With plenty of Texas charm, useful entertaining tips and clear concise recipes, former Houstonian Rebecca Rather’s third cookbook, Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Friends and Family, Texas Style, proves a great read. Each recipe has a little story, explaining the source, mentioning a dear friend, a noted Texan and a special occasion. In Pastry Queen Parties, she has mixed friends and recipes, notable Texans and iconic locations in into one big recipe for success.
But along the way, Rather remains down-to-earth, remembering that a cookbook is first and foremost about cooking. She ensures at-home success by rating the ease or difficulty of each recipe, with the important essentials in color-shaded boxes entitled "Do It Early." The nitty gritty includes how many days ahead the dish should be prepared, how to freeze and reheat, etc.
A home cook-turned-pro, Rather knows what’s important to people who cook and the kind of information they need. Tip boxes dot the pages, explaining what kinds of spoons work when serving Tuna Spoons, how to make skewers out of lemongrass stalks, and how to prepare fresh chile powder for the Chile Crinkle Cookies.
She likes food that looks homemade and touched by hands. Her philosophy is “It is homemade, why hide it?”
Rather is the real deal. She knows how to entertain because she loves to party. She knows how to cook because she helped her mom as a kid, worked as a caterer and did a lot of on-the-job training with Tony Vallone as pastry chef at Tony’s. She learned artisan bread-making from Daniel Leader and big-time bread production working with Schlotzsky’s.
In 1999 she opened Rather Sweet Bakery in Austin, moving it to Fredericksburg in 2001. She was among Saveur's 100 food favorites for 2003 and in 2008 Pastry Queen Christmas, her second cookbook, grabbed the prestigious ICAP award for best cookbook of the year, American category.
There are a few fun facts behind the photos. Wonder why Chapter 2: Gulf Coast Beach Bash has so many lovely food shots but no gathering of friends?
“The beach chapter was set to shoot in Bolivar a week after Ike hit—we had a great house and great people for the beach party," she explains. "When it was changed to Rockport it became a real challenge because I did not know anyone (there), so we could not find people for the party.”
She found the production of the West Texas Dinner Party in Marfa, one of her favorite chapters, to be “logistically challenging.” The San Antonio fiesta chapter was the easiest to produce.
The opening chapter, Hill Country Garden Party, photographed in her very own garden, turned out to be her number one fave.
“I work so hard on the garden and trying to grow all of the herbs and the heirloom tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, onions. It was nice to be able to use the garden for a great party with other chefs. It is really my haven, I love to be working in the garden, cannot wait for spring, and could do a whole book just around the garden and my farm animals,” Rather says.
I like the pictures the best and I cannot wait to bake the Giant Chocolate Cake with Cowboy Coffee Frosting. (Rather claims her favorite recipe might be the Kimmie Cookies but says she “loves them all”). A few of her most novel entertaining tips go unexplained, but if you check out the photos you can pick up some ideas for your next dinner party.
Blowy tablecloths at a beach side party are anchored to a cowboy boot loop at the loop; the boot is weighed down with a filling of shells. Salad for a picnic is packed in canning jars in individual servings. At the picnic, add the dressing and shake. She uses aluminum pie plates as dinner plates for a hearty meal of beer-braised short ribs. Bandanas for napkins, a galvanized bucket as a salad bowl and, most clever and effective, a kitchen grater as an luminary.
From time to time, Rather pops into Houston to promote her book and teach a cooking class or two. Sorry, her Feb. 11 class at Central Market is already waitlisted.
Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Friends and Family, Texas Style by Rebecca Rather with Alison Oresman, (Ten Speed Press, 2009) is available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, amazon.com.