As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was voraciously rereading my mother and grandmother’s collection of handwritten recipe cards, recipe clippings, and cookbooks, including Deanna House’s “House Specialties” and comb-bound community fundraisers from churches, local high schools, and women’s organizations. I loved reading the personal stories behind the recipes as much as imagining what the final dish would taste like.
My friend and fellow blogger Blaise (the powerhouse behind the “Blaise the Baker” blog and the regular “Chew This” column in the Courier-Times) dishes up equal servings of nostalgia and delight in his first cookbook “Blaise the Baker: Dessert First.” Collecting over 60 recipes from his Blaise the Baker blog, 37 from his “Chew This!” column, and over 100 brand-new recipes (nearly every one of them inspired by Blaise’s family), there are 200 versatile recipes for appetizers and drinks, soups and salads, main dishes, vegetables and side dishes, breads and rolls, cookies and candy, and desserts. As a bonus, each cookbook comes with a free e-book version, making it an even sweeter deal as I frequently cook from my Kindle.
If you’re a fan of the Brass Sisters’ nostalgic baked goods and Baked NYC’s retro-nostalgic baking, you’ll love “Blaise the Baker: Dessert First!” From poke cakes and icebox cakes, 1940s recipes, and meatloaf and pasta bakes to new and inventive uses for things in your pantry (Buttery Cracker Fudge, Magical Fudge, Cake Mix Yeast Rolls), there’s something to appeal to everyone. There is a nice ratio of recipes that use prepared mixes (cake and brownie mixes, pudding and gelatin mixes, prepared bread / pastry dough) to from-scratch recipes, so whether you’re cooking on a hectic weeknight (or for a last-minute school fundraiser) or preparing for a leisurely meal, you’ll be sure to find a recipe that fits your schedule.
The cookbook opens with a touching foreword by Blaise’s Grandmother Barbra. True to its title, dessert is indeed served first, with such temptations as Grandma Deloris’ Chocolate Fudge Cake with Buttercream Frosting, Glazed Strawberry Pie, Mallory’s Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Gingersnap Crust, 1940s Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze, and Stuffed Red Velvet Cupcakes. Cookies and candy include time-tested favorites like chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin and snickerdoodles as well as Chocolate Chip Puff Pastry Cookies (pictured), Wicked Brownies (based on that other famous Halloween-themed brownie from NYC), Buckeye Chocolate Brownies, and homemade candy and fudge. I loved some of the old-time variations like Carmen’s Fruit Cookies (based on a family friend’s Christmas Eve cookie tradition), Gelatin Cookies, and puckery Lemon Crunch Bars as well as homemade fudge, especially Lula’s Maple Fudge – I grew up in Michigan and went to school in Quebec (the world’s largest producer of maple syrup), so I adore maple syrup in everything (for a real treat, splurge and use black walnuts if you can find them).
Southern baked goods are also represented here, including light and fluffy biscuits, Hummingbird Cake with Thick Cream Cheese Frosting, Grandpa Max’s Custard Pie (Chess Pie), Banana Pudding Crunch Cake and Divinity, while chocoholics will rejoice in Old-Fashioned Devil’s Food Cupcakes with Fudge Frosting, Karen’s Molten Chocolate Cupcakes (named after Blaise’s 2015 Fan of the Year), and Chocolate Zucchini Cake with Chocolate Ganache.
Soups, salads, sides and mains include time-tested family favorites like meatloaf, ham, chicken and egg salads, lasagna, and oven-fried chicken. As a slow cooker devotee, I was thrilled to see several recipes specifically for the slow cooker, including BBQ Pineapple Chicken, Pot Roast with Vegetables, and Old-Fashioned Mushroom and Onion Roast. I loved Blaise’s vegetable dishes in particular, including Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic Vinegar, Parmesan-Roasted Asparagus, and Macaroni With Roasted Tomatoes. I love to use Fustini’s balsamic vinegar as a salad dressing, but had never thought of combining it with Brussels sprouts before. And the macaroni with roasted tomatoes was so good and simple – I combined Nadiya’s recipe for oven-candied cherry tomatoes with balsamic and cut out the sugar in the recipe instead, replacing the butter with olive oil and seasoning simply with salt and pepper. That’s the beauty of Blaise’s recipes – you can dress them up or down or substitute however you wish; in Blaise’s words, “Every recipe in my cookbook is versatile and customizable. My cookbook is meant to inspire and allow you to experiment and HAVE FUN in the kitchen!”
Each recipe comes with a personalized note describing its origins, hints and tips, etc. In addition, each chapter starts out with a list of “Helpful Hints” that include ones I haven’t seen in other cookbooks before. In the back, there are handy color-coded guides to baking breads, desserts, buying, preparing and storing fruits and veggies (I wish ALL cookbooks had this!), illustrated napkin folding, and measurements and substitutions with an equivalency chart.
As I usually aim to test several recipes from each book I review, I quickly bookmarked several from “Dessert First!” that caught my eye and decided on a “seaside picnic” theme perfect for summer: mustard and black pepper egg salad, Parmesan-roasted asparagus, macaroni with roasted tomatoes, and cinnamon sweet potato biscuits. I was particularly proud of how the biscuits turned out as it was my first time attempting them – and having lived in the South for the last 10 years, I know the importance of a good biscuit! These had amazing flavor and moistness from the sweet potatoes and cinnamon and paired really well with the egg salad. For dessert, the chocolate chip puff pastry cookies caught my eye – I had some puff pastry made with New Zealand butter in my freezer that I’d been trying to figure out how to use up. I added a little cinnamon sugar to the filling and sprinkled the tops with cinnamon sugar before baking – and voila, I’d turned them into cannoli cookies! All of the recipes I made worked exactly as written as they were tested; as a cookbook reviewer, you would be amazed by how many best-selling cookbooks had not actually TESTED the recipes first, so I appreciated the fact that Blaise and his testers did this work for me.
“Blaise the Baker: Dessert First” is a fantastic cookbook that epitomizes comfort food – in fact, some of Blaise’s recipes are nearly identical to those I grew up on, including his Glazed Strawberry Pie (a summer staple in my house) and Foolproof Caramel Frosting (one of my dad’s favorites atop chocolate cake – I used to eat the leftover frosting straight out of the mixing bowl, it’s that good!). It brought back warm memories of family dinners and conversations, holidays, and family gatherings, and I hope it has the same magic for you.
To order your copy, go to https://blaisethebaker.com/2016/07/31/blaise-the-baker-desserts-first-ordering-information/