Review: Yossy Arefi’s Snacking Cakes: Simple Treats for Anytime Cravings

I first read Yossy Arefi’s cookbook Snacking Cakes while our family was camping out at my mother-in-law’s house so that the furnace at our house could be replaced. It was winter, and very cold outside, and inside we were cozy, but we were all thrown for a loop by the displacement. I was reading the cookbook in the evenings, after our infant son was asleep for what we hoped was a few good hours before his first wake-up. Anyone who’s ever cared for an infant might imagine our kind of chaos – praying we could get him to sleep in an unfamiliar bedroom, waking in the night on an unfamiliar hide-a-bed to stumble through dark hallways to get to him before he woke the whole house, trying to figure out how to nurse him and rock him back to sleep without our usual nursery set-up. Our son was less than a year old at the time; we’d been parents for less than twelve months and had little confidence that whatever we tried was going to work more than once.

Which was why I found Snacking Cakes so appealing. The recipes promised to be simple, but not boring—fruit cakes, “warm and toasty cakes,” chocolatey cakes, “not your average vanilla cakes.” These section headings divide the book loosely into distinct kinds of cakes, each one requiring just one bowl and the most basic tools like whisks, knives, and measuring spoons. To be sure, I didn’t have all the ingredients at hand in my kitchen, but I wasn’t in my kitchen. It was somehow easier to imagine being able to amass things like sumac, freeze dried strawberries, and turbinado sugar. The temporary shift in our surroundings made things more complicated in the short-term, but seem more possible in the long-term. I jotted down shopping lists, imagined occasions for some of the recipe variations suggesting larger-than-8-inch square pans, and pretended that once we were home it would be easy to try one or two of the recipes. Arefi promised these simple recipes would work.

And the joy of this cookbook is that the recipes do work. Turn on the oven. Butter that 8-inch pan. Whisk together eggs and sugar. Go on from there to add in pumpkin puree, olive oil, cocoa powder, spices (that’s for the spiced chocolate pumpkin cake). Or add peanut butter, buttermilk, vanilla, salt (salty caramel peanut butter cake). In addition to providing directions on how to scale the recipe for alternative cake pans, each of the recipe also offers flavor variations, subbing out one fruit for another, perhaps, or suggesting a glaze.

But the real magic of Snacking Cakes is that the recipes are forgiving. As our son has grown older over the last year, he’s gotten excited about joining his parents in kitchen. He’s getting the hang of using measuring cups and spoons. He knows that before we get started we must gather sugar, salt, butter, eggs, baking powder, and flour. Sometimes he fetches other things from the cabinets—chocolate chips, coconut flakes, oatmeal—and we can almost always find the perfect snacking cake to make together, thanks to an index that’s impressively comprehensive. The only downside: every recipe requires flour and eggs, and we haven’t always had the right replacements on days we might have baked but didn’t have those foundational ingredients. But other swaps on-the-fly or on the whim of a toddler have produced perfect cakes. For instance, we recently made the Corn Cake with Honey, except that we used molasses instead of honey, and the result was delicious.  

To say the recipes in Snacking Cakes are easy would do Yossy Arefi a disservice. Some of the recipes are challenging, but thanks to Arefi’s approach (and no doubt tireless research), the baker can be confident that things will turn out fine. And in a world where it’s easy to crave more control, this book is a treat.

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