It’s no secret I’m a huge cookbook fan. There are many cookbook reviews on this site, and at home, I have literally over one thousand cookbooks in my collection. And my books add up to just that: a collection. People may gawk at my expanse of Ikea shelves, lined with row after row of compelling, colorful spines, and mouth the words hoarder or the phrase compulsive cookbook problem, to which I balk and get slightly defensive. These books are a huge part of what I do every day of my life, and having such an incredibly complete reference library in my home has proven useful on more occasions than I can possibly count.
And, I’d like to think that I’m discerning about my cookbooks. I don’t accept just any new additions to the fold; I’ve passed over many a cheaply printed, lacka’daisically tested volume for inclusion the ranks based on the fact that it dilutes the overall value of my collection. That’s not to say that every cookbook with bad photos or poorly-glued binding is immediately passed over. Not at all–I’ve seen just as many gorgeously crafted books that are completely devoid of useful, working recipes. Those, as well, are eschewed from my shelf. The most important factors for me are quality of content and the all-important inspiration factor. With such a glut of cookbooks on the market these days, prime candidates for collection must cook well, read well, and break through the deepening cookbook ennui that’s been building over the past five or so years.
When I do find a book I’m excited about, I literally jump for joy and must stay the passionate, palpable urge to COOK RIGHT NOW AT ALL COSTS. This week such a book dropped into my lap: The Keys to the Kitchen, by Aida Mollencamp.
Upbeat, Cracker-Jack-smart, and cute as a button, Aida is part of a crop of culinary TV personalities that bring networks like The Food Network to a younger, more fun demographic. You may have caught her on her long-running show Ask Aida, or Foodcrafters on The Cooking Channel. Besides the fact that she’s bubbly and inspiring, Aida is also one hell of a good cook.
The Keys to the Kitchen is an instructional cookbook, meant to teach the reader how to build up their culinary savvy by sharing 40 fundamental techniques. Each lesson takes the reader through the why and how of something important a good cook should know, something that will not only make their lives easier but will also lead to a more successful cooking experience overall. An impressive 305 recipes drive these lessons home in the most delicious way possible.
I think Garret explains the gist of Keys to the Kitchen best, in his post about the book:
This book isn’t so much about giving you a recipe that will produce a single dish, but rather each recipe is designed to imbue and teach you a specific skill or educate you about a method, ingredient, or cooking style. The recipe puts you into practice – a culinary practical of sorts – and by the dish’s end you have a fundamental piece of core kitchen knowledge that you know how to apply to a wider variety of foods and recipes that may or may not come from Keys.
Even though I know how to cook, The Keys to the Kitchen has taught this old-hand a few things about efficiency in the kitchen. For example, I had no idea that soaking a raw onion in vinegar will reduce its sharpness or that you can use a teaspoon to scrape the skin off of a ginger root. Beyond the lessons, though, even learned cooks will enjoy the hundreds of recipes Aida has developed. Almond brioche sticky buns? Walnut-pesto stuffed leg of lamb? Smoke mozzarella lasagna with zucchini and arugula? Yes, please!
The recipe I’ve included below is an old favorite–carrot cake–created anew with the addition of brown sugar cream cheese frosting and a hefty coating of ground pistachios. The earthly sweet brown sugar contrasts well with this gorgeous cake’s heavenly crunch-drunk texture. I guarantee that if you walk into a party carrying this bad boy, you’ll be the talk of the kitchen. And, that’s sort of the whole point of The Keys to the Kitchen: to help turn the average home cook into a someone whose dishes are celebrated, and to shower upon them the culinary verve they deserve.
- Buy roasted pistachios as they have more flavor. If you can’t find them, pecans or walnuts are a good substitute.
- The cake can be baked up to 2 days ahead and stored, unfrosted, wrapped in plastic wrap at room temperature.
- The frosting can be made up to 4 days in advance. Bring to room temperature before frosting and stir to evenly combine.
- The assembled, frosted cake can be covered with a cake dome and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve at room temperature.
- This batter can be cooked in loaf pans like a quick bread or turned into muffin tins for cupcakes.
- You need two 8-in/20-cm round cake pans.
- I used a stand mixer here but a handheld electric mixer and a bowl will also work fine.
- Nothing ruins a baked recipe faster than an oven that’s off temperature. Use an oven thermometer to know if you oven skews hot or cold and adjust accordingly.
- Room temperature is the key word here to ensure everything mixes together properly. To speed up the eggs, place them in a bowl of warm water for 10 minutes before using.
- Frosting Ingredients:
- 1 pound (455 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces/115 grams) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (at room temperature)
- 1 1/4 cups (4 1/4 ounces/160 grams) powdered sugar
- 1 cup (7 ounces/220 grams) packed dark brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Cake Ingredients:
- Unsalted butter, for greasing the pans
- 2 1/4 cups (10 ounces/285 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup (7 ounces/200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (7 ounces/220 grams) packed dark brown sugar
- 2/3 cup (5 ounces/165 ml) canola oil
- 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 lb (700 grams) carrots, peeled and grated
- 2 1/2 cups (11 1/2 ounces/325 grams) finely chopped shelled roasted pistachios
- Frosting method:
- Put the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until very smooth. Add the butter, powdered sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt and beat until airy and well combined.
- Cake method:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C/gas 4) and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat two 8-in/20-cm round cake pans with butter and flour and tap out any excess flour; set aside. Combine the 2 1/4 cups/288 g flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and allspice in a large bowl, and whisk to aerate and break up any lumps; set aside.
- Combine the eggs, granulated and brown sugars, oil, and vanilla in another large bowl. Whisk until the eggs are broken up and the mixture is thoroughly combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture until just combined. Fold in the carrots and 1 ½ cups of the pistachios until evenly mixed.
- Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Remove cakes from the oven, run a knife around the perimeter of each, and turn the cakes out onto wire rack to cool completely.
- To frost, place a cake layer on an inverted cake pan. Spread about one-third of the frosting over the top of the layer. Stack the second layer, and evenly spread another one-third of the frosting over the top and sides of the whole cake. (Don’t fuss over looks at this point, as this is just a basecoat.)
- Place the coated cake in the refrigerator until the frosting is set up and slightly hard, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the refrigerator and spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake, ensuring it’s as even as possible. Press the remaining 1 cup of pistachios into the sides and on the top of the cake and let the cake sit at room temperature 5 minutes before slicing with a knife dipped in hot water.