Tag Archives: baking

50 Cakes Project Update


Current life motto. Print by Holly van Who.

Remember when I said I wanted to bake 50 cakes in one year? This ridiculous undertaking is still going on. If you’ve ever thought about putting stock into the butter industry, now’s the time, my friends.

I’m almost halfway to my goal. I’ve tackled my fear of layer cakes (spoiler alert: no one really cares about your uneven layers when they are eating delicious homemade cake), listened to tons of Beyonce, spent an embarrassing amount of time pouring over cookbooks, made my first vegan cake and managed to flambé some cherries without causing myself bodily harm.

Here’s a glance at the first half  of my cake project, along with links to the books where I got the recipes; my favorites are in bold.

  1. Lemon Sour Cream Pound Cake (All Cakes Considered by Melissa Gray)
  2. Brown Sugar Pound Cake (All Cakes Considered)
  3. Cinnamon Almond Coffee Cake (All Cakes Considered)
  4. Pumpkin Spice Latte Cake
  5. Chocolate Pound Cake (All Cakes Considered)
  6. Ginger Apple Torte (Food 52 Cookbook: Volume 2)
  7. Cinnamon Roll Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
  8. Coconut-Buttermilk Poundcake
  9. Honey Nut Snack Cake
  10. Luscious Cream Cheese Pound Cake (Bake Happy by Judith Fertig)
  11. Chocolate Truffle Cake  (Bake Happy)
  12. Vegan Devil’s Food Cake with Coconut-Coffee Frosting (Bake Happy)
  13. Chocolate Whiskey Cake
  14. Blood Orange Upside Down Cake (Honey and Jam: Seasonal Baking from my Kitchen in the Mountains by Hannah Queen)

  15. Chocolate Butter Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting (CakeLove: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch by Warren Brown)
  16. Vanilla Cupcakes (I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris)
  17. Neely’s Cookies N Cream Cake
  18. Devil’s Food Cake with Angel Frosting (Baked Explorations by Matt Lewis)
  19. Yellow Butter Cake with Peanut Butter Crunch Buttercream (CakeLove)
  20. Sunday Night Cake (Baked Explorations)
  21. Brooklyn Blackout Cake
  22. Chocolate Cherry Torte (Baking, From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)
  23. No-Mixer Cake (CakeLove)

What about Make Cake & Drink Cocktails? (Print by Nina J. Charlotte)

Why not try baking a few cakes yourself? Reserve one (or ten) of our delicious cake-baking books now!



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Cookie Time

I like to bake. I’m pretty okay at it. I’m far better at everything tasting the way it should than it being pretty (I’ll never be a cake decorator); it’s a good thing that cookies are pretty forgiving.

I spent last Friday with the oven cranked to 350 and worked on my holiday cookie stash. Chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, those peanut butter guys with the Hershey’s Kiss smooshed in and I got my first lesson in nut roll.

This book is going on my to-buy list. Baker Ellen Jackson has a great collection of cookies we all know and love, with ‘twist’ options for each recipe. I tried the Snickerdoodles, and they are the best I’ve ever made. They didn’t go flat and still have a little bit of chew.

I know a lot of people swear by this one (our Melissa M. included). Betty is often my go-to when I need something reliable.

I haven’t used this one, but it comes recommended by one of the Woods Run patrons.  It’s filled with recipes that have won or earned honorable mentions in the Chicago Tribune’s annual contest. Our patron loved the apricot cookies!

Our family nut roll recipe? It’s from the June 2, 1988 issue of the Post-Gazette. We add a bit of honey and the filling is divided for the three rolls using the technical measurement system of Corelle teacups (the Spring Meadow set that many, like my mother, received for a wedding gift in 1979/1980, if we’re being precise).

— Jess

PS – Is anyone else obsessed with The Great British Baking ShowPaul Hollywood and Mary Berry are my new heroes.


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All Cakes Considered

Eat Cake for Breakfast

Good Advice.

