YES, APPARENTLY more people gardened in 2020 than ever. And even before the holiday season was upon us, as it suddenly is, everyone was baking more than ever in this oddball year, too—and it seems publishing baking cookbooks at a prodigious rate as well. So today we’re going to virtually bake together, or at least talk baking—like whether you should blind-bake that pie crust before filling it, plus ideas for goodies from cookies to snacking cakes, too.
When Alexandra Stafford, author of the book “Bread Toast Crumbs” and creator of the website alexandracooks.com, has visited the podcast before in recent years, we’ve usually talked vegetable cookery or soups, because we’re both big soup-makers. But 2020 is no normal year. And so what the hell? Let’s bake.
Plus: Comment in the box at the bottom of the page for a chance to win one of the books we’re featuring—all five will be given away here to five readers. Then head over to Ali’s website for a chance to win each book, too (details below).
Read along as you listen to the November 30, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases; some links are affiliate links.)
5 new books to bake by, with ali stafford
Margaret Roach: Hi, Ali. Ready to lead us into temptation?
Alexandra Stafford: Yes. Hi Margaret. How are you?
Margaret: Well, I’m looking for some treats over here. [Laughter.]
Ali: I know. I think everybody could use some inspiration as we head into another shutdown. I think some people probably are already there.
Margaret: Yeah. And so before we start, we’re going to have cookbook giveaways from some of the things we’re recommending. And these are great things for gifting or for buying for yourself and cooking from. But we’re going to have details of the cookbook giveaways here [bottom of page] and on Alexandracooks.com. So just so people can go look if they want to participate in that opportunity. I know your husband, Ben, is a budding vegetable gardener, crazy for ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes among other things. And I see that you’re an increasingly houseplant-addicted individual. So I hope that your visits to the show regularly have influenced you both in that way.
Ali: Oh my gosh. So much. Ben is already looking forward to planting seeds. He does all seeds from scratch every March. And he pulled out your book the other day and was like, “I can’t wait to start.” So, thank you for that.
Margaret: Well, tell him not yet. Not yet. Not yet. [Laughter.]
Ali: Yeah. So there are lots of new baking books out there for anybody looking to add to their collection. I’m honestly like kind of overwhelmed by the content of each of the books we’re going to discuss.
Margaret: And with your book, which I think of as a baking book, not about treats exactly, but based on bread, your “Bread Toast Crumbs” book. Just the other day, my sister and brother-in-law who lived near you were telling me, “Oh, we’re baking this bread” and da da da. “But the loaves are so big.” And I was like, “O.K., wait a minute. I’ll fix that.” And I shipped them your book overnight. And they started making your wonderful little peasant loaves, no-knead peasant loaves. But today we’re going to talk about sort of “treats,” right?
Ali: Yeah. No, all the baking books we’re going to talk about—they’re not really bread books, they’re all cookies, pies or general cakes or general baking books. And they’re wonderful. They’re all written by experts in their fields. They’re all different in their own way. And they all give measurements and metrics, which I find so helpful. So everything is by weight, which more and more is just… You’re seeing that more and more in cookbooks, but I’m always surprised now when I actually come across a baking recipe that doesn’t include weight, because it makes all the difference. And each of these five books all of the measurements include weight. So that’s great.
Margaret: Yeah. And in one of the books, before this getting together to talk about them on the show, I ordered the books that you recommended. And one of the experts, one of the authors explains that the reason she does the metric, which we’ve explained before, but she got down to the nitty-gritty and she said, a cup of flour depending on how you scoop it and measure can actually weigh, if you weighed it on a scale, from 4 to 5 ounces. That’s a huge difference. But she does her recipes for 142 grams, which is 5.0089 ounces. [Laughter.] So it’s that precise. That’s a 25 percent difference between 4 and 5 ounces of the amount of flour in your recipe.
