A royal flake

The cook's favorite recipe, "All Sold Out Chicken Pot Pies," soothes the soul with a traditional creamy sauce, vegetables, and chunks of chicken encased in a flaky dough rich with an abundance of cream cheese and butter. (Photo by Susan Pagani)

Rather Sweet Bakery & Café's 'over-the-top' recipes are fit for a Texas queen

Rebecca Rather's new cookbook, The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes from the Texas Hill Country's Rather Sweet Bakery & Café, arrived at our house just in time for the chilly season. When the weather outside is frightful, the ambient heat of our ancient O'Keefe & Merrit stove is delightful. So it was with great pleasure that we celebrated the brevity of that season with a whole lot of butter and flour; several muffins, pizzas, and chicken pot pies later, I must admit, any pending New Year's resolutions aside, that there's something to be said for fat and happy. Yes, this is a cookbook for Texans, as Rather says: "Texas-style means making it better, making it bigger, making it over-the-top."

The Pastry Queen is Rather's first cookbook, although she has been a baker for almost her entire life, and it shows in the organization of the book and recipes. A funny thing: One never really notices the organization of a cookbook unless it isn't working. The Pastry Queen is organized into eight chapters; it begins with a chapter about breakfast, then four about dessert, then lunch and dinner, then kids' desserts, and finally drinks. The chapter heads are often vague. "Everyday Desserts and Candies" and "Desserts for Special Occasions and Holidays" contain various and sundry cakes and other goodies. For those loathe to read the contents or index, preferring to flip to the vaguely remembered page, this makes the book hard to navigate.

Another small complaint: The author makes unfair assumptions about kitchen implements. It's one thing to expect the reader to have a certain size muffin pan, and another to require a food processor and upright mixer. These tools are probably included to make the recipes easier, so this is not to say that the food processor, for example, should be excluded, but an explanation of what a cup of walnuts should look like after being pulsed 10 times would be helpful for those trying to approximate with ye olde knife.

This information might have come in handy with a recipe for "Whole Lemon Muffins," which included, as the title suggests, an entire lemon - peel, pith, and all - and the aforementioned cup of walnuts chopped in a food processor. Not owning one, I chopped both up as fine as I could, guessing at the consistency that might be right for a muffin. It worked out well: The lemon and nut mixture combined with the fluffy batter (three eggs and a fair amount of yogurt), to make light yet cake-like muffins of just the right sweetness. The recipe doesn't specify, but in the next batch I'll use a Eureka or Lisbon lemon rather than a Meyer; the Meyer's sweet flavor, which lends itself so well to drinks, was too subtle for this recipe.

Here's what I love about The Pastry Queen: If you can work around the tool requirements, the recipes are straightforward, the ingredients are simple, and the results delicious. In her forward, Rather inspires the reader to experiment with the recipes, and more than one recipe includes suggestions. That playfulness, combined with the food photos, which are more homey than precious, makes it easier to attempt the more difficult recipes. Rather also includes tips for fixing mistakes, advising, "Almost anything can be saved with whipped cream and powdered sugar."

The Pastry Queen:
Royally good recipes from the Texas hill country's Rather Sweet Bakery & Café

By Rebecca Rather
with Alison Oresman
Ten Speed Press
$29.95, 226 pages
ISBN: 1580085628
So far, my favorite recipe is for "All Sold Out Chicken Pot Pies." The filling reminds me - and I mean this in the best way - of the kind you find in the frozen section of the grocery store: potato, onion, mushrooms, peas, red pepper, and chicken in a creamy sauce. Rather's added a little crushed red pepper and Tabasco, which gives it a nice heat, but otherwise it's classic. The crust, however, is a different creature altogether. We frowned when we saw it contained an abundance of cream cheese, as well as the usual amount of butter, but I'm here to testify: Cream cheese in pastry dough is over-the-top flaky and it tastes good. Although the recipe says it yields six individual pies, we were able to get eight with a little coaxing.

In order to assuage any butter guilt, we paired the pot pies with the Caesar salad from the "Caesar Salad Pizza" recipe (sounds odd, but it's actually quite tasty). The dressing's combination of salty anchovy, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, and lemon juice makes for a zesty flavor that breaks through the heavy cream of the chicken pot pies. Not that one should feel guilty for eating large quantities of butter on occasion. After all, there's more than one sensory pleasure to cooking: Little ramekins of pot pie are delightful to make, lovely to look at, and, yes, heaven to eat.

By Susan Pagani

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