Without the structure of an Official Project™, I’m liable to spend every evening sitting on the couch with my dogs reading comic books and feminist essays. So, I recently decided to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to my enjoyment of cooking and baking and commit to getting really good at it by making lots and lots of cake.

The inspiration? All Cakes Considered, a book by NPR staffer Melissa Gray about how she made a cake each week and brought it in for her co-workers to taste-test and enjoy. The book includes a year’s worth of weekly cake recipes, and all of the baking lessons Gray learned along the way.

I’m not as hardcore as Gray — I’m not going to make arrangements for my co-workers to have a substitute cake brought in when I don’t bake (sorry, guys) — but I have decided to make fifty cakes in one year, and, five cakes in, I’m already learning a lot. For example: bundt cakes can actually be ridiculously delicious, and it is truly worth it to spend the full minute beating the batter between adding each egg.

I love how this book is structured; rather than assuming you know it all already, Gray explains everything in detail, teaching you new skills and techniques as the book goes along.  It starts with simple, easy-to-master recipes like sour cream pound cake and cinnamon-almond coffee cake, and works up to more complicated fare. The book concludes with something equal parts astonishing and formidable, Stephen Pyle’s Heaven and Hell Cake, which Gray deems “The Liberace of Layer Cakes.”

I do really like All Cakes Considered, but I’m not planning on following along with it exactly. Here are a few of other books I plan to consult during the course of my 50 Cakes experiment:



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Recent Adventures in Library Cookbooks (Vol. 1)


Homemade Decadence : irresistibly sweet, salty, gooey, sticky, fluffy, creamy, crunchy treats

  • What I made:  Peanut Butter Cream Pie (pictured)
  • What I want to make: Raspberry Cream Cheese Brownies, Honey Brown Butter Cupcakes, Breakfast Nachos
  • Quick Review: The title of this book is not a lie –  the dishes are over the top in all the best ways. If this pie is any indication, the recipes are easy-to-follow and well-tested. I didn’t love Joy Wilson’s first book, but she more than made up for it with these offerings. I wanted to renew this one and whip up more treats, but sadly the book was due back because another foodie library user requested it. I’ll be revisiting as soon as the wait list goes down!

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Martha New Pies and Tarts: 150 Recipes for old-fashioned and modern favorites

  • What I made: Chocolate Cream Pie with Chocolate Crust (pictured), Classic Pumpkin Pie, Pâte Brisée
  • What I wanted to make: Pretty much everything–it’s a whole book of pies!
  • Quick Review: No matter what you think of her persona (and her egregious perpetuation of the word “tablescape”), you have to admit that Martha Stewart has a lock on good recipes. She rarely lets me down. This book’s recipe for Pâte Brisée, a French pastry crust, was so easy and so delicious it had me considering turning my back on my go-to pie crust recipe. I also loved that this book had recipes for beginners and more advanced pie-makers. This is definitely one you could renew a few times and learn a lot from.

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Pies and tarts : the definitive guide to classic and contemporary favorites from the world’s premier culinary college

  • What I made: Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie (pictured)
  • What I want to make: Raspberry Mascarpone Tart, Flaky Cream Cheese Pie Crust
  • Quick Review: I had this checked out at the same time as the Martha Stewart book, and I definitely thought the Martha Stewart recipes were better. However, if you already have a pretty good sense of pie-making, this book does offer some yummy ideas and flavor combination, but you might have to make some adjustments to the recipes.

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The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

  • What I made: Sweet Peas & Shells Alfredo (pictured), Artichoke Heart-Stuffed Shells with Lemon Béchamel, Brownie Roll-out cookies
  • What I want to make: Broccoli Rabe Panini with Mozzarella,  Whole Lemon Bars, Tomato Scallion Shortcakes with Whipped Goat Cheese (pictured on the cover)
  • Quick Review: If you’re already a fan of the Smitten Kitchen blog, you’ll know and love Deb Pearlman’s unfussy recipes for delicious, fresh food and special, homemade desserts. I loved the clear, understated photography and concise directions.