Ali: Right. Exactly. And everybody has a different amount for one cup. If you go to the King Arthur Flour website, their weight for one cup of flour will be different than Sarah Kieffer’s in “100 Cookies,” and it’s different than mine. So it’s, it’s important to follow the guideline in the book that you’re using. And then of course in this specific recipe that you’re using.
Margaret: Right, a gram scale with the cookbook would be a great combo.
Ali: Agreed. That would be a perfect gift, truly.
Margaret: So which books you want to start with?
Ali: Well, we could start with Sarah Kieffer‘s “100 Cookies,” since we were just talking about her measurements, if you want? [Note: the book was on back-order at Amazon, B&N, and the publisher’s website as of November 28, 2020.]
Ali: O.K. So lots of your listeners probably know Sarah in one way or another. She wrote The Vanilla Bean Baking Book, which was named after her blog, which is wonderful. Both her blog and her first cookbook are just… She’s just a very reliable recipe writer. And she’s also the creator of the pan bang cookie, which was featured in “The New York Times.” So that’s maybe why people would know her name. She has a huge Instagram following, and just a big following in general.
So if you are a fan of a pan bang cookie, which essentially if you are unfamiliar, it entails while the cookies are on the baking sheet in the oven, you lift up the pan and you drop it.
And it creates these ripples throughout the cookies, which look really beautiful. All of the pan bang cookies just have like a really visually stunning look, but it also creates these textural variances throughout the cookies. So there’s some pockets of crisp and chewy and it’s a wonderful technique. And in this book, there are 12 variations of that pan bang technique, as well as an extensive troubleshooting section on that cookie, that one cookie. I imagine she must get tons of emails and questions about that specific cookie. So there’s a huge troubleshooting section there.
I have not made a ton of recipes, but the two recipes I made were wonderful. One was her brown butter chocolate chip cookie. And the beauty of that is that you don’t have to use a mixer. So you have to go through the step of browning the butter, but anytime you don’t have to pull out a mixer, it feels like a win to me. So they came together really quickly and they were so delicious.
Margaret: So when you say we don’t have to use a mixer, because we’re not softening butter first and then trying to get it to cooperate and mix into the dry ingredients? Is that why we don’t need it?
Ali: Exactly. You don’t have to cream the butter and the sugar together. And I feel like especially in the winter, as we head into winter, even if your butter is at room temperature—I mean, my kitchen is freezing for the winter. So it takes so long for better to soften. So being able to just brown it or even just melted is so nice.
Ali: And then just last night I made her brown sugar cookies. Those do require a mixer, but they were still relatively… like a very simple ingredient list, lots of brown sugar, a little bit of molasses, and they were so good.
I can’t recommend her book enough. I mean, every cookie you make will turn out well. Sarah, she’s always had a passion for baking, and she writes in the introduction that “cookies are a foundation, a stepping stone to baking, a rite of passage.” And I just think about younger bakers during this time. It’s such a fun thing to do. My 9- and 10-year-old. I can pull up a recipe. They can weigh out all the ingredients and then we can make them together. And it’s just a fun thing to do.
Margaret: Now, we should say, you just mentioned your 9- and 10-year-old. You have four children. And of course during this strange year, they’ve been home more and more and more. So did they give these a thumbs up or these popular?
Ali: Oh my gosh, they devoured these. Yes. Loved. Yep.
Margaret: [Laughter.] This book includes brownies and bars and meringues, which was the first thing I ever learned to bake for my grandmother, meringue. So it has those. And it has… O.K., if I even say this, I’m going to have to go make them: peanut butter crunch brownies. Oh my goodness. And then her ginger cookies have my favorite treat, which I always have in my cupboard, which I eat as almost like a candy, which is crystallized ginger. And I love ginger cookies with crystallized ginger, not just ginger powder or something.
Ali: Yes. No, totally. Yes. So good. I know. No. All of her flavor combinations are wonderful. One of her pan bang variations has sesame seeds, and that it just looks so interesting and delicious.
Margaret: So ‘100 Cookies”?
Ali: Yes. [Laughter.]
