The baking season has arrived, and so has a new reason to heat the oven: an inviting cookbook called “Baking in America” by Greg Patent (Houghton Mifflin, 2002, $35).
Its recipes are the sort that inspire nostalgia. Their titles are homey and comforting in their simplicity: chewy butterscotch loaf, lemon-honey drop cookies, buttermilk bread ...
You’ll find American favorites in other cookbooks, but “Baking in America” offers recipes closer to their origins. It’s fun for an avid baker who’s made Boston cream pies or spongecakes many times before to try vintage versions (with the benefit of adaptations for the modern kitchen). And it’s just as fun to read about how they came to be our favorites today.
Patent sifted through two centuries’ worth of American cookbooks, journals and other recipe collections. He traced the classics, searched for forgotten gems and listened to the wisdom of bakers past. He then returned to his own kitchen and emerged with a collection of recipes spanning a nation’s lifetime and the stories behind them.
“Baking in America” begins with savory breads, but not long into the second chapter, it turns its attention to sweet goods and never looks back. All along the 12 chapters -- through layer cakes, cream puffs, cheesecakes and pies -- the book offers heaps of reassuring advice as well as glimpses of the past both relevant and amusing.
Making the sour cream lemon pound cake? (If not, you should be -- it’s exceptional.) Listen to Mrs. Crowen pontificate in 1850 about the benefit of beating the butter and sugar to a light cream. And should you think that a Boston cream pie isn’t worthy of its name without a chocolate glaze, thank Betty Crocker (or at least the folks behind the fictitious cooking maven) for adding that now-ubiquitous touch in 1950, nearly a century after the classic cake’s inception.
An American touch
The book’s recipes include culinary firsts (America’s earliest cookbook recipe for a chocolate cake, for example), Pillsbury Bake-Off winners and regional favorites with a distinctively American touch. But just as notable are Patent’s own creations. They are proof that the “American tradition of improvisation,” as the author calls it, is alive and well.
And thank goodness. For although it is interesting to try a gingerbread recipe from 1851 (a bit drier and more cake-like than what we’re used to, which is perhaps why Patent suggests serving it with a dollop of cream), our modern tastes are grateful for the innovation of bakers and the arrival of other ingredients into our pantries. Take Patent’s sophisticated ginger cupcakes: Three forms of the well-loved spice -- fresh, powdered and crystallized -- join forces in a moist, tender-crumbed cake, which is then crowned with a luxurious white chocolate ganache.
A onetime zoology professor and a lifelong baker, Patent gives us recipes with meticulous instructions. And at the outset, he devotes several pages to ingredients and equipment, enlightening the novice but also teaching the more experienced a thing or two.
“Baking in America” makes a fine effort to ensure that the line of bakers continues. Long live an American tradition indeed.