How do you evaluate a new cookbook? How can you quickly tell if it presents a treasure chest of new ideas?
I often apply the sticky test. I grab a new packet of Post-it notes, the thin little bookmark ones, and start working my way through the cookbook. If an idea, a recipe name, a picture grabs my attention then I flag the page and move on. Here’s the best possible sign: you run out of stickies before you get to the end of the book.
The Art and Soul of Baking is a best possible book. The first recipe I marked? Maple-Pecan Sticky Buns. This wonderful baking book, from the superior cooking store Sur La Table, is an encyclopedia of best practices and best ideas. The title truly reflects the philosophy of great baking: it is an art and it affects the souls of both those who bake and those who eat.
The book’s clever, descriptive titles give you an instant vision of what marvelous tastes are awaiting: Parmesan-Herb Popovers; Feta Roasted Pepper and Basil Muffins; Dulce de Leche Banana Cream Pie; Lemon Mascarpone Layer Cake; Corn Soufflé with Red Pepper Salsa; Pumpkin Spice Cake with Maple-Cream Cheese Frosting… You begin to taste these recipes when you read them.
With such a list temptations, Suzen and I began with two: the Potato, Onion, and Gruyere Galette and the Mexican Chocolate Crackle Cookies. Add a salad, and these two dishes make a complete meal. The galette is easy to make, gorgeous to present, and totally satisfying to your taste buds. This recipe, like the others in the book, reflects a care to combine multiple flavors in a balanced, rich dance that lets you sit back and sigh. The soothing pleasures of each bite are better than any legal drug. It’s a soul-affecting recipe.
The crackle cookies caught my eye right away. I have loved and baked these cookies for decades, but different recipes can often produce disappointing results. Some recipe versions call for Crisco, but I want my butter. Yet, I don’t my crackles to flatten down and become bricks. This version of the recipe yields exactly what I crave: the richness of real butter coming from the oven in soft, sugar-coated balls of mellow chocolate. And, there is a double bonus. This Mexican variation uses both coffee liquor and ancho chile powder. From our last visit to Santa Fe, Suzen and I had a big tin of fresh ancho chile powder. We put the ½ teaspoon into the bowl, and we felt just the hint of chile heat lingering after the chocolate and powdered sugar had exploded in our mouths. There are many good cookies out there. This is a great cookie.
This weekend, I’m returning to my first sticky in this book. The forecast is for snow. It’s time for shovels, scrapers, salt and Maple-Pecan Sticky Buns. The Art and Soul of Baking will guide you through all four seasons with delight.