Pastry chef Karen DeMasco eschews trendy techniques and ingredients for a more traditional approach to dessert. Formerly part of Tom Colicchio's stable of Craft restaurants and now at New York's Locanda Verde, DeMasco has gained the admiration of chefs and diners who appreciate her straightforward style. And who can blame them -- as exciting as it can be to encounter cinnamon smoke or bacon brittle, who doesn't love a good old-fashioned sugar cookie?
Despite its disavowal of flash, The Craft of Baking (Clarkson Potter, $35) is never boring. In fact, this book is designed to make you think about dessert on new levels while it packs in pleasure at every turn of the page.
To help readers gain facility and expertise, DeMasco takes basic recipes and twists them various ways. Whip up a batch of brioche dough and you can turn it into cinnamon rolls, chocolate brioche, babka, pain perdu, or doughnuts. DeMasco also has a way with teaching technique. Her method of judging caramel (which can be used for butterscotch, tarte tatin, caramel sauce, candy, and more) involves comparing the caramel's color to different dog breeds. The first stage, butterscotch ready, is yellow-gold, like a yellow Lab. You can keep cooking until it reaches golden retriever (good for apple butter) or Irish setter (sauces and candy), or bravely take it to a smoking dark brown, the color of a dark chocolate Lab, which rewards you with the key ingredient for an indulgent caramel ice cream. The system is quirky, but concrete.
DeMasco and co-author Fox also encourage readers to tweak recipes themselves. The "Building Your Craft" sections tell you how to make meringues, custards, cobblers, pound cakes and more, and then throw in a bunch of ideas that you can riff on. DeMasco deftly demystifies truffles -- nothing but heavy cream and chocolate -- and then teaches you how to jazz them up with dried fruit, liqueur, tea, coffee, nuts, and more. It takes but a page to go from novice to Martha Stewart Junior.
But perhaps you are not interested in all this. Maybe you already have great technique, or maybe you just want something delicious for dessert. This book is still well worth your time. For, putting aside everything you could learn, there is so much to be simply enjoyed. Caramel popcorn is always fun, but with the addition of cayenne, this one shakes its booty. A pine nut tart gets a savory lift from rosemary cream. A lemon steamed pudding cooks itself into two layers, one of cake and one of lemon curd, and when turned out looks like sunshine incarnate. In anticipation of summer, I've dog-eared the page with the eye-popping photo of a blackberry pie, the juicy berries mounding up from a dark, buttery graham cracker crust.
One recipe was all it took to make The Craft of Baking my new go-to baking book. DeMasco's "back-to-school" raspberry granola bars were about the easiest home run I've ever hit. They're more like a crumbly jam bar, with a streusel-oat top, a thin layer of fruity jam in the middle, and a dark golden buttery crunch on bottom. These bars contain only humble ingredients, but within an hour they transformed my house with an aroma so achingly homey I'd swear someone had just hung gingham curtains. It was an ordinary evening, but suddenly something sweet and fragrant was baking, and everything seemed perfect. What more could you ask from dessert than that?