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Sugar and Spice: Sweets and Treats from Around the World

  • What I made: Lemon Shortbread (pictured)
  • What I want to make: Pistachio and Almond Brittle, Chili and Vanilla Truffles, Mango Moons
  • Quick Review: Pluses:  This book offers a nice variety of sweet treats, from quick-to-make candies to more elaborate baking projects, and I loved that it converted every recipe into both metric and American units. Minuses:  I wasn’t a huge fan of the layout and design, and I wished the amount of information about each of the recipes was consistent – in a cookbook billing itself on showcasing food from around the globe, there was a surprising lack of information about where many of the recipes came from.

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Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People who Totally Love Food

  • What I made: Autumn Crostini (pictured), Grilled Feta Flank Steak with Sriracha Crema, Jalapeno-pineapple pizza with BBQ Bourbon drizzle (yes, seriously), Vanilla-Ginger Mojitos, Greens & Beans Burgers
  • What I want to make: Breakfast Risotto, Blue-Cheese Avocado Dressing, Brussels-Chorizo Nachos, Coffee & Donuts Ice Cream
  • Quick Review: Skip the recipe pictured here, it was a total dud, but everything else was so fantastic and fun it didn’t take me long to decide I wanted a copy of this for my home cookbook library. Bonus: every recipe was developed and photographed in the author’s home right here in Pittsburgh.

Happy cooking!



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C Is for Cookie. That’s Good Enough for Me!



It’s that time of year. No, I don’t mean the time to buy and wrap more presents than you can afford. And also not the time to visit with people you really wouldn’t choose to hang out with, if you in fact actually had a choice. (Or is it??) I mean that it’s time to get in that kitchen and bake some cookies! These treats can be your homemade replacement for the usual capitalistic holiday gifts or just your way of saying a sweet “I love you” to those you’re going to be feeding over the next few weeks.

This week, my department will be holding its second annual Cookie Day. All of my colleagues bring in cookies, set them out on a big table in our office and we invite all of our fellow library staff to partake, at their leisure, throughout the day. It’s our way of saying thank you to those who work with us all year long.  (Feel free to copy our idea for your own group. It’s really rather low cost and low maintenance for the individuals throwing the shindig.)

But of course, in the true spirit of the holidays, I must go overboard. I’m not going to make just the one cookie to bring to Cookie Day. I’m going to be making at least 10 kinds of cookies, bars, and chocolate treats this season. I’ve given the members of my immediate family the option to select two types of baked goods. Plus, there are some cookies that I just HAVE to make for myself. So far, my baking list includes: buckeye bars, pumpkin snickerdoodles (A repeat from the pumpkin birthday extravaganza. Yes, they were THAT good.), at least three kinds of chocolate chip cookies, fudge, peppermint chocolate bark, lemon drops, and my current favorite thing – snickerdoodle blondies. There are a few other cookies nagging me and pulling on my heartstrings that will probably see the light of day as well.

As you can tell from the links above, I find most of my inspiration and recipes online. (Yay, Pinterest!) But as some of you who have read my posts before know, I absolutely ADORE a good cookbook. Here are a few that I found to help with your holiday cookie baking needs:

The Cookiepedia: Mixing, Baking, and Reinventing the Classics by Stacy Adimando

Better Homes and Gardens Very Merry Cookies

Very Vegan Christmas Cookies by Ellen Brown

The Complete Photo Guide to Cookie Decorating by Autumn Carpenter

Crazy about Cookies: 300 Scrumptious Recipes for Every Occasion & Craving by Krystina Castella

The Cookie Jar Cookbook: 65 Recipes for Classic, Chunky & Chewy Cookies

Cookies, Cookies & More Cookies! by Lilach German

The Daily Cookie: 365 Tempting Treats for the Sweetest Year of Your Life by Anna Ginsberg

Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen Cookie Lover’s Cookbook: Gooey, Chewy, Sweet & Luscious Treats

Chocolate Chip Cookies: Dozens of Recipes for Reinterpreted Favorites by Carey Jones & Robyn Lenzi

The Art of the Cookie by Shelly Kaldunski

Cookies at Home with the Culinary Institute of America by Todd Knaster

Gluten-Free Cookies: From Shortbreads to Snickerdoodles, Brownies to Biscotti: 50 Recipes for Cookies You Crave by Luane Kohnke

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich

The Ultimate Shortcut Cookie Book: More than 800 Scrumptious Recipes that Start with Refrigerated Cookie Dough, Cake Mix, Brownie Mix, or Ready-to-Eat Cereal by Camilla V. Saulsbury

One Sweet Cookie: Celebrated Chefs Share Favorite Recipes by Tracey Zabar

So as you can see, we have cookie cookbooks for those willing to spend their entire weekend decorating tiny crisps of sugared dough to the hilt, as well as those who would rather throw some things into a pan and be done with it. Everyone can make something!

Happy Holiday Baking!
-Melissa M.

P.S. This is my favorite cookie cookbook. It’s the one I bought my mother as a Christmas present over 30 years ago and it is the one I did a little happy dance about when I found in a used book store.


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Hitting All the Keyes

I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes. She’s an Irish writer who early in her successful career wrote humorous books about the lives and loves of Dublin-based career women, interested in fashion and popular culture. Keyes was unfortunately pigeon-holed in the fiction category of chick lit, “a genre concentrating on young working women and their emotional lives.” The reviews of her novels often refer to her “quirky characters,” droll dialog, wordplay, and madcap antics, but her books are so, so much more.

Although she has also written eight stand-alone novels–the best of these being This Charming Man–Keyes has a terrific extended series, begun in 1995, about the five Walsh sisters of Dublin. What is especially engaging about Keyes’s books is that there is usually a problem or issue at the core of the story that said “chick” confronts. Despite the serious themes, Keyes’s realistic approach to life is often reflected in downright funny scenes and glib conversations. The empathy this style engenders draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. You not only care about these characters but you feel personally invested in their arriving at a successful outcome, though not necessarily a “happy” ending. The Walsh Sisters series includes:

watermelon  Watermelon. Clair Walsh is abandoned by her husband in the maternity ward as she is giving birth to their first child. So she goes home to her dysfunctional family in Dublin to try to start over.

Rachel’s Holiday. When Rachel Walsh’s family stages an intervention for her serious recreational drug use, Rachel agrees to rachelsholidayenter rehab at the Cloisters, an exclusive treatment center. Rachel finds she is not on a “holiday” at a posh retreat but rather a true rehabilitative respite where she must confront her addictions.

angelsAngels. Maggie Walsh discovers her husband is unfaithful and she’s about to lose a job she loves, so she runs away to Hollywood to visit her best friend…and soon discovers that this may be the place she’s meant to be.

Anybody Out There. Anna Walsh’s PR career in New York unravels when tragedy strikes, and she seeks solace from her family outtherein Dublin while trying to find answers to a devastating loss.

The most recent in this series was published this past April in the U.S. It’s called The Mystery of Mercy Close. More about it in a bit…

As an obsessive-compulsive reader, I keep a calendar each year to track when my favorite author’s new books are expected to be released. Patricia Cornwell is late fall, Harlan Coben is spring, Mary Balogh is late summer, Elin Hilderbrand and Elizabeth Lowell are both early summer, etc.

Keyes wrote The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2010. When her next book didn’t show up in 2011, I thought, check again in six months. When I searched again, there was still nothing. I was vaguely aware that the author’s personal encounters with addiction and depression contributed to the autobiographical nature of some of her plots; Being the good librarian that I am, I Googled Keyes and located her personal website. There I found Marian’s newsletter, where she was painfully recounting her most recent depression and the accompanying writers’ block. It saddened me greatly that she was suffering so when she was responsible for so many funny and profound insights in her clever, poignant stories.