Margaret: That’ll get us through the winter, Ali.
Ali: Honestly. Truly, any of these one books. There’s so much in each of these books that if you just had one, you could really make them scratch for months and months.
Margaret: So which is next?
Ali: Maybe we should do the snacking cakes by Yossy Arefi. She is the author of “Sweeter Off the Vine,” which is a beautiful book, a very fruit-forward book. And her blog is called Apt. 2B Baking Co. And she’s… Similar to the brown butter sugar cookies, all of the recipes in Yossy’s book, you do not have to use a mixer at all, no stand mixer. Every recipe calls for either oil or melted butter. So her cakes come together mostly in a single bowl. And she says in the introduction that many of the cakes will also likely come together before your oven preheats. And both of the recipes that I have tried from the book, that happened. So they come together so quickly. They’re so delicious. And I guess I should explain what is considered a snacking cake.
So she calls a snacking cake, a single-layer cake, often square, cupboard with a simple icing or nothing at all, and it must be truly easy to make. And that’s what these recipes are. They’re simple. They’re low-stress. They require barely anything more than a bowl and a whisk and basic ingredients in your pantry.
Margaret: And I really enjoyed this book a lot. Don’t tell my niece, but I’m thinking for her because she’s mid-20s and she’s getting more into cooking and baking and whatever, that this is the kind of book that I think would be great for her as well. But there’s also, just like in the cookie book, there’s these not science, but technical… the sort of physics of the whole thing. And so for instance, who knew you could in choosing… She has just lots of details of how things work, and good ingredient combinations. Just really smart. It’s really, really smart, I think.
So it’s not just: “Here’s a plain old cake.”
And don’t the chapters have fun names? I swear the chapters have really fun names, if I could even remember. I have the book right here. They’re adorable: Fruit Cakes, Warm and Toasty Cakes, Chocolatey Cakes, and Not Your Average Vanilla Cakes. Those are the four main recipe chapters, and I just love it.
Ali: Yes. Right, exactly. Even though they’re simple cakes and they come together quickly, but they’re not boring. They’re not plain at all. I made the powdered doughnut cake and my children devoured it. It was so good. And they requested that I make it immediately again.
And I made the lemon olive oil cake, which was so… I love an olive oil cake-
Margaret: That’s one of my favorite types of cakes.
Ali: ...and it was excellent. It was excellent. And she also, after every single recipe, gives you variation. So with that lemon olive oil cake, for instance, there’s a drizzle that you can drizzle over it. Or if you don’t want to do that, you can do a citrus soak, which I thought sounded really good. And I’ll definitely try that next time.
And she’ll give a variation, like how to dress it up with fruit or whipped cream. And she has all these different variations for the whipped cream from cocoa to vanilla, to ricotta, to honey. So it’s simple baking, but no flavor is sacrificed and she’s also an excellent recipe writer. Very reliable.
Margaret: Right. O.K., good. So are we going on to the pie course? [Laughter.]
Ali: Yeah, sure. Let’s do pie. “The Book on Pie” by Erin Jeanne McDowell. So Erin is the author of “The Fearless Baker” and she is a regular contributor to Food52, and I believe “The New York Times” and other places as well. She’s just kind of an all-star.
And I felt like I could relate to a lot of the things she said in the introduction in terms of, pie is one of those things that I would say,, like bread inspires unnecessary fear. And you get the sense with Erin that she’s really trying to remove the fear of pie-baking from people. And she gave five reasons why she loves pie. And the fifth reason she loves pies is that she loves teaching people how to bake pie. And that’s what she says is actually the most important reason. And it’s why she wrote the book. She wanted to create a true handbook for pie-baking. And that’s what this is.
And I would say also she wants to really celebrate pie. I love this what she wrote an introduction. She says, “Pie has a miraculous ability to be simultaneously comforting and special-occasion worthy, both homey and fancy.” And I think she’s so right about that. And being able to make, I think, a homemade pie crust is one of those things that’s so satisfying once you get it right.
