Do you have a lot of cookbooks? I have a lot of cookbooks. I love to cook and bake and I, for the most part, taught myself how to do both. Food Network played a huge part in my technical learning but, because I was starting from square negative six, I didn’t have a recipe repository to practice with or build on or off of. This is a Thing which is essential to anyone trying to learn the fundamentals of various cuisines and attempting to create dishes which are, you know… edible. Way back in the 20th century, the way to build those foundations was with books.
Some of my cookbooks contain inviolable blueprints (you have to be really, really good to bake without a net or, more difficult still, to design your own baking recipes. Yes, I have Mark Ruhlman’s Ratio. No, I haven’t been brave enough to delve into its secrets. Who wants to risk good, Amish butter and chocolate like that?) Others are step-by-step teaching tools from which one can deviate here and there but to which one is intended, for the most part, to adhere. Still others, like Jessica Siskin’s Treat Yourself: How to Make 93 Ridiculously Fun No-Bake Crispy Rice Treats are intended as creative springboards, full of fundamentals and recommendations but which encourage one to move beyond what’s on the page, sometimes to something entirely new. I’d forgetten how important that last category is sometimes because with school and work and homework and playtime and swimming lessons and travel and chores, who has time to play with their food?
I was reminded, however, of just how much fun playing with one’s food can be when Workman Publishing sent me a copy of Treat Yourself to explore and that I really need to make time to do it more often.
Cooking, remember, is a giant science experiment which runs the very real risk of exploding or bursting in to flames or foaming over and making a giant, sticky, and yet oddly satisfying mess. “Failures” can be equally (or even more) delicious than successes and hey, you never know when you might grow a new wonder drug with some potion or other.
Treat Yourself, and other cookbooks like it, allows reluctant, burgeoning, and busy bakers to reclaim the joy of food preparation by providing solid, simple basics, suggesting embellishments, and encouraging the reader to branch out from the foundations it provides. Treat Yourself is especially effective in supporting the “food is fun mission” because the base of all the recipes therein are all crispy rice treat based (in case that wasn’t clear from the title) and crispy rice treats are pretty hard to screw up. If you do err, whatever you make will probably taste good anyway and there’s the added benefit of puffed rice cereal and marshmallows being relatively cheap, even if you go organic and corn-syrup free (which, admittedly, I do not).
Siskin’s projects are neither overly complex nor overly fussy; they are, however, stunning even when imperfectly crafted by inexpert hands like mine, or small impatient hands like those attached to the rest of my five year old daughter. Small effort, huge return, happy chefs. Very few of the projects require specialized equipment, which means if your kitchen is stocked with baking basics (pot, spatula, cooking spray, food coloring) you can make a good number of them on the fly simply because you feel like it. Those projects which do require more specific bits and bobs (cake pop sicks, different types of candy, cooking cutters) tend toward bits and bobs which are readily available at any kitchen store or big box store with a kitchen section and, again, aren’t prohibitively spendy.
The book’s step-by-step photos help you keep your bearings while allowing you to veer off to craft an edible version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers instead of Siskin’s Starry Night example; the colors and shapes are different, but the fundamentals which support them are other identical and clearly delineated. I went to purchase the Airheads recommended as the wrapping for the crispy rice “sushi.” Ye Olde Thyme candy shop only had the bite sized ones. My comfort with the base recipe made it much easier for me to search the store for something similar to substitute. I came up with Laffy Taffy; it got hot in the house and the taffy melted where the Airheads would have been more hardy, but the crispy sushi looked great (at least initially) and was still 100% tasty. When I realized I didn’t have time to color individual layers (or want to do the dishes it would have entailed), I was inspired to fill the “sushi” with chocolate rainbow candy to add the necessary flair with less mess and decided to add small jelly beans as “roe” for additional decoration.
Did I mention the best cookbooks are the ones which inspire cooks and bakers to be creative and take risks? I’m mentioning it again. Those books also inspire projects which bring parents and kids together to discuss and plan and play and fail and learn. Treat Yourself: How to Make 93 Ridiculously Fun No-Bake Crispy Rice Treats definitely fits into that category.
So, friends, go forth and find a cookbook which inspires you. Burn stuff. Blow stuff up (safely, please). Make pretty things. Make ugly things which taste great.
Cook. Bake. Create.
Treat Yourself: How to Make 93 Ridiculously Fun No-Bake Crispy Rice Treats will be available from Workman Publishing on August 8th, 2017.
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