Top critical review
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on 8 May 2013
Lately I've been increasingly interested in cooking, and with a young daughter, an important part of my education is cake baking, so for a while now I've been looking for a really good book on the subject. I came across this one by dear old Delia and, encouraged by the reviews, I bought a copy. Result: a lot of tempting recipes, but I'm still looking for a really good instructional book; the four and five star reviews for this one are obviously from diehard Delia devotees..
For a start, there are very few pictures. Ok, more photographs would make for a thicker, heavier and probably more expensive book, so I can overlook that. But, and for me this is the book's most irritating feature, the pictures that ARE included here aren't labelled. Most cookery books will have a little caption for each picture, such as 'Coffee Walnut cake, p 187' (or whatever), but here such helpfulness has been omitted. It's made worse by the fact that the pictures are inserted almost at random; few if any actually match the recipes on the nearby pages. In fairness there is a clear index of pictures at the front of the book, but it would make reference a lot easier if the photographs themselves were captioned so that you can see at a glance how the recipe you're looking at should turn out.
Then there is the somewhat sparse advice, so that it's hard to imagine the level of competence at which this book is aimed (a common issue with 'how to do it' type publications). For example, she tells us: '..don't open the oven door to check on your cake too early or the inrush of cool air may cause it to sink..' Even a moderately experienced cook already knows this, yet the beginner - at whom this advice is presumably aimed - will frequently wish that there was more detail in more of the instructions. Like when you bake the two halves of a sponge cake in their two sandwich tins, both will come out the oven with a curved top. You only want one curved top for your finished sponge, so what do you do about the other one? Do you flatten it by slicing it off, or put it on the bottom, or in the middle so that the top layer squashes it flat? And, if slicing it off is the way to go, should this be done when the cake is still warm, or is it better to wait till it's completely cool? Or does it make no difference? Should one use a special knife..? No doubt many people will roll their eyes at these questions, but the omission of such basic information in a book that's clearly intended to encourage beginners is disappointing. I use the above just as an example, the book leaves lots of other gaps.
Such as a list of essential equipment to get you started. This is even more puzzling because she actually does appear to cover this in the introduction, with sub-headings such as 'Ovens', 'Cake Tins' etc, but there could do with being more detail, especially regarding how to use equipment, as this is such an important aspect of the learning curve. For instance, she talks about the importance of depth for sponge tins, but then neglects to tell us what that depth should be. And are sponge tins essential, or could those of us on a budget save a bit initially by using deeper, standard cake tins to start with and simply fill them less? And if this wouldn't work, then why not? Or couldn't one simply make a deep cake and split it through the middle? The absence of such information is especially grating for me because, in the introduction, Delia expressly promises to '..leave no explanatory stones unturned.." Well sorry Delia, but you've gone and done exactly that.
She emphasises - elsewhere, as well as within this book - the annoying and frustrating variety of cake tins in common usage, yet throughout the book she tells us to use both 7" and 8" sandwich tins for many of the different recipes. Why? It would be so much simpler for the novice/improver to stick with one size or the other to start with, especially as Delia herself claims to find this aspect of her craft so frustrating. Many of us are on budgets and are short on storage space; surely it wouldn't have taken much to 'tweak' the recipes so that, say, just 7" sandwich tins could be used? And perhaps just two different sized deeper cake tins?
Instead we get a bewildering array of tins called for. Roasting trays sized 11" X 8", 11" X 7", 10" X 10".. And then 7" Cake tins, 7 1/2", 8" tins, 8 1/2" tins.. the list goes on and on. I mean, can I really not use one of these (the 11" X 8" roasting tin for example) to make a Swiss Roll, for which Delia stipulates the use of a dedicated Swiss Roll tin measuring 8" X 12"? And again, if not, then please tell me why not! Two simple lists of specific equipment for Beginner and Intermediate level readers would have been so useful.
A final comment is the fact that Delia doesn't always tell us on which oven shelf we need to place our baking tin/tray/sheet etc. To be fair, most of the time she does, but the information is missing frequently enough to be a nuisance. Even I know that the position within the oven makes a HUGE difference to the result; the difference, in fact, between triumphant success and bitterly disappointing failure, and the fact that this essential information is sometimes missing does nothing to enhance this book's usefulness.
I wanted to like this book and find it indispensable, instead it's something of a disappointment. Didn't cost much so I'm not really upset, and there are lots of delicious looking recipes, but I'll continue to look for a good, instructional baking book.