Baking can be tricky. In my time, I’ve made some fairly foolish mistakes in the kitchen. I don’t use the term “foolproof” lightly. But the recipes in The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book are just that – foolproof. And no wonder; they are brought to us by America’s Test Kitchen. If ever there was a team who knew how to make recipes foolproof, it’s these folks.
Before We Start
Baking was my introduction to the kitchen. Every week, my mother would whip up cookies, brownies, cakes, pies and more. I do the same for my kids today. But, I wouldn’t say that I’m a baker. It’s taken me years to produce a workable pastry dough. I would never, ever (almost never, ever) consider making my own puff pastry. The beauty of CI’s Baking Book is that I could if I wanted to – and I know that it would be perfect. I could also bake cookies, cakes, breads, tarts and pastry and they would be perfect too. The book is that good.
Baking, unlike the rest of cooking, is like the Apollo mission. Everything has to be thought through in advance since it is nearly impossible to make mid-course corrections.
– Christopher Kimball
Baking Is Not Cooking
The Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book embraces the wonder of baked good across fifteen chapters. Quick breads, yeasted breads, cookies, cakes, tarts, crepes, pastry, custards, puddings and soufflés – they all get the meticulous, tested and retested treatment that we’ve come to expect from America’s Test Kitchen. If you only have one baking book in your collection, this should be it.
Beyond the breadth of recipes, the first thing you’ll notice is that the cookbook is more than just a collection of recipes. Each recipes starts with the ATK standard “Why This Recipe Works”. This is often my favorite part of each recipe because you start to understand how ingredients go together and why. The section will also talk about ideas that failed as ATK was developing the recipe. Knowing that even expert bakers try things and fail gives me the confidence to try too.
So what you are holding in your hand is not just a cookbook, it’s a scientific journey through the world of baking.
– Christopher Kimball
Some of the recipes are incredibly straightforward (even for an inconsistent baker like me). Just today, for example, I made the American Loaf Bread. Seven ingredients, four steps and two hours from getting out the ingredients to warm bread coming from the oven. So, so, so (can I fit in one more “so”?) easy, but every bit as delicious as any fresh-baked bead you might have had.
The crepe batter from Crêpes with Sugar and Lemon is equally accessible – so much so, that Sunday morning crêpes are a staple at my house. The Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake? My go-to batter for any birthday or celebration cake.
Best of All
More experienced bakers will not be disappointed, however. In my opinion, the best recipe in the book is the French Baguette. The dough starts with a sponge that matures for at least six hours, but ideally for 24 hours. Autolyse hydrates the dough before you add the sponge to create a flavor boost. But best of all, you allow the loaves to slow rise in your fridge overnight before baking. The result is an insanely crispy crust and a crumb that has this wild, nutty flavor – it’s like nothing you’ve ever had!
The pages of my copy of Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book are stained from use. The dust jacket is dirty and a bit torn. It is a cookbook that is well used and well loved. Yours will be too.