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Chocolate and coffee have to be two of my favourite tastes, and I like them especially well when they are combined together. When I saw a copy of "300 Chocolate and Coffee Recipes" for sale on my local Oxfam bookshop, I was able to justify the purchase because I didn't have any books covering exactly the same subject. I didn't recognise the name of the 4 authors so I also thought it was a good chance to discover some new cooks. In fact the 4 ladies - Catherine Atkinson, Mary Banks, Christine France, and Christine McFadden have a lot of experience between them, combining food writing, deputy editorship of Good Housekeeping , and Cordon Bleu training.
THE BOOK ITSELF
On the front cover comes the promise that this book will offer "delicious easy to make recipes...shown step by step in more than 1300 glorious photographs". I would agree that there are plenty of pictures, but I am not sure that I would call them "glorious". In fact, when I first browsed through, I thought the photos had the look of those from the cookbooks published in the late 80's or 90's. This was largely down to the presentation of the finished cake and desserts on rippled silk backgrounds with fake flowers dotted around. When I read the introduction closely I noted that the book had previously published as "The Chocolate and Coffee Lovers Bible." I suspect the pictues have not been updated since the first edition. This doesn't matter too much to me, as I am sure that our modern cakes with their salted caramel toppings and spun sugar decorations will soon look dated too! However, I know that many people enjoy looking at photos for presentation and decoration ideas so this may be disappointing to some. The remainder of the photos illustrate stages in the cooking, and mostly they are actually useful. It is helpful sometimes to know if your cake batter looks right at a given stage for example. In other cases they just show someone stirring a bowl or melting chocolate and these are not so obviously useful but they do help to break up the pages. It isn't the case that every stage is photographed though, as you may think from the "step by step" description. In some cases, just the finished article gets a picture. I suppose a compromise has to made between a page looking attractive and making individual entries too long.
WHAT SORT OF RECIPES AND INFORMATION IS INCLUDED
I think that in some ways the books previous title may have been more accurate, because "bible" suggest the depth of general chocolate and coffee information included. Buying it on the strength of the "300 recipes" title and a quick flick through, I was surprised at how much background information on the two foods are included. The first part of the book deals with chocolate, and begins with a lengthy section on the history of the cocoa bean, and then works through modern cultivation, chocolate production techniques, harvesting, and discussions on its health giving or addictive properties. At first I got impatient with all this extra information and flipped past it to find the recipes. I later chanced to read the introduction though and I found it surprisingly interesting and not just a re-hash of what I had found elsewhere. The early history of chocolate use by the Aztecs was especially entertaining to read about. A fact that stands in my mind is about the nice sounding prize of a Aztec sporting competition. The winner got to eat as much chocolate as they could, which seems wonderful until you know the down side is that he was then sacrificed to the gods. They would take particular pleasure at seeing your chocolate coated insides apparently! The coffee section begins in the same way, cocering mostly the same subjects but there is additional information about brewing the perfect cup of coffee and the different methods you can use. This is another area where I feel the book shows some of it's age - despite the fact the edition I have was only released in 2011. The coffee machines look a bit old fashioned, and I think a fully updated book would perhaps include information on the "pod" type coffee makers that have become popular in recent years. I do not want to buy one myself, so I was happy to pick up some tips for using the older style coffee pots.
After all that comes the recipes, with chocolate coming first and making for just over half of all the ideas. Only a few deal with both ingredients together, which I suppose is not surprising given the need to fill 300 recipes out. You will find ideas for cakes large and small, hot and cold desserts, ices, biscuits, pies and tarts and a few sweets, all grouped in their respective sections.The recipes include the basics that you would expect to find such as brownies and coffee cake, as well as more unusual ideas. I was very impressed by the number of flavour pairings suggested. I have not liked them all, which is inevitable and more down to personal taste than anything else. I wouldn't, for example, make a coffee and ginger sponge pudding again, but I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully flavoured cinnamon and coffee ice cream. The recipes are well explained and I can't fault the clarity of the instruction or the accuracy of the ingredient lists or baking/cooking times. Nevertheless, I have not used this book as much as I thought I would. For me, the main reason is that many of the recipes are really what I would prefer to make for special occasions. This is becuse they are quite elaborate. This is especially true of the desserts made, which are also often designed to serve a large numer of people - 8 or 12. I do like making gateaux and the like but I wished there was a greater number of everyday and faster to make suggestions. The simpler dishes seem to be the "usual suspects" such as chocolate mouse that are easy to find recipes for elsewhere. The cakes are also often similarly large, and while I am reasonably confident about reducing quantities to suit me, I know that I would not have been when I first starting baking and really needed recipes I could follow as is.
My other small gripe is the lack of any indication to show how long any individual recipe takes. I know that everyone works at a different pace, but I do find it helpful to see the relatively quick recipes highlighted when I am short of time. I know from experience that the length of the recipe method is not always a good guide to the complexity of the instructions! The baking times, if appropriate, are of course given and can be relied upon, at least in my ovens.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
The cover price is £11.99 for what is a paperback book of 512 pages. I think this is good value if you are looking for some fancier cakes and desserts in particular. If you are seriously interested in not just recipes, but all sorts of factual information about the two ingredients I suspect you will find the book excellent. As for myself, I think it is worth the cover price, but I personally get more use out of other titles. I do not have a book just featuring coffee recipes, but I do have several on chocolate. I think if you are mainly interested in the second ingredient, and want a more contemporary styled book, or more simple recipes alongside the elaborate ones, I would recommend the Good Food 101 Chocolate recipes or the Hamlyn 200 Chocolate recipes books, which both cost around £4.99 at full price. I feel that as space is at a premium on my bookshelves, I will soon have taken all I wanted from the book and I will be passing it on.
Amazon price at time of looking, for new copy is £8.39.
[This review also appears under my user name on Ciao.]