Bakery owners Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s dream was simple: they wanted to create a classic American bakery. Their flagship Baked store opened in Red Hook, Brooklyn in 2005, and the second opened in Charleston in 2009. In their first cookbook Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, Matt and Renato focused on recreating classic American desserts like cobbler, red velvet cake, apple and pecan pies, and diner-style desserts tempered with more modern touches like matcha (green tea powder), chipotle, and generous sprinklings of fleur de sel. Chocolate stout milkshakes and green tea smoothies rubbed elbows with espresso martinis. It was main street diner meets Dean and DeLuca’s, and added numerous crowd-pleasers to my repertoire, including the classic Baked brownie and the pumpkin chocolate chip loaf.
In their second cookbook “Baked Explorations,” Matt and Renato focus on comfort foods rather than innovation; there’s a much more retro feel in the photography and recipe selection, one that pays tribute to grandma’s kitchen and heirloom recipes in general. It’s like a culinary time capsule: the PB&J bars taste like grade school lunches, the no-bake peanut butter cookies bring back memories of time spent “cooking” with Mom in the kitchen, while the orange Creamsicle tart will take you back to childhood summers spent drinking orange soda (pop, Coke) on the front steps. Classic shortbread cookies, thumbprint cookies, and grasshopper bars (my grandmother used to make a very similar confection) conjure up memories of “high tea” with grandma and her neighborhood friends. That’s not to say that you won’t find any surprising combinations in here; there’s always the chocolate salt-`n’-pepper sandwich cookies, tomato soup cupcakes with mascarpone frosting, or rosemary apricot squares.
The breakfast section features the lion’s share of recipes, with guest appearances by monkey bubble bread, pumpkin cheddar muffins, farm stand buttermilk doughnuts, Nutella scones, malted waffles, crumb cake, baked French toast, and baked cheese grits. For those who prefer their breakfasts to induce sugar comas, you’ll find oatmeal chocolate chip cake with cream cheese frosting and the sinfully decadent double-chocolate loaf with peanut butter cream cheese spread. Imagine biting into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for breakfast, and you’ve got the general idea, although this is gussied up with Valhrona cocoa powder and Ghirardelli bittersweet chips. I found that the included amount of sugar for the peanut butter cream cheese spread was a tad too much for me (1/3 cup for 5 oz. cream cheese), so you may want to start with ¼ cup of sugar and sweeten to taste.
Regional desserts, especially those rescued from the musty depths of community cookbooks, are featured prominently, including offerings from the Northeast (Maine’s Joe Froggers, NYC’s black and white cookie), buckeyes and heartland turtle bars from the Midwest, and strawberry Jell-o salad (even before I became a vegetarian, gelatin and I were on dubious footing). Southern cuisine gets a definite nod, with honey corn muffins, buttermilk pie, cowboy cookies, pudding bars, lady praline chiffon cake, and burnt sugar Bundt cake with caramel rum frosting. To appease the various factions of mud pie purists, there are two different versions of Mississippi Mud Pie; the first is a chocolate-drenched, bourbon-laced coffee ice cream tart, while the second, Muddy Mississippi Cake, is a flourless chocolate cake “inside a cookie crust topped with a layer of silky chocolate pudding and whipped cream.” Both are good enough to make you jump up and witness.
As with their previous cookbook, “Baked Explorations” is beautifully laid out on high-quality paper. The endpapers are printed in a gorgeous gold-accented design that brought to mind Lomonosov porcelain. The eye-catching photography by Tina Rupp really pops, and this time around there are staged vignettes featuring antique china, vintage books, weathered bakeware, and various antiques scattered about. Reading each recipe’s introduction is part of the fun; ingredients and instructions are clearly laid out and broken into manageable steps, while Baked notes and variations are also featured. You’ll find a handy metric conversion chart and list of sources at the back, while helpful hints on ingredients, preparation, and storage can be found throughout. One note of warning: Matt and Renato don’t believe on skimping on quality ingredients, so you’ll see recommendations for Valrhona cocoa and other premium items. Use the best you can afford (or find), and your recipes will turn out memorably.
This is one cookbook that more than lives up to the high expectations of its predecessor, and will make the perfect gift for any foodie on your list.
(Review copy generously provided by Abrams)