Dessert books right for the holidays

Ah, the winter holidays. It is a time of warmth and perhaps family, or for some, a crazed frenzy of shopping and cooking. For myself, I decided to go on a diet. And the last thing one should do on a diet is read cookbooks about dessert.

Lo and behold, here I am reviewing some of the most drool-inspiring, enticing dessert recipes I have ever encountered. I thought maybe it was just because I am depriving myself of most sweets at the moment, but I must tell you that Krystina Castella has managed to compile some very original, simple recipes in all three books that are well worth making. Castella lives in Glendale, and is not only an author of such confectionary greatness, she is also a professor of Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

I started with “Crazy About Cookies,” because part of my holiday tradition is to make cookies to be distributed as gifts to co-workers, friends and my postal carrier. The beautiful pictures aside, I appreciated the helpful chapter on baking equipment and the necessary ingredients one might want to have on hand when cooking and techniques one can use to improve quality in the final product. On page 38, I was thrilled to find “10 Troubleshooting Solutions,” which helped me to solve my lifelong problem with my cookies being too flat. Apparently, I have been using the wrong butter all these years. Some recipes I have bookmarked to try include Snickerdoodles (page 77), Watermelon Cookies (page 132) and Gingerbread Robot Cookies (page 239).

Next up was the book titled “Booze Cakes” because I needed a good dessert to take to a holiday party. Right off the bat I knew this book would be a lot of fun because right there on the verso page it states, “Please bake responsibly!” If that was not enough to indicate what to expect when exploring the pages, it starts with a chapter outlining the different types of alcohol and liqueurs. It also breaks down the types of cakes and the various occasions one might make them, and “The Booze Meter,” which provides a legend for the level of booze in the cake being prepared — ”Lightweight,” “Feeling it” and “Totally Tipsy.”

I immediately went through and tagged all the cakes in the latter category, and decided on making the Golden Rum Cake found on page 29. Let us just say out of all the desserts at the party, this was the only dessert with one slice remaining in the end. My only complaint with this recipe is that it does not indicate you need to wait for the cake to cool before attempting to remove it from the Bundt pan, so it did break into two pieces, and I was curious as to how well the cake would soak up the glaze. Luckily, there is enough rum in the cake and glaze that nobody cared how it looked!

“A World of Cake” was my least favorite of the three books, because it seemed thrown together and tended to overlap certain cultures. My Armenian friend stated she’d never seen or heard of the Nutmeg Cake Castella profiled as being Armenian (page 226), and a Vietnamese friend mentioned the Banh Bo Nuong (Cow Cake) on page 290 is more Chinese than Vietnamese. There is, however, helpful information on cake-baking essentials in the beginning of the book, including a historical progression of cake through the years. I would have appreciated knowing her sources for the traditions and recipes she chose for the book.

Any of these books would make great gifts for the baker in your life or, if you are looking for a few new recipes of your own, you should definitely pick them up. Castella must have a lot of energy to publish three cookbooks in a year! Kudos to her!

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