When I first started reviewing cookbooks here, there was a vague thought in the back of my mind that there might be something in it, other than just enjoyment, for me. Something like “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if publishers began to send me free books?”. I wasn’t really holding my breath for this, so when I got an email from a HarperCollins rep at the end of June, asking me if I’d like to review The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, my reaction was something along the lines of “Score!“. I agreed straight away and waited eagerly for this, my first free book, to arrive.
Unfortunately, since then The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook has been weighing on my mind, rather than my kitchen counter. I’ve been putting off writing this review for months because, to be honest, I’ve barely touched this book. Every now and then I pick it up and give it a halfhearted flip-through, but mainly it stays in the bookshelf, propping up some novels and attempting to make me feel bad about myself.
Firstly, some background. The Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant is a family-run restaurant dedicated to making delicious food out of local, seasonal ingredients. Embodying the spirit of the Big Sur area of California’s coastline, the place has been a local success story, attracting locals and tourists for nearly a decade. The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook is the first cookbook by the restaurant’s owners, Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gibson, and aims to not only share the food they prepare in the kitchen, but the story of the restaurant and Big Sur itself.
The book is presented as a “year in the life” of the restaurant, and is organized into chapters by month. Beginning with March (I’m not exactly sure why) and working through to February, it includes recipes for breads, soups, pizzas, meats, fish, salads and desserts. As might be expected from a bakery on the west coast, there’s a strong emphasis on baking and seafood.
The design of the book is attractive, if nothing really special. There are certainly many lovely photographs, and I like the illustrations on the chapter intro pages, but it’s far from the clean, modern style that I prefer. I also found there to be rather a lot of “stuff” clogging up The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook. In keeping with the goal of it being a story as well as a cookbook, its pages are peppered with histories on the area, treatises about growing food, anecdotes of various holidays and all manner of profiles on vendors and employees. Though this might be of interest to some people (particularly if you’ve actually been to the bakery, and enjoyed it), I could have done without it. I don’t really care how cute Jim the Pasture Farmer is, thank you, I’d rather have more recipes.
Unfortunately, the recipes are another problem here, at least for me. Don’t get me wrong- I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve tried- but The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook contains rather a lot of meat recipes for this vegetarian. And I do mean a lot; out of the 80 recipes in the book, just over half are vegetarian-friendly. That may sound like a good ratio, but for a non meat-eater it’s a bit lean, especially if the other recipes aren’t exactly your cup of tea.
I don’t want to be completely unfair here; some dishes look and sound wonderful. Meyer Lemon Bars (pg. 22) look delicious, and Spring Risotto (pg. 60) is right up my alley. I’ve made and enjoyed the Butternut Squash Soup (pg. 164), and had my eye on the Native American Succotash (pg. 98) for a while. The omnivores among you might like the sound of Pork Belly Pizza with Barbecue Sauce (pg. 78) or Salmon Trout Wrapped in Prosciutto (pg. 186).
When all’s said and done, The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook just isn’t earning its spot on my bookshelf. In an effort to cull my cookbook collection before it takes over the flat, I’ll likely give this away to a friend or local charity shop. (Incidentally, Dana, a fellow food-bloggin’ vegetarian, also found this book too meaty and had a giveaway for her copy.)
Because of this, I’ve battled over what rating to give here. To me, The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook is a two-star book; some good recipes (not nearly enough), but a lack of draw and interest. To you, particularly if you’re a meat-eater, it might be a 3- or even a 4-star book. In the end though, I’m going with my first instinct. (Hopefully it won’t be the first instinct of publishers, after reading this, to never send me another book!)