Your grandmother’s cookbook didn’t come with a photo of the author spread-eagled in sugar on the first page, but Sweet & Vicious does. Nor was it written by such an adventurous cook, who puts lavender in her mashed potatoes and dreams up dishes like Hog Heaven Chocolate Cake topped with bacon and pecans, or Southern Sartorialist’s Cookies: oatmeal cookies laced with bourbon and smoked salt.
This Saturday evening, after the Country Living Fair in Rhinebeck, lifestyle content producer and cookbook author Libbie Summers will be signing Sweet & Vicious: Baking with Attitude: 100 Wildly Delicious Recipes that Come with a Kick(Rizzoli, 2014) from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy. Summers goes far beyond mere cayenne-spiked cookies in her irreverent and wildly imaginative paean to baked goods sweet and savory.
Summers was a chef on private yachts and is an award-winning producer of lifestyle content for film and print. Her blog with co-author Chia Chong, Salted and Styled, won the Best Food Blog award last year from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Sweet & Vicious is outside-the-box in a playful, hip way. The book design features hot-pink page edges and candy-colored fonts, and Chia Chong’s photos are staged with humor. Summers’ head notes, studded with dreamy travel stories and life stories from the heart, pull you in and fill you with inspiration to run into the kitchen and cook.
“It’s about making your friends and family giggle as they eat your food,” Summers explains in the book, and, “Fearless baking is not being afraid to change the recipes you already love and make them more personal, more provocative – something your friends will talk about instead of talking about you.”
She calls some of her ideas “ genius” and “amazing,” and they are; and of the rich sweets recipes she makes no apology. “These desserts are a joyous celebration of sugar, butter and flour,” she says. But the ingredients are premium: organic butter, farm-fresh eggs, vanilla sugar or vanilla paste.
Her Upside-Down Skillet Corn Cakes skip the obligatory canned pineapple and maraschino cherry, with suggestions for a Bosc pear topping, or one of grilled pineapple spiked with Gosling’s Black Seal rum. Retired Gingerbread Working Girls cookies are in the shape of exotic dancers past their prime (she offers stencils). Post-Coital Pie is a chocolate tart with marshmallow frosting. Solid Gold Cupcakes, inspired by the TV show, are made of golden beets and candied ginger, dusted with gold powder and edible gold paper crowns.
A vanilla cake is topped with piles of cotton candy, “as high as you can get it!” A candied-orange-slice-studded chocolate cake, rich and nearly flourless, is baked in mugs and comes with a sweet story about Summers’ Dad. The love comes through, with “The. Best. Ever. Red. Velvet. Cake.” that she invented 21 years ago for her husband.
Summers’ Jacked-Up Ginger Cookies contain ground ginger, minced fresh ginger and minced crystallized ginger, plus half a cup of turbinado sugar (“I love Sugar in the Raw,” she says, “just lift an extra packet each time you visit a coffee shop…it will take 12 visits.”) Of the cookies she confesses, “I can eat 20 in the middle of a crowded yoga class that’s 20 days into a ‘30-day clean program’ – and still feel good about myself.”
The savory is not forgotten, with meatball muffins or pretzel brats cooked in pale ale. Creative breads include Eyes Wide Shut bread studded with apricot and rosemary. Don’t miss the story of Keith and the Boat Bagels or the chapter devoted entirely to dog treats.
Sweet & Vicious is not all fluff; explicit how-tos make piecrust elemental and doable. Summers shows how to crimp pie dough unconventionally (try a corkscrew, kitchen tongs or pearls) or how to do puff pastry and why you should bother.
“Making puff pastry takes me three hours, start to finish,” she tells us, “the same time spent at a bad movie, at a bad date or at a bad baby shower. Think about it. I’d much rather be biting into a crunchy palmier, wouldn’t you?” And, “My thoughts on storebought frozen puff pasty? It’s like a flu shot: I don’t think it works and I don’t believe in it, but I get one every year anyway.”
Summers shows you how to make your own infused sugars and extracts like almond, anise, hot pepper and lavender. Recipes with orange bicycle symbols correspond to a video on her website, www.libbiesummers.com. Some of the recipes would be out of reach for me personally; for example, a standing mixer is required for many of them, and I lack access to the elusive-but-irresistible-sounding tea olive, “the scent a cross between rose and jasmine, with a kiss of gardenia.”
For more of Libbie Summers and her riotous and original approach to baking, meet her at the book-signing and tasting party Saturday after the Country Living Fair, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy at 6423 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck, (845) 876-1117).