Our top picks for the best baking books of the past 25 years
The old chestnut—that cooking is an art and baking is a science—is true: There is less tolerance in baking for sloppy measurement or rough technique, not if the end goal is cream and crumb and flake and crunch. You can be content leafing through many cookbooks for inspiration; a baking book, however, has not done its job until a batch of crisp-gooey cookies or a flaky pastry is cooling on the rack. Cooks who fear baking more than other aspects of kitchen craft will find these books helpful. Baking veterans will also find treasures here. We judged not only for focus, clarity, and inspiration, but also for how the recipes worked.
Classic Home Desserts: A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes
By Richard Sax, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994. Hardcover. $35; 648 pages
At his death in 1995 at age 46, Richard Sax was one of the most respected food writers in America, and this book, full of authority, heart, and wit, is his greatest achievement.
"If there's a type of dessert not included in this book," enthuses Dorie Greenspan, "I've never heard of it, or ... it's not a dessert that's made at home." The wonder of this big book is that it is "classic" without being dowdy or dusty; it reads like a new, fresh spin on generations of accumulated wisdom. While big names appear in the pages, the essence of the book is the sense that Sax rifled through the recipe cards of every housewife who ever lived, rewarding us with the fruits of his love and labor.
There are headnotes and sidebars as scrumptious as the recipes. Anecdotal recollections, excerpts from letters and cookery
books of times gone by, and Sax's personal connection with every recipe color every page. Classic Home Desserts is the rare cookbook that is as welcome beside your reading chair as it is in your kitchen.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: History buffs, brainy bakers, and anyone with a deep love of good cookbooks.—Robin Bashinsky
Pie: 300 Tried-and-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie
By Ken Haedrich, The Harvard Common Press, 2004. Paperback. $28; 639 pages
This doorstop of a book delivers recipes with a lot of precision and very little pretense. There are recipes for berry pies, ice-cream pies, nut pies, and custard pies—that's before you get to oddballs like Arborio Rice Pie and Wheaten Breakfast Pie.
The chapter devoted to the mother of American pies, apple, spans Brown Sugar Apple Pie, Apple Pie with Cheddar Cracker Topping, Pennsylvania Dutch Sour Cream-Apple Pie, and The Easiest Apple Pie, which makes "unabashed use of convenience products."
Although Haedrich praises lard for producing the flakiest crust, he is all about variety—there are 21 different pastry and crumb crust recipes. Yet the bottom line is not sheer quantity, but recipe quality.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: Pie bakers who want to expand their horizons, or anyone who thinks they can't bake a good pie.—Mary Goodbody
The Cake Book
By Tish Boyle, John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Hardcover. $40; 376 pages
Tish Boyle has been working with food for more than 20 years, and may be best known as the editor of Chocolatier and Pastry Art and Design magazines (now consolidated and called Dessert Professional). In The Cake Book, Boyle demonstrates her complete and utter mastery of all things cakey, and she gets right down to the business of making exceptionally precise cakes, icings, fillings, and garnishes. Her straightforward, no-nonsense style will appeal to the busy (and serious) baker. And while the cookbook is comprehensive and encouraging, you won't be wading through sentimental accounts of her first baking experience with grandma.
The book's design makes baking easy. Ingredients, equipment, subrecipes, and even a revival of the Chocolatier magazine recipe difficulty scale (measured here in cake slices) help you know at a glance what's in store with every recipe
before you dig in. And recipes work like a dream. We tried Lemon Lust Cake. The result: puckery-sweet perfection.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: The serious cake baker.—Deb Wise
Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets
By Carole Walter, Clarkson Potter, 2003. Hardcover. $35; 416 pages
Carole Walter's Great Cookies journeys far beyond the land of Tollhouse and includes more than 200 recipes with almost as many color photos. The book leaps from a two-page introduction right into chapters organized by cookie types: Drop Cookies, Roll Call (rolled dough cutouts), Around the World, Meringues and Macaroons, and so on. The cook who's had problems with texture or doneness will want to first read 18 crucial pages on technique, part of a section called "The Teacher's Secrets for Sensational Cookies." Here are clear tips for success.
