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 learned from cozying 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, $35), which Mr. Ottolenghi wrote about several months ago in this section.)
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 haven’t 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 isn’t at all intimidated by making a pie crust (or a chocolate croissant for that matter), true pastry geeks know there’s 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, $30). After reassuring readers that pie making isn’t 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.
My biggest takeaway was to stop using the food processor. Although the machine does bring everything together in a flash and without the possibility that the heat of your hands will melt the butter, it’s also too easy to overprocess, yielding a crust that’s tender but flat as a cracker.
As Ms. McDowell promises, mixing by hand gives you more control, thus a flakier result. And if you have perpetually cold hands, as I do, spending a few minutes squashing butter doesn’t seem to do the cubes any harm.
The crust I made for her intensely flavored bourbon-rosemary peach pie was so airy and crunchy it was almost like puff pastry, something Ms. McDowell also teaches readers how to make. She even includes an innovative variation for chocolate puff pastry, which, following her detailed instructions, I pinched and sugared into adorable chocolate palmiers. With her as my guide, the whole process wasn’t that much more complicated than making pie dough — exactly her point.
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, $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 heck of a lot easier.
It’s an excellent recipe, but it’s not the main reason you should buy her book. Buy it for her fascinating historical essays that show, over and over, how many of our favorite American dessert recipes (pumpkin pie, white mountain cake and chocolate fudge, to name just a few) were adapted and popularized by corporate food manufacturers pushing product.
Ms. Parks’s 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 flavor. The recipes are not quick and they aren’t easy, but they are often delicious, well explained and very thorough.
I can’t write about pie without mentioning Bill Yosses. A former White House pastry chef, Mr. Yosses knows the pastry spectrum, from the stately (he was nicknamed Crustmaster by President Obama) to the macabre (his pie shop, Perfect Pie in Long Island City, Queens, supplies the meat pies for the current New York production of the musical “Sweeney Todd”). (Disclosure: I wrote a cookbook with Mr. 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, $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.
Mr. Yosses’ kabocha persimmon pie, a fluffy riff on pumpkin pie, calls for only three tablespoons of sweetener (maple syrup and honey), relying on the natural sugars of dead-ripe persimmons and roasted, caramelized squash. His Pavlova uses two-thirds less sugar than the standard meringue, with a dash of yogurt powder to give the egg whites bulk and structure. It’s a testament to his skill and ingenuity that he’s able to pull off such low-sugar feats that don’t lack a thing in terms of sweet satisfaction.
Martha Stewart and her team of talented editors also go down a healthful path in their latest dessert book, “A New Way to Bake” (Clarkson Potter, $26). More about incorporating “better-for-you” ingredients such as virgin coconut oil and flax seeds into desserts rather than drastically cutting sugar or fat, these baked goods are all the richer-tasting for the additions. Quinoa flour adds an earthy note to gluten-free pancakes, while a little spelt flour really does make brownies seem more chocolaty. I’ve become addicted to the sweet oat-walnut crisps, which remind me of those British “digestive” biscuits that everyone knows are really cookies. Since I started nibbling them, buttered and sprinkled with sea salt, as an afternoon snack every day, they won’t last much longer.
The minutiae of bread-making are at the heart of two books put forth by beloved bakeries: “Zingerman’s Bakehouse Cookbook” by Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo (Chronicle Books, $29.95) and “The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook” by Jim Lahey and Maya Joseph (W.W. Norton & Company, $35). But unlike some 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 Mr. Lahey and Ms. Joseph’s book, the tactile pleasures of bread baking are compared to “a sojourn in a faraway land.” No-knead bread dough, a recipe Mr. 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’ll know that the dough has been kneaded enough when it is trying to climb up the mixer paddle. Helpful visual cues like this abound.
The book also features recipes for a handful of roasted meats and vegetables, salads and a smattering of cakes and tarts. The unassuming chocolate-chip banana cake, in particular, flavored with molasses and spices, was outstanding — caramel-flavored, aromatic and happily damp.
I fell in love with Zingerman’s Delicatessen when I used to visit my sister in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1990s. Why didn’t New York City have a deli as cool as Zingerman’s, I’d think every time I’d bite into one of their enormous sandwiches with corned beef, chopped liver and Russian dressing. Their bakery, Zingerman’s Bakehouse, supplied all the necessary breads, as well as the stellar walnut and currant rugelach, lemon poppy seed Bundt cakes, and spicy ginger cookies that I bought to nosh on the plane ride home.
The book offers all these classic recipes and an eclectic assortment of others that reflect the wide-ranging interests of the bakers who have passed through the community over the years. There’s chewy dinkelbrot (German spelt bread), “new deli” crumb cake (a delectable Indian-spiced coconut and pistachio version), langos (Hungarian fried potato flatbread) and, yes, plenty of pies, along with a comprehensive pie crust recipe to round out the offerings.
Who needs another holiday cookie book? Turns out I most certainly do, and so might you. Elisabet der Nederlanden’s “Holiday Cookies” (Ten Speed, $20) is painstakingly written and rich in detail for even the seemingly simplest cookie. The payoff 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 of 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.