Whenever anyone starts anything with the word “Midwest,” I automatically go into snooze mode—and I’m from the Midwest AND I live here. I just don’t find it very exciting. The Midwest to me speaks of hardworking people toiling through unholy winters in a flat, barren landscape. In my mind’s eye, we’re kind of a fat, ugly, dull people.
Whoa! Stop the presses. I wasn’t calling you fat or ugly (sometimes a bit dull… but that’s because you’re no fun at parties unless you’ve had a few…) Besides, I used the plural “we” up there. So, if you’re fat and ugly so am I. And, sweetie, as much as I love you, I love me more. We’re the exception to the ugly Midwesterner rule.
I’m totally derailing here. This is meant to be a book review of Midwest Sweet Baking: Delectable Classics Around Lake Michigan by Jenny Lewis, CCE, CHE. Don’t fall asleep on me! There are some interesting things going on in here.
Full disclosure time: My cousin gave me this book. Why bother telling you? Well, he works for the publisher, The History Press. Also, the author and I graduated from the same culinary school (although she earned her degree before I went there and I never knew her). If you think any of that’s going to make my review biased, that’s your business.
The book is a slim 200 pages with plenty of illustrations and recipes—so rather impossible to be an in-depth look at the region’s sweet baking history. (For clarification: Sweet baking is desserts and dessert-like breads rather than bready breads for sandwiches and rolls.) And, let the subtitle be a reminder: We’re only dealing with the four states bordering Lake Michigan—Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
Organized by era, each time period includes a quick gloss over of what was happening in the region from a people (i.e. immigration) perspective, innovation (inventions) perspective, and ingredient (or brand) perspective. When, I say quick, I mean quick. One line about the founding of Kellogg’s, a quick primer on milk safety at the turn of the last century, and you’re done. I would have enjoyed a deeper look into some of the regions baking pioneers or a comparison to what was going on in other regions at the same time. There’s a lot of “And, then the Italians came so some people that normally wouldn’t eat biscotti ate biscotti.” without talking about how the biscotti influenced other desserts or food production.
Each subsection ends with a personal interview. The first one was a bit off-putting as I was happily reading about quick breads in the early- to mid-1800s and then suddenly I’m reading about how the author took a tour of Hodgson Mill in Effingham, Illinois. Once I realized the personal interjection was the capper of each era, it was a bit easier to swallow.
The second section is a regionally nonspecific glossary of ingredients. Think types of flours, sugars, fruits, and other things you can put in dessert and you’ll get the idea. A pretty encompassing list with detailed definitions, but not something that necessarily needs to be in a history book.
There is also a small section on baking companies of the region. It’s interesting to see how many “local” brands we use every day, and to see the consolidation of those brands into multi-national companies. Who knew that staple of Southern desserts (and morning pancakes)—Karo Syrup—was developed in Chicago? Or that Nabisco was founded as a consolidation of the bakery business? Well, now I do (and you do, too).
Where this book really shines is the recipes. Those scattered throughout the text are more of the historic variety, and then there is a large section of contemporary Midwestern recipes. From old fashioned steamed persimmon loaf to churros, this book has you covered on what Midwesterners have been eating for dessert and with our morning coffee. There’s a nice representation of Amish and Scandinavian recipes as well as a Bean Pie recipe I’m kind of itching to try.
Happily, there is a main index and a recipes index in the back of the book so I don’t have to thumb through looking for that darn Indian meal pudding recipe. I’m also eager to give Amelia Simmon’s Coriander Cookies a whirl—mostly because it starts with one pound of sugar boiled slowly in a half a pint of water. That just sounds like the making of a good cookie. But where, oh where do I find pearlash this time of year? I guess I could just get industrious and lixiviate wood ash and evaporating lye.
So, maybe I’m a bit more Midwestern than I thought: Grueling labor under a dreary winter sky all for the promise of a cookie.