As we gear up for summer, with its backyard holidays and barbecues, kid-friendly vacations and baseball games, it’s helpful to have a cookbook on hand that showcases classic American desserts — a book that gathers recipes for all those homey pies and frosted cakes and cookies like one big, sugar-dusted recipe box. Stella Parks’ “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts,” published last year by Norton, is both a terrific showcase of those quintessential desserts and a case for the American dessert itself.
“BraveTart,” which won this year’s James Beard Award for a cookbook in the Baking and Desserts category, is the debut book from the Lexington, Ky.-based pastry chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a columnist for Serious Eats (J. Kenji López-Alt wrote the foreword; the photography is by Penny De Los Santos). It’s a big, beautiful book with more than 100 recipes for the kinds of desserts that have become emblematic of this country, not only in home kitchens but on grocery aisles. So there are recipes for chocolate cake and ice cream, s’mores and lemon meringue pie, but also homemade versions of brand-name products such as Oreos, Snickers Bars, Wonder Bread and Twinkies, even Girl Scout Cookies and McDonald’s apple turnovers.
The buttercream, so to speak, that binds all this together is history. Parks layers the recipes in her 350-page book with vintage ads and short sections that give context to the desserts, brief histories of the Oreo cookie and the chiffon pie, of animal crackers and white layer cakes. Parks’ writing is as engaging as her recipes; what might seem like stunt recipes in less capable hands are here studies in reverse engineering that are fascinating in and of themselves. So we learn how to make apple powder from dried apples for the McDonald’s-style apple turnover recipe, and homemade condensed milk for soft-serve ice cream. We learn that adding coconut oil to melted chocolate can create a version of the Magic Shell for ice cream, and Assam tea helps create a blissful home version of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
With recipes that work and writing that makes the book a baker’s version of a summertime beach read, “BraveTart” is as classic as its desserts. And it has footnotes!
Cookbook of the week: “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts” by Stella Parks (W.W. Norton & Co., $35)