Just as the days are getting shorter and cooler and our desire to fire up the oven is kicking into gear, here comes a terrific crop of new baking books.
With entries from Sherry Yard, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Pascal Rigo, Alice Medrich, Wayne Harley Brachman, and Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid -- some of the top pastry chefs and bakers in the country -- this is the best season for baking books we’ve seen in years.
Our three favorites are fairly broad in scope, and all manage to make serious baking more accessible than it has seemed in the past.
In “The Secrets of Baking: Simple Techniques for Sophisticated Desserts” (Houghton Mifflin, $35.95), Yard gives us the lowdown on how to make restaurant-glamorous desserts at home. The Spago pastry chef breaks them down into basic components that we can master (ganache, caramel, pate a choux, laminated doughs), then shows us how to assemble them into impressive creations.
Yard explains, for instance, that the financier, which she calls “the easiest cake in the world,” can be a rich, moist base for a number of sophisticated desserts. She gives a master recipe for the financier, then chocolate, gingerbread, pumpkin, carrot and cornmeal variations. These can be dressed up restaurant-style with fillings such as curd or ganache. Our test kitchen tested the master financier along with the pumpkin variation, which was light, moist, simple to make and delicious on its own, without being dressed up with a filling or sauce. The batter can be made ahead and held in the refrigerator for up to two weeks -- a plus when entertaining.
Indeed, many of the basic components -- from caramel souffle to rose water almond tea cookies -- are designed to be wonderful on their own.
But the last chapter consists of “master combinations” -- creations that are something like what you might see at, say, Spago: chocolate financier with raspberry ganache or a creme brulee apricot tart with lavender-vanilla sauce.
What a treat to be let in on the secrets of one of L.A.'s best pastry chefs. If the recipes themselves don’t persuade you to drop everything and preheat the oven, the stylish photographs by Ron Manville will.
Star-spangled on the cover, “American Desserts” (Clarkson Potter, $27.50) is Wayne Harley Brachman’s third book. Brachman, whom you may know from the Food Network, spent 10 years as pastry chef at Mesa Grill in New York. He offers dozens of American classics -- pies (classic apple, lemon chiffon) and cobblers; cakes and “plenty of frosting” (from devil’s food to carrot cake with cream cheese frosting); puddings and custards; doughnuts and super fudge brownies. Many are updated -- the devil’s food cake uses tomato juice as an acid to encourage rising; gingerbread folk are respectfully called “persons.”
There’s nothing really new here, but it’s such a complete collection of excellent versions of American classics that you’ll want to put it on a handy spot on your shelf. Recipes are clearly written and easy to follow, and one of the two we tested -- pear cobbler with hazelnut biscuits -- was the hands-down staff favorite of all those we tested for this review.
Pascal Rigo’s “The American Boulangerie” (Bay Books, $34.95) is the most focused of the three; it’s subtitled “French Pastries and Breads for the Home Kitchen.” Angelenos may remember Rigo’s bread from the early days of Broadway Deli. According to the book, owner Michel Richard hired Rigo as baker there when it opened; manning the wood-fired oven was Rigo’s first job in the U.S. after he finished his classical apprenticeship in France. His breads were so well-received that he started a wholesale business supplying many of L.A.'s top restaurants.
Rigo grew up just outside of Bordeaux, and his dreamy Boulangerie Bay Bread in San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood (its facade is pictured on the cover of the book) is filled with treats from southwest France such as canneles, chocolatines (which is bordelais for pains au chocolat or chocolate croissants) and the tender almond macaroons you find in Saint-Emilion. Happily, he includes all these in the book. When we tested the macaroons from Saint-Emilion, they were every bit as fabulous as those in Rigo’s bakery.
Not surprisingly, bread leads off the book. Though there are only a few bread recipes -- beginning with pain au levain nature -- they are solid and serious. Les Viennoiseries comes next, with enticing petits palmiers, chaussons aux pommes and brioches, then an appealing chapter full of quiches, tartines and sandwiches. Other chapters cover house specialties such as madeleines and pain d’epices (spice cake); country-style pastries such as flan patissier aux cerises (baked cherry flan) and galette des rois, the cake that’s traditionally served on Twelfth Night, with a charm baked in -- whoever finds it in his or her slice becomes le roi, the king. Finally, gallettes and crepes and children’s pastries.
Altogether, it’s a terrific, definitive collection of the most classic French baked goods, charmingly written, and gorgeously photographed by Paul Moore.