A coy little shortbread recipe has been beckoning to me for a while now, and I finally surrendered to its siren song. It's not just another run o' the mill shortbread, though. How does it differ? Well, it's characterized by a few ingredients that, while common, are each distinctive in their own right. Place them in combination and beautiful things start to happen. I'm talking about elements like exceptionally rich butter, the seeds of a fragrant vanilla bean, enough golden cornmeal to add an intriguing crunch, and the tastiest dried cherries in the world.
When I gave in to the desire to make this shortbread, my first thought was to pair it with something cool and creamy--maybe homemade ice cream, panna cotta, or pudding. But occasionally, while in the midst of baking, it becomes crystal clear that a finished creation can, and perhaps even should, be allowed to stand on its own. This is one such recipe.
Good classic shortbread excels in showcasing a few basic components--butter, sugar, flour. But, used judiciously, additional items carefully chosen can raise a shortbread's profile in the finest way, and that's what we have here, most notably with the cherries. Now, though, let's talk specifically about the butter for a moment. Have you ever used premium butter in shortbread? The kind of butter that's a couple of percentage points higher in fat than regular butter? It's substantially more expensive than its lesser companions, but the difference it makes in a cookie like this is immediately apparent. In part because it contains less moisture than typical butters, it has not only a positive flavor impact but it also affects texture in certain baked goods, too. Fellow bakers, from the flavor standpoint alone shortbread is made for this stuff. Made for it. If you never use this kind of butter for anything else, at least try it once in shortbread.
I used Plugra, a domestically-made "European style" butter that, though obscenely expensive (in my neck of the woods it's over seven dollars a pound), is extravagantly buttery. Peel back the gold paper wrapping on a brick of this stuff and you'll see just what I mean. It feels especially slippery, and it smells . . . well . . . sort of clean and unadulterated. If butter can be lustrous, this is lustrous indeed. It's probably what the best homemade butter tasted like two hundred years ago, back when cows munched freely on untainted grass, and napped peacefully beneath big shady oak trees. So, if you've never tried any of the fancy high-fat butters on the market (and there are several brands to be found these days), you might want to consider saving your pennies and, just once, giving it a go.
About this recipe . . .
The sum and substance of this recipe is from pastry chef Karen DeMasco's gorgeous book, The Craft of Baking. The adaptations I made to it included doubling the recipe; adding in chopped, dried, Michigan cherries (of course from Michigan, where else?); pressing the dough thickly into two tart pans instead of chilling it, rolling it out, and cutting it with a cookie cutter; and, also, I didn't follow DeMasco's advice to stick the hull of the split vanilla bean in with the dough as it mixed (for some reason that concept didn't appeal to me at the time I was making this, though I have nothing against it in principle). And I reworded the instructions somewhat, as usual.
To gild the lily . . . or not . . .
I did follow DeMasco's suggestion to sprinkle the shortbread with demarara sugar (natural brown sugar produced from the "first crystallization" of sugar cane) prior to baking, but in the future I think I might do without a sugar topping altogether, or use coarse white sugar instead. I say this because the addition of the brown sugar flavor was truly unnecessary to this particular cookie.
Though I love the moist heaviness and unadulterated flavor of demarara crystals in general, the sugar was superfluous here. It was gilding the lily. And, as I said before, this shortbread cookie stands perfectly well on its own. So there.
Cornmeal Shortbread Cookies with Sweet Dried Cherries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have ready two ungreased tart pans with removable bottoms, each approximately 9 inches in size.
1 and 3/4 cup All Purpose flour, unbleached
1 cup yellow cornmeal, coarsely or finely ground, as you prefer
1 tsp. kosher salt (I think this makes a difference in this recipe, so do use kosher if you have it.)
