Back cover cookbook accolades usually offer little more than a glimpse into the author's connections, be them personal or professional, though it's no secret they're typically chosen for their relevance to the book. In Krystina Castella's A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far, the kudos are an odd mixed bag. Baking Queen Mother Dorie Greenspan offers a paragraph of praise alongside Anne Byrn, she of just-doctor-the-damn-Duncan-Hines-cake-mix fame. And so a well researched, thoughtfully organized, almost documentary-like survey of cakes around the world by someone who has written several dessert books (Booze Cakes, Crazy About Cupcakes), perhaps best politely described as whimsical, was exactly -- but then again not quite -- what we expected.
But this is a good book, a great one, even. The layout is much of the appeal, as all those photos help make digesting the massive amounts of information much easier (Castella is covering cakes worldwide, no small plate). It's impossible, of course, to include everything in this book lest it morph into something akin to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Foods -- not a bad thing, but encyclopedias certainly can't be this fun.
The cookbook starts with "a sweet tour of cake history, culture and language." Not as easy as it sounds. What constitutes a "world" cake view? The American vision of flour + eggs + butter + sugar baked in a Western oven? Right. And so Castella includes fried cakes (fritters), frozen cakes (Thai mango-lychee ice cream, p. 292, or Italian cassata gelato, p. 196), sweet dumplings (Indian gulab jamun, p. 252, South African souskluitjie, p. 219), quick breads (Greek vasilopita, p. 202, West Indian calabaza pudding cake, p. 64), and pastry-based tarts (Portuguese pastéis de nata, p. 201).
And that's before you get to the two-page sections on the "World Tour of Christmas Cakes" (Armenian nutmeg cakes, Chilean pan de pascua, aebleskivers from Denmark) and "Cakes of the Dead" (pink ghost cakes from China, soul cakes from Belgium, Haitian coconut cakes).
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The recipes? Castella tweaks them to eliminate that red food coloring from that pink-and-white checkerboard British Battenberg cake. You know, the sort of updates-yet-true-to-form recipes you really want to make. A World of Cake is the sort of book that makes the United Cakes of America taste, well, somewhat sugar-free by comparison.