Family Circle's Best-Ever Cakes and Cookies 

240 pages; Color  photography

Broadway Books, NY, NY, October 2001

Reviewed by Jennifer Wu for Good Cooking
November, 2001

Family Circle's Best Ever Cakes and Cookies; plus Pies, Tarts and Other Desserts

I have always counted on big publishers like Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping to give me cookbooks with popular, reliable, easy recipes that include different ethnic influences, and that cover all the possible occasions that I might be cooking for. This is a high expectation, even for companies that have the larger budgets and staff.
Family Circle's newest dessert cookbook fulfills and even surpasses some of my expectations. There are basic recipes, like sugar cookies (page 56) and carrot cake (page 26). There are recipes that improve upon ones we already know, like putting whipped cream frosting on chocolate cake for those who think frosting is usually too heavy (Celebration Cake, page 22). But there are also over-the-top recipes, like a cake frosted to look like a wicker basket that's filled with flowers and buzzing with bees (Basketweave Cake, page 202). Many things are done up in this cookbook; banana bread gets a streusel topping (Streusel-Topped Banana Bread, page 140), chocolate chip cookies get enlarged (Double-Chocolate Chunky Cookies, page 66), and even tiramisu gets an addition of amaretto (Amaretto Tiramisu, page 180). It seems as if this cookbook is trying to impress.
I love the pictures in this cookbook. About a third of the recipes have pictures to go with them, and the food styling is, to my civilian eyes, irreproachable. Pictures inspire and guide the would-be gourmet.

The main problem with this book, unfortunately, stems from the high caliber of the desserts. The authors consistently underestimate the time needed to prepare the recipes. I made three recipes: bittersweet chocolate cakes (page 17), thumbprint cookies (page 56), and nutmeg pots de crème (page 183). All three recipes took at least twice the estimated prep time. For example, the bittersweet chocolate cake recipe instructed that I chop 23 ounces of chocolate. The chopping itself took most of the estimated 30 minute prep time, and frosting 30 individual cakes (by the way, my batch only made 30 cakes instead of 36 like the recipe said it would) took another 30 minutes. I also was supposed to bake the cakes in three separate batches. While each batch did indeed take only 15 minutes to bake, as the recipe stated, I had to wait 10 minutes in between each batch to cool the cakes in the pan before turning them out and reusing the pan for the next batch. This meant staying near the oven for over an hour, not just 15 minutes as the recipe implied.

Another problem is that some of the recipes don't actually look like their corresponding pictures. For example, the thumbprint cookie recipe said to roll slices of dough into balls, and then to press down in the centers of the balls. This produced a much plumper cookie than the ones pictured. I would bet that the cookies made for the photo shoot were left in slices before thumbprinting. A minor detail, perhaps, but considering a course as presentation-oriented as dessert, I felt misled.
Finally, I was surprised at how difficult and/or complicated some of these recipes were. Whisking hot cream into egg yolks without scrambling the eggs takes luck or practice, if not instruction. I would have expected at least a caution against this common mistake in the pots de crème recipe. Harder recipes are not prefaced with any sort of warning, and since the prep times are so misleading, I couldn't tell before making the recipes how challenging they would be. I wanted this cookbook to be more user-friendly since it was coming from an organization dedicated to helping "busy women create the best possible lives for themselves and their families."
I am thankful, though, that all the recipes in this book work. The cake was a little drier than I expected, but all three of the recipes that I made pleased my nine average-palated taste-testers. I'm not sure that these recipes are "perfected," "ultimate" or "flawless," but they are creative and fun. So for that purpose, I recommend Family Circle's Best Ever Cakes and Cookies to you.

Good Cooking likes the following recipe for its simple preparation method and the final results.  Try dusting each slice with powdered sugar before serving. 

Apple Caramel Cake

Butter and brown sugar pair up with apples and pecans for a gooey topping; go over-the-top and serve with a scoop of vanilla or butter pecan ice cream.

Makes 8 servings
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Bake at 375° for 30 minutes

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted 
1 1/3 cups packed light, or dark-brown sugar 
1 3 /4 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice or ground cinnamon
1 cup pecan halves
2 medium-size Granny Smith apples, cored and sliced into thin wedges 
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
3/4 cup water
1. Heat oven to 375°.

2. Coat sides of a 9-inch round or 9 x 9 x 2-inch-square cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Place 3 tablespoons butter in bottom of pan; swirl to coat bottom. Sprinkle 1/3 cup brown sugar and 1/4 teaspoon pie spice over butter. Arrange 12 pecan halves, flat side up, around edge of bottom of pan. Arrange apple slices in pan. Chop remaining pecans.

3. Whisk together flour, salt, baking soda and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons pie spice in a medium-size bowl until combined.

4. In a second medium-size bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat together remaining melted butter and remaining 1 cup brown sugar until smooth. Stir in water. Stir in flour mixture and chopped nuts just until combined. Spoon batter evenly over apples in pan.

5. Bake in heated 375° oven 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack 10 minutes. Invert cake onto a serving plate and remove pan. Replace any nuts or apples that have fallen off. Serve warm.