1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. of unsalted butter (I used Plugra, a high quality, higher-fat butter; I recommend you try this or something similar, though I have no doubt this shortbread is good even with regular unsalted butter.) 1 cup confectioners' sugar, not sifted 1/2 cup of chopped sweet dried cherries Seeds scraped from 1/2 of a whole vanilla bean 4 Tbsp. demarara, or coarse white, sugar, if you like(I used the demarara, but as noted in the post, I think next time I'd prefer coarse white sugar instead.)
In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and kosher salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle, combine the butter, sugar, and vanilla seeds for just a minute or so on low speed.
While the mixer is still on low, add in the flour mixture in two additions, then toss in the chopped cherries. Again mix just until the ingredients are combined. Don't over-mix or let the dough get too warm. (If the dough does seem warm and extremely soft, put it in the fridge for a few minutes to chill.)
Divide the dough in half and, with your hands, press the dough smoothly and evenly into the tart pans. Using the tines of a dinner fork, divide the dough into slender wedges, like a pie, pressing the tines down to the bottom of the pan.
Set the tart pans on top of a flat baking sheet, and place the sheet on the middle rack of your preheated 350 oven. Check the shortbread after 15 to 20 minutes; if it appears to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Bake until the top is lightly golden, however long that takes, perhaps 10 more minutes.
Let each shortbread cool in its pan for about five minutes, then remove it from the pan and put it on a cutting surface. With a thin sharp knife, slice it while still warm. If you wait until it's cool, it could crack apart when you attempt to slice it.
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You know strawberry season is coming to a rapid close in Michigan when you head to your favorite "u-pick" farm and the berry patch is almost deserted. One morning this week, my friend Cathy and I went to Verellen Orchards, a nice spot about a half-hour's drive from Berkley, the small city where we both live.
It was a sunny, breezy day. As we stepped inside the open-air farm stand to check in, the sweet, humid scent of strawberries saturated the air.
Empty berry baskets in hand, we made our way into the rows of low-growing plants. Aside from one lone woman a short ways away, intently working to fill her basket, we had the patch pretty much to ourselves. The few viable strawberries still in the field were well concealed beneath that distinctive bushy foliage. I picked less than half of one flat, all in all, and most of the fruit I took was very small, blood red, and incredibly juicy. Many of my strawberries were almost past their prime.
Once I got them home and had a chance to give them all a good close look, I realized I'd have to weed out quite a few and discard them. The next morning, feeling that familiar yen to bake and realizing there was no time to waste in making use of my limited haul, I briskly sorted, cleaned, and trimmed the remaining fruit, then spent a few minutes paging through cookbooks looking for a quick recipe to make good use of what I'd salvaged before it all turned into a fragrant bowl of rose-colored mush.
I soon found one that fit the bill. In adapting it from a formula for strawberry walnut bread, in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, I made a number of changes. Chief among them, I left out all of the walnuts. Walnuts and strawberries don't always fraternize successfully, as far as I'm concerned. Flung together in a salad, they have a reasonable shot at getting along, but in baked goods I'm often doubtful about their compatibility.
Also, in terms of adaptations, I used about two-thirds mashed strawberries, along with one-third mashed ripe banana, instead of using strawberries alone. (That languishing banana was starting to resemble a Dalmatian with no get-up and go. I had to put it to work somehow.) You could, though, use all mashed berries and no banana if you like. Bananas are not mandatory.
Oh, and you'll notice the recipe calls for a tiny bit of lemon oil; this, too, is not mandatory, so don't panic. I realize not everyone has this stuff laying around. If you like, add in a little lemon zest, lemon extract, or lemon juice instead. Or, nix that citrus aspect entirely.
I thought my 13-year old son, Nathan, wouldn't detect the pathetically small amount of lemon oil that I used, but I was wrong. As usual. He has no use for baked goods that contain anything citrusy, and he identified the barely perceptible presence of lemon after about two bites of this bread. He remarked to me, with mild adolescent disdain, "Mom, I can always tell when you put lemon in baked stuff. And I can always tell right away whenever you poison your baked goods with zucchini, too." Yeah, okay dude. I get it. But no one said anything about zucchini so just simmer down.