Every recipe begins with an "At a Glance" summary, which includes points on necessary equipment, preparation, oven temperature,
baking time, and a three-cookie scale for degree of difficulty (biscotti are considered easy; among the rare third-degree
cookies are Pecan Tassies, "miniature cookie-like tarlets" of "flaky cream cheese pastry with an addictive brown sugar and
butter filling with lots of pecans"). At the end of recipes, you'll find storage information and notes on the cookies' characteristics,
such as shelf life and sturdiness. And sprinkled throughout, you'll find trivia and personal anecdotes about the recipes that
make it a fun read.
Walter is, at heart, a teacher with a passion for cookies. Her conversational approach never gets in the way of precision.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: Cookie completists, experimenters—and anyone wanting to up his or her baking game.—Mary Simpson Creel
In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion
By Regan Daley, Artisan, 2001. Paperback. $24.95; 692 pages
If you like Alton Brown (science Brown, as opposed to goofball Brown), this is your book. In the Sweet Kitchen contains 368 pages of baking science, principles, ingredients, and techniques (e.g., 500 words on baking powder) before it gets to the 287 pages of recipes. You'll find what you need to know about cowberries and tamarillos, dextrose, suet, and the phenomenon known as chocolate bloom.
This is a dense book, with only a token eight pages of color photos (why bother?). Yet, if you expect a plodding collection of recipes, you'll be surprised. Daley shows her mastery of many classic desserts ("Damn Fine Apple Pie" is just that) before venturing into dishes like Caramelized Parsnip Layer Cake or Nectarine Custard Tart. The tone is one of gentle reassurance, infused with a bit of humor: In a section titled "Mixing, Portioning, Scraping, and Spreading Tools," the first entry is "Hands!"
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: Bakers with an academic bent. Also for patient beginners and intermediate bakers with lofty ambitions.—Vanessa Pruett
Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Café
By Joanne Chang with Christie Matheson, Chronicle Books, 2010. Hardcover. $35; 320 pages
We reviewed several very good books from notable American bakeries for these awards, and this one stood out for the breadth of its recipes and especially their warm appeal for the home cook. Although Flour owner Joanne Chang trained under French pastry chef François Payard, patisserie perfection is not the point here, not in a book of Sticky Sticky Buns (which beat Bobby Flay's creation on Food Network's Throwdown), Homemade Fig Newtons, and Brown Butter-Crispy Rice Treats.
Chang's friendly approach prevails on every page. In her headnote to the Blueberry-Lemon Pie recipe, she gives bakers permission
to cut into the warm pie, even if it runs all over the place. So we gave that recipe a test drive, sliced into it while it
was still warm, and she's absolutely spot on.
The net effect of the airy tone, precise instruction, clean layout, and appealing photos is a great reduction in standard baking anxiety—even when you come to fancier fare like Pedro Ximinez Sherry Parfait with Tea-Soaked Autumn Fruits. Chang also gives a few nods to healthy recipes, with low-fat vegan cake and Heart-Healthy Dried Fruit Scones.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: The homey baker, not the perfectionists. —Tiffany Vickers Davis
King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains
By King Arthur Flour, Countryman Press, 2006. Hardcover. $35; 612 pages
At Cooking Light, we chant the whole-grain mantra, but no serious baker will sacrifice texture or flavor for whole-grain goodness. No, we want it all.
So do the King Arthur folks, which makes this an essential resource for healthy cooks. With this book, you have over 400 recipes that'll up your whole-grain intake.
Chocolate Croissants made with Yeasted Whole-Grain Puff Pastry, anyone? Or Golden Raisin Hearth Bread, a tasty surprise in every bite.
From quick breads to sourdough made with wild yeast starters, these recipes will increase your whole-grain confidence exponentially.
GIVE THIS BOOK TO: All health-minded bakers who love whole grains. —D.W.