Early in her career as a pastry chef, Stella Parks found that not a single diner had ordered her blood orange sorbet. So, she took drastic measures. She melted down the remaining base, added some cream, and reintroduced the dessert as “scarlet Creamsicle.” It was a hit and launched Parks in a new direction: reformulating and perfecting classic American desserts.
In her new cookbook, “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts,” Parks takes on more than 100 recipes for favorite sweets from sugar cookies and Boston cream pie to homemade versions of Oreo cookies and Snickers bars. The author shares both the science and the history behind these familiar treats along with recipes created specifically for home bakers. Parks, who lives in Lexington, Ky., writes the BraveTart column for Serious Eats.
Q. Classic American cooking seems to be getting a bit more respect in the food world. Did that contribute to your interest in these desserts?
A. Aside from my own fondness and nostalgia, honestly it was serving the clientele that was coming to the restaurants I was working in. When it’s your anniversary, you’re not necessarily looking to have a challenging culinary experience. There does seem to be this larger trend now of people returning to these comfort things. When the world is a stressful place, choose your desserts carefully because there’s a lot that might find you unexpectedly out in the world.
Q. People may be surprised at the commercial origins of many classic desserts.
A. A really good example of that would be pineapple upside down cake. Pineapple was grown in Hawaii in the late 1800s and the only way to get it to the States was to ship it green. All the preparations for pineapple would involve mincing it very finely and making marmalade from it. As canning technology became available, people were finally tasting pineapple. It was really exciting. Then the companies that were distributing the pineapple — especially Dole — started pulling from the older traditions. They really just converted it into a process where you put sugar in the skillet and put the canned fruit on top of it. By baking the cake on top of it, the pineapple would get kind of jammy with the brown sugar on the bottom of the skillet while the cake baked. It was this weird viral recipe thing in the early 20th century. I don’t think that’s a recipe people would have necessarily figured out on their own. To me that’s really cool.
Q. Why did you want to create your own versions of products like Oreos or Fig Newtons?
A. As long as these recipes are coming to us from corporations, they’re not really ours. At any moment, the formula can change. Manufacturers of Oreos used to use animal fats in the filling and that changed. People said, I miss the old Oreos and how rich [they were]. The things that we remember can be taken away from us and things can be discontinued outright. I wanted to capture them or put them in a time capsule, so to speak.
Q. How hard is it to figure out these recipes?
A. It’s a lot easier than you might think. They have to print the ingredients list on the box. If flour is the first ingredient, there’s more flour than any other ingredient. Based on that information and what you see in the nutrition label — it might say out of the 50 gram serving there’s 10 grams of fat — from those two things, you can reverse engineer a really close formula that gets you in the right ballpark. That’s where more of the creative interpretation comes in.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. OK, I’ve got this cookie that’s more or less a chocolate shortbread that is sufficiently crunchy to be an Oreo, but the color is wrong. What can I do there? Switching from natural cocoa powder which has a reddish tone to Dutch cocoa powder that has a darker color is a big step forward. I discovered that a little bit of coconut extract actually makes them taste more like Oreos. There’s a chunk that’s resigned to the magic of taste buds and aromatic compounds.
Q. Is there a dessert that embodies for you what American baking is all about?
A. White cake might be a really good example. I can remember being in culinary school and thinking: What the hell is white cake? Then I realized through my research that it’s called a white cake because it’s made with egg whites. By removing the yolks, not only do you get this very beautiful light, white color that is gorgeous to look at, but you also get a stronger flavor of the ingredients. At the time that white cake came out, being able to buy a bleached cake flour to get this extra white color was a very new thing. It was a very sophisticated, chic look. That’s why it became associated with wedding and birthday cake. These are occasions where you want to embody purity and simplicity and sophistication. That seems really American to me.Michael Floreak can be reached at Michael.Floreak@gmail.com.