(NYTIMES) - Novice bakers might be hesitant about folding egg whites and proofing yeast, but nothing frightens their floury souls more than the prospect of making pie dough from scratch.
This is one of the things I learnt from cosying up with some of the best baking books of 2017 – with one notable exception: Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s wonderful new book Sweet (Ten Speed Press, US$35 or S$47), which Ottolenghi wrote several months ago.
The authors of this year’s books – a stunningly photographed and ambitious lot – know that for average cooks, advanced baking can be an intimidating trial. Without a guide, exploring beyond muffins or brownies is like taking a test you have not studied for.
But home bakers can move into more sweetly complex territory while they graduate from snickerdoodles to French macarons, from muffins to homemade chocolate croissants. And all of these volumes are up to the task.
These books ease baking anxiety by explaining the whys behind every technique and giving myriad tips for skirting the usual baking mistakes. There are no hidden prerequisites here; the authors spell everything out.
But even though written for novices, the best of these titles are a boon for bakers of any skill level. Because even if someone is not at all intimidated by making a pie crust (or a chocolate croissant for that matter), true pastry geeks know there is always room to learn how make a better one.
This happened to me after following the pie dough recipe in Erin Jeanne McDowell’s wonderful book, The Fearless Baker (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US$30). After reassuring readers that pie making is not so terrifying, she spends more than a dozen pages carefully breaking down the steps in classic pie crust recipe – everything from why the size of a butter cube matters to why you need to chill the ingredients at every step.
There are dozens of simpler recipes in the book as well, including a cinnamon-scented, fudgy, one-bowl flourless cocoa cookie that my daughter and I stirred together in minutes. A gluten-free keeper for sure.
When it comes to pie, in BraveTart (Norton, US$35), Stella Parks, a former pastry chef, takes the notion of flaky dough one step further in her “no-stress” pie crust recipe. In addition to hand-squashing each chunk of butter, she also folds the dough over itself a few times, creating something a lot like rough puff pastry but a lot easier.
It is an excellent recipe, but it is not the main reason you should buy her book. Buy it for her fascinating historical essays that show, over and over, how many of the favourite American dessert recipes (pumpkin pie, white mountain cake and chocolate fudge, to name just a few) were adapted and popularised by corporate food manufacturers pushing products.
Parks’ subversive brilliance is in recreating these sugary classics entirely from scratch, substituting homemade sweetened condensed milk for canned in her tangy Key lime pie and using freeze-dried corn and malted milk powder in her homemade animal crackers to mimic the store-bought versions’ mellow flavour.
The recipes are not quick and they are not easy, but they are delicious, well explained and very thorough.
I cannot write about pie without mentioning Bill Yosses. A former White House pastry chef, Yosses knows the pastry spectrum, from the stately (he was nicknamed Crustmaster by former United States President Barack Obama) to the macabre (his pie shop, Perfect Pie in Queens, supplies the meat pies for the current New York production of the musical, Sweeney Todd). (Disclosure: I wrote a cookbook with Yosses before I became a staff reporter for The New York Times.)
Naturally, pies and the intricacies of their techniques loom large in his newest book, The Sweet Spot (Pam Krauss Books/Avery, US$35). But they are not the focal point of it. The premise of the book is that desserts can taste just as good with less sugar if you add other interesting (and often obscure) ingredients to make up for the lack.
The minutiae of bread-making are at the heart of two books by beloved bakeries: Zingerman’s Bakehouse Cookbook by Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo (Chronicle Books, US$29.95) and The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey and Maya Joseph (W.W. Norton & Co, US$35).
But unlike other, very technical bread books, the tone in these volumes is warm, encouraging, funny – sometimes even striving for poetic – as much as it is educational.
In Lahey and Joseph’s book, the tactile pleasures of bread baking are compared with “a sojourn in a faraway land". No-knead bread dough, a recipe Lahey shared here in 2006, is an ugly duckling, eventually becoming “the soft and feathery heart of a beautiful bread”.