So I continued to check on her from time to time and gratefully watched her begin to show signs of joy in life again. Last summer she published a cookbook, Saved By Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy. In the preface she describes the onset in 2009 of this dark mood while she was publicizing Brightest Star. She writes:

But I didn’t feel depressed; what I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned, like my brain had been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognized and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

Keyes considered suicide, and was beyond the reach of her loved ones. Then the simple act of baking a birthday cake for a friend provided a focus: identify a recipe, gather the ingredients, follow the directions, and voila. The science of baking, the trial and error, the eating and the giving of cake–and cupcakes and cookies–supplied the delicious “magic” she needed to go on. To that, all I can say is, thank heavens!

If you don’t know this part of Keyes’s personal story, you will not fully grasp the depth and realism of the last Walsh sister’s struggle.  Helen, the youngest of Mammie Walsh’s daughters, fights her own demons in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Helen has lost her income and her apartment. Hard economic times in Ireland have impacted her lucrative job as a private investigator. As a dark mood descends on her, Helen is hired by an ex-boyfriend to locate a suddenly missing member of a ’90s Irish boy band, The Laddz, who are just about to stage a big comeback. The systematic process of the search for Wayne Diffney provides Helen with the focus she needs to climb her way back and reclaim her own life.

If you know, or have known, someone in your life who has struggled with mental illness, and you have been frustrated and saddened by what they are going through, and you just want to shake your fist at them and say, “Can’t you just get over it?,” you will have a deeper understanding of why that’s not so simple by reading this story. And you will see how it is hope–whether it’s for solving a mystery, baking a great cake, or finding the reason for just getting on to what is next–can make life worth living. Marian Keyes’s deeply personal story in The Mystery of Mercy Close is moving, funny, and well worth reading. And yes, it is about the emotional life and loves of a career girl, steeped in popular culture. But “chick lit” it is not; it is much more.

Be well, Marian. Your voice is important.



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Happy Birthday To A Cookie Goddess

Chocolate_chip_cookies Ruth Graves Wakefield came into the world on this day in 1903, and twenty-seven years later she accidentally invented the chocolate chip cookie.  Take a moment to let that sink in.  Someone had to invent one of the greatest bakery items in the history of civilization.  When you eat things like chocolate chip cookies you never think of where they first come from, do you?  You can read about this and other food related discoveries in Deborah Kops’ Were Potato Chips Really Invented By An Angry Chef? : And Other Questions About Food.

In addition to making you hungry, you’ll learn that Mrs. Graves Wakefield developed her amazing recipe for chocolate chip cookies while baking at the Toll House Inn.  More proof that truth trumps fiction.  So a date like this gives us a chance to share the titles of three well loved baking cookbooks from CLP’s double-stuffed shelves.

Betty Crocker Baking Basics : Recipes And Tips To Bake With Confidence  / Betty Crocker

Packed with practical advice and dozens of basic recipes for baked good staples,  this spiral bound book is likely a staple in many kitchens (15 checkouts, 6 renewals, and more than a couple of chocolate smudges indicate this little book has seen some kitchen action).

500 Cookies : The Only Cookie Compendium You’ll Ever Need / Philippa Vanstone

Perhaps a trifle frou-frou, but any cookbook that offers 500 recipes for cookies will surely include at least a few that tickle your fancy, and this one will certainly do that (37 checkouts and 17 renewals tells me that this item has received much love from other library borrowers).

The Art And Soul Of Baking / Sur La Table with Cindy Mushet

This thick, glossy hardcover book features hundreds of fantastic recipes, including, you guessed it, a very solid chocolate chip cookie recipe (17 checkouts and 10 renewals between two copies at Main and Downtown).

