A Book of Standard Israeli Cakes, Meant to Appeal to the Masses

Talented pastry chef Carine Goren can do better than this cookbook, writes Efrat Michaeli.

Sodot Metukim 2
(Sweet Secrets 2), by Carine Goren
Carine Goren and Dialogue (Hebrew),
224 pages, NIS 139

A talented pastry chef decides she wants to bring out a cookbook about baking that will become a wild success. She brainstorms with a photographer, a designer and her husband (who works with her) and they decide: Lets bring out an Israeli cake book. It will contain recipes for common Israeli desserts: basbousa for the Mizrahi Jews, poppy seed cake for the Germans, and of course a chocolate cake (in an updated microwave version).

Chocolate souffle and halva mousse cake cake, from the book
Daniel Lila

The ingredients, they decide, will be Israeli staples: tahina, toffee candies, halva and marshmallows. And the photographs will depict only things that can be found in an average household: cups from the supermarket housewares department, plastic tablecloths and disposable cake pans. That is precisely what Carine Goren does, and it has resonated with readers, perhaps more than the work of any other cookbook writer in recent years.

First, the phenomenal success of Goren and her books deserve a bit of discussion. Why Goren and not someone else? Why do her books sell like hotcakes, or to be more precise, oven-fresh muffins? Why do people say (and I bet we are talking mostly about women): I need to have this book at home?

Sweet Secrets 2 became a best-seller almost from the moment it appeared in stores a few months ago, and has continued to top best-seller lists. Gorens earlier books also spent months at the top of the list. You may say its because she is familiar to readers from her television cooking shows (Sweet Secrets and Guide to Baking), but she was approached to host a show only after her cookbooks became such hits.

It seems that the secret of Gorens success lies in her having cracked the genome of the typical Israeli baker. She is baking standard cakes and suggests we join in. There are cakes here for day-to-day life, afternoon coffee with a neighbor, and the traditional Friday night dinner, cakes that lots of Israelis already bake. Its just a pity her desserts are aimed at the lowest common denominator. As a reader and amateur Israeli baker, I would have preferred better cake recipes (yes, and higher-quality housewares, and photos with more elegant styling).

Goren doesnt look down on us nor does she make our lives unnecessarily complicated. And though she likes something sweet in the evening, she gives us the impression that, like us, she watches her weight. Hence, the book has a section on dietetic cakes, so you can eat your cake and have it too.

Goren, like us, doesnt think its worthwhile to spend a lot of money on Belgian chocolate with 70 percent cocoa solids or to run to specialty stores (although she herself owns one) in search of all kinds of special equipment. And so she bakes on ordinary ceramic oven trays. And she is not above preparing a five-minute cake when her mother-in-law drops by without warning, and asks for something to eat.

Im down to earth

Whats so bad about all this? Why the cynicism? Because I dont completely believe her. I have some doubts that she bakes for her own guests in disposable paper pans and makes use of marshmallows and toffee. These items seem like conscious choices meant to touch the hearts of Israeli women with simple tastes, by using a style that shouts, Im down to earth, meaning she isnt interested in aesthetics or appealing designs. There is no lovely equipment in the background, no flowers or starched linen tablecloths. There are simple magnets, mugs you can find in any housewares store, and checkered tablecloths that look like they emerged from my grandmothers 1970s kibbutz kitchen. The book looks like it was designed to reflect the conspicuous lack of design common to earlier generations of Israeli publishing.

It may be assumed that Goren, the photographer Daniel Lila and designer Einat Meiri are well aware of design trends in cookbooks around the world as well as in Israel, and nonetheless made an informed decision to produce a book that says: Im a down-to-earth Israeli and proud of it. Its true that none of Gorens recipes are made with margarine, nor does she reproduce handwritten pages whose margins are smeared with fat and flour, but the book definitely looks like a direct descendant of the all-Israeli look favored by Benny Saida in his books, which are also best-sellers. Does the sale of a few thousand books make it worthwhile for an author to compromise and write a book that looks like a graft of the 1970s onto the third millennium? To aim for our lowest common denominator?

The books chapters are Homemade Cakes, A Sweetie of a Diet, Weve Got Chocolate! and Whod Like Some Cake? At the end there are Projects for Advanced [Bakers], which distinguishes itself from the rest of the book with its recipes for a cheesecake factory, and even cupcakes, which are all the rage these days internationally. Each recipe has its own sweet secret, some of which are very useful tips, but the way they are presented rubbed me, at least, the wrong way (why are they secret and whats so sweet about them?).

The book makes use of a lot of gimmicks: microwave baking, cookies that sit on coffee cups, Krembo muffins, ice cream dough, cassata ice-cream sandwiches, and so on. Some of them work well and some less so, but they remain gimmicks: They dont constitute winning recipes that will enter the short list of cakes that are baked time and time again and passed on with warm recommendations.

I write all this with a dose of sadness, since a talented and professional pastry chef like Carine Goren can do better. She is capable of writing, baking, producing, photographing and editing a more sophisticated book for Hebrew-speaking Israelis, a work that is both more complete and even more Israeli (in the best sense of the word). Her great talent of introducing Israeli bakers to pastries they may not be so familiar with, like muffins, cupcakes and croissants, could have been expressed with more panache and intelligence. She could have pulled us up, but she chose to bring us down.

The recipes I tried worked well, and some were even delicious. The tahina-based sesame cake is a brilliant idea that is tasty and interesting; the perfect chocolate chip cookies are very good (though not perfect, in my opinion). Quick banana muffins keep Gorens promise to be ready in 25 minutes (including baking time), but their taste was mediocre.

At this point, I gave up. It really didnt appeal to me to take toffee and marshmallows from the childrens candy drawer and bake a cake with them.

A DVD accompanying the book features Goren demonstrating how to cook five of the baked goods. She appears in an apron and makes cutesy comments such as her remark about the dietetic cake: Prepare a salad with self-pity and then eat dessert but the explanations are clear and instructive. The kitchen she cooks in is alienating (it isnt the pine one in the book), but is free of the hidden advertising of product placement, and conveys cleanliness and professionalism.

It seems that the DVD also reflects Carine Gorens success: on the one hand, it is professional and lucid, and on the other it tries to depict a sort of national mom who bakes cakes for us, and we, as the best-seller lists show, return her love. Or, in her own words (about the tahina cake), Nu, should we gobble it up?

Efrat Michaeli is a cook, writer and mother.