The best baking cookbooks of 2018 are what all good cookbooks should be: inspirational but not intimidating.
A good cookbook is one in which a handful of recipes excite you. You dog-ear a few pages and slide the book onto your shelf. Maybe you’ll return to it later, and maybe you won’t. (You probably won’t.)
A great cookbook, on the other hand, practically shimmers with possibilities. You begin to dog-ear the pages, but stop halfway through because what’s the point of doing that to an entire book? You go directly to the kitchen and bake.
The three best baking cookbooks published this year land squarely in the latter camp. The recipes and photography are inspirational but not at all intimidating, and while there are new ideas and fun flavor combinations, absent are the 16-page treatises on how to construct a towering croquembouche or make croissants from scratch. Life is hard enough. Baking doesn’t have to be.
Leading the pack is “Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit” (Lorena Jones Books, $25) by Lisa Ludwinski, who worked at the bakeries Milk Bar and Four and Twenty Blackbirds before opening her own in Detroit. She has written a book with 45 adventurous pie recipes, like blueberry plum balsamic, toasted marshmallow butterscotch and malted lime.
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I know my way around a cake pan, but pie crusts often vex me. Following Ludwinski’s detailed though easy-to-follow instructions for making a crust rewarded me with my best pie crust yet. With it, I made Sister Pie’s signature buttery and rich maple pie, sort of a Yankee’s answer to the South’s chess pie. The crust was flaky and tender, even on the bottom.
Pie is the focus, but the book includes many other enticing recipes, like rose-pistachio shortbread, buttered corn scones, peanut butter-smoked paprika cookies and paczki, Polish-style doughnuts.
Another star this season is “Modern Baking: Cakes, Cookies and Everything in Between“ (HarperCollins, $40) by Donna Hay, a popular Australian cookbook author and magazine publisher. The jaw-dropping photography is reason enough to buy this 400-page doorstop, but its 250-plus recipes more than follow through. Hay understands that she’s writing for the busy home cook: Her introduction is mercifully short, and most of her recipes are a half-page or less, so you can get right to it.
One of my favorites is her salted dark chocolate layer cake with milk chocolate ganache. It sounds fancy, but it’s a shockingly simple two-bowl affair that skips combining the wet and dry ingredients first — you just dump everything into a bowl and stir. I was dubious, but it yielded a tender, sophisticated cake that I know I’ll make over and over again.
If there is one sticking point, it’s that some of Hay’s recipes call for ingredients like double cream that are not easy to find in the United States, and she provides no substitutes. Most items can be found online or at specialty markets, and most of the book translates well, but it would be nice to see her books fully adapted for the American home baker.
For the baker looking for a sure thing with every turn of the page, there’s “Food52 Genius Desserts: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Bake,” (Ten Speed, $35), a collection of recipes compiled by Kristen Miglore, the creative director of the website Food52. Each recipe is a game changer using an unusual ingredient or a new technique.
I loved the food writer Charlotte Druckman’s crunchy-salty-sweet cacio e pepe shortbread (really more of a cocktail snack). And sure to grace many holiday cookie plates this year are the dessert doyenne Dorie Greenspan’s famous World Peace Cookies.
But the recipe that really bowled me over was the chef Einat Admony’s easy baklava. Like traditional baklava, they are shatteringly crisp, gooey and sweet in all the right places, but much less work.
Two cookbooks that deserve honorable mentions this year are “All About Cake” by Christina Tosi with Courtney McBroom (Clarkson Potter, $35) and “Rose’s Baking Basics: 100 Essential Recipes, With More Than 600 Step-by-Step Photos” by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35).
Tosi’s latest shows readers how to make Milk Bar’s whimsical cakes at home. In addition to her famous layer cakes and cake truffles, she offers several variations on her Crock-Pot cake and a recipe for a microwave chocolate mug cake that’s surprisingly delicious.
“Rose’s Baking Basics” features classic recipes accompanied by the meticulous details that have become Beranbaum’s trademark. I love the “mise en place” section of her recipes that prompt cooks to do the things I always forget to do, like remove the butter and eggs from the refrigerator 30 minutes in advance so they can come to room temperature. If you’re a nervous new baker looking for guaranteed results or an old hat looking to tidy up your techniques, her book will become a well-used addition in your collection.
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or a ton of experience to get the most out of these books — just a simple desire to get into the kitchen and bake something beautiful and delicious. Bonus points if you get a good Instagram photo out of the deal.
Salted Dark Chocolate Cake With Ganache Frosting
Makes 8 to 10 servings
For the cake:
2 ½ cups self-rising flour, sifted
½ cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 ½ cups sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
7 ounces dark chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt, white or black
For the ganache:
1 cup sour cream
14 ounces milk chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two 8-inch round cake tins with parchment paper. Place the flour, cocoa, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, dark chocolate and vanilla in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. (You may need to use a spatula to start, but use a whisk once the ingredients begin to combine.) Divide the mixture evenly between the tins and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before turning out onto wire racks to cool completely.
2. Make the ganache: Place the sour cream and melted chocolate in a large bowl. Whisk to combine and refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes or until firm. Place one of the cakes on a cake stand or plate. Spread with half the ganache. Top with the remaining cake and ganache. Sprinkle with the salt to serve.
Salted Maple Pie
Makes 8 to 10 servings
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 ¼ sticks), melted and cooled
1 cup dark robust (formerly Grade B) maple syrup
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup fine yellow cornmeal
Heaping ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
¾ cup heavy cream, at room temperature
1 ¼ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large egg, beaten
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
1. On a lightly floured surface and using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out a disc of dough into a circle about ¼-inch thick. Starting at one end, gently roll up the dough onto the rolling pin. Unfurl the dough over a 9-inch pie plate and press it in lightly, making sure it’s lining the plate.
2. Trim so there’s about ½ inch of excess dough hanging over the edge of the pie plate. (If the dough feels warm, refrigerate it for 15 minutes.) Tuck the excess dough under itself so it is flush with the edge of the pie plate; leave the pie like this for a straightedge finish, or crimp as desired. Freeze for at least 15 minutes. Heat your oven to 450 degrees with the rack on the lowest level.
3. Remove the pie crust from the freezer, tear off a square of aluminum foil that is slightly larger than the pie shell, and gently fit it into the frozen crust. Fill the crust with pie weights or dried beans (they should come all the way up to the crimps) and place the pie pan on a baking sheet. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven, and bake for 25 to 27 minutes. Check for doneness by peeling up a piece of foil — the crimps should be light golden brown. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. After six minutes, carefully remove the foil and beans. You are now ready to fill the pie. Reduce your oven to 350 degrees.
4. Make the filling: In a medium bowl, whisk the melted butter and maple syrup. Whisk in the brown sugar, cornmeal and kosher salt.
5. Crack the eggs and yolk into another medium bowl. Add the cream and vanilla, and whisk until combined.
6. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the maple mixture, and whisk just until combined.
7. Place the blind baked shell on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the crimped edge with the beaten egg. Pour the maple filling into the pie shell until it reaches the bottom of the crimps.
8. Transfer the baking sheet with the pie on it to the oven and bake for 45 minutes to one hour, until the edges are puffed and the center jiggles only slightly when shaken. It will continue to set as it cools.
9. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and transfer the pie to a wire rack to cool for four to six hours. Once fully cooled and at room temperature, sprinkle generously with flaky sea salt, slice into eight to 10 pieces, and serve. Store leftover pie, well wrapped in plastic wrap or under a pie dome, at room temperature for up to three days.