If I asked folks to share where their favorite chocolate chip cookie recipes came from, I am certain I would get a lot of origin stories that included inheritances from family and friends.  So instead I will ask folks to share the title of a favorite library cookbook that supplied a key dessert recipe–one that they go back to again and again.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for an excuse to eat a cookie today, consider this post to be your hall pass.



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Cookie Time.

A last minute holiday gift suggestion that can’t go wrong: if you’re not sure what to get that finicky person on your gift list, why not bake them some cookies? We have cookie cookbooks for all manner of cookie enthusiast–even those with dietary restrictions. Just a few of the over 400 cookie cookbooks to choose from:

Of course, if cookies aren’t your thing, you can also try making this, or this, or even this.

Happy Holiday Baking!

PS – A bonus link for any ladies who grew up in the 80s.

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Plenty to Celebrate

It seems that a lot of people are mourning the loss of summer right now.  I’ve never been a fan of the excessive heat and humidity, but I can understand the reluctance to let go of activities we traditionally associate with warm weather.  So rather than packing away your gear with a heavy heart, why not find ways of extending your favorite hobbies into the colder months?

For example, even though you may be scrambling to collect the last of your harvest right now, your gardening days don’t have to be over when you run out of zucchini.

Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn by Nancy Ondra

A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons by Philip Harnden.

Speaking of which, those of us who enjoy cooking (and eating!) local, seasonal foods have been looking forward to that harvest.  In addition, dropping temperatures signal the return of baking season.

The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter by Diane Worthington

Autumn: From the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch

The Fearless Baker: Scrumptious Cakes, Pies, Cobblers, Cookies, and Quick Breads That You Can Make to Impress Your Friends and Yourself by Emily Luchetti

And people who love the outdoors know there’s no reason to head inside yet.  Hiking, birdwatching, and many other activities can become fresh again with the change of seasons.  (In fact, depending on your sport, the ability to wear more protective gear and clothing can be a plus!)

Fall Color and Woodland Harvests: a Guide to the More Colorful Fall Leaves and Fruits of the Eastern Forests by C. Ritchie Bell

The Bumper Book of Nature: A User’s Guide to the Outdoors by Stephen Moss

Backyard Bird Secrets for Every Season: Attract a Variety of Nesting, Feeding, and Singing Birds Year-Round by Sally Roth.

So even though summer’s days are numbered, autumn gives us plenty to celebrate.


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Baking power

I am an avid reader of cookbooks.  I am not a good cook.  It is rare that I even turn on my stove.  It is my oven that I think about while sitting at the customer services desk checking material in and out.  There is a stillness and clarity of mind that goes along with the measuring out of flour and the blending of egg and butter. 

I am a fan of simple recipes.  It is important that the majority of ingredients are things you already have in your kitchen.  Here are some of my favorites.

  • Last night I baked Macaroon Angel Cakes (page 267) from the book Best of the Bake-Off Collection: Pillsbury’s Best 1000 RecipesThis is a large textbook-like cookbook.  The Angel Cakes could more accurately be described as coconut angel food cake in cupcake form.  They are delicious.
  • Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is the most useful book I have ever come across.  His recipe for Brownies (page 717) put any store bought brownies to shame.  The recipe is ridiculously simple and totally worth the possible store trip for the unsweetened chocolate.  Make these, trust me.
  • Martha Stewart’s book Cupcakes is filled with simple and inventive crowd-pleasing recipes.  I especially enjoyed the recipe for Snickerdoodle cupcakes.  They call for some sort of fancy frosting that I can’t get involved with (Martha and her piping and fondant sculpting).  I find that any cupcake can be enhanced with a simple cream cheese frosting.
  • In the winter I like to bake bread.  It is not as scary as it may seem to create a good loaf at home.  Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads is a great start.  The first recipe in the book is called “Your First Loaf.”  Your roommates and/or family members will not let you make this just once.

The beautiful thing is that all of these cookbooks may be taken out of your local library for free.  I love the idea that there is a world full of recipes out there that is always available. 


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