In the world of baking cookbooks, the ones written by pastry chefs are glamorous things, filled with the caramel-spangled drama you would expect to see at the end of a 12-course tasting menu. But however ambitious they are on the page, the recipes often fall short in the kitchen, leaving a frustrated cook amid a trail of fallen soufflés.
Baking books by professional food writers tend to be more modest endeavors. Most don’t attempt to get you to the top of a croquembouche, but appeal to you with simpler techniques, practical advice and interesting flavors — a flaky scone here, a splash of pomegranate molasses there. They are more reliable, if less exciting.
This year’s roster of baking books, however, turns these truths upside down.
Two of the best by restaurant pastry chefs are chatty, informative and easy to navigate, and they yield terrific baked goods with nary a tear. Three more by professional food writers eschew the standard formula of “tried and true with a twist” in favor of riskier, more experimental territory. And then one made our list because, though the recipes are German classics, the excellence of the testing and writing makes it well worth using for years to come.
Of the lot, Dorie Greenspan’s latest, “Dorie’s Cookies” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35), combines the best of all baking-book worlds: cutting-edge photography, thrilling recipes and a reassuring and authoritative writing style. This is a lot to expect in any cookbook, but particularly in one centered around cookies. How cutting-edge and thrilling can a cookie be?
In Ms. Greenspan’s hands, extremely.
First, there is the playfully unconventional photography by Davide Luciano. Each picture shows the cookies by themselves on a vividly colored background, without falling back on any of the usual cookbook tropes — a half-drunk glass of milk or a ray of sunlight hitting a vintage teapot in the background.
In Mr. Luciano’s photos, the camera gets up close and personal with the cookies, showing off all their intimate, alluring details: the texture of their crumbs, the sheen of their icing, the melty chocolate chips oozing from the center. It’s a pretty daring approach for a cookie book, and whether it works for you depends on how attached you are to sunlit teapots.
The recipes themselves split the difference between avant-garde and heirloom. There is an entire chapter on savory “cocktail cookies,” in which Ms. Greenspan folds Triscuit cracker bits into cream cheese dough in one recipe, and combines white miso paste and puffed barley in another.
On the more traditional side, she has her so-called World Peace Cookies — cocoa upon chocolate upon chocolate chip — along with some of the chewiest, most deeply flavored ginger molasses cookies I’ve ever made. Her buttery Breton shortbread galettes, browned at the edges and filled with jam, are the ideal version of their kind, while the gently floral Moroccan semolina cookies were light and delicate. With her exacting, thoughtful instructions, Ms. Greenspan anticipates pitfalls and leads you deftly around them.
Just as wonderfully radical in content, though a bit more traditional in form, is Irvin Lin’s “Marbled, Swirled and Layered” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30).
Mr. Lin, a graphic designer in San Francisco who writes the food blog Eat the Love, takes risks in nearly every one of the 150 elaborate recipes in his book. He doesn’t just paint the lily; he bejewels and shellacs it, too. You can almost see his mind buzzing as he adds mesquite powder and teff flour to malt chocolate-chip cookies, and roasts white chocolate until it caramelizes to make extra-gooey blondies with strawberry-balsamic jam (photo on cover). At times the recipes sound over the top (Rosemary Caramel and Dark Chocolate-Potato Chip Tart, for one), but in the end they were artfully balanced.
It’s an amusing read, too, with Mr. Lin’s far-ranging musings, which bounce from how personal one’s preference for the cocoa percentage in chocolate can be to his fashion choices of the 1980s (“Oh, acid washed, how you played me”). Even if you never bake a thing, his book will make you laugh.
In “Better Baking: Wholesome Ingredients, Delicious Desserts” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Genevieve Ko, a food writer and recipe developer, also pushes the envelope of the familiar, but does so in the name of healthfulness rather than pure exploration.
Ms. Ko adds rye flour and olive oil to snowball cookies, whips up truly fudgy gluten-free brownies out of canned adzuki beans, and even goes so far as so make her own Cocoa Puff-like cereal. But in addition to creating relatively healthful desserts, she can also be highly sophisticated in her approach, using goat cheese and spelt flour in rugelach, and tinting rainbow cookie bars with subtly shaded matcha powder instead of the usual neon hues.
Of the handful of recipes I tested, my favorite was one of the simplest: thin whole-wheat crackers with pecans and raisins. Although I devoured them with blue cheese, they were almost sweet enough for dessert, especially if wholesomeness was your goal.
There is nothing particularly healthful about Luisa Weiss’s “Classic German Baking” (Ten Speed Press, $35), and this is all to the good. German baking is no place for virgin coconut oil and flax seeds.
Instead, Ms. Weiss, who grew up in Germany and lives in Berlin, revels in marzipan, dark chocolate and plenty of high-fat European butter. The recipes are not at all experimental, but are instead impeccably tested and annotated classics. There are yeasted, poppy-seed-studded coffee cakes; rustic apple cakes; meringue and cream-filled tortes; and a generous amount of highly spiced Christmas cookies.
Ms. Weiss, a former cookbook editor known for her blog, The Wednesday Chef, has a writing style that is warm and nurturing. She holds your hand during the rather intimidating Viennese Sacher torte, reassuring you through the three pages and 12 steps that it will all be wonderful in the end. Mine wasn’t as pretty as the photo (my fault for being impatient with the glaze), but it tasted terrific, which is what matters most.
As for baking books by restaurant chefs, my favorites this year were both inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine.
The Honey & Co. cafe in London isn’t known in the United States, but after the publication of its cookbook “Golden” (Little, Brown, $30), this should change. Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer offer modern recipes that reflect the perfumed and spiced flavors of their Israeli heritage, mixed with favorites from British teatime and French patisseries. You’ll find excellent apricot and elderflower jam, chickpea flour shortbread and yeasted morning buns filled with strawberry, pistachio paste and a rose-water syrup.
The recipes in “Soframiz” by Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick (Ten Speed Press, $35), from Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge, Mass., cover similar ground, but do so with an American sensibility. Their moist and tender carrot cake, which has a sesame-caramel-cream-cheese frosting flecked with halvah, has spoiled me for every other carrot cake in the universe.
Much quicker to make but no less appealing are the tahini shortbread cookies, coated in sesame seeds for a gentle crunch. The recipe will say they keep for five days. Impossible to stop eating, mine made it through two. Which gives me a perfect reason to make them again.
Recipes: Pistachio, Rose and Strawberry Buns | Sacher Torte | Moroccan Semolina and Almond Cookies | Golden Raisin and Pecan Thins | Tahini Shortbread Cookies | Blondies With a Strawberry-Balsamic Swirl