Every time I cook from Stella Parks’s 2017 book BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, I find one predictable pattern emerges. I reach the downtime of a given recipe — whether it’s a devil’s food chocolate cake baking away in the oven or a chocolate pudding setting in the fridge — and I lean against my kitchen counter, flipping through the 397 pages thinking to myself, “This really is the perfect baking book.”
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve distracted myself with baking projects, my appreciation for Stella Parks’s BraveTart has only deepened. The book, which contains recipes for Thin Mints, Twinkies, and Fig Newtons alongside classic pies, cookies, cakes, and breakfast treats, is ideal for quarantine baking, when so many people need both entertainment and a tangible marker of their own productivity. Feel like you didn’t get anything done today? The dozen whole wheat banana-walnut muffins you baked say different.
BraveTart is the first cookbook from Parks, the baking expert in residence at Serious Eats. And given its Serious Eats genesis, BraveTart’s eager focus on food science is one of its best features, especially for less confident bakers. Introducing her No-Fuss Apple Pie recipe for example, Parks explains the need to get the internal temperature of the pie no higher than 200°, since it will “turn your pie into a soupy mess.” Suddenly this nervous baker, armed with an instant-read thermometer, felt a whole lot better about pie-making.
I am a better baker for having owned this book for the last two and a half years. Parks’s fudgy brownie recipe taught me why high quality cocoa powder is worth the money. Her lemon meringue pie, which towered over my Thanksgiving table, was a lesson in cooking custard long enough to be certain it would thicken and set correctly. Her peanut (or in my case, pecan) brittle recipe helped me get over my fear of working with hot sugar.
Some of BraveTart’s recipes might feel overly ambitious; the key lime pie calls for both scratch-made graham crackers for the crust and homemade condensed milk for the filling, which are found in other chapters. But even though I’m more inclined to reach for a pack of Honey Maid crackers and a can of Carnation to make a key lime pie, I know there’s likely some adventurous baker out there who will take those extra steps, especially now. The threshold for what makes a recipe “overly ambitious” is much, much higher during a pandemic as some of us suddenly have the time to skirt shortcuts and instead wrangle three or four different recipes in pursuit of a single finished product and the ultimate satisfaction of having something 100 percent homemade.
Recently, I pulled the book from my shelf, opened it to the chocolate and coffee-spattered pages of the devil’s food chocolate cake recipe and got to work. The cake comes together all in one pan, whisked by hand. I treasure my KitchenAid mixer, but there’s a special kind of joy I feel when a baking session has no need for it. The recipe in the book yields a three-tier chocolate cake, but I halved it for a single pan. The end result, slicked with chocolate buttercream frosting, like the book it came from, was perfect.