Book Review: Baking Unplugged

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

As our lives get ever more surrounded—even overtaken—by machines, it’s easy to succumb to the nostalgia of a life lived without plug-ins. Ah, for the simple days survived by the power of our own hands, without fear that we’ve lost the knowledge to do easy tasks on our own.

That’s the appeal of Baking Unplugged by Nicole Rees (Wiley, 2009) which asks its readers to pull out their whisks, wooden spoons, rotary nut grinders, and box graters and apply a little elbow grease in the kitchen. This, it says, is true baking from scratch. It feels sweet, and it’s not the first such cookbook to make the argument.

The recipes in Baking Unplugged might persuade you to enjoy a quieted kitchen, at least those that don’t ask you to whip cream or egg whites by hand, or cream butter and sugar together with just that wooden spoon. Even without electrified help, though, Rees still takes eight pages to list all the tools your kitchen will need. Unplugged, yes; simple, not necessarily.

Whether you go for the basic conceit, the book’s solid, if not very unusual, recipes are worth a look. Broken down by morning foods, cookies, cakes, pies, and creamy (and fancier) desserts, Rees’ recipes do work, and some of the baking tips will be useful even for experienced bakers. I’ve rarely had oatmeal cookies worth eating again, but the Soft Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies and the Chewy Peanut Butter-Oatmeal Cookies proved tasty and longer-lasting than most, thanks to the tip to add water to the batters and let them rest for 10 minutes before scooping. The extra moisture meant they kept well for several days of lunchbox treats, and froze well.

Likewise, the rich Brownie Scones had the interesting touch of molasses, and the Uncommonly Good Pancakes, while not ones I’d serve every day, managed to be rich with butter and egg yolks but still light. (Those scones did take significantly more cream than Rees calls for, but this can be chalked up at least in part to differences in flour— why it’s always better in such recipes to call for a range of liquid. They were also ridiculously huge, but tasty.)

So can you follow the ingredient lists but ignore the instructions? Except for the pancakes, which should never use more than a whisk and a spatula, that’s what I did. Patience may be a virtue, but mine runs short when there seems to be little point in taking more time than necessary. I do prefer my hand-cranked nut grinder over a processor’s pulverization, but when it comes to whipping, or cutting in butter, or beating butter and sugar until creamy and fluffy, where’s the appeal, beyond a one-time attempt to prove you can do it, in going it alone? Using a mixer and a food processor mean a few more items in the dishwasher, but that’s about the only drawback.

If your tastes tend toward the citified but your inner Laura Ingalls Wilder wants out, this may be the book for you. If you can’t imagine life before electricity, these recipes may still be worth a try: You can leave the book prominently displayed—Look! See how I slaved over this sweet for you, all by the sweat of my brow?—but in the privacy of your kitchen, who’s to know what aid your Kitchen Aid gave?

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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