Moving on . . . in addition to the alterations above, I adjusted the amount of salt upward (and I used kosher salt), added in a wee bit of baking powder to give the loaf some extra oomph, and last but not least I made the strategic decision to add in two generous tablespoons of whole ground flax-seed meal. You ever use this stuff? I'm kind of a newbie with it, but so far I like it.
Used judiciously, even a little flax-seed meal adds a rich golden color, ups the nutritional benefits (flax is a mega-supplier of Omega 3, antioxidants, etc.), and lends an interesting dimension to the overall flavor of certain baked goods that white flour simply can't provide. If, though, you couldn't care less about using the ground flax-seed meal (I understand), just leave it out and add in a couple extra tablespoons of white or whole wheat flour. The resulting loaf will just be less golden brown throughout, but I'm sure it'll still be darn tasty.
When all was said and done, I was more than satisfied with this bread, and completely content with the alterations I made. It's a quick bread that's moist but not wet, mildly sweet yet not at all bland, and substantive without being heavy. I topped it off, right before it went into the oven, with a sprinkling of sanding sugar--always a nice touch on this kind of item. This baby can be put together in a flash, and the one loaf that I made finished baking in about 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour, or spray with baking spray, a 9" x 5" loaf pan.
1 and 1/2 cups All-Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
2 Tbsp. whole ground flax-seed meal
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
Scant 1/2 tsp. salt (I used kosher)
A pinch of nutmeg (I used whole nutmeg)
1/4 tsp. lemon oil
2 eggs, large
3/4 cup mashed ripe strawberries
1/2 mashed ripe banana
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I used canola
1 to 2 Tbsp. of sanding sugar (or granulated sugar)
Whisk together the flour, flax-seed meal, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg in a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, mix together the eggs, lemon oil, mashed strawberries and banana, and oil.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, and fold with a spatula only until all the batter is just moistened.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with several pinches of sanding sugar, or granulated sugar. Bake the loaf for about 40 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean. Check the bread about 20 minutes into the baking time. If the bread appears to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil.
Let the baked loaf cool in its pan, on a rack, for 15 minutes. Remove it from the pan and let it finish cooling on the rack,
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Here we are, moving into the tail end of June, and the onslaught of bright, fresh, summer produce is finally upon us. Among other things, this means that we now have access to a multitude of reasonably priced, and adorably cute, apricots.
A sensitive and delicate fruit, so they say, the apricot is a bit of a homebody that, apparently, doesn't cope well with traveling. It's easily bruised and it doesn't care for the jostling, tight quarters, and occasional indignities inherent in a long-distance journey. Perhaps you feel the same way?
Because of this, only about one quarter of the apricots grown in the U.S. actually make their way to retail markets, so the experts say. These are picked just at the beginning of ripeness, when still firm. But what of the remaining 75 percent? Those lucky fellows are allowed to linger on the trees and, as a result, grow remarkably sweeter than their less fortunate counterparts; they end up canned, frozen, dried, and so on. This means that the fresh apricots you lovingly select one by one in your local grocery store may indeed be cute, but it's a roll of the dice as to whether or not you'll find yourself smiling or puckering after you bite into one.
This all just seems to make sense, though, doesn't it? One could make the case that it's analagous to life. Aren't we sweeter when we aren't rushed? Aren't we more appealing when we've had a good supply of uninterrupted leisure in which to sleep, dream, and reflect? Of course we are.
It's not always a baker's tragedy, though, if the apricots to be used in a recipe lean toward the tarter end of the spectrum. Perhaps two thirds of the apricots that I used in these muffins were kind of astringent, while the rest were only mildly sweet. I think, though, that in certain cases a flavorful but tart chunk of fruit balances remarkably well with its more sugary surroundings. These muffins present a perfect example. The cinnamon chips provide a burst of sweetness here and there that equalizes and nicely offsets the surprising tang of any less-than-fully-ripe fruit pieces.
About this recipe . . .
