Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: Five Roses

There was a point in time about fifteen years ago when I would have told you that the best way to make pancakes was to follow the directions on the box.

And see, everyone who dabbles in more advanced cooking techniques than as-per-manufacturers-instructions likely has a story of that one recipe that upon discovering it made you think… yeah, I can probably make this.

For me that recipe was the pancake recipe in Five Roses: A Guide to Good Cooking.

I have no idea where this book came from.

For the longest time it was one of a half dozen eclectic recipe books on our shelf that had appeared in our lives sometime during that phase of moving out, getting married, and building a home. It may have been a gift or shown up in a care package from a relative or … I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps you’re wondering if maybe we had received it as a promotional deal from the manufacturers of Five Roses flour products? Alas no, I don’t recall ever having used Five Roses flour, know where I would buy Five Roses flour, nor even if Five Roses flour is still in production. (Well, it is …I just Googled it.) I’m sure it’s a fine baking ingredient, but our store shelves are ubiquitously stocked with Robin Hood flour. Even so, I don’t have a Robin Hood Guide to Good Cooking, just this one.

And though the photo doesn’t necessarily make it clear, that recipe book is now dog-eared and full of notes and adjustments and splotches of splattered recipe results.

Every weekend on Saturday morning I make pancakes for my family. Every weekend I craft a bowl of batter from flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, vanilla, oil, and milk. Every weekend I pull a crusty recipe from the hard-coded memories stored in the deepest part of my brain and turn it into breakfast.

That recipe originated in this book, a now well-loved cookbook in our home.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)

A Gift of Bread

Since the pandemic began I’ve been baking a lot of sourdough.

In fact, on my way home over a year ago from my last day in the office and even as we transitioned into working-from-home mode, I stopped at the grocery store and restocked my flour supply. Then as I checked into my kitchen and fed my starter, I kicked off the first of what now accounts for almost two hundred loaves of bread.

All of it was practical. All of it was a kind of food security during a time of uncertainty. All of it was for ourselves.

And then about a month ago as we were passing through on our way to the mountains and stopping for a brief puppy-pee-break at the in-laws house, I had bagged a loaf of fresh-from-the-oven sourdough and handed it off to my mother-in-law.

A gift of bread.

The practicality of that gesture was simply that a loaf of bread was best eaten fresh by someone who would enjoy it, rather than left on our counter while we spent the weekend on mini-holiday.

The emotional aspect was that my mother-in-law had been halfway teasing that I should stop bragging about all my bread and posting photos of it on the socials if I wasn’t going to start offering to deliver to their house (an hour and a half drive away!)

So I delivered.

And this resulted in a text message the next day thanking us for the short visit and the gift, and suggesting it was probably the best bread she’d had in about a year. Great!

Food of any kind, but particularly food one has personally made, is linked to a long history of human gift giving. It is probably one of the most foundationally human things we do: make something worth eating, then give it our family, friends, or… everyone.

I had been baking bread casually in the years leading into the pandemic, and often the loaves I created were shortcuts to contributing to communal meals: something to bring to a gathering or a picnic or a thanksgiving dinner. And apart from a few gluten-adverse acquaintances, sourdough is simple enough to satisfy almost anyone, like the friend who cannot eat eggs, or my vegan pals, or even the picky folks who don’t like spicy food. Sourdough is just so basic… and yet robust enough to hold its own in that long human tradition of sharing your food with others.

There is both a universality to bread and an implied effort with sourdough. Almost everyone’s eyes light with an “Oh! You brought fresh bread!?” as you pull it from a bag and start slicing it up.

That same mother-in-law (though I only have one) put in a request earlier this week. One of our extended family just got some sad medical news (details redacted) and she was hoping we could make a delivery this weekend.

A gift of bread.

Of course we can.

Ten Sweet Desserts Made Sweeter By Cast Iron

If your Easter weekend was anything like mine, it involved a lot of food.

