The Gift of Baking Books

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in: Book Reviews

Cookbooks make perfect Christmas gifts and publishers know this, so they bring out their best offerings this time of year. Because I am a baker, I most look forward to the baking books, and this is a stellar year. From the very simple to the extremely creative and challenging, here are four new books that are right for the bakers on your list.

Gingerbread

If you love gingerbread, look no further for your favorite holiday treats than “Gingerbread: Timeless Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Desserts, Ice Cream, and Candy” by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn. (Chronicle Books, $19.95)

McGlinn, a pastry chef and former executive editor of Art Culinaire Magazine is a true lover of all things gingerbread. She realized her passion after her grandmother passed on her 1950 edition of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.” She made her first gingerbread cake and was hooked. This is a beautiful hardback book full of color photographs and recipes for everything from gingerbread pancakes for breakfast to a charming gingerbread replica of The Betsy Ross house, complete with brickwork, fireplace and dormer. Lindner starts off with cakes. She covers everything from simple pound cakes, a beautiful spiced pear upside-down cake and the very grand celebration cake covered in praline butter cream. Cookies are next with everything from a crunchy easy-to-make gingersnap to the gingerbread-maple moon pies, treats that will make your house smell like Santa’s workshop. Don’t miss the gingerbread ice cream or the rich and gooey sticky toffee gingerbread pudding.

If there are gingerbread lovers on your Christmas list or you’re looking for new recipes for your own collection, “Gingerbread” is the book for you.

Year-Round Desserts

For the more sophisticated bakers, look for “Unforgettable Desserts: More than 140 Memorable Dessert Recipes for All Year Round” by Dede Wilson (John Wiley, $29.95)

Wilson is the host of the public television cooking show “Seasonings with Dede Wilson,” author of numerous cookbooks and a contributing editor to Bon Appetit magazine.

Wilson begins with a basics chapter featuring building-block recipes such as a simple sugar tart crust, quick puff pastry, dark and moist chocolate cake, and her signature buttercream, all recipes that you will use to create many of the beautiful upscale desserts featured throughout this colorful hardback volume. There is an extensive list of the many types of chocolates and cocoa powders that are used in Wilson’s recipes as well as pages of “do ahead tips” for pies and cakes. The cake chapter clearly is a favorite of Wilson, who has already done two books on wedding cakes. Whether a simple, straightforward chocolate cake with little embellishment or the extravagant Clementine-chocolate-almond torte, her recipes are all approachable and easy to follow. Wilson even includes a vegan strawberry ganache cake using soy ganache. If it’s an elegant dessert you’re looking for, “Unforgettable Desserts” will not disappoint.

Cakes Galore

Lauren Chattman, author of 10 cookbooks and co-author of dozens more brings us “Cake Keeper Cakes: 100 Simple Recipes for Extraordinary Bundt Cakes, Pound Cakes, Snacking Cakes and Other Good-to-the-Last-Crumb Treats.”

(Taunton Press, $17.95)

When Lauren’s husband and children gave her a Mother’s Day gift of an antique cake plate, she placed it on her kitchen counter and vowed never to let it go empty.

This slim paperback book is full of easy-to-follow recipes that take no time at all to mix together using ingredients that most cooks already have in their pantries. Almost all of Chattman’s cakes are mixed together using one bowl and can easily be put together in the time between finishing homework and starting dinner, but are still special enough for last-minute dinner guests.

There is a short but concise primer on proper pan sizes, ingredients, tips on mixing techniques, and ways to tell when your cake is done. There are even tips on how to keep your just-baked cakes fresh.

Chattman begins with snack cakes such as chocolate malted snacking cake — perfect for after-school treats. Her chapter on loaf cakes features more than a dozen simple pound cakes such as the Nutella swirl cake or the grown-up walnut whiskey pound cake with a whiskey glaze, which is potent and delicious. The peanut butter-sour cream bundt cake is a favorite too.

For simple, rustic, easy-to-make cakes, look for Lauren Chattman’s “Cake Keeper Cakes.”

NPR Newcomer

One of my favorite books of the season has to be “All Cakes Considered: A Year’s Worth of Weekly Recipes Tested, Tasted, and Approved by the staff of NPR’s All Things Considered” by Melissa Gray. (Chronicle Books, $24.95)

Melissa Gray, a producer at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” is known as The Cake Lady. Every Monday morning Gray brings a home-made cake to the office to share with her co-workers. She figures that the average American worker spends eight to 10 hours a day with people to whom they’re not related but who are, in a sense, their adopted families. Monday was picked as the day because “that is the day you look forward to least.” Remembering the baking of her mother and grandmother, she found she had only a few cake recipes in her repertoire. Gathering recipes from friends, neighbors, the Internet and even spiral-bound church collections, Gray set a goal of learning to be a better baker.

The project began more than a year ago with a few simple rules: No box mixes, no canned frosting, no margarine, no low-fat sour cream, no fake sugar and, most of all, no repeats.

Starting with a recipe for “The Man Catcher,” a sour cream pound cake that she says no man can resist, Gray explains in hilarious detail how to make this cake from beginning to end. After reading this chapter, you should never have another question about what it means to cream butter and sugar or how and when to add eggs or what, exactly, is meant by “bake 90 minutes.”

Chapter 1 is full of easy cakes that any beginner can master, such as a simple brown sugar pound cake or Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa sour cream coffee cake.

Moving on to bundt cakes, Gray holds your hand while baking dozens of delicious goodies and then dives right into the wonderful chapter on layer cakes. She even includes a chapter on cookies and bars because after baking all those cakes you’ll be ready for a break.

Full of beautiful color photography from Annabelle Breakey and featuring delicious, easy-to-follow recipes and baking tips that will give confidence to even the most timid bakers, “All Cakes Considered” is charming and witty and sure to find a permanent spot in your ever-growing collection.

All of these books will help you to become a better, more confident baker. So whether you are looking for that perfect slice of gingerbread, a quick dessert for your family, or an elegant end to a holiday meal, there is something for every dessert lover on your holiday shopping list.


Photo: Christmas tree cut-out cookies. Credit Emilia Stasiak


Tim Fischer managed The Cook's Library in Los Angeles, named one of the "Top 10 Cookbook Stores in the World" by Saveur. He also has been a judge for the IACP Cookbook Awards for four years.

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