COOKBOOK REVIEW Classic Artisan Baking

Review written & photographed by Helena McMurdo

Classic Artisan Baking is available for purchase through our online store or at local bookstores. For more information on this book please visit Thomas Allen & Son.  

Julian Day is the proprietor of Meg Rivers Artisan Bakery, a popular UK mail order cake company that has been shipping treats around the world for over 25 years. The company was originally started by Meg Rivers, a busy mom wanting to make cakes free from preservatives and artificial colourings. Julian ran a successful food wholesaling business in rural Warwickshire and was approached by Meg’s family after her death to take over the Meg Rivers business. Having now run the company for several years, Julian decided it was time to put together a cookbook with the original Meg Rivers recipes and bakery favourites.

At 140 pages plus index, the book is divided into sections for different types of baking with recipes for family cakes, small cakes, brownies and bars, biscuits and cookies, loaves, breads, and tarts. And what beautiful recipes! The book is filled with traditional British favourites like Caraway Seed Cake, Lemon Drizzle Cake, Bakewell Slices as well as fun treats like Traffic Light Tarts; jam filled tart shells in red, yellow and green. The tart section features tempting desserts like Rhubarb & Marscapone Tart and Tarte au Citron.

I love leafing through a cookbook and finding lots to enjoy and savour on every page. In fact, I found myself constantly ticking boxes and adding sticky notes to recipes I want to make in the future. The beautiful photography by Steve Painter very much contributes to the overall enjoyment of the book. I felt like I was peering through the windows of British country farmhouses and seeing all of these beautiful treats laid out inside.

Be prepared for a few unfamiliar items such as self-raising flour, readily available on shelves in the UK but harder to find in North America. However, you can easily search online to find recipes for blending your own self-raising flour. I also found myself envious of all the pretty and useful cake tin liners that the author seemed to employ in many of the cakes, which try as I might I could not seem to find. Instead I settled for parchment paper, which of course worked just as well (if perhaps not as prettily).

A word about pans: many of the recipes call for 6-inch or 7-inch pans (not our usual North American 8-inch standard). Being a total sucker for all things cute and small I succumbed and bought two new pans, somewhat begrudgingly at first. But any resentment soon vanished once I saw my lovely little cakes.

These small quirks might put off some readers, but I felt that the overall results of the recipes and the delicious cakes were worth all of the additional effort. I found lots of inspiration in the simplicity of the recipes.

One final small note about the overall size of the book: it’s not something I’d usually mention but at 7.5 x 9.5-inches, this book employs the smaller size that I’m seeing being used now by many cookbook publishers and I have to say I quite like this trend. It fits easily in my handbag, and doesn’t take up the whole counter when open. Yes, I am one of those people who often will be found carrying cookbooks around in my handbag! And this is exactly the kind of book I’d toss in any day of the week.


Lemon Polenta Cake

RATING: 4 out of 5 (lemony goodness!) 

THE TEST: This cake calls for polenta/cornmeal and ground almonds instead of flour. Gluten-free people rejoice! Aside from those two ingredients it’s the usual eggs, butter (lots) and sugar along with lemon zest for flavour and baking powder to leaven.

This cake is really easy to put together. Zesting and juicing the lemons is probably the most complicated part. The batter goes together much as any cake batter would.

There was one point of question in the recipe, which called for “4 eggs, lightly beaten” and then later on, to add them “one-at-a time”. I had already placed my 4 eggs in a bowl, and in the end I just added them individually unbeaten. What can I say?! I live on the edge.

This recipe called for a 7-inch tin, “base-lined with parchment”. I opted for a springform type.

Once the batter is mixed, it is spooned into the pan and leveled off with a palette knife before baking for 80-90 minutes.

The cake is tested with a skewer. If it comes out clean, it’s done. My cake definitely needed more than the 90 minutes – more like 100-110. I made this recipe a total of three times and each time it varied slightly.

THE RESULTS: Gorgeous! So lemony and oh-so buttery, this cake is very rich and delicious. I kept thinking ‘oh it’s so much better for me than if it was full of white flour’…but then I thought about all of the butter and had to remind myself that this was not the case. But honestly? Who cares! This cake is delicious. What’s the point of baking if you can’t enjoy yourself? I can’t really fault this recipe on taste, but I’m giving it 4 out of 5 as a result of the baking time being off as well as the confusion over adding the eggs beaten or whole.      

Tarte au Citron

RATING: 5 out of 5 (perfect)    

THE TEST: This is a classic version of a French style lemon tart. The photo in the book made the tart look amazing! I felt like I could almost taste the lemons. It also had a bruléed top which I thought looked nice.

