The gossip-obsessed public has led to a lot of celebrity career rollercoasters lately but not many have been as turbulent as that of the Pride of Nutley, NJ, Martha Stewart. She charted a steady rise to superstardom as the queen of domestic styling through shrewd business moves and a killer work ethic, only to be busted for a minor stock dealing and sent to the clink basically in what amounted to a celebrity foxhunt. This caused her stock to plummet and her name be minimized in the media and furnishing mega-brand that she created. Then, on the eve or her release from prison she announced two high-profile new TV shows, aided by mega-producer Mark Burnett. Then, probably thanks to media overexposure, both shows tanked.
That's why it's nice to see the new line of Martha Stewart DVDs culled from her older shows, which seem almost quaint thanks to the monstrous gossip mongering that came later. Martha's Baking Favorites (which only features a postage stamp sized photo of the host on the cover) does a nice job of compiling baking instructions, tips and recipes into an easy-to-navigate multimedia presentation. The main content consists of a section of baking techniques as well a section on cake recipes, one on cookies, and one for pies, tarts and cobblers. Each section has seven individual entries and taken together they offer a really good overview of baking.
The techniques section is particularly interesting, speaking as someone who makes a few different kinds of pie crust, because Martha does a good job of making it look simple (which it is) and demystifying some of the trickier aspects of baking from scratch. While her introductory segment on baking pans is a little hoary (she plugs her own brand of cookware numerous times: "fifteen year warrantee!") but it's a pleasure to hear the former women's prison inmate smirk out the line "you need a good rack."
Her strange put-on blue-blood accent comes and goes at times (although she's more consistent than Kevin Costner) and her demeanor with guest chefs ranges from saucy to impatient, but somehow Martha is a weirdly entrancing host. She's not warm in any way, but she still holds your attention. Maybe it's the curious way her hair changes dramatically in every segment, thanks to the piecemeal way this disc was assembled from years of shows.
She seems to most come alive when showing how to decorate finished cakes, like with bear-tooth and lattice-style crusts. It is nice to see how a polished-looking pie can be constructed with such ease. I'm sure many, many home bakers credit Stewart with introducing them to the tradition.
Her own family story (explored in a couple of lurid biographies) has always been strange, so it's fun to see her mom (or "mother" as Martha coldly calls her to her face) pop up in a segment on baking a lemon meringue cake. Whether or not this was "dad's favorite" (as a few cakes are dubbed over the course of the disc) the interplay between mother and daughter is strange and funny. Martha even gets a little snappy with her pleasant (if somewhat befuddled) mom, adding to the slightly strange vibe of the disc. But certainly as an educational tool mixed with a touch of attitude this disc delivers.
The full-frame video looks fine, just as you'd expect from a program ported directly from a studio TV production. Colors are bright and the image is crisp.
The stereo audio is also fine. Voices are perfectly clear and subtitles are available in French and Spanish.
The most functional extra is a collection of recipes in PDF format available when inserting the disc into a DVD-ROM enabled computer. Unfortunately they are laid out blandly but at least having the information in printable format is a good thing.
The most unexciting extra is a short segment on making a gift basket consisting of pie-making ingredients. This could have been incorporated into the main section.
By far the best, extra, however, is the blooper reel, shocking to find on a disc by the legendarily cautious Stewart. it's structured around a disastrous cheesecake segment featuring pastry chef Susan Sugarman. I don't know if Martha and Susan had been baking funny brownies before shooting this segment, but the whole thing is a giggly mess, with a clock in the corner counting out the hours that it took to shoot. And of course, beneath the laughter Martha seems to be seething with hatred that someone so camera-shy could be wasting her time.
Intercut with the Sugarman footage are various other bloopers, including Martha just about destroying a bookshelf while trying to install a light in it and short clips with Conan O'Brien, Rosie O'Donnell, and Lorraine Bracco, who has her grammar corrected by Martha. I don't know what's wrong with me, but this is one blooper reel than had me rolling with laughter.
Cooking DVDs aren't necessarily the most exciting releases but this one packs in a good number of recipes, a few laughs, and a touch of bad attitude. Martha may be a bit on the outs right now but she's still a force to be reckoned with in the media world of cooking, so it's best to listen to her when she grabs a heavy rolling pin.