Adapted from a blueberry muffin recipe in Flo Braker's wonderful book, Baking for All Occasions, I made a number of changes in order to produce these. In addition to substituting apricot chunks for blueberries, I swapped out a bit of the white flour in favor of a small portion of whole wheat flour and oats. Instead of using buttermilk, which I love but didn't have on hand, I used half sour cream and half milk, along with a smidgen of lemon juice. I omitted the lemon zest.
And, instead of dipping the warm muffin tops in butter and then plopping them enthusiastically in cinnamon sugar, as Flo indicates should be done, I lightly brushed the tops with melted butter and sprinkled them with just a very small amount of cinnamon sugar. It seemed to me they would have been practically inedible if I'd followed Flo's recommendation to dip them in her "doughnut topping," because melted butter sops up a huge amount of sugar (ever noticed this?).
I was pretty pleased with how these came out. The texture was right on target--really tender with no tough or rubbery aspect whatsoever--and the muffins had fine flavor. The cinnamon chips that I used came from King Arthur Flour, so of course they weren't cheap. But less costly brands of cinnamon chips are pretty common in grocery stores now, too. If you'd prefer to skip the cinnamon chips altogether, certainly do so; you might want to just add in some cinnamon with the dry ingredients--maybe a teaspoon or less--before they're mixed with the liquids. The muffins won't be as sweet without the chips, but they'll still be good, I'm sure of it.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and prepare a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners, or spray liberally with baking spray.
For the batter:
1 and 1/2 cups All-Purpose flour (I used unbleached)
3 Tbsp. whole wheat flour
1/4 cup regular or quick-cooking (not instant) oats
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt (I used a generous 1/2 tsp.)
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk (I used 2 percent)
3 oz. unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled (aka 3/4 of one stick, or 6 Tbsp.)
2 eggs, large
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup of unpeeled fresh apricot pieces, chopped small
2/3 cup mini cinnamon chips
For the topping:
1/4 granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 oz. unsalted butter, melted (1/2 of one stick, or 4 Tbsp.)
In a large mixing bowl, using a whisk, combine the white flour, whole wheat flour, oats, sugar, salt, and baking soda.
In a medium size bowl, using a spoon, blend together the sour cream, milk, melted butter, eggs, lemon juice, and vanilla extract.
Add the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients and stir together until just combined; use care not to overmix. With a spatula, gently fold in the apricot pieces and the cinnamon chips.
Fill the muffin cups about 3/4 full. Bake on the middle rack of your oven for approximately 20 minutes, until light golden brown and the centers spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.
Cool the muffins in the pan for about 10 minutes. Remove them from the pan to a cooling rack. Using a pastry brush, coat the tops with melted butter and a small sprinkling of cinnamon sugar.
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"I found I could say things with color . . . that I couldn't say any other way--things I had no words for." -- Georgia O'Keefe
My three favorite colors are pink, red, and pale green. I would go so far as to say that I crave them. I suspect I may even feel cheerier when wearing one of them. My mood is calmer in a tranquil room that's been painted a cool shade of celery. It's no surprise my kitchen is that very shade, as it has been for several years and I haven't tired of it yet. Place a stem or two of pink flowers in a little jar of water on the kitchen table, and I'll delight in them until they fade away.
Just as we're influenced by the hues we see around us everyday--in our houses, in our cities, and in nature--I assume that the colors we're faced with when we sit down to a meal must impact us in similar ways. I know that I'm a pushover for pretty food. And color accounts for a huge part of the "pretty factor," don't you think?
I do appreciate the sight of pink food--frosted cupcakes, strawberry ice cream, raspberry yogurt. Heck, I can even muster up a yen for cotton candy or Bazooka bubble gum now and again, though it's questionable whether those items qualify as real food. And vibrant red food gets my seal of approval, too; perfect garnet cherries, the blazing sunset stripes of a ripe mango's skin, even ketchup-red tomatoes, still warm from the vine.
