The stakes are simply higher when it comes to baking. A less-than-stellar soup or sauce can be saved at the last minute with an extra pinch of salt or some fresh herbs, but bad baked goods tend to be total disasters—a tough piecrust, a heavy cake, an unrisen yeast dough—and leave you with little to do but dump them into the trash and start again. So when a baking book in which the recipes perform as flawlessly as they do in The Art and Soul of Baking (Andrews McMeel Publishing; 454 pages; $40) comes out, we’re particularly impressed.
Lots of love and effort went into this book from the upscale kitchen store Sur La Table, which is no surprise considering its author is Chez Panisse alum and longtime California baking instructor Cindy Mushet. Her recipes, which strike just the right balance between novelty and simplicity, are each broken down into information-packed sections that are a boon to the home baker: An equipment sidebar tells you everything you’ll need up front; a “getting ahead” section enumerates which steps can be done in advance and mentions what freezes well. Ingredients are listed in traditional cup and tablespoon fashion, as well as in weight measures (for the serious baker); follow-up paragraphs offer recipe variations.
If there’s any weakness here, it’s perhaps too much emphasis on equipment: You don’t truly need a stand mixer for every recipe that calls for it, and when Mushet instructs you, in the blueberry clafoutis recipe, for example, to get out a baking sheet for the sole purpose of holding raw blueberries while you pick through them, she crosses the line into micromanagement. But even this criticism feels like hairsplitting, given such consistently wonderful recipes. A smart one for pumpkin walnut bread can be whipped up quickly using only pantry ingredients. A silky butterscotch pie is a taste of nostalgia that’s not too sweet, and a pizza crust comes together almost effortlessly. It’s the time of year when baking feels right again, and this is just the book to provide inspiration throughout the months ahead.
- Selected recipes: (registration required)
- Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflés with Vanilla Custard Sauce
- Butterscotch Pie
- Graham Cracker Crumb Pie Crust
- Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Pumpkin Walnut Bread