5 Cookbooks for Adventurous Weekend Baking Projects

5 Cookbooks for Adventurous Weekend Baking Projects

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Carrie Havranek
Apr 9, 2015
(Image credit: John O'Keefe)

I'm a devoted baker, and I love whipping up quick desserts during the week. I've been known to fly into action the second my husband cries out, "We need 20cc's of cookies, stat!"

But sometimes, you really want to go deep and challenge yourself. These kinds of baking recipes require ample time and patience — and fewer distractions! — so you can really get elbow-deep in flour and make a good delicious mess of things. And that's where these five favorite baking cookbooks come in.

(Image credit: John O'Keefe)

These pro pastry chefs show you how to break things down into stages and create beautiful baked masterpieces. Whip out your apron and fire up your KitchenAid! Clear out your schedule and grab one of these books, because it's going to be a long, sweet weekend.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Sugar Rush: Master Tips, Techniques, and Recipes for Sweet Baking by Johnny Iuzzini

Dorie Greenspan, the doyenne of baking, says she wishes she had this book when she was learning to bake 40 years ago — a fact that made me sit up a little straighter in my chair. She wrote the foreword to this cookbook by Johnny Iuzzini, who's worked for Daniel Boulud and at Jean-Georges. Iuzzini — whose heritage is half-French, half-Italian — covers every kind of sweet thing imaginable, starting with ice cream (his gateway childhood treat), dashing through tarts, cakes, pies, and then arriving at yeasted doughs like brioche and doughnuts. The book culminates in composed, restaurant-quality desserts. The recipes tagged as "mother recipes," such as vanilla cream sauce (crème anglaise), are a good place to start, as they become necessary components of other recipes.

The recipes are indulgent and beautifully photographed, often extensively so, and embrace savory elements such as sesame in a chocolate cake and Earl Grey in crème caramel. Oh, yeah, and there's an entire chapter on caramel, including both the spreadable sort as well as something called Smack Caramel Corn. And yes, you might ask: Does the world need another chocolate chip cookie? The answer is yes, yes it does. It's a litmus test for a pastry chef. His Killer Chocolate Chip Cookies incorporate ingredients such as cake flour and a touch of cinnamon, and techniques such as cutting in the butter, cold, with the sugar before creaming it.

The recipes aren't especially difficult, but the results are addictive and once you start you'll likely want to hurtle headlong into it. And there goes your weekend.

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Bouchon Bakery by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel

Culled from Thomas Keller's successful small chain, Bouchon Bakery teaches you how to master the macaron, tackle legit puff pastry, and make croissants, complete with the time-consuming but mostly hands-off process of laminating the dough to achieve all those flaky, ethereal layers. Detailed instructions are abundant, along with accompanying photos. The bread section, with its brioche, boules, baguettes and batards, guides you through the process of creating starters and offers a timetable for the care and feeding of these things, so you're prepped for a Saturday bake.

If you happen to grab this book on a weekday and simply can't wait for the weekend, Keller happily provides opportunities with recipes like Pecan Sandies for Mom, a recipe inspired by Keller's childhood. There are also some requisite luxe recipes with this book, like his Chocolate Chunk and Chip Cookies. With these, Keller ups the ante by varying the chocolate type (chunks melt, chips don't) and incorporating more chocolate than you might normally reach for — a little over a cup for a yield of just six bakery-sized cookies. Overall, it's a thorough and not totally intimidating course in French cafe baking — a stellar Keller offering.

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Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi

Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar is a seductive entrée into the kind of nostalgic, inventive baking that catapulted Tosi's career. The James Beard Award-winning Tosi is the brains behind the inspired use of leftover cereal milk as a rightful ingredient in ice cream and panna cotta, and in this book, she offers us even more tantalizing treats. You know you're in for a trip when you have to tackle fundamental recipes for wacky sounding things such as Milk Crumbs and Liquid Cheesecake before you can make the Carrot Layer Cake. And you need to assemble the graham crust before you can put together Compost Cookies.

