learning how to bake: favorite books

Or, more to the point, How do I get myself some help, ’cause we won’t be covering this in couples therapy this week. Answers, Straight Up is a section of this Greek Tragedy blog, where I typically answer your questions. Sometimes, though, I have my own needling preguntas.  So, today, we begin with one of my questions.

straight up advice

My husband Phil and I met you and Elizabeth the other night at Laura & Jamie’s dinner party. I cannot stop thinking about your dessert. It was outrageous. You are one very talented man. I must know, Senor Science, what are your favorite baking cookbooks? And from where, oh where, did that recipe come? I heard you made it three times prior to the dinner party, just to perfect it… that takes serious dedication. I’m way impressed. Please share!

His response:


My two baking gurus are Rose Levy Beranbaum (author of The Cake Bible, The Bread Bible, The Pie and Pastry Bible, and Rose’s Christmas Cookies, all of which i won and which you are free to borrow if you want to give them the once-over); and Alice Medrich (Bittersweet, Pure Dessert, Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts– i own the first two). Beranbaum is not only an artist/baker, she’s a food scientist, and wrote her master’s thesis on the properties of yellow cake. her recipes are flawless, and she really understands food at a chemical/physical level. i make a variation of her matzoh (i blend rye, wheat, and all-purpose) that will knock your socks off; she has a wonderful butter cream that she formulated to eliminate the need for using a candy thermometer. and so on… medrich is the goddess of chocolate, and opened her doors to the world in berkeley, i believe, and pushed out truffles that people still talk about. Pure Dessert is not as challenging as Bittersweet in terms of equipment needed, specialty ingredients, and things of that sort; that said, buy them both or borrow mine. that warm mocha tart came from ‘bittersweet’ and takes about an hour to prepare. i don’t know how much of a baker you are, but in the event you want to drop over with or without Phil to make one of these (or anything else) chez moi, say so: i spend most of saturday and sunday baking when i’m not riding my bicycles, and elizabeth just hangs out, doing yoga. we’re a simple people :) Let’s try to hook up one of these weekend afternoons, pick an item or two….i do a killer cream puff, and can get you on a nice pate choux and working a pastry bag in no time – let me know your schedule, we’re free and usually just hang out on the weekends. failing all that, we ought to get on each other’s rolodexes as i like to have the occasional sunday afternoon drop-by for sweets and wine.

Next Sunday, I’ll be stopping by early, spending the day with my new friend, letting him teach me his secret pastry bag tricks (this sounds like a dirty euphemism, but it’s not). Phil will join us later to sample all the sweets. More than sweets, I love making new friends, and perhaps more than that, I LOVE learning new skills!

If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address.

go ahead, ask

5 YEARS AGO: Portovenere



  1. Oh my gosh… that sounds so good! Can`t wait for cooler weather to start baking and make desserts again.

    Have fun on Sunday!

  2. I’m a great fan of “down home” type desserts and my very favorite cookbook, bar none….and that includes Julia Child’s MTAOFC volumes….is Classic Home Desserts: A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes from Around the World by the late Richard Sax. I once read it as I would a textbook, underlining, highlighting, taking notes, etc. for almost 6 hrs. on a cross-country flight. It’s never failed me and at any time my freezer always has in it at least one item I’ve baked from a Classic Home Dessert recipe, usually “All-Time Best Summer Fruit Torte.

  3. The owner of the restaurant where I used to work was a big fan of The Cake Bible. I think you can find cheap used copies on eBay or amazon. Happy sifting.

  4. If I had to guess, you might have a hard time baking because of all the tricks you pick up cooking. You can’t really experiment with baking, add a little of this or a little of that etc, because it is all chemistry

  5. Why the hell can’t I find friends like him. I love to bake and I have the ass to prove it.

  6. I remember baking. I remember a thousand years ago – being perched up on the barstool by the counter and mom letting me measure out the flour and baking powder. I was so important! And then – sneaking that taste of vanilla. Is there a more disappointing moment?

    Mom. A pinch of cinnamon makes everything better. Salt – balanced with sugar. Sauteeing butter and onions. Pie crust – my mom’s pie crust should be famous. Stews, casseroles, compotes…grilled cheeses, omelets, herbs, sloppy joes, tacos…

    there is nothing like ‘mom’ food.

    My mom once told me (and I do it to this day) that if you come home late, but want to make everyone think you’re on top of the world – put a sauce pan on the back burner – water, cloves, cinnamon stick, a dash of vanilla, a bay leaf. People come in, feel/smell the love…you don’t have to serve a thing, the smell takes care of so much.

    Mom. Three letters that invoke such love, peace, help, support, insight, comfort…


    1. Author

      Love this. And the vanilla observation is one I too have made before, and always took a delight in making it. I love those little moments in life that seem so big. I feel like THAT is what life should be.

  7. Alice Medrich’s book “Cocolat: Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts” (which is out of print but available used) is the book that inspired me to become a pastry chef. Her recipes work, no matter how you blaspheme them with improper ingredients or equipment. She’s amazing.

  8. I may not be a match for the Bibles of Cake & Bread, respectively, but if you read the story preceding this recipe, you’ll know for certain how baking can soothe, mend an unwillingly broken spirit, do other magical things…

    P.S. I’m jealous of your new friend. Baking men are a godsend. I’ll be waiting in anticipation for your follow-up on this!

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