The title of this publication is also the name of Grisewood's business – she manufactures cakes and biscuits which are sold fairly widely throughout Australia and even turn up on Qantas flights. A brief web search suggested that her products are well known but I can honestly say that I have never knowingly eaten either of her 'iconic' (surely there is a better word?) products – that is Chocolate Crunch and Lemon Polenta Cake – before making them according to the recipes in her book. More of that later.
On first appearances Manna from Heaven is very appealing. A bright fuchsia pink and orange cover, lots of vivid orange and purple, bright pink and lime green inside, 'hand written' titles and line drawings, minimal photography all conveying a feeling of fun and perhaps a touch of eccentricity. The organisation of the book is also a bit quirky – each section is organised around a theme and tells a story based around Rachel's experiences as a chef, as a business woman , a mother and a friend. The chapter 'Everything but the kitchen sink' for example includes recipes for a variety of dishes from 'Braised chicken legs with star anise' to 'Andrea's Pineapple Upside-down cake' sandwiched together with musings on kitchens and cooking equipment. Whilst much of what the author has to say is reasonably interesting somehow the words don't quite live up to the vitality promised by all the colourful exuberance and for me some of the personal detail got a tad tedious.
There is a preponderance of recipes for bakery items here, since these are clearly Grisewood's first love, which means that this is not a book for the non-baker. Although there is a broad enough range of other dishes – main meals, salads, desserts – to make this a useful book there was nothing that struck me as terribly exciting or new. In a chapter entitled 'Words on Food' the author discusses her favourite books and writers, a fairly predictable list including Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney and Nigel Slater. Manna from Heaven might be a good investment for anyone who does not already have the seminal works by these authors on their shelves, and in fairness I assume that Grisewood does in fact intend that her book should appeal to a younger audience who may not have already discovered these classics for themselves.
Although it didn't take me long to determine that this was not a book I needed to add to my own collection I did give it the acid test and attempt some of the recipes. I should make it clear that I am not a baker. I don't like having to fiddle about carefully weighing ingredients so over the years I have accumulated my own repertoire of foolproof cakes and I am rarely tempted to torture myself with further experimentation.
Manna from Heaven?
Emboldened I proceed to the next 'iconic' recipe – Lemon Polenta Cake. I have in fact made a similar cake before using an almost identical recipe clipped from a magazine. The ingredients are few and the method straightforward. I complicated things slightly - rather than making one large cake or 24 smaller ones I made only twelve small cakes and one medium size- in a 7” tin (it is an old cake tin which I inherited from my mother so it is very much measured in inches and not centimetres).
This is one of those super simple bung-it-all-in-together-and-mix recipes which appeal to me. The resulting large cake certainly looked good but my mini cakes steadfastly refused to allow themselves to be removed from the pan (serious greasing and baking paper not withstanding) and I needed to add considerably more than just a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice to make an icing out of 225g of icing sugar. The general consensus from the tasting panel was a definite thumbs up which means that this cake is worth attempting again. Another characteristic in its favour is that it is rich and moist and keeps well.
In a former life I worked in product development for a company which manufactured a wide range of flour based products including cake mixes. Those experiences taught me the litany of variables - oven temperature, the type of oven, the position of the cake in the oven, size of the cake tin, weight of the egg, how long or how little the batter was mixed for, the accuracy of all the weights and measurements, the strength of the flour etc – which bedevil bakers. Grisewood does address some of these issues – she gives both the number of eggs and the weight of egg, she specifies the type of butter – but to be really foolproof the recipe still has to work assuming that the cook has taken absolutely no notice of any of this information. When I made the Lemon Polenta Cake I didn't weigh the eggs; I used ordinary, everyday Australian butter; I used coarse polenta not fine and the scales I had available were only accurate to the nearest 20 grams – on that basis then this recipe would appear to be a pretty resilient. And on reading the fine print I discovered that the author does specify the 'the icing sugar is always pure' which would explain why icing made with 225g of icing sugar mixture requires much more than a teaspoon or two of lemon juice.
Take note, if you do buy this book remember to read pages 12 and 13 before proceeding further.
Manna From Heaven. Cooking for the people you love.
Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2009