BraveTart is the Best Baking Book We've Seen in Years | SAVEUR
Matt Taylor-Gross

BraveTart is the Best Baking Book We've Seen in Years

Stella Parks's tome on the art, science, and history of American desserts is a must-read for anyone with a sweet-tooth

Each month, our Cookbook Club digs deep into a cookbook and shares our progress online. Cook along with us and share your results—and questions—with #saveurcookbookclub.

I’ll say it right away: Stella Parks’s new BraveTart is the most groundbreaking book on baking in years. Full stop.

While plenty of cookbook offer inspiring, pretty photos and reliable recipes, it’s rare to find one that also gets deep into the science and history of cooking and baking. BraveTart does just that. The photos are indeed beautiful and inspiring, and don’t worry: the recipes (and their dozens of variations) do work. But you can expect to walk away from BraveTart with a lot more than a plate of awesome cookies; you’ll get a serious dessert education.

Before Parks became the resident pastry wizard over at Serious Eats, she cut her chops in the Culinary Institute of America’s baking and pastry program; she worked as a pastry chef at several notable restaurants, including Table 310 in her native Kentucky where she was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chefs. Parks is clearly obsessed, not only with recreating but also with understanding “iconic American desserts” and she dives into the subject with infectious academic glee. Here are a few of the high points.

Reliability

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Penny De Los Santos | W. W. Norton

In so many ways, pastry chefs are the mad scientists of the restaurant world, and Parks is one of the maddest, most sciencey of the bunch. When I interviewed her at the launch of this installment of Cookbook Club, she casually estimated that each recipe in the book had been tested “oh, hundreds of times.” A good cookbook is expensive to write; careful recipe-testing is time consuming and uses up a lot of ingredients, so it is clear that BraveTart has been a labor of love.

While plenty of cookbook offer inspiring, pretty photos and reliable recipes, it’s rare to find one that also gets deep into the science and history of cooking and baking. BraveTart does just that. The photos are indeed beautiful and inspiring, and don’t worry: the recipes (and their dozens of variations) do work. But you can expect to walk away from BraveTart with a lot more than a plate of awesome cookies; you’ll get a serious dessert education.

pie

Parks's perfect pumpkin pie—made with butternut squash and homemade condensed milk.

Matt Taylor-Gross

Parks makes a reasonable and impassioned case for writing recipes with weights, and she tosses off factoids about the lack of standardization in recipe writing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Long story short: her versions work. If you want to be sure they’ll work just as well for you, get a scale, get an oven thermometer, and set a timer.

Parks concedes that, unless you have a jewelers’ or pharmacists’ scale, volume measurements will be more precise for very small amounts; stick with teaspoons and tablespoons for leavening, spices, and extracts, and weigh everything else. And yet, since American desserts are are nothing if not democratic, volume measurements are included for you stubborn holdouts.

Versatility

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Parks’s mother recipes are solid—the formulas are foolproof and precise—but they are not presented as constraints.

Matt Taylor-Gross

Like most folks that cook a lot, I love a good cookbook, but I don’t always stick firm to the recipes, instead using them as an inspiration for my own culinary adventures. Baking and pastry books, by nature, resist this freestyle approach to cooking...but not this one. Parks’s mother recipes are solid—the formulas are foolproof and precise—but they are not presented as constraints. Instead, she gives dozens of variations to adapt the recipes to your own needs and preferences, each as meticulously tested as the headliners.

I used up four jars of coconut oil batching out winning variations of five-minute muffin mix, and I never would have guessed that swapping out some of the wheat flour for ground oats would give me the star of the breakfast table. Parks explained that the pumpkin variation to her yellow cake is one of her favorite recipes in the book, and that she is “always afraid that people are going to overlook the variations and stick to the main recipe, stick to the one that has pictures.”

If you’re just getting started in the kitchen, Parks will hold your hand and give you great results. But If you’re a pro looking for a spark of inspiration, BraveTart will do that too.

Accuracy

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Parks's oatmeal creme pies get their eerily accurate Lil’ Debbie-esque bounce from the addition of ground, dried apple slices.

Kat Craddock

Plenty of bakers have rolled out batches of rectangular hand pies and called them Pop Tarts, but Parks’s copycat desserts do more than look the part. Her oatmeal creme pies get their eerily accurate Lil’ Debbie-esque bounce from the addition of ground, dried apple slices. She adds club soda to her Twinkies to get them as “cotton-soft” as the real deal, explaining that “it releases a steady stream of bubbles that provide the baking powder with plenty of air cells to expand.” Parks has developed an Oreo-like recipe that bakes up with just the right midnight hue, not through flavorless black cocoa, but by alkalizing the normal Dutch process stuff with a bit of baking soda. And the fondant filling within? The crispy chocolate sandwiches twist apart just like Nabisco’s.

The thing is, so many of us remember loving those packaged treats, but trying to relive that delight directly doesn’t do the trick. Now that we “know better,” they never taste quite as fresh or as real as homemade desserts. BraveTart’s magic lies in its ability to replicate the nostalgia of our childhood sweets while still making them better. Parks replaces all the gooey, gritty, and bland fillings with buttery, vanilla-scented creams. She condenses her own sweetened condensed milk for perfect, creamy, fragrant pumpkin and key lime pies just like mom’s—but better.

Nerdy Historical Context

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Parks seeks “to evolve our simplistic understanding of American desserts and cultivate a greater appreciation for our sweet history, culture, and heritage.”

Kat Craddock

Which brings me to historical context. As I learned from BraveTart, and from talking with Parks directly, many of our most iconic desserts are the children of clever marketing campaigns. She gives most of the main recipes an extensive yet breezy historical context: The book dives deep into the decades-long Oreo-Hydrox rivalry, the history of the Libby’s brand pumpkin pie recipe, and into the 19th century blue laws that effectively named the ice cream sundae (hint: ice cream bootleggers were involved).

In her note on sources, Parks explains that, in order to really tell the story of American desserts, she believed that “delving into historical archives would prove far more valuable than simply repeating the tales so often told (and retold) in modern sources,” and her commitment is evident. After spending five years researching, collecting vintage advertisements, and sifting through antiquarian cookbooks, she sought to “to evolve our simplistic understanding of American desserts and cultivate a greater appreciation for our sweet history, culture, and heritage.” Between flawless recipes for DIY Girl Scout cookies, Rice Krispies treats, and lemon meringue pie, she has accomplished just that.

Bake Your Way Through BraveTart