I am a dessert person. I like cakes and cookies and pies and believe that no meal is complete without something sweet at the end. When a server asks me if I saved room for dessert, the answer is always “yes.” I walk to the corner bodega late at night for a piece of chocolate on the rare occasion that I don’t have any in my apartment. Whipped cream is my favorite food of all time.
My love of eating desserts is matched by my love of making them. The alchemy that turns butter, sugar, eggs, and flour into cake never ceases to astonish or delight me. I crave the tactile sensation of dough between my fingers. Rolling out a pie crust or cutting biscuits is my version of doing yoga. Dessert is in my DNA.
So when I hear people say, “I don’t like sweets” or “I’m not a dessert person,” it makes me a bit suspicious. Sweet is one of the five tastes, so how can anyone discount it entirely? While I, too, reject cloying desserts, I suggest that those who say they don’t like sweets just haven’t found the right one. Whether it’s composed of chocolate or fruit, buttery pastry or creamy custard, there’s a dessert for everyone. In short, I think anyone can be a dessert person, even people who think they’re not.
Identifying as a dessert person isn’t just about a love of baking and pastry and all things sweet. To me, it’s an attitude; it’s about embracing cooking and eating as fundamental sources of pleasure. This is a book about baking—most of it sweet, some of it savory—but, more broadly, it argues in favor of an approach to food that is celebratory, abundant, and at times a tad luxurious.
Another thing I hear people say is “I’m a cook but I’m not a baker,” as if cooking and baking are separate disciplines when, in fact, they are closely related. These kinds of statements reveal a bias against baking. While cooking is considered creative, passionate, and improvisational, baking gets labeled exacting, rigid, and nondeviating.
This book is a defense of baking. The recipes are modern interpretations of classic dishes and put unexpected twists on familiar flavors in an effort to demonstrate just how versatile and flexible baking can be (which is why you’ll find an entire chapter on savory baking as well). As a whole, I wrote this book as a friendly rebuke to anyone who thinks of baking as a lesser art that affords fewer creative opportunities.
I started my career in the test kitchen at Bon Appétit
magazine, where I still work