introduction, and not spilled over into the recipes themselves.

I’m also a bit perturbed that every single recipe in the book calls for potato starch (his secret ingredient).
What’s the point of buying an entire thing of potato starch that I’ll use 2 tablespoons of and never touch again? It would be fine if I was planning on baking my way through the whole book, and using a good amount of it, but I’m not. So I'm not going to waste my money... And it’s funny that for all the effort put in to provide substitutions, variations, and adjustments on the recipes, a replacement for potato starch is conspicuously missing.

Looking past my hypocritical irritation, the rest of the book is decent. The pictures of the recipes are very good, although I’m not a huge fan of the presentation of the recipes themselves. They have more of a “rustic” feel, with the frosting being just slathered on, or heaped on between layers, and never actually spread, which I’m not too fond of. I’m more of a “perfect presentation” kind of person, but that’s just me. And for all its depth of information about baking, it doesn’t seem like there’s much depth in the actual practice. Reading through the recipes, they all pretty much sounded like the same thing over and over again. Oh look, another Bundt Cake. It seems like there’s at least 20 of them. (Well I was close. There’s actually 18.) And something about the “Crunchy Feet” just bugs the hell out of me. (They’re just glorified cupcakes baked in a brioche pan, but they annoy me for some reason.) Maybe it’s just me hating on the book now, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of variety here. And definitely not enough to keep me coming back for more.

I don’t know. Something about this book rubbed me the wrong way, and I think it’s blocking me from appreciating it the way it probably should be. I probably won’t own this book ever, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out and forming your own opinions about it. Especially if you’re a science nerd, or know someone who is. Who knows. It could be just the book you're looking for.

Stand Out Recipes:
  • Chocolate Pound Cake
  • Chocolate Cherry Chip Cupcakes
  • Tres Leches Butter Cake
  • Cinnamon and Cream Layer Cake
  • Black Forest Cake
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Christine said...

I've only tried one recipe from CakeLove. The volume of eggs in the recipe made it hard for me to tell when the cake was done, and I wasn't crazy about the finished texture. However, I did enjoy Brown's personal anecdotes about changing careers and I liked looking at the unfussy cakes with frosting slathered on them, just for a change of pace.

Erin said...

Warren Brown has a couple of bakeries here in DC and people either love them or hate them. So much that he even posted a response about it on his blog.

Ingrid said...

This is the 100th time I've tried commenting here. Last night the computer just didn't like me! :(

Hope you had a ahhpy 4th.

Sandi Oh said...

I do not like his yellow butter cake at all, however his light and lemony cake has become my mainstay - it is fabulous....especially if you jazz it up with mint and lime and make it a mojito cake....try it, it's totally worth it.

Anonymous said...

I have to completely disagree. I think your "hypocritical irritation" has completely clouded your judgment on how absolutely fantastic this book is. It's very well-written, it's straightforward and detailed, and teaches even the most elementary baker to bake a gorgeous and delicious cake. Many people skip critical steps while baking because they don't understand why they are being instructed to do that particular step, and Warren Brown does an excellent job explaining each step. My mother is a chief example of someone who could never bake a good cake because she ignored certain steps, but because of this book, she now consistently bakes delicious cakes.

As far as the Crunchy Feet, he states clearly in the book that they are for those people who love cake but hate frosting. A plain cupcake looks stupid - he took cake without the frosting and made it look pretty.

Danae - The Busty Baker said...

Anon- You're absolutely right, and I even said that in my original review. It did cloud my judgement. But it's something I just couldn't get past. I don't doubt your mom makes amazing cakes now, and that's great. But this book just isn't for me.

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