Cookbook Review: 'Baking Chez Moi' Marries French Technique and Homey Simplicity

[Photographs: Alan Richardson]

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Intellectual and amiable cookbook author Dorie Greenspan is also always très chic, with her scarlet lips, gamine hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and scarf knotted around her neck. It's almost hard to picture her flour-dusted and chocolate-smudged, but surely she must have her moments, spending as much time wrist-deep in dough as she does. A native Brooklynite, Greenspan has clearly absorbed the culture of her part-time Paris home. And yet, 40 years after her relationship with Paris began (more common-law marriage than simple love affair), she is still making discoveries about French cooking that take her by surprise.

Despite having worked with the elite of pastry chefs (like her friend Pierre Herme, with whom she wrote a cookbook), Greenspan has only recently clued into what baking at home truly means for the French. They prefer to leave the elaborate creations to the professionals, and what they make at home tends to be, in fact, homey.

In her newest cookbook, Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere, Greenspan shares the recipes that it took her five years to slowly coax from her Parisian friends, her hairdresser, and even strangers at the table next to hers at lunch.

Dorie Greenspan was the perfect person to pull back the curtain and reveal the unassuming reality of the French kitchen. She actually has done it before, in her last cookbook, Around My French Table, which won a James Beard award and shook up preconceptions about old-guard French cooking. While that book dealt mostly with the savory side of things, Baking Chez Moi returns to her preoccupation cum occupation: dessert. She delights in digging into homespun French food culture, and translating her discoveries for her rapt American audience. And she does so in her utterly unmistakable voice.

Greenspan is known for her encouraging, eager-to-help tone, and if you've cooked from her other cookbooks, you could probably easily pick her recipes out of a line-up. Her instructions are crystal clear, with been-there-done-that reassurances, like, "Perfection is impossible, so ignore any splatters..." and "Don't step away from the stove while the milk is coming to a boil—if you move, the milk is just about guaranteed to bubble over the pan and make a colossal mess."

Greenspan drew inspiration from regions in France known for certain specialties, like Olive Oil and Wine Cookies from the Languedoc and Apple Croustades from Gascony. But the bulk of her intel came from the home cooks around her. Her sources often shooed her recipe requests away; they couldn't believe she was after something so simple. It took some convincing on her part to get across that, no, simple was what she genuinely wanted, because in the kitchen, French 'simple' usually translates to 'perfect.'

Eventually she ended up with recipes like Laurent's Slow-Roasted Spiced Pineapple, coerced from a stylist at her hair salon, in which roasting pineapple is basted in a boozy spiced syrup until it nearly candies. And there's Moka Dupont, an icebox cake made with store-bought butter cookies and buttercream flavored with chocolate and coffee, that was the childhood birthday cake of a close friend.

While there are recognizably French treats, like macarons, pithiviers, and Crackle-Top Cream Puffs (apparently all the rage in Paris), as a whole, the recipes are not jarringly unfamiliar—loaf cakes, tarts, and cookies (even good ol' chocolate chip) abound. Actually, what makes this book feel especially French is what isn't there, rather than what is. While American comfort baking tends to revel in moremoreMORE (how many goodies can you cram into a batch of blondies?), these recipes show an appreciation for the simple, often unadorned. Few are at all fussy or time-consuming, as one might expect from the land of croissants and croquembouche. Many come together in a couple bowls in a couple of minutes. Many more are finished only with a dusting of powdered sugar. And the results are predictably elegant; rustic but, you know, classy.

Take, for instance, the Custardy Apple Squares, which Greenspan calls her "back-pocket recipe" that relies more on the alchemy of a hot oven than elbow-grease. A bare handful of ingredients are thrown together—thinly sliced apples are folded into a crepe-like batter of flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs, milk, butter, and vanilla. The mixture goes into a small, buttered baking pan, and then comes the only hard part: waiting the 40 to 50 minutes for it to bake while the most heavenly aroma fills your kitchen. Really, if I had to pick one thing for my house to smell like forever, it would be this. Luckily, once it's baked, the wait is nearly over. A mere 15 minutes of cooling is all she asks for, and then it's fair game. (The cake is as delicious warm as it is at room temperature as it is straight from the fridge.)

This is one of those little miracle recipes that scratches an itch you didn't know you had. You've undoubtedly eaten plenty of apple pies and apple cakes, apple turnovers, apple galettes, and apple crisps. Who would have thought such a simple little concoction could give them all a run for their money? But this does. The batter does indeed turn custardy, the apples align into densely packed layers, and every bite is fragrant, moist, and so purely appley.

Even easier are her no-bake Desert Roses: clusters of dried fruit, nuts, coconut, and cornflakes—yup, apparently the French can do low-brow—suspended in butter-enriched chocolate. These candies, a French childhood given, really threw Greenspan for a loop. She waxes, "Here's one more thing to add to the list of things I love about the French: The same people who invented the macaron, the mille-feuille, and the iconic tarte tatin not only invented the Desert Rose, but love it, a feat that seems as impossible as holding two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time."

She likens them to our Rice Krispie treats, and I suppose in their simplicity, ubiquity, and use of breakfast cereal, they are not dissimilar. But they seem more grown-up, more sophisticated, than our sticky-sweet iteration. Her recipe (the original was apparently off the back of a cornflakes box), while lovely in the proportions and ingredients, can be used as a jumping-off point—merely substitute or add in whatever you prefer. Basically, if you have a bag of chocolate chips, a stick of butter, and a box of cereal, you're good to go.

Greenspan does include a handful of more involved desserts, and those she reimagines in her own way. Her Gingerbread Buche de Noel is both. Yule logs are a staple of the French holiday season, but this version seems quite American to me, with its cream cheese filling and sweet meringue frosting. A gently spiced, light-as-air sponge cake is rolled around a mixture of cream cheese and butter fragrant with vanilla and cinnamon, sweetened only by the addition of caramel-coated pecans. A simple meringue covers the cake, which gets a finishing sprinkle of more of those pecans. Although there are a few components, none are terribly tricky, and the cake comes together in spurts over the course of an afternoon (though you can make everything except the frosting ahead of time). I wouldn't recommend it for a novice, as there is caramel and hot syrup involved, but it's a very doable, very rewarding project for a semi-experienced baker.

Actually, very doable and very rewarding rather sums up Baking Chez Moi. It's the perfect gift for the little Francophile inside all of us.