It’s a beautiful thing indeed to be “Baked.”

I first saw Baked: New Frontiers in Baking while on vacation. My willpower not to buy any more baking books lasted for exactly one week until I swooped into my local bookstore, drooled, purchased, raced home, and whipped up a killer batch of the Baked Brownie. The balance of chocolate (11 ounces), butter (two sticks), a dash of espresso powder, a mix of granulated and brown sugar, and a hefty dose of eggs (five) give this brownie the ideal texture: the perfect marriage of fudgy and cakey without being runny or dense.

The next recipe I tried was the pumpkin chocolate chip loaf (the recipe makes two loaves). A seemingly straightforward blend of canned pumpkin puree, spices (allspice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg), and chocolate, the complex flavors of spice and pumpkin were complementary without overwhelming. Although the recipe calls for one cup of vegetable oil, you also dilute it with 2/3-cup tap water, so the bread is pleasantly moist without being greasy or oily (I’ve had that happen all too many times in many quick breads).

Next on my list was the Brewer’s Blondie, a hopped-up blend of of malt powder, malt balls, semisweet chocolate, and walnuts. Bars are one of Baked’s strengths, including a decadent grown-up Rice Krispy bar, the elegant Honeycomb Bar (sweet tart dough topped with dried fruit, honey, and a shot of booze), S’more nut bars, and the Baked bar. There are also more complicated layer cakes (chocolate malt, chocolate/caramel/sea salt, Whiteout, Red Velvet), cookies, and breakfast treats such as scones, granola (yay, finally a low-oil granola full of fruit!), and quick breads. Pies and tarts? Feast on Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie, Tuscaloosa Tollhouse Pie, Peanut Butter Pie with Cookie Crust and Easy Fudge Sauce, and Classic Diner-Style Chocolate Pie.

Baked has been featured on Martha Stewart, Oprah (their Baked Brownie had a centerfold spread in O), and on several high-profile shows, but does Baked live up to its claims of being revolutionary? That’s a more difficult cookie to crumble. Sure, there are gourmet additions such as matcha, chipotle, and fleur de sel, but most of the Baked repertoire is firmly descended from comfort cooking, such as the Root Beer Cake, a modern update on the Southern staple Coca-Cola (or Dr. Pepper) cake, or the red velvet spiced up with Red Hots. Ditto on the divine Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie. It’s still amazing, whether or not it’s smashing any new culinary boundaries.

Even if you never cook a single recipe from Baked, the clever graphics (garden gnomes, plastic deer perched on a mound of fluffy coconut snow), useful sidebars (including variations), and notes make this a great investment. This is my favorite cookbook of 2008, and I hope that it will become yours as well.

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