Holiday Cookbook Reviews – Better Baking

Buckwheat-Cocoa Banana Bread Bars

I received a review copy of Better Baking from Raincoast Books. Nevertheless, all opinions in the following post are my own.

I’ve often thought that most people approach healthy baking the wrong way ’round. We’re encouraged to focus on superfoods and buzzy ingredients, replacing what we know isn’t so good for us with something that may not live up to the original’s standards. So, as much as I enjoy the flavours of coconut and date, together or separately, lately it’s felt like the same dessert is packaged in different shapes and asked to stand in for Nanaimo bars, truffles, chocolate cake, or almost any other treat you can think of.

For Genevieve Ko, on the other hand, flavour comes first. In fact, this book has its genesis in an effort to substitute for ingredients she’d run out of, rather than ones she was trying to avoid. Ko realized that she could improve on traditional recipes using more interesting (and healthier) ingredients and satisfy eaters’ cravings for treats and nutrition all at once. Her experiments have produced a book that’s full of recipes that cut back on refined ingredients without sacrificing flavour or texture. And with the range of ingredients she’s included in these recipes, there’s no danger of falling into the trap of producing the same flavours over and over again.

Olive Oil-Brown Sugar Pumpkin Bundt Cake

In some of the recipes, the effects can be subtle. Her Olive Oil-Brown Sugar Pumpkin Bundt Cake doesn’t declare itself as a healthier version of a traditional autumn cake. Ko substitutes some of the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour, while replacing some of the fat and sugar with applesauce. The result is an incredibly moist cake with a delicate crumb, benefitting from the nuttiness of whole wheat without any of its heaviness. I used homemade pumpkin purée and applesauce, which made me feel extra-virtuous, but store-bought would have worked, too.

The ingredients for this cake were all pantry staples, or ones easily obtained at the grocery store. That’s true for many of the recipes in Better Baking, but Ko also makes use of ingredients that may be unfamiliar to some bakers, or at least underused. Spelt and rice flours, chia seeds and millet, matcha tea and mochi flour – and dates and coconut, too – these are only a few of the ingredients that you might be adding to your pantry after reading through this cookbook.

A good place to start would be to add some buckwheat to your pantry. It’s something that many of us associate only with pancakes, but Ko makes the most of it, putting it through its paces in both flour and groat form in granolas, quick breads, and cakes. Her Buckwheat-Cocoa Banana Bread Bars, which you can see at the top of this post, are also gluten-free.

Like her approach to making baked goods healthier, Ko presents recipes that are gluten-free, vegan, or free of various allergens in a straightforward way. Each of her recipes notes if it’s suitable for any of these diets near the top of the page and she includes a secondary index for special diets, for quick reference. None of these recipes come across as trying to compensate for the ingredients they lack. They’re collected here because they’re terrific in themselves. They also happen to be suitable for a particular diet.

These buckwheat bars were the first recipe I made when I received the book. I kept a few for myself, but packed the rest up and sent them home with my mother. She brought them to her women’s league meeting the next day and all the ladies were clamouring for the recipe. One woman was particularly pleased. She must follow a gluten-free diet and rarely gets to sample any of the treats that are brought to their meetings.

I found the combination of buckwheat and banana to be an irresistible pairing, so it’s probably good I sent most of the batch away. Gluten-free quick breads are also more forgiving than ones made from traditional flour, as it’s overworking the gluten that can make them tough. This is a great back pocket recipe for whenever there are very ripe bananas on hand.

Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti

The last recipe I made for this review had an ingredient that can sometimes be overused as a substitute in vegan baking. Chia seeds are often used as an egg substitute or as a pudding. Sometimes this works beautifully and sometimes it can result in desserts that evoke a 1970s health food store.

In Better Baking, chia seeds are used as a crunchy element in biscotti, almost popping with flavour with each bite. I made the Cranberry Pistachio version of the biscotti and I’ve been giving permission to share the recipe with you. These cookies have some whole wheat flour, which enhances the flavour and makes them less brittle than most biscotti. Apple and orange juice help to sweeten the cookies and add even more dimension to their flavour. I’ll be making these again for Christmas and if anyone hesitates over going back for seconds, I’ll make sure to point out all their healthful elements.

Cranberry Chia Biscotti

Chia seeds have a pippy little crunch that is perfect for biscotti. Together with the whole wheat flour, the seeds give this shortbread-like dough more body, with a full flavor and hearty texture. For the holidays, I bake the pistachio variation that follows to get a pretty burst of green with the red berries.