Margaret: Yes. And she talks a lot about flakiness and so forth, and then whether to… I loved that a lot of the things are illustrated. So you can see when the texture when you put your shortening and your flour or your dry ingredients together, and the different textures and which are appropriate for which use and what she’s talking about. She shows you photographs to describe par-baking versus blind-baking of crusts. And this is too dark, and this is under-cooked. She shows you photos. Thank goodness, right?
Ali: So helpful. I found that little section of the introduction to be so helpful. The difference between par-baking and blind-baking, which I hadn’t really known. Par-baking: It sounds so obvious now, but you don’t fully blind-bake it, whereas blind-baking, you fully blind-bake it, so the crust is done before you put the filling in. And we’re talking the day before Thanksgiving. So many Thanksgiving pies call for par-baking and it’s frankly a step I usually skip, but I’m actually going to par-bake my pie crust this year because she made it so easy.
And it also seems way more accurate to me. In the past I’ve par-baked crust. So put the parchment in, added the pie weights or dried beans, par-baked it for 25 minutes. And then a lot of the recipes have you take out the pie weights and then continue baking for sometimes another 20 to 25 minutes. And if I then have to put my fillings in and bake for another hour, my pie crust is going to be black.
Ali: So her par-baking is like 15 to 17 minutes at 425 degrees on a baking steel, which I love; I really appreciated that tip. And then you take out the pie beads and pie weights or your beans and you just bake it for 3 minutes more. I don’t know. I feel like she demystified that whole process for me, which is great.
Margaret: And then there were like all these little tricks that I in choosing… She prefers butter for using in her crust, but you can use different fats or whatever we call them; shortenings. And she talks about who knew you could use half cream cheese and half butter, and it gives it not only nice flakiness, but a little tang. The cream cheese adds a little tang.
Or a little vinegar or a little vodka in the dough, and she tells you how much, inhibits the gluten formation, which keeps the dough tender. I had no idea. I’d read that in recipes. Oh, put a little bit of this or that, vinegar or vodka, but I didn’t know why.
Ali: I know. I know, neither. I found that so interesting. And then I also appreciated that she said, great use those, but also with time if you perfect your technique, you won’t have to rely on those ingredients. So there’s so many great tips like that throughout the book.
Margaret: Yeah. “The Book on Pie.” Mmmmmm.
Ali: It is overwhelming how many delicious-looking pies. There are classics, but if you need inspiration in the pie department, it’s here.
Margaret: And there are savory pies, too.
Ali: Yes. They’re savory pies as well. Yes.
Margaret: Yeah. No, beautiful book. So, O.K. Well I’m already full, but go ahead. [Laughter.]
Ali: I know. O.K. So maybe how about Claire? The last two books I’d say… So Claire Saffitz, I’m not sure I’m saying her name correctly, her book is called “Dessert Person.” And people probably know Claire from the Bon Appetit YouTube channel. She was the star of the show “Gourmet Makes,” which she would make things like homemade Doritos and Skittles and gummy bears. Which is so funny because I feel like those actually are not at all the recipes she would contribute to “Bon Appetit Magazine,” which I always loved. She has a rhubarb custard cake that I make every spring. It’s so delicious.
And I really loved having this book knowing that in the intro, she talks about how fruit desserts are her preference. So there are lots of fruit desserts throughout the book, which I love.
Oh, this is what she writes in the intro that I loved so much. She says, “Rolling out a pie crust or cutting biscuits is my version of doing yoga. Dessert is in my DNA.” [Laughter.]
So she wrote this book because she wanted to “defend her love of desserts, but also to empower reluctant home bakers to work with new ingredients, attempt new techniques and bake with more confidence.”
And that I feel like is a theme with all of these books, is trying to give the home baker the confidence to tackle some of these things that may seem intimidating, but they’re really not if you follow these instructions.
Margaret: So that’s “Dessert Person” by Claire Saffitz.
