Top positive review
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a great resource for alternative baking
on March 12, 2010
I'm giving this book 5 stars even though I have had some issues with it, because the author has created a great resource for alternative baking. Many people avoid starchy flours because of allergies, special diets, or a combination, and Elana has done a great job experimenting with the use of almond flour in a very wide range of baked goods. There is no other resource for almond flour baking that remotely approaches the breadth of this cookbook. You really can make everything from chocolate chip cookies to chocolate cake to pie dough with almond flour. I'm incredibly grateful to the author for trailblazing into this new frontier. The recipes do have various notable peculiarities (see below), and of course different readers, especially in the context of the specialized diets to whom almond flour baking will appeal (including scd, paleo, low carb, celiacs) will have different tastes, needs, and restrictions. However, I have found the recipes to be very adaptable where my tastes or needs diverged from the author's.
Potential buyers should know that this book is not only geared towards grain-avoiding and celiac diets, but also aims for a 'healthy' approach to baking, in the name of which it largely avoids butter and refined sugars. In addition to the titular substitution of almond flour for wheat flour, there is a relatively single-minded substitution of grapeseed oil for butter/shortening and agave nectar for white sugar. While I don't have any general problems with agave or grapeseed oil, unlike some readers, I'm not satisfied with these ingredients in all cases. In particular, I generally prefer the flavor and mouthfeel of butter over grapeseed oil, and I find agave nectar imparts an unwelcome sticky, flaccid texture to baked goods like cookies and biscuits, especially over time (I like it just fine in cakes and muffins). Still, I've had fantastic luck substituting 'back' butter and sugar where i want them, although when agave is removed, one sometimes needs to add more recipe- appropriate liquid (e.g., milk or egg) to compensate. These recipes are highly adaptable, which makes the book that much more user-friendly.
I'd say that this is also a baking book aimed more towards cooks than bakers. The recipes are pretty quick and dirty- dump and stir affairs. There aren't a lot of fiddly steps, using 7 different bowls to mix subrecipes, or explanations of techniques and experimentation a la cooks illustrated. I'm sure that aspect wins the book lots of fans among busy parents and those who don't enjoy the craft of cooking, but as someone more in the love-to-bake camp, I would have appreciated more attention to detail, use of various baking techniques that lead to a better texture in final products and experimentation with the kinds of fillips that separate the pedestrian recipe from the sublime. For example, in some of the cake and muffin recipes, I find the recipes substantially improve if one takes the time to beat sugar (or agave) and eggs to a ribbon, or beat egg whites separately and fold them in. I also wish the ingredients were given in weight (at least somewhere in the beginning)-- I had a number of failures until I realized the author packs her almond flour. Some of the baking times and such have also been off-- these kinds of details really matter for baking, and hard core bakers will be frustrated at the lack of precision.
As I've said, even though this isn't the perfect cookbook for my particular needs, it is a wonderful starting place for my gluten free and grain free baking experiments. (There is also a savory chapter, but I haven't really used it.) Some particular favorites are the crackers (all fantastic), chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cherry cookies, and pecan shortbreads (all of which I strongly prefer with creamed butter and sugar, though.) Although the cookbook is pretty small, I've still only cooked a small portion of the recipes (the author's website provides a lot of additional inspiration as well). I'm looking forward to baking through more of the recipes, adapting and changing as I wish.