Makes about 4 dozen
No nuts

  • 1/4 cup (55g) unsweetened pomegranate or apple juice
  • 1 cup (160 g) dried cranberries
  • 1 cup (142 g) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 3/4 cup (113 g) whole wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (104 g) sugar
  • 1 small orange
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons (84 g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature, beaten
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325°F. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper.
  2. Pour the juice over the cranberries in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second increments, stirring between intervals, until the juice is absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool completely.
  3. Whisk both flours, the chia seeds, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Put the sugar in a large bowl and zest the orange into it. Squeeze 1/4 cup juice from the orange and reserve.
  4. Add the vanilla to sugar and beat on low speed with a electric mixer until the sugar is evenly moistened. Add the butter and, gradually raising the speed to medium-high, beat until pale and fluffy. Scrape the bowl. Turn the speed to medium, add the egg, and beat until well combined. Scrape the bowl. Turn the speed to low and gradually add half the flour mixture, beating until all traces of flour have disappeared. Add the orange juice and beat until incorporated, then add the remaining flour and the cranberries and beat just until no dry bits remain and the dough forms large clumps. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Dampen your hands, divide the dough in half, and form into two 12-by-1-by-1-inch logs, spacing them 5 inches apart.
  5. Bake until the logs are golden brown and firm, about 35 minutes. Cool on the pan for 10 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 350°F.
  6. Slide a still-warm log off the parchment onto a large cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut it into 1/2-inch-wide slices. Arrange 1/4 inch apart on an unlined half sheet pan, cut sides up. Bake until toasted and light golden brown, 11 to 13 minutes. Cool completely on the pan on a wire rack.
  7. Meanwhile, cut the second log into slices. Remove the parchment from the sheet pan and arrange the sliced biscotti on it. Bake after the first pan comes out.

Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti
Add 1 cup (128 g) shelled roasted unsalted pistachios to the batter along with the cranberries.

Make ahead
The biscotti will keep at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Better Baking takes its user from breakfast through dessert, with a few surprises along the way. There are a handful of savoury recipes and some stovetop puddings that I’m very happy Ko included. There are solidly American desserts, while others are European-inspired or Asian-influenced. Even her simplest recipes are elegant, but there are also stunning showpieces like her Green Tea Leaves.

There are many things I appreciate about this cookbook and the healthfulness of the recipes isn’t even at the top of my list. Ko’s recipes don’t feel like a repetition of ones I’ve already got in my collection. They feel like fresh takes on even the most traditional recipes, like her Flourless Blueberry Muffins. I’m looking forward to trying her recipes that explore underused ingredients or take well-known ones in different directions. I love the tips that she shares for each category of baked goods and her guides to ingredients and substitutions. She incorporates accommodating special diets seamlessly, reflecting the way people today negotiate each other’s dietary needs. Most of all, I love how well the recipes I’ve tried so far work and how delicious they’ve been.

Better Baking by Genevieve Ko

Raincoast Books has been generous enough to offer a copy of Dorie’s Cookies to one Canadian reader. You can find the giveaway here and enter until December 22nd: Win a copy of Better Baking*

Gift Giver’s Guide: For the modern baker, the discerning dessert-maker, the sensible snacker, and the pantry explorer.

Come back next week for a review of a book that is full of inventive flavour mash ups.

*This giveaway is open to residents of Canada. You must have a Canadian mailing address. The winner will be required to answer the following skill testing question: 8 X 54 =_____ This promotion is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with, Facebook. We hereby release Facebook of any liability. Winner(s) will be contacted by email within 48 hours after the giveaway ends. Entrants must provide a valid email address where they can be reached. Each of the winners must respond to the email announcing their win within 48 hours, or another winner will be chosen. No purchase of any product is required. If you have any additional questions – feel free to send us an email!

You can find links to the rest of my Holiday Cookbook Review Series giveaways here. They’re all open until December 22nd.

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18 thoughts on “Holiday Cookbook Reviews – Better Baking

  1. This would be a great book! Right now my only strategy on keeping holiday baking healthier is to cut pieces of it very small and then eat less…… ha! So, clearly I could use a little help!!

  2. Interesting dimension Teresa, the book sounds good with some solid recipes tweaking on some alternative ingredients. Nice baking!

  3. Here’s what really caught my eye: “Like her approach to making baked goods healthier, Ko presents recipes that are gluten-free, vegan, or free of various allergens in a straightforward way. Each of her recipes notes if it’s suitable for any of these diets near the top of the page and she includes a secondary index for special diets, for quick reference.”

    I feel like this makes the book a really good Xmas gift. So many people in my life has dietary restrictions and it’s starting to see more cookbooks recognize this instead of one-size-fits-all (supposedly) recipes. Will be looking into this!

  4. I use a lot of “alternative” flours in my baking, spelt, brown rice, buckwheat, chickpea, almond, plus applesauce and extra virgin olive oil to replace the butter. Never used chia seeds to add crunch in biscotti, and I have to say it is such a great idea. Love the flavors of those biscotti, as well as the buckwheat bars!

  5. My favourite way to make treats healthier is by cutting back the sugar a bit if I think the recipe is a bit too sweet for my tastes.

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