Ali: Yeah. And one other thing I’ll say about this book because she does make a note. She says some of her recipes may look long and wordy, but they’re not long and wordy without reason. She believes there’s no such thing as a foolproof recipe. Everybody’s kitchen is different. Everybody’s environment is different. Everybody’s oven is different. Everybody’s using a different material of pan.
So she’ll never say, bake a cake until the tester comes out clean. She’ll tell you how it will look. She’ll tell you how it will feel, and she’ll tell you how it will smell. So she gives lots of visual cues, lots of indicators throughout her recipes, which I really appreciate, and which I think so many home cooks really appreciate.
Margaret: I think there’s one more sort of general one in the current crop, yes?
Ali: Yeah. So Melissa Weller. It’s called “A Good Bake.” So Melissa Weller, she trained in France. She went to the French Culinary Institute, worked at Babbo, Jim Lahey’s restaurants, Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Roberta’s.
And before that, though, she was a chemical engineer, which makes a lot of sense. She talks about why she was drawn to baking because baking is about precision and chemistry. She says in the intro that as an engineer, you’re always asking, why is this happening? And she considers herself an engineer of dough.
Ali: Yeah, I know. I love that. I feel like of all the books, this is maybe some of the more complex techniques. If you are interested and laminating dough and making like beautiful croissants, kouign-amann beautiful flaky pastry, this would be a great resource. She’s very detailed, very particular.
And she does say in the intro, she had an aha moment when she was working in kitchens and learning how to bake from more experienced bakers and cookbooks. She says, “If those recipes had just given a little hint about this or that, a little more detail here or there, my baked goods would have turned out looking like those in the pictures that inspired me to want to bake them to begin with. I knew then that I wanted to write a cookbook.”
So it’s the book she wished she had when she was learning to bake. It’s very comprehensive. She has a tutorial on yeast and sourdough breads, but she is not a purist with sourdough. She uses yeast for its reliability. She loves what a sourdough culture does to bread, but she almost never bakes anything exclusively with a sourdough starter, which I thought was a great approach because I think sourdough can be very intimidating for people. But there’s just so many beautiful things in this book. The rugelach, the biscuits, the cookies, the cakes. Again, it’s overwhelming the content.
Margaret: So this one, “A Good Bake” by Melissa Weller. And the subhead I love, and it speaks to her as an engineer: “The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies and Breads at Home.” So maybe that’s the one after we master the other three or four; maybe we’re moving it up a notch to the slightly intermediate-slash-advanced course.
Ali: I think anybody who appreciates a real science-y book, I would say, like Kenji Lopez Alt from Serious Eats. Who’s the other one? Stella Parks from Serious Eats. The very science-oriented baker, this would be perfect for.
Margaret: Yeah. So Ali we’re out of time, but just super quick. What’s your Thanksgiving dessert this year?
Ali: I’m only doing two because it’s such a small gathering. It’s a butternut squash pie. Yeah, butternut squash pie and then it’s a bourbon pecan pie. But just the two classics.
Margaret: I’ll be right there.
Ali: Oh, I wish you could. I wish you could.
Margaret: I know. Another year. But thank you so much for making the time. And go back to your baking. And thanks for sharing all these books.
more from ali stafford
- All our past interviews–soups and vegetables and yes, her famous peasant bread–are here to browse.
- Ali on Instagram (great stuff, including how-to videos in her Stories)
- Ali’s website
- Ali’s no-knead peasant bread
enter to win the ‘snacking cakes’ book
I’LL BUY A COPY of one of the five books featured for each of five lucky readers—a total of five books. (Head over to Ali’s website after you enter here; she’ll be giving away five books to five readers, too.) All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
What’s baking in your kitchen lately, either on the recent holiday or in the months that preceded, when most of us have been finding ourselves close to home in need of comfort food and treats?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick the random five winners after entries close at midnight on December 13, 2020. Good luck to all.
And don’t forget: Click over to Alexandra’s Kitchen to enter for another chance at a book.
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 30, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).