And like many holidays it also happened to involve a lot of sweet desserts. Here’s hoping you got your fill of flavourful delights this year. And for next time, here is some inspiration for how to get you holiday sugar rush with help from your cast iron pans.

1. Cobbler. Almost any fruit will do, but peach or apple slices baked with a crumbly sweet streusel topping can be scooped right from the oven to waiting dessert dishes.

2. Apple Pie. With a flaky pastry crust, a cast iron pan makes for a natural pie pan.

3. Dutch Baby. Call it popover or German pancake, or maybe even a Bismarck, this puffed pastry dish in a cast iron pan is delicate and tasty.

4. Ollie Bolen. My Oma’s recipe for these small, sweet apple fritters was passed down through the generations and we deep fry in our Dutch Oven for New Years every year.

5. Funnel Cakes. Fried in a few centimeters of oil, swirly sweet funnel cakes topped with powdered sugar remind me of being a kid at the summer carnival.

6. Coffee Cake. A standard cake doesn’t do great in cast iron, but the dense, crumbly consistency of a traditional coffee cake works just great.

7. Brownies. Thick and chewy bars of chocolate baked right in a big old skillet. No excuse required.

8. Cinnamon Rolls. Sweeten your sourdough bread recipe and then roll it with butter, cinnamon and sugar. Baked up golden and caramelized are great plain or drizzled with cream cheese frosting.

9. S’mores. No campfire required, a graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow open faced sandwich toasted under the broiler on a cast iron skillet is a close second to the camping version.

10. Skillet Cookie. A big lump of cookie dough smashed into a small 6 or 7 inch cast iron pan, served hot from the oven and topped with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup and sprinkles is a sharable hit for kids of any age.

People like lists. I like people. So I’m giving the people what they like. I ran a blog for 16 years and one of the most popular posts ever on that blog was a list of “100 things” that I’d compiled and posted. I’m trying to recreate something similar over the next couple months for the cast iron guy blog. This post will eventually form part of that mega list.

Our Well-Loved Cookbooks: How to Cook Everything

Had I realized how often over the last fifteen years I would be referencing Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything I would have splurged for the hardcover edition.

As it stands, our trusty copy of this loaf of paper filled with basic recipes rarely makes it back onto the bookshelf, and is so tattered and splattered, I’ll likely be lamenting it’s numbered days before it stops being useful.

I’ve started a small series of cookbook posts here on castironguy.ca because despite adding to my collection almost monthly, I find that most cookbooks are only useful or interesting in a limited way. Sure, you can learn a great recipe from almost any book out there, and half the fun is picking something that looks like a challenge or a tasty goal, and seeing how well your skills match with the intended product. That said, there are perhaps only a dozen cookbooks on our shelf that would make a cull if I was forced to simplify my library… and these are them.

The best analogy I have for this book is that it’s like my paperback edition of Google.

You know those times you are standing there in your kitchen, hands covered in flour, thinking about how you are actually supposed to be cooking something, say a roast or a whole spaghetti squash or maybe a pie crust.

How long at what temperature?

How much water was I supposed to add?

Should I be covering this?

Today I might Google it, or ask my digital assistant. Hey, Alexa, how do I… ?

But even still, and especially back when I bought this, it was and still is that one reference book that gives solid, simple advice on the nuances of basic food prep.

Sure, there are a few fancy recipes hiding in it’s pages, and lots of ideas about stuff like how to make your waffles more interesting, or how to spice a whole chicken, or variations on making your own salad dressings. But the core function of this book is basically aimed at people like me who mostly know enough to get started, have the ingredients in their hands, but are stumped on locking down the process. The how-to. The what was that one crucial step or ingredient that is going to change the outcome if I get it wrong. A reference guide.

This might not be the exact title for you, but there are a few big reference cookbooks out there with a similar purpose and you should generally keep one on your shelf. I do.

Note: this is a piece of gear that I have purchased privately and that I’ve owned for long enough to offer an opinion about. This post is not an endorsement (at least, it’s not a paid one.)