I spent a good long time flipping through the recipes in the first cookbook from the guys behind the Baked bakery in Brooklyn, New York (Baked: New Frontiers in Baking, 2008). A houseguest -- an artist and photographer -- picked it up from my coffee table at the time. "Wow," she said. "They really know how to photograph a cake."
The photography was like fine art photography applied to baked goods, with a lot of strong set design thrown in. I know there are a lot of cookbooks out there with luscious photos in them. But those transcended the merely delectable. They were more like edible dioramas to lose yourself in.
Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito have followed up on "New Frontiers" with Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $30). Again, the photography is gorgeous and inventive. And the recipes follow in a similar vein: the sweetest of the sweet, pushing the envelope by using the finest ingredients -- often favorites from childhood, gussied up.
This sequel is divided into five chapters: Breakfast, Tarts and Pies, Cookies and Bars, Cakes, and Confections and Pastry.
My first foray into the original Baked was a disappointment -- the Root Beer Bundt Cake, supposed to taste amazingly like a Root Beer Float, did not, despite my getting the best root beer I could lay my hands on for the recipe. (If it seems too good to be true....) This time around, I aimed for some of the more straightforward recipes.
My first test was the buttermilk pie, similar to recipes for B.P. I have baked before, but with the addition of maple syrup; this one turned out well -- except for the crust. Lewis and Poliafito use an all-butter crust that I find difficult to work with, which is not to say that I have yet found a pie crust recipe that I find easy to work with.
I especially liked the "Breakfast" chapter, in part because the quick breads are generally easier than layer cakes. "Mom's Olive Oil Orange Bundt" won't surprise anyone who's subbed olive oil for vegetable oil in cakes before, but if you haven't tried it, this is a good base recipe. It's similar to a French lemon yogurt cake, and there's nothing particularly breakfasty about it, but it's a nice cake all the same, dense and flavorful in the manner of a quick bread or pound cake.
I do wish that the advice box "The Secret Lives of Loaves" gave a better hint than "Make sure your loaf is baked all the way through" as a way of keeping the center of a quickbread from being underdone and ultimately collapsing. Restating the problem is not a solution.
The Baked French Toast is similar to other recipes but augmented with a sauce made from fresh raspberries. And I liked the generally unfussy recipe for malted waffles (made with buttermilk, always a plus in a breakfast batter).
There are a lot of temptations yet to be made in this book, although many seem sickeningly too sweet, in the manner of Christina Tosi's Crack Pie -- way too much sugar, even if artfully done. The Mississippi Mud Pie, for instance, just seems like overkill (a chocolate cookie crust topped with a flourless chocolate cake and chocolate pudding and whipped cream) as well as too much work. Ditto the Malted Crisp Tart, which calls for a brown sugar crust, caramelized crispies, milk chocolate ganache and malted cream, plus crushed malted milk balls.... this is something that could be made once a year or something.
But the Tomato Soup Cupcakes with mascarpone frosting are on my list (the authors admit it's a kitschy recipe, but the frosting sounds worthwhile), as are the peanut butter and jelly bars (substantially different from the Martha Stewart recipe), and the Speculaas, ringers for those crisp spice cookies doled out on Delta flights (you aren't asking for the pretzels, are you?).
In short, enjoy yourself with Baked Explorations, but explore wisely.