Our resident pastry wizard, Stella Parks, wrote a book, and hoo boy, is it a good one. When she first approached me to write a foreword for her then-in-progress book a couple years ago, I signed on, sight unseen. I'd known her, followed her work, and worked with her long enough to know that anything she touches turns to gold. (Extra-sweet gold with a dusting of sugar on top, that is.) But I was totally taken by surprise when the galleys came to me in the mail. I mean, I knew Stella was smart, talented, and funny, but this smart, talented, and funny? What I had in my hands was quite easily the most entertaining romp through the history and science of American desserts that I'd ever seen.
The hardest part about writing the foreword was containing my enthusiasm enough to make it sound plausible, but if you're already familiar with Stella's work on Serious Eats, you probably know what I'm talking about. Here is that foreword, excerpted from the book, along with a few bonus pictures from the first time I tasted Stella's food, circa 2011. Take the following words with whatever the opposite of a grain of salt is, because the reality is much, much more exciting than I can express.
The following is excerpted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts with permission from the publisher.
BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts
Greetings to the lucky finder of this book. In your wildest dreams, you cannot imagine the marvelous surprises that await you.
Several years ago, Stella Parks served me a bowl of cereal at Table 310, a trendy restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, where she was running the pastry kitchen (pastry dungeon, as she affectionately called it) at the time. I'd read her blog, BraveTart. I'd worked with her on pieces for Serious Eats. I cheered when she was named one of America's Best New Pastry Chefs by Food & Wine magazine, but I'd never actually tasted her food.
Oh man, she really gets it, I thought to myself as I took the first bite. The dessert was a play on Lucky Charms, complete with crunchy, diamond-shaped, multicolored marshmallows and a delicate panna cotta made to taste just like cereal milk. If you ate your Lucky Charms the right way (cereal bits first, semi-soaked marshmallows next, oat-flavored cereal milk to wash it down), you already know what this dessert tastes like in your mind.
What's incredible, though, is that if you were to go home right afterward and pour yourself a bowl of Lucky Charms, you'd find them to be unpalatably sweet, the marshmallows more Styrofoam-like than crunchy. Stella had managed to make a bowl of Lucky Charms that tasted more like Lucky Charms to me than actual Lucky Charms. Think about that!
If Stella had a superpower (which I'm convinced she does), it's her ability to tap directly into those parts of our brains that store our childhood taste memories, unlocking them and stimulating desires that we never even knew we had, hidden away like the creme in the middle of a Devil Dog. Remember that awe, wonder, and unbridled joy you experienced as a toddler, peering out from behind your mom's or dad's legs in the boxed-cake aisle of the supermarket, your eyes glazed like a pair of Hostess Fruit Pies as they took in the rows of double chocolate brownies and angel food and buttercream? Reading and baking from BraveTart is like this, but better, because you're an adult now and nobody's gonna tell you how much frosting to put on those cakes.
But to imply that all of Stella's research takes place in the candy aisle would be doing her a huge discredit. You will not find a more thoroughly researched treatise on the history of classic American home baking than what is within the pages of this book. Stella's recipes are more than just recipes; they're thesis papers, informed not just by her own palate and skills, but by the hundreds of historic recipes, newspapers, advertisements, and books she unearthed in her studies. When was the last time you saw a book on baking with a 16-page bibliography?
I am convinced that Stella is the result of a biological accident where a lab technician dropped Betty Crocker, Ernie the Keebler Elf, Mr. Wizard, and Fannie Farmer's DNA samples into an incubator and out emerged a living, breathing pastry goddess. A genetic experiment gone horribly, horribly right.
Despite what reality TV shows might have you believe, great desserts are not about size or complexity or fancy decorations (though Stella's got no problem getting fancy when she needs to). They're not about breathtaking feats of culinary wizardry (though Stella's got plenty of those). They're not even about knowing how to make the lightest buttercream (meringue!) or the fluffiest yellow cake (potato flour!). They're about striking that balance between comfort and quality. They're about feeding friends and family and reminding them what they loved about desserts in the first place. And most important, they're about making and serving the desserts that speak to you, in the way that you want to make them.
By the time you're done reading BraveTart, you'll not only know how to make Stella's favorite brownies (or Little Debbie's favorite Oatmeal Creme Pies), you'll have been sufficiently schooled in the underlying science and technique to be able to make your own favorite brownies, whether you like them fudgy or cakey (and, because of Stella's infectious infatuation with history, you'll note that the cake-fudge paradigm shift occurred sometime in 1929).
Where Willy Wonka relied on magic to bring his creations to life, Stella relies on science, history, and fanatical testing and devotion to her craft. This is good news for us. You have to be born with magic, but science, history, and technique are lessons we can all learn.