If you’re looking for a gifty little book to present to a baker, you’d be hard pressed to find anything more adorable than “The Secret Lives of Baked Goods,” by CakeSpy blogger Jessie Oleson Moore. It’s got historical, whimsical essays on iconic confections, from the New York cheesecake to the Neiman Marcus cookie. Slender and square-formatted, with a celadon case wrap featuring a crumbly slice of red velvet cake, the book is cute enough to eat. The real question is: How does it bake?
These are classic desserts, and recipes that make no claim to being original. Some are renamed for copyright purposes (”Chocolate Creme-Filled Cookies” for Oreos, “Toaster-Style Pastries” for Pop-Tarts), and most are only approximations of the original, famous treats.
The yellow custard portion of a lemon meringue pie tastes great, but never sets, pooling thickly in the crust even when cold and dribbling off when cut. Maybe the cornstarch needs to be simmered longer to thicken, but instructions like “boil and stir for 2 minutes” don’t give you a hint about when the custard’s done.
The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories and Recipes for America’s Favorite Desserts
I’ve always wondered about ANZAC biscuits, which I’ve run across in literary contexts. Now that I know what the acronym stands for (”Australia and New Zealand Army Corps”), they make a lot more sense. They’re basic cookies, dry and coconutty, and the recipe yields 64 instead of 36. Other than that, the most I can say of them is that they’re extremely shelf-stable.
Toaster-style pastries (Pop-Tarts knockoffs, that is) are fashioned from a pretty difficult dough, 3 tablespoons of liquid being totally inadequate to hold the crumb together. It could be that my flour was thirsty (read: old; but I bake too much for that to happen). But it shouldn’t have taken twice as much liquid to make a crust that disintegrated when rolled. I barely managed, using every trick in the book, to get four pastries out of it (the stated yield is 6 to 8). I suppose I should be grateful the author warns you not to try slotting them into the toaster, because I’d have been left with a pile of blackened crumbs.
Coconut cupcakes (billed as a mini-version of the Southern “legacy cake”) get the job done without fanfare. They’re fairly sweet, fairly firm cupcakes, and the confectioners’ sugar frosting is attractive and pipeable. But if you’ve eaten enough real buttercream in your cupcake life, you might not get really excited about these snowy vanilla swirls.
The most successful recipes, as is so often the case with baking volumes, are the simplest. Both, as it happens, are unremarkable. Blondies are completely traditional, their characteristic color and sweetness derived from brown sugar. Family and friends protested at the absence of chocolate chips, but still, they all got eaten.
I made up for the chocolate chips amply with Urban Legend Cookies, the famous Neiman Marcus cookies whose recipe was supposed to have been sold for $250. There’s nothing unusual about the formula, except for maybe the oat flour and some grated milk chocolate. And the story itself is apocryphal. But still, there’s nothing not to love about the cookie.
These are Old School minimalist recipes, in the sense that you ought to know how to cut butter in with two knives, or be able to make a really good crust without a food processor before you even start. The real attraction of “The Secret Lives of Baked Goods” is the stories themselves — were Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines real people? Did carrot cake really arise from a glut of canned carrots? Are whoopie pies really Amish?
It’s the sort of book that’s fun to take to your hammock. Afterward, you might seriously consider leaving it there.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.