I genuinely do not like pastry making, mostly because I’ve never had much success. I always find what I make to be tough and nasty as opposed to flaky and delicious. Store-bought is usually the route I end up taking when it comes to pastry (gasp!) A classic pâte sablée, this pastry called for almond flour in addition to regular flour and of course butter, plus an egg yolk for binding. The book suggested it was tricky but that those with patience would overcome.

I ended up making this pastry on several different occasions for other recipes within the book, and also used it for one of my own concoctions. It acted a little differently every time which proves what we all know; that temperature and environmental conditions can play a big role in the overall success of pastry. But in general, I found it came together quite nicely and formed easily into a ball.

Rolling was a bit more tricky. I tried several times to roll out my piece of pastry and then transfer it to my tart shell, but eventually called on the assistance of some plastic wrap and rolled it between two layers of the stuff. This seemed to make it easier to handle and maneuver into the tart shell.

On a couple of occasions I gave up and ended up pressing the pastry into the tart shell. This also worked just great and didn’t seem to damage the end result in any way.  The tart shell is blind baked with a layer of baking beans for 15-20 minutes. The shell is then removed from the oven and left to cool.

In the meantime, I set about making the filling; a rich lemon curd made from a mixture of cream, sugar, eggs and lemon zest and juice. I combined the ingredients as instructed and put them to heat on the stove at a low temperature until just thick. This did require some patience and attention. It is not the kind of thing you can do while multitasking. Once the curd started to thicken, I poured it into the cooled tart shell and baked it for a further 15 minutes.    

As a final step, the cooled tart is sprinkled with sugar and browned with the help of your handy-dandy blow torch. Like Julia Child said, “every woman should have one.” I found that brown sugar worked the best for crisp and fast brulée-ing    

THE RESULTS: I’ve always been more of a chocolate person, but between this and the Lemon Polenta Cake this book may have changed me forever! I made this tart on three separate occasions which is a sign that I either screwed it up or really liked the results. I’m happy to say its repeated appearance on my table was because I really liked it so much. For me, the curd was simply perfect. Lemony and tart, not too sweet. The pastry was rich and luscious and was perhaps the biggest find of the entire book. I will be turning to this recipe again and again.        


Bakewell Slices

RATING: 5 out of 5 (yummy & comforting)  

For a copy of the recipe for Bakewell Slices, please click here

THE TEST: I was looking for a dessert that we could take on a family picnic – something that would be simple to transport and easily shared. Bakewell Tart was something I remembered from my days in Ireland but to be frank, I never really cared for it myself. On this occasion, it was as if Julian Day was speaking right to me as he talked about the difference between this version and the overly sweet commercial varieties sold in stores. Rather than being served in individual tarts, this sliced version forgoes the usual fondant icing and the unsightly neon cherry on top (it does keep its trademark jam filling). OK I thought, I’ll give it a try. The picture gave me the impression that this could be easily shared without too much mess or need for extra utensils so I thought it would be perfect for a picnic.

The base of the slice is made with the same Pate Sablée used in the Tarte au Citron. I’ve already expounded my love for this pastry so will not bore you with repetitions of my undying love for this recipe. Let me just say that I’ve subsequently made this dough several times and have taken to making a batch of it and putting it in the freezer. You never know when you’ll need a good Pate Sablée!

Once I’d lined the tart tin, the dough was pricked, lined with parchment paper and baked for 20 minutes with baking beans.

While it cooled I started the frangipane filling, a simple mixture of butter, eggs, and almond flour.

The cooled pastry case was brushed with some very nice raspberry jam and the frangipane filling poured on top, smoothed and sprinkled with slivered almonds.

After baking for a further 30-35 minutes, the slices were removed from the oven. I left them to cool in the pan overnight.  The edges of the pastry were fairly brown – dare I say burnt – so I cut those off and until now, no one was the wiser.

THE RESULTS: The next day in the glowing morning sun, I cut the pastry into individual slices for our picnic. A small sampling of the crumbs told me this was going to be good. It looked moist and smelled fragrantly of almonds.      

I couldn’t have picked a dessert more perfect for our picnic. It’s a solid kind of a cake, suitable for rough transport. It was literally gobbled up by everyone with lots of requests for more.  My fella, who admittedly has been known to have a goldfish memory when it comes to matters of food pronounced: “This is the best cake you’ve ever made.” But I took the compliment nonetheless. He might actually be right on this occasion.