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A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs, and Butter: A Baker's Tour, Including 33 Recipes Paperback – November 6, 2003
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In A Sweet Quartet, Gage tells the story of each ingredient, from its origins to its transformation into culinary gold, drawing upon her travels, tastings, experiments, and remembrances. She crowns each section with a baker's half-dozen of recipes that show off the multiple talents of the ingredient.
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The recipes are few--just under three dozen total--which may seem like very little for a cookbook that costs over twenty bucks. But Gage isn't trying to provide you with recipes as much as she's trying to fill you in on the background, the history, the chemical properties, and the world view of these ingredients. On the task she sets for herself, she does beautifully. Did you know, for instance, that:
"The Germans have loved marzipan since it arrived in the sixteenth century from Venice. They sought out the best almonds for it, and trade guilds regulated its sale; only apothecaries were allowed to sell it, much to the chagrin of confectioners . . . Neideregger, a marzipan maker in Lübeck since 1805, still boasts two hundred varieties."
or . . .
"The rhythmic slapping of balloon whisks beating egg whites in copper bowls is more than a romantic holdover. Atoms from the copper bind with one of the white's proteins, which promotes cross-linking between the protein molecules, resulting in a foam that is creamier and not so easy to overwhip."
or . . .
"There is real butter, and there is fake butter, and they are not the same . . . Spurred on by a challenge from Napoleon III in 1869, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès came up with a cheaper substitute. Relying on shaky biological knowledge of how a cow produced something that became butter, he mixed the oil from beef fat (oleo) with skimmer milk and water, throwing in a strip of cow udder for good measure. His invention was surprisingly like the veritable item. He called it margarine, after the Greek word for 'pearl,' a name that reflected its glossy appearance. People liked the price, and some may have liked the taste. The new product became popular."
"A Sweet Quartet" is filled with fascinating nuggets like this, studded with information that way one of Gage's desserts might be studded with dried cranberries or chocolate chunks or, well, almonds. This is a super book for anyone interested in peeking behind the bakery curtain to see the whys and wherefores of the way these essential dessert ingredients work and how they affect both each other and other ingredients. And the recipes, by the way, are wonderful!