When you've amassed a large collection of baking books, there's little need for another hardly shocking bakeshop title -- you know, those books printed in mass quantities by bakeries and pastry chefs espousing their favorite devil's food cake and caramel-apple pie. Again. And again. Then you come across one like Baked Explorations that manages to spice things up just beyond your typical weekly baking quota: a whiskey pear tart, pumpkin cheddar muffins, malted milk sandwich cookies, maybe maple cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting (get the recipe here).
This is the second cookbook for authors Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, who own the Brooklyn-based (and more recently, also Charleston) pastry shop, Baked. In the book, they reveal their obsession with classic American desserts, from black and white cookies to sawdust pie, tweaked and updated for a modern pallet. In historic baking terms, that typically means substituting fresh ingredients for processed ones and cutting back on the sugar.
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The recipes are simple enough without being such literal reincarnations of mom's grasshopper pie that you'd rather leave those recipe cards in the box (here, the pie is re-imagined as crème de menthe buttercream sandwiched between a dark chocolate brownie and chocolate ganache). A classic crumb cake recipe gets what is described as a "gargantuan" crumb topping; a white chocolate coconut cream filling is spooned into a toasted almond tart shell and topped with chocolate glaze to make an Almond Joy-inspired dessert.
But the real charm of this book is in the recipe introductions and sidebars, which in lesser baking books can sound like 12-step formal culinary school lectures or worse, all-too-obvious observations. (Cookbook editors: We've mastered the art of softening butter.)
Here, Lewis, who serves as the narrator, offers honest research revelations in a casual tone (say, discovering that sawdust pie was not a Depression-era dessert as he had always thought, but one dreamed up in 1975), as well as personal anecdotes like this one for a blackberry pie: "At the age of twelve, when I consumed one hearty pint, about a week's worth, of blackberries in twenty minutes, I was completely unaware that berries, like all food, had a distinct point of origin." Or in that Almond Joy-inspired tart recipe, where Lewis notes an experimental chocolate crust was abandoned partly for flavor reasons. But mainly, he says, because the crust "felt entirely too contrived" -- a quality this baking book, unlike so many these days, thankfully lacks.