Over the years, my mother has taken a lot of criticism from me, both in my writing and private conversations, over her cooking—or lack thereof. She wasn’t much for family meals cooked from scratch. “But I always loved baking,” she reminded me recently.
And it’s true. Not only does she like to bake, she’s very good at it. Baking, of course, is mostly about attention to detail, weighing and measuring with precision, and being willing to faithfully follow instructions. My mom, a teacher, really excels in these departments.
As a kid, I never wondered where the treats or their recipes came from. I just knew I loved her repertoire of cookies and cakes, especially her chocolate cake. A sweet, densely cocoa-y two layer number whose soft crumb and dark-chocolate edge paired perfectly with someone’s birthday and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was my very favorite and I requested it often. For years, it had no identity beyond my mother’s chocolate cake. MORE
The first morning of a recent business trip to British Columbia, I walked into a bakery for coffee and walked out with coffee and a fascinating treat called a Nanaimo bar. I took a bite. I was a goner. Along with the butter tart, the Nanaimo (pronounced Nuh-NIME-oh) bar is one of the great Canadian sweets, a 3-layer chocolate-and-vanilla cream confection that puts the drab brownie to shame. The genius of the bar lies in its contrasting flavors and textures. A nubby cocoa crust is iced with cool, smooth vanilla cream which is in turn capped with a thin layer of melted chocolate. The recipe first appeared in a 1952 hospital auxiliary cookbook under the name “chocolate square” and while no one is sure who invented it, or where, the town of Nanaimo takes the credit. I spent the next four days of my trip sampling Nanaimo bars everywhere I went, which was easy because they are ubiquitous, the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. For the record, if you’re ever in Victoria, Bond Bond’s bakery made the best Nanaimo bar I tasted, although the Nanaimo bar at a Vancouver Starbucks was pretty terrific. MORE
Why are there no classic grapefruit desserts? We love orange souffle, Key lime pie, and lemon bars (and cookies, cake, tart, curd, pudding, ice cream), but the only grapefruit dessert that springs to mind is grapefruit sorbet. Which doesn’t count. Sorbet is extremely cold juice, and however delicious, it is not really dessert.
Is the dearth of grapefruit desserts because people associate the fruit with misery and dieting, not pleasure and indulgence? Or is there something in the nature of a grapefruit that doesn’t lend itself to dessert?
I decided to try grapefruit in different dessert formats. Here with the results:
Cookies. By substituting grapefruit (zest and juice) for lemon in a basic Martha Stewart recipe, I ended up with a tasty cookie that made peoples’ mouths tingle and tasted like Fresca. In a good way! But while all the cookies were eaten, no one begged me to bake them again. MORE
Every December I decide to make an English steamed pudding, and every December I don’t make an English steamed pudding. Why not? Plum pudding sounds like the most magical Yuletide dessert, rosy and succulent and full of plums. Then I pull out a cookbook, read the ingredients, and remember why I’ve never made one. Plum pudding is not rosy and succulent and plummy; is is black, alcoholic, and raisiny. This would be ok with me, but no one else in my family would touch such a dessert. Figgy pudding, packed with dried fruit and rum, would be every bit as unpopular. So how could I ever have a steamed English pudding for the holidays? MORE
The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook by Christina Tosi is the most frustrating and ridiculous book I have ever tried to bake from. It is also one of the most brilliant. I pulled it off the shelf for the first time 10 days ago to attempt Tosi’s famous crack pie, which is supposedly so sugary that people start trembling after a few bites and so delicious that they keep right on eating. (The pie, a souped-up version of the classic Southern chess pie, retails for $44 at the Milk Bar bakery in New York City.)
I soon discovered that a key ingredient–freeze-dried corn–had to be mail-ordered. As I waited for that to arrive (I’m waiting still), I also discovered that once you’ve opened this book, it is hard to close. Milk Bar isn’t just another pretty collection of cobbler and cookie recipes. Tosi’s garishly colored confections range from the unusual to the demented, and they marry premium ingredients, like Plugra butter, to American junk food, like Cap’n Crunch. This is the only baking book on the planet that will show you how to make a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow cookie and a Saltine panna cotta. MORE
The way some people love antique furniture, I love antique pie recipes. Vintage American cookbooks are full of with mysterious, alluring recipes that hardly anyone bakes anymore — Marlborough pie, Osgood pie, syrup pie, brown-sugar pie, boiled cider pie — and they fascinate me. What does a Kentucky transparent pie taste like? Is it actually transparent? Why did people stop making Tyler pies? Are we missing out on something? Or do recipes go extinct for a reason?
About fifteen years ago I baked a chess pie, a vintage dessert still popular in the South, and I have baked one for Thanksgiving ever since. It is my favorite pie in the world, filled with a blond, jelly-like custard. What other lovely vintage pies would I discover if I started searching? This year, I decided to try to find a great old American pie to resurrect for the Thanksgiving table. I mined my old cookbooks for intriguing recipes, ruling out any that sounded remotely familiar. No chocolate pies, no lemon pies, no apple pies. As I told my daughter Isabel, “The pies have to be antique.” MORE
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about ladies in southeastern Alabama who bake fantastic multi-layer cakes to give away every December. A transfixing photograph illustrated the piece, a portrait of a grandmotherly Southerner and her so-called “little layer cake,” a towering confection of 14 yellow discs sandwiched with what appeared to be solid, glossy fudge.
As a native Californian, I find recipes from elderly Southern women far more mysterious and alluring than recipes from, say, Alice Waters. The cake went onto the list of things I want to bake someday, a list I consult every few days as I do not want to die before I make Sussex pond pudding, apple stack cake, or syllabub. MORE