Amanda Hesser once called Rose Levy Beranbaum "the most meticulous cook who ever lived." Beranbaum's latest book, The Baking Bible, will show you how to do things right. It's packed with recipes (carefully laid out in tables with weight and volume), interwoven with tips: how to troubleshoot a cracked or sunken cake, how to prevent a pie crust that's too thick where the bottom meets the sides, how to keep cookies from browning too much on the bottom, etc. It's almost like having a personal baking instructor by your side as you tackle your first homemade cheesecake or a lattice-topped pie.
We asked Beranbaum for another sort of advice: how to find great cookbooks, and what cookbooks she deems worthy of affection. Here are her favorites.
What would you say makes a good cookbook? A good cookbook is one in which the author has authority and shares it. All the information for success needs to be in each recipe and weights for most ingredients are essential. Photos of the finished recipe are a great asset but are secondary to the written instructions. Step-by-step photos for techniques, where they are necessary, also elevate the quality of a cookbook. Good design and layout are, of course, important.
And most important of all is that the recipes were thoroughly tested and carefully proof-read and consistent. It is disappointing when an author takes the leap of adding weights, if they are not consistent from recipe to recipe. For example, one teaspoon of salt at six grams should not be seven grams on another recipe. A great cookbook is one that has all of these elements and is true to the author's unique vision.
What old school baking books do you love? Paula Peck's The Art of Fine Baking was my first baking book and it is the one that inspired me to write one of my own. Her writing and recipe titles were inspirational but what was missing was a detailed description of the recipes and the differences between similar ones so that the reader could choose which to make.
My next baking books were by Maida Heatter and my goal was to write just like her. Her enthusiasm and passion for baking shines on every page and made me want to make each recipe in the book. Next was Flo Braker's The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. The recipes are elegant, original, and delicious.
What more recent baking books impress you? Lisa Yockelson's Baking by Flavor. I love her precision, aesthetics, and brilliant ideas, concepts, and techniques. I trust her recipes—they always work.
When people ask me questions about high altitude baking I refer them to Susan Purdee's Pie in the Sky because she actually tested recipes at varying altitudes.
For bread, I am very impressed by Peter Reinhart's books, especially The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Not only is Reinhart a master bread baker, he is a master teacher.
What lesser-known cookbooks do you think deserve more love? All of Paula Wolfert's books are culinary treasures. Her sense of flavor and passion for food are unequaled. MFK Fisher's The Art of Eating is the book that inspired me to become a food writer and travel the world tasting wonderful things. Daniel Patterson and Mandy Aftel's Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Foods and Fragrance will elevate one's sense of taste immeasurably and open up new flights of possibility.
What book would you consider essential for beginner cooks?
America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Book is my recommendation for beginning cooks. It is comprehensive, with excellent step-by-step photos, and the recipes are thoroughly tested.
What cookbooks would you choose as gifts? Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty because it is inspirational, with recipes that are vibrant and unusual. Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, which is not a cookbook per se but is one of my top favorite books and reveals, in a fascinating and exquisitely written way, how people perceive flavor. Caitlin Williams Freeman's Modern Art Desserts—I love this stunning and fascinating book so much I wrote the foreword to it!