In Praise of Gimmickry

Spending a lot of time as I do making (or trying to make) classic pastries, it’s easy to forget about the day-to-day trends that crop up in popular baking. More than that it’s possible to become an outright snob in regard to them, and dismiss the trendy stuff entirely as, well, trendy. But the snob misses out on a lot. And I don’t just mean the pleasure of a deep fried Twinkie. I mean the bigger picture of what’s going on in the world of pop pastry — which matters…for not only is it fun (and often funny in a good way), it can be a great source of inspiration for other work, whatever form it may take.

Case in point a couple of books that came my way from Ulysses Press last week: Mini Pies by Christie Beaver & Morgan Greenseth and Crazy for Cake Pops by Molly Bakes. Both would be easy to dismiss laid out on a table at one of those (rapidly disappearing) mega book stores. However I spent a little time with both of these short books over the weekend and found that beneath the gimmickry — balls of cake crumbs on sticks and pies that fit in muffin tins — there was some innovative thinking at work.

Now mind you, I’ve only eaten one cake pop in my life, it was this past summer in Saugatuck, Michigan. Being made from cake crumbs bound together with a little frosting, I thought the core was pretty dense, sweet stuff, but there was no denying its visual appeal, which was formidable. A decorated one-and-a-half-inch wide chocolate-enrobed ball on a stick. You couldn’t help wanting to pick one up. If the eating experience didn’t quite live up to the promise of the package…oh well, at least it was fun.

And that’s what Crazy for Cake Pops is really all about: having fun. The appeal of the book really isn’t in the “what” of the pops themselves (though there seem to be some decent formulas for different types of cake layers) but in the designs, which are fantastic. From multi-color dips to intricate shapes like teacups, fish, ice cream cones, doughnuts and monkey faces, creative presentation is really what this book is about, and on that level it’s a stunner. All kinds of great ideas in there for people who decorate cakes or petits fours. Of course if you really dig cake pops for their own sake, hey man, knock yourself out! I think I’ll try some for little Jo’s birthday party. They’re her kinda thing for sure.

As for Mini Pies, again the real attraction here isn’t the petit pies, but the crust and filling recipes, which are consistently creative. People who fear pie crust will be encouraged by the down-to-earth tips the authors provide for rolling and shaping, as well as with the breadth of recipes (one of which is savory cheddar cheese — cool!). And no matter what size pie you gravitate toward, the fillings are pretty darned inspired. Blueberry rosewater and raspberry rhubarb whiskey are two I’m going to try (normal-sized, I think), right after the cranberry pear. So again, there’s plenty of utility here, though maybe not in quite the way the authors or publisher intended.

All in all these are two great examples of why it’s important for bakers of all stripes to be voracious book readers: because you never know where that diamond-in-rough idea, the one that’s going to put your next creation over the top, is going to come from. These books are packed full of creative thinking, and they make delightful browsing to boot.

Thanks Ulysses Press! I’ll keep them on my shelf. I’ll also add that you can find great deals on books, foods and a whole lot more right here:

19 thoughts on “In Praise of Gimmickry”

  1. How about some mini-pie ideas? I have a pie crust phobia, so speak very slowly, please. With the holidays barrelling toward us, a few easy appetizer or even dessert ideas would be welcome.

    1. That’s an interesting idea, Charm! I’ll see what I can come up with!

      – Joe

      1. And not really a non sequitur: what, exactly, is mincemeat? Is there ground meat in it? And what is in that jarred stuff in the grocery? Or is it a sweet? I am so confused….

    1. Hehe…sure will, Dave. Pie is back with a vengeance. New pie shops have sprung up all over the country, and it’s about time…because pie is certainly fetish-worthy. Cheers,

      – Joe

    1. Ha! I’d actually never even heard of one until about a month. Don’t worry, Malini, I’m still making cardinal slices.

    1. You’re an extremely talented designer and decorator, Molly. I trust the new career is going well. It was a pleasure to review the book. The photography is excellent. My little daughter can hardly wait for me to try some!

  2. I don’t care for cake pops a lot but I must admit they look cute and appealing. Pies, that’s another story, I’ll be waiting for your ideas on that subject.
    What I do like is reading blogs and magazines for new cooking ideas and lately I’ve come across a couple of recipes that call for cocoa nibs. What are they?


    1. Hey Annette!

      Cocoa nibs are actual pieces of cocoa bean that have been fermented and roasted. As you might expect they’re quite strong, so only true cocoa addicts need keep them in their pantries. You can find them in specialty stores and from online sources. Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. So what exactly is a “mini pie” in the trendy sense? For as long as I can remember small savoury pies (always called “savouries” and containing either meat stew sort of stuff, or quiche-like stuff, or sometimes a seafood in bechamel sort of mixture – see have been standard fare at all sorts of functions, ranging from sports club after match functions to funerals, and various small sweet pies (e.g. Neenish tarts, have been standard baking items in the kitchens of New Zealand housewives for decades. Are we just trendsetters, or is your type of pie something different?

    1. I think for us a “mini-pie” is anything smaller than a standard fruit pie (about nine inches across). Interestingly, other than “pot pies” (top-crusted stews made in crockery bowls) savory pies aren’t very common here in the States. Which is odd considering we’re the descendants of the Brits, who love small, savory pies.

      1. I know. Kiwis who come home from America head to the corner shop or petrol station for a pie first thing – even if they’re not great pie eaters in the first place. I know that a few New Zealanders and Australians have introduced the meat pie to various parts of the US, but as far as I know they haven’t caught on very well. I have friends in SF who can buy New Zealand pies somewhere or other.

  4. OMG…this is so timely! (Joe get outta my brain!!) I am currently obsessed with mini pies/tarts (petit fours too) and am planning on doing mini versions of my sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving. But the possibilities are endless…no stopping me now!

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