But beyond the purple prose are excellent recipes with exacting instructions. For the crisp-crusted, nicely oily pizza bianca, you will know that the dough has been kneaded enough when it is trying to climb up the mixer paddle. Helpful visual cues like this abound.
Who needs another holiday cookie book? Turns out I most certainly do, and so might you.
Elisabet der Nederlanden’s Holiday Cookies (Ten Speed, US$20) is painstakingly written and rich in detail for even the seemingly simplest cookie.
The pay-off is big because her creative recipes have already started replacing my former tried-and-trues. After all, how can you resist a crunchy-sweet brittle with smoked almonds and cacao nibs, hot chocolate cookies with toasted marshmallows and Aleppo pepper, or tender thumbprints with spicy cardamom plum jam?
All these books guide with a gentle and humorous hand, perfect for those who long to know everything about baking – as well as those who thought they already did.
Crumb Cake with Coconut-Pistachio Topping
Recipe from Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo’s Zingerman’s Bakehouse Cookbook
For the topping
3 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs coconut oil
50g all-purpose flour
60g Muscovado or other dark brown sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground ginger
⅛ tsp ground cloves
30g sweetened flaked coconut
50g coarsely chopped pistachios
For the cake
250g granulated sugar
150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
150g sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
190g all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp fine sea salt
1. Make the topping: In a small skillet, melt together butter and coconut oil. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, salt, cardamom, ginger and cloves. Pour in melted butter mixture and stir with a fork until well mixed and crumbly. (Do not overmix or it will turn to paste.) Use your fingers to mix in coconut and pistachios.
2. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and let dry overnight or in the oven.
3. Make the cake: Heat oven to 160 deg C. Spray a 22cm round cake pan with non-stick spray.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix together sugar and butter on medium speed until the colour lightens. Mix in eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated and homogenous. Mix in sour cream and vanilla until light and creamy.
5. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed butter mixture and mix until smooth.
6. Scrape into prepared cake pan and smooth the top. Distribute evenly topping over cake batter, making sure to put topping along the edge. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean, for about 55 to 65 minutes. Cool to room temperature before serving.
Serves eight to 10
Flourless Cocoa Cookies
Recipe from Erin Jeanne McDowell’s The Fearless Baker
340g confectioners’ sugar
106g unsweetened cocoa powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
¼ tsp fine sea salt
1½ tsp vanilla extract
140g bittersweet chocolate chunks
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
1. Heat the oven to 180 deg C and line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until well blended.
3. In another large bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt. Whisk into eggs, changing to a spatula when the batter becomes too thick to whisk. Stir in vanilla and chocolate.
4. Use a 2-Tbs cookie scoop to scoop cookies onto prepared baking sheets, leaving about 4cm between them. Sprinkle with flaky salt.
5. Bake, rotating front to back, and top to bottom, halfway through, until set around the edges, cracked on top and slightly underbaked in the middle, for 10 to 13 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool completely on the baking sheets. Store carefully in an airtight container.
Makes two dozen cookies
Banana Chocolate Chip Cake
Recipe from Jim Lahey and Maya Joseph’s The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook
84g unsalted butter, at room temperature, more for greasing pan
135g all-purpose flour
1¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp fine sea salt
60ml extra-virgin olive oil
80g granulated sugar
40g dark brown sugar
1 Tbs molasses
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1½ tsp espresso or strong coffee, cooled (optional)
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 cup smashed ripe bananas (about 2 medium bananas)
120g bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Heat oven to 220 deg C. Grease a 20cm round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and fine sea salt.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter, oil, sugar, brown sugar, molasses, allspice, cinnamon, espresso and vanilla until just combined. The secret to this cake’s texture is to stop mixing before the sugar is dissolved.
4. Use a spatula to mix egg into butter mixture, then stir in flour mixture just to combine. Fold in bananas and chocolate chips. Scrape batter into prepared cake pan and bake until top is golden and sides begin to pull away from pan, for about 25 minutes.
5. Let cool for at least 20 minutes (or longer, until completely cooled), then run a thin spatula around the edges to separate from the pan. Invert onto a serving plate. Cake will keep for a day, covered.
Serves eight to 10