Elsewhere, Tosi will school you on glucose verses corn syrup and extol the merits of McCormick's clear vanilla extract. Just go with it. Happily, not all these recipes are huge undertakings, though they do require some planning. You won't rightly care, as you'll be eager to make Crack Pie, Compost Cookies, and Cereal Milk part of your repertoire. And your friends and family will be eager for you to share, repeatedly. Can't get enough Tosi? Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories comes out soon. It's a more personal, homey look at what she and her friends eat off the clock, after hours.

(Image credit: Sarah E Crowder)

The Secret Recipes: Unforgettable Desserts from the World's Most Celebrated Bakery by Dominique Ansel

Baking cookbooks are often almost dizzyingly encyclopedic in their approach to the pastry arts, but sometimes less is more. Dominique Ansel offers a carefully curated list of 30 treats in his first cookbook. He's the former pastry chef for Daniel in New York City and the brains behind the lines-around-the-block Cronut — that crazy mash-up of croissant and doughnut. Yes, that recipe is in here, and it's a three-day affair. Follow his formulas for other sleights of hand, such as his Magic Soufflé and a most gorgeous-looking Sweet Potato Mont Blanc.

Narrative is king these days in cookbooks. The first half of Ansel's book is comprised of revealing essays that liken soufflés to divas, encourage bakers to block out naysayers, and to "stop thinking of dessert as just an object and start seeing it as a living thing. And then, try to really believe it." With its spray of flour tossed between hands, the cover suggests the ephemeral and whimsical lure of baking and the idea of throwing caution — and flour — to the wind. Ansel wants you to take risks, in the kitchen and in life.

Perhaps anticipating reader intimidation, Ansel's broken the book up by skill level. Many recipes require two to three days for proper execution. Anxious? Start with the beginner recipes on a Friday night, such as the Gooey Chocolate Pecan Cookie, and bake them off Saturday morning. Or make your own Marshmallow Chicks, which promise a two-hour process from start to finish. If there's one problem with this book, it's that many of the yields are fairly low per batch, but that's par for the course with patisserie-style high-art for the home baker; it keeps the task within reason.

(Image credit: John O'Keefe)

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts by Brooks Headley

If Ansel is a thoughtful wizard, Brooks Headley is a slightly unhinged punk rocker. Literally. This pastry chef logged lots of miles as a drummer in indie punk rock bands. Recipes notwithstanding, this book, which just won the Food52 Piglet Award, is an entertaining, freewheeling read. It has a foreword from music producer Steve Albini and essays from chef Gabrielle Hamilton and food critic Robert Sietsema, among others.

Opening the jacketless book, with its design reminiscent of an album cover, is to freefall into Headley's hilarious headspace. He's the executive chef of the massive, impressive, four-star Del Posto in New York City and a champion of fruit- and veggie-leaning desserts. This is not a book for amateurs. It's frustrating, exhilarating, and seemingly ridiculous all at once — totally unconventional in the best possible way. The images of food and other kitchen shenanigans are a mix of the goofy (check out the chocolate "tree" images) and the strictly utilitarian, with little regard for styling or cookbook photography standards. People are calling it the "anti-cookbook cookbook."

It's not so much that the recipes themselves are projects — although his Brown Butter Panna Cotta is a three-day endeavor — it's that getting a handle on his idiosyncratic brain is half the challenge. With long, rambling headnotes and recipes interrupted by essays with titles such as "Nancy is a Genius" (an ode to Nancy Silverton), there's often a lot of reading required for dishes that are ultimately straightforward, razor-sharp showcases for flavor and texture.

As a cookbook, you'll want to put it down when things get inconsistent and wacky — like they do for a recipe for Rhubarb Strings that cryptically tells you to make what seems like a simple syrup but doesn't tell you to involve heat in the process — and embrace it again when you land on the recipe for Del Posto's signature celery sorbet. Yes, celery. "Celery, I can admit now, has hidden powers. It is humble but wise," he writes. For all its apparent outlandishness, perhaps Headley is, too.

What baking cookbooks do you turn to when you want a good baking challenge?

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