This wasn't the greatest year for "keeper" cookbooks. Are you really going to whip up fussy 6-hour chicken wings on Monday game nights and weekend beef stew that takes so long to make you could drive to the French Laundry and back before it's ready? Well, maybe.
It turns out 2009 was a stellar year for baking and pastry books. Among our favorites are the latest volumes from baking stalwarts James Peterson and Peter Reinhart, an entertaining-essential from Tom Colicchio's former pastry chef, and the surprise gem of them all: an Amish baking book that offers so much more than shoofly pie. Get our must-have favorites after the jump.
Best of 2009 for All-Purpose Bakers: The Amish Cook's Baking Book
By Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams, Hardcover, $30
"Baking can be a lot of fun, especially when you aren't rushing and pressed for time," says Amish baker and author Lovina Eicher. Obvious enough. But it's not until you start flipping -- slowly -- through the pages filled with rough-hewn biscuits, homey "sawdust" pie (coconut-pecan thickened with graham crackers) and asymmetrical thimble cookies (thumbprint cookies indented with a thimble) that you realize how fantastically simple this book is. Yet the recipes are hardly boring. "Thick milk" pie is made from sour milk (raw milk on the edge of turning to yogurt, so it has a tangy crème fraiche-like flavor; you can substitute buttermilk) and a generous cup of honey for a depth of flavor. In between the recipes are peeks into an Amish home baker's life: why wooden tools are favored, when lard cakes are traditionally made, how to efficiently and inexpensively bake for eight hungry kids.
Most recipes use pantry ingredients or everyday leftovers, like the "crybaby" cookies that promise to be your new favorite way to use up the leftover coffee in your cup -- you get the sense Eicher would be disappointed if you brewed a fresh pot just to make them. That home-style approach makes the recipes kid-friendly by nature, the kind of baking kids will wake up looking forward to over their winter break (eager comments from Eichers' kids about their favorite cookie and pie variations are scattered amidst the recipes). It makes otherwise engaging books like this year's Baking Kids Love by Cindy Mushet seem overly instructional, like you're stuck in a classroom when everyone else is in the Amish kitchen having fun.
But the reason this book is our Best-Of-The-Best pick is for what it doesn't do. While other baking books this year like Baking Unplugged promise to simplify our lives by providing lists of how to make baking easy, they end up feeling more complicated (the kneading tips sidebar is two pages long). In The Amish Cook's Baking Book, there are no copious instructions. In fact, there are often no instructions at all. The soft pretzel recipe (check back later for the recipe) doesn't offer a single tip for shaping the dough into a pretzel shape -- the photo provides all the information you need. The absence of all the usual recipe clutter enticed us to make the pretzel on a whim over the weekend: these took 30 minutes from start to finish. There isn't even a rising time given (most soft pretzel doughs are left to rise for an hour). But when your panic subsides, you realize by the time you carefully brush the dough with beaten eggs and sprinkle each with salt, they've risen just enough. The pretzels come out of the oven gloriously misshapen, barely golden and without that bagel-like crust: these are not boiled prior to baking. But they're warm, doughy, satisfying and exactly what we were craving on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Best of 2009 for the Aspiring Pastry Chef: Baking
By James Peterson, Hardcover, $40
If you have any of James Peterson's past books such as Cooking, you know any project the multiple James Beard winner embarks upon is going to be thorough. This 375-page over-sized tome is no exception. The step-by-steps for making napoleons includes fourteen photos, and the recipe for making the homemade puff pastry you'll need to start is equally photo-generous. The step-by-steps make it an addictive Sunday morning coffee read, but be advised the pithiviers (almond cream-filled puff pastry galette) recipe is not for those who still consider the brownie the penultimate weekend baking project (not to knock a good old brownie binge -- we all need one every once in a while). Baking is for serious pastry fiends who are perhaps wavering between keeping their eclairs close to home or fulfilling their inner need to make hundreds of croissants at 5 a.m. by enrolling in pastry school. Note that Baking is much more approachable for the home cook than Wayne Gisslen's fifth edition Professional Baking book, also out this year. But should you truly want the pastry school experience without the $25,000 tuition, Gisslen's $65, 6-pounder published in conjunction with Le Cordon Bleu is the school's must-have textbook.
Best of 2009 for the Fancy Plated Dessert-Obsessed: The Craft Of Baking
By Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox, Hardcover, $35
This category was a toss-up between former Craft New York pastry chef Karen DeMasco's The Craft of Baking and New Orleans born-and-bred David Guas' pastry book DamGoodSweet, named after his Washington D.C. bakery. How do you choose between the raspberry-pistachio brown butter cakes at Craft and quintessential New Orleans desserts like the "half-n-half" doberge cake (a round vanilla layer cake, one half filled with lemon curd and topped with lemon buttercream, the other half filled with chocolate pudding and topped with chocolate ganache). For us, it was the chocolate chip "cake" in DamGoodSweet that sealed the deal. There is no need to recreate the giant Mrs. Field's cookie "cake" of childhood roller-skating parties. Ever.
DeMasco's book is filled with impress-the-guests endings: caramelized banana tarte tatin, almond fig semifreddo and a half dozen brittles (cashew, honeycomb, cacao nib, pink peppercorn and pumpkin seed). The variations she offers as sidebars to most recipes are specific enough to actually use -- she doesn't just say to substitute apricot compote for the figs in that semifreddo, she provides the recipe, too. Pretty much every unique pastry combination you didn't dream up is here, although we do still want to try that DamGoodSweet Roman chewing candy (New Orleans' version of taffy).
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Best of 2009 for the Bread Fanatic: Artisan Breads Every Day
By Peter Reinhart, Hardcover, $30
The book jacket touts that Peter Reinhart's latest book is filled with "new time-saving techniques" -- a pitch that feels almost like an insult to this bread-baking guru. Yes, the latest of his bread endeavors emphasizes overnight whole wheat hearth bread (made with 100% whole grain flour, no easy task) and properly boiled-and-baked soft pretzels (unlike the Amish pretzel recipe, but we're fond of the easier version). But this book is still Reinhart through and through. It's perfectly suited for those who are secretly more concerned about their sticky bun butter-to-flour ratio than the whether they remembered to iron the tablecloth for Sunday brunch (oops). Plus it's a manageable size, so you could feasibly pop it in your backpack for a road trip. Baguettes on the run.