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Saturday, April 10th, 2004


Baking Illustrated: The Practical Kitchen Companion for the Home Baker

by Cook's Illustrated

A review by C. P. Farley

The folks at America's Test Kitchen would like you to take them at their word. In the introduction to their latest book, Baking Illustrated, they state their purpose:

[We believe] that good cooking...is...based on a foundation of objective technique. Some folks like spicy foods and others don't, but there is a right way to sauté, there is a "best" way to cook a pot roast, and there are measurable scientific principles involved in producing perfectly beaten, stable egg whites. This is our ultimate goal: to investigate the fundamental principles of cooking so that you become a better cook.
They're lying.

It's true that each of the recipes in this book is the product of strict scientific testing. For example, when the chefs and food scientists at America's Test Kitchen decide to create a new recipe for, say, chocolate cake, they gather up and bake a few dozen of the most promising recipes and conduct an enormous blind taste test (not an Atkins-friendly job, I'm afraid). The goal isn't to decide which is the best recipe. It's to determine what are the most desirable qualities in a chocolate cake. Once they have defined their perfect chocolate cake, they test and tinker and test and tinker until they have a recipe that will reliably produce this Platonic ideal.

This system works fabulously well. The recipes produced by America's Test Kitchen really are reliably superior. But, let's be honest; the recipes are beside the point. And don't tell me you're "interested in the science." This book was not created for aspiring food scientists. It was written for budding food snobs -- like me. How else to explain the following?

A relic of the health food craze, carrot cake was once heralded for its use of vegetable oil in place of butter and carrots as a natural sweetener. But healthy or not (and we doubt that it ever was), we have eaten far more bad carrot cake than good. Sure, the carrots add some sweetness, but they also add a lot of moisture, which is why carrot cake is invariably soggy. And oil? It makes this cake dense and, well, oily. Save for the mercifully thick coating of cream cheese frosting, most carrot cakes seem nothing but a good spice cake gone bad.
I made the carrot cake in this book. It was "moist (not soggy)...rich (not greasy)" and everything else the book said it would be. But as delicious as it was, I didn't enjoy it half as much as I will every other carrot cake I eat in the future. "This cake is delicious," I'll say with studied insincerity, while rolling my eyes inwardly and bemoaning "another spice cake gone bad." What fun. I can't wait to try the coconut cake, which promises to avoid the common (in both senses of the word) pitfalls:
Coconut cake should be perfumed inside and out with the cool, subtle, mysterious essence of coconut. Its layers of snowy white cake should be moist and tender, with a delicate, yielding crumb, and the icing should be a silky, gently sweetened coat covered with a deep drift of downy coconut. So it's irksome and disappointing that coconut cakes are often frauds, no more than plain white cakes with plain white icing slapped with shredded coconut.
In the future, every coconut cake but mine will irk. "Fraud," I'll think as I release a barely audible sigh. And now that it's rhubarb season, I'll be able to confidently assess my fellow pie makers' strawberry-rhubarb pies as "really more fruit soup than fruit pie," smug in the knowledge that, with Baking Illustrated as my guide, my pie -- not to mention all my baked goods -- will be perfect. And better than yours.

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