Culinarians assert that we "eat with our eyes," and there is plenty of proof to back up that statement. In cake decorating classes, they make a point of teaching the principles of the color wheel since this kind of visual harmony is integral to a well-designed cake. A poorly executed use of color on a cake is immediately apparent, have you noticed? It does its utmost to turn you off. Think of those garish frosted cakes that you stroll past in the grocery store each week. They virtually scream out, "Hey, you! Look at me! Yeah, you! I'm bright and hideous and I clash!"
Color is important when you're baking. Don't think it's not . . .
I had pink on my mind when I decided to make this particular cheesecake. I expected, when I began preparing it, that it was going to be nicely pink throughout. The cheesecake photo in the cookbook was distinctly pinkish, positively blushing, in fact. And my finished batter was charmingly girlish.
But, alas, the oven changed all that. Ultimately, I ended up with kind of an ivory filling overlaid with just the slightest hint of pink, and dotted throughout with bits of rosy strawberry here and there. Not the glorious pink cheesecake of my dreams, but still good. I guess even a smidgen of pink is better than none.
About this recipe . . .
Hailing from the book, Diner: The Best of Casual American Cooking, by Diane Rossen Worthington, this recipe includes both a small amount of fresh, ripe strawberries, along with strawberry jam, to give it its signature flavor. I stuck pretty closely to the original formula for the filling, but instead of using the called-for graham crackers in the crust, I used vanilla wafers. I also omitted lemon zest, because the recipe already includes a significant amount of lemon juice, and I just didn't want to overdo it.
I baked the cake on Saturday afternoon, put it in the fridge as soon as it was completely cool, and served it on Sunday evening. The cake turned out well, but I thought it actually tasted considerably better the day after it was first sliced. Some cheesecakes are just like that; I know this always seems to be true with pound cakes, and I assume it has to do with the incredibly rich ingredients taking a while to sort of mingle, get comfortable, and settle down. The texture seemed much nicer to me after a couple of days in the fridge.
The recipe didn't indicate that you should use a water bath for baking, so I threw caution to the wind and didn't bother with that. Consequently, my cheesecake did crack on top, about an hour after it was out of the oven. I wasn't terribly concerned about this, however, because I'd planned from the get-go to cover the top with a modest layer of whipped cream.
Were I to make this cake again, I probably would choose to employ a few more of the typical cheesecake precautions to help prevent the cracking (for eg., tips like being super careful not to over-beat the batter and incorporate too much air; baking the cake in a foil-wrapped pan that's placed in a water bath; running a knife around the cake sides right before it goes into the oven and shortly after it's out of the oven). Anyway, I'll be more careful next time.
I'd never made a strawberry flavored cheesecake before, but it's a nice variation on plain vanilla or chocolate. Next time, though, I'm makin' it more pink. I think.
(Please note that in the photos below it looks like quite a lot of batter. That's because, when I made it, I doubled the recipe and made two cakes. But the recipe as printed for you below makes just one cake.)
For the filling:
24 oz. cream cheese, softened and at room temperature
1 and 1/4 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1/3 cup All Purpose flour
2 tsp. vanilla extract
fresh juice of one whole lemon, strained
1/2 cup strawberry jam (with any large fruit chunks broken up)
1/2 cup of finely chopped, hulled, ripe strawberries
To make the crust:
In a small bowl, mix together the cookie crumbs and sugar. Add in the melted butter and stir to combine until all the crumbs appear moistened. Press the mixture firmly into the bottom of the prepared pan, and up the sides of the pan about two inches. Set aside.
To make the filling:
Break the softened cream cheese into chunks and place in a large mixer bowl. With the mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese for about 3 minutes, until very soft and creamy.
Add in the sugar and continue to mix on medium speed, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the batter is smooth.
Add in the eggs, preferably one at a time, and beat well after each addition. (Do as I say, not as I did, in the photo below, with too many eggs going in at once!)
Reduce the speed to low, and add in the sour cream, flour, vanilla extract, and lemon juice. Beat just until thoroughly blended. Remove the large bowl from the mixer.
Remove one cup of the batter and place it in a small bowl.
To this small bowl of batter, add the strawberry jam. Stir it in completely.
Add in the 1/2 cup of chopped strawberry pieces, stirring very gently, just until combined.
Pour this mixture back into the large bowl of batter and, stirring by hand, just blend it in.
Pour all of the batter in the pan that's already been lined with the crust. Jiggle the pan gingerly until the top of the batter appears settled and smooth.
Place the cake pan on top of a baking sheet on the middle rack in the oven.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for one hour. Turn off the heat and let the cheesecake rest undisturbed in the oven, with the door closed, for 30 minutes. Place the pan on a cooling rack and let the cake cool completely. (Hopefully, yours won't look like it's been in an earthquake, like mind did below!)
Once the cake is cooled, cover it lightly and refrigerate it, still in the pan, for at least eight hours before slicing. The cake's texture improves after one full day, or even two days, in the fridge. Before attempting to remove the sides of the pan, run a thin knife carefully around the cake's sides. It's easier to slice, and best tasting, if served quite cold. Try it topped with real whipped cream and fresh strawberries.
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Just click on that slice of brie cheesecake with strawberries, above, to get to the Recipe Index!
Jane's Sweets & Baking Journalwas born of my ever increasing desire to learn more about the baking and pastry arts, and of my love for anything and everything related to baking. Just as food is meant to be shared, so is knowledge among bakers and among those who enjoy delicious foods prepared from scratch. So, please partake, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I'd love to hear from you.
If you'd like to know a bit about me please click here, or look for the tiny photo of a pink cupcake topped by a strawberry, further down, in the "About me"section. You can also reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org . . .
. . . Michigan style, with Montmorency cherries. (Yeah, we know pie.)
Learn How to Make Whimsical Tuile Cookies . . .
. . . using your own handmade stencils in any shapes you like! A photo tutorial.
Chocolate Mousse Dream Cake
. . . you won't want to awaken from this dream!
Glazed Black Cocoa Brownies
. . . made with a bit of coconut and a splash of rum!
Fluffy pumpkin muffins . . .
. . . made with coconut and pecans. A wintery treat!
Cream Cheese Blondies with Milk- and Dark-Chocolate Chips, and Honey Roasted Almonds . . .
. . . . they're so lovable.
Need a great Italian bread recipe?
This one has a crust that's fragrant with herbs and garlic . . . it's easy, reliable, and really tasty.
Leave the bagel . . .
. . . take the bialy!
Marble Mint Milano Cake
. . . made with those famous, fabulous cookies! (You know the ones.)
All year long, lazy mornings require . . .
. . . big, warm, blueberry muffins.
Espresso Chocolate Chip Pound Cake . . .
. . . is always in style.
An interesting variation on cherries jubilee . . .
. . . made with Grand Marnier, sweet black cherries, pomegranate juice, and homemade vanilla ice cream.
Dutch apple cake . . .
. . . it's divine!
What We Talk About . . .
. . . When We Talk About Banana Cake!
JANE'S FAVORITE BAKING BOOKS
About Professional Baking: The Essentials, by Gail Sokol. This is a textbook, but not one that's intimidating. It contains lots of useful info, including interesting personal profiles of professional chefs.
All-American Cookie Book, by Nancy Baggett. Another winner of the IACP award. Loads of good looking cookie recipes with lots of very appetizing photos. (Don't you love cookbooks with tons of pictures? I do.)
All-American Dessert Book, by Nancy Baggett. Wonderfully detailed, with very reliable recipes, Baggett does it again in this valuable cookbook. Definitely worth your time!
Art & Soul of Baking, by Cindy Mushet. This large Gourmet Cook Book Club Selection is a feast for the eyes. I love the page layout, the photos, and the author's reassuring tone. Recipes range from the quotidian ("classic sugar cookies") to the ridiculous ("Moroccan-spiced sweet-potato tiropetes") to the absolute sublime ("duo-tone chocolate pots de creme"). Worth acquiring.
Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, by the Culinary Institute of America. This is a heavy duty textbook, not for the faint of heart. Intimidating, sure, but also kind of fascinating if you're an obsessive bake-a-holic like me.
Baking with Julia, written by Dorie Greenspan and based on the PBS series hosted by Julia Child. Yet another hefty and dazzling coffee-table-worthy cookbook. Wonderful to have around. (My copy was autographed by Julia herself!)
Betty Crocker's Picture Cookbook, published in 1950 and available in a facsimile edition, holds a special place in my heart. This is the book my mom primarily used, or so it seemed, when I was a kid. The photos are such period pieces, and the little notations that accompany recipes are pricelessly cute and corny. I have an ancient copy that I still use. Every girl needs a copy of this in her house, for good karma if nothing else.
Bitter Sweet -- Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate, by Alice Medrich. Much more than just a cookbook with a focus on fine dark chocolate, this is also a memoir of sorts from a legendary chocolate-dessert creator. Medrich is often credited with awakening American tastes to the finest aspects of superior chocolate. Very interesting read!
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes,by Jeffrey Hamelman. An indispensable book for anyone who is seriously interested in learning to make fine yeast breads, Hamelman shares far more than just technical knowledge. Like fellow bread guru Peter Reinhart, his warmth of spirit and deep love for the tradition of bread baking shines through on every page.
Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham. Not to be confused with the character of the mom on Happy Days, the real Marion Cunningham has a long list of writing accomplishments, the most well known being that she completely revised The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. A contemporary of the late James Beard's, she is still held in high esteem.
Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Rose is really into the science of baking, which can be helpful in some respects and off-putting in others. Like gardeners who talk mostly about soil components without conveying their joy in the plants themselves. Maybe I'm too sensitive? Probably so, as many consider this to be an invaluable classic. Despite my reservations, I wouldn't part with my copy. One of several highly detailed books by Rose. Her latest book, Heavenly Cakes, is much more down to earth, loaded with photos, and truly beautiful.
Cake Book, by Tish Boyle. I've called it a treasure trove before and please allow me to say it again here. This book is jam packed with wonderful stuff that's well explained. I used the Sacher-torte recipe in the fall of '09 for a culinary school project and it didn't let me down. I can endorse this book without reservation. I love it.
Complete Book of Pastry Sweet & Savory, by Bernard Clayton, Jr. When this book appeared in 1981, famed food editor Craig Claiborne praised it in the NYT as "one of the most important cookbooks of this year, if not of this decade." No photos, but don't let that dissuade you.
Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox. In 2009, some great new cookbooks were published and this was one of them. Down to earth, straightforward without being condescending, this smart guide offers creative and simple twists on dozens of diverse and well-proven "cakes, cookies, and other sweets."
Dessert University, by Roland Mesnier. As the White House executive pastry chef for over two decades, Mesnier has a lot of wisdom to impart. He does so well in this book, which is designed specifically for home bakers. A good book!
Grand Central Baking Book, by Piper Davis and Ellen Jackson. Readers are welcomed into these pages with a tone of warmth and familiarity. The photos alone will have you scribbling a grocery list. Try the berry kuchen recipe--simple and scrumptious.
Hershey's Chocolate Treasury, published in 1984 by Hershey Foods and chock full of old reliables. The recipe for Black Magic cake is one I've used again and again--invaluable!
How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri. The writing style is matter of fact and fairly informal. That's one of my favorite things about Malgieri's books.
Magical Art of Cake Decorating, by Carole Collier. Sometimes at a used book sale you find an old gem like this. Published in '84, I found it very encouraging when I first began decorating cakes. The recipes are rock solid reliable.
Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, by Maida Heatter. Famed baker (apparently her "Palm Beach Brownies" are known far and wide), whose work has centered on wondrous chocolate desserts, Heatter received a James Beard award for this book, one of many she's published over several active decades.
Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, by Martha Stewart. Beautiful photos, but I must admit I've come to have reservations about the reliability of some of the recipes. Is it just me? Though I love flipping through the book for ideas, I'm a bit on the fence with this one when it comes to actual usage.
Martha Stewart's Wedding Cakes by Martha Stewart. Talk about a stunning and inspiring book! Chances are you may never decide to actually make one of the cakes from this glorious volume, but it's enough just to page through the gorgeous pictures and interesting recipes. Expensive? For sure, but worth it.
Passion for Baking, A by Marcy Goldman. If you're curious about how professional bakers manage to make things come out nicely every time, you'll appreciate this book. Goldman, in her highly approachable style, divulges many of their simple--but enormously helpful--tricks and techniques, and shows readers how to implement them throughout the wondrous array of down-to-earth recipes that pack this great book. Loads of enticing photos, too! I love this book!
Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri. Can't say enough about Malgieri's books. Absolutely worth using, versus just reading! The white and dark chocolate cheesecake is to die for; I've made it a few times, along with many other recipes from this book, and it is superb.
Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Everyday, by Peter Reinhart. This book is a revelation for anyone who approaches yeast recipes like a vampire approaches the dawn. Talk about down to earth, encouraging, and flexible! This guy knows how to talk to rookie breadmakers. Well worth reading, and using, this volume will find a comfy place in your cookbook collection--a worthwhile purchase, undoubtedly!
Professional Cake Decorating, by Toba Garrett. I get the impression that this book is perceived as the most thorough and comprehensive text available for serious students of cake decorating. This is the text that we used for my culinary school Beginning Cake Decorarting class (which means I finally own my own copy!).
Sarabeth's Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, by Sarabeth Levine. Almost too pretty to use, but use it anyway! This big book is so appealing, and the photos so remarkably enticing, you'll want to pick it up like a sandwich and bite right into it. Fine recipes for updated classics, well explained, from the famous Manhattan bakery. Worth buying. (You'll love it!)
Secrets of Baking, by Sherry Yard. A must have, bakers! This cookbook's forte is the way it's organized; master recipes are presented with full explanations of how they can be used, and related recipes follow, section by section. An exceptional manual to refer to. Get your own copy!
Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne. Huntsman is the professional pastry chef behind this beautiful book, filled with many tempting recipes, all designed specifically and scaled perfectly for three layers. I've made the Devil's food cake thus far, and it was exceptional--it rose well, was very moist, and had great depth of flavor. I'll be using this book more in the future, without a doubt. Love the photos also!
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. . . to never endorse a product of any kind on Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal that I do not believe in. I've never done so thus far, and I vow never to do so. If I tell you I think something is great, or that I think it is worth spending real money on, then I mean it, rest assured. I promise. And, if I ever talk about a product that I've been given to review or try out, I will disclose that in the post.
I'm a mom with two great sons (both now in college), and a really nice husband. I left a long editorial career in reference publishing a few years ago and I've had nary a regret. I recently finished (after four part-time years!) a Baking & Pastry Arts Certificate program in the Culinary Studies Institute at a local community college. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and I am so glad I did it. These days, I do a lot of freelance editorial work, something that I really enjoy.
"Jane's Sweets" was the name of a very small baking enterprise that I started in late 2007. It bloomed a bit, for a little while, with encouragement from my husband, my aunt, and my first cake decorating teacher, Cindy. Because my Aunt Lydia was my most ardent female supporter in this baking endeavor (she was a lifelong independent business owner herself), this blog is dedicated to her memory. If heaven is real, then I know she's there with my mom, baking up a storm. Like Lydia said one day, just before her 80th birthday, while she and my mom and I were baking in my mom's kitchen, "It's been a fun ride. I'd do it all over again!"
If my house were on fire, I'd grab my family, then I'd grab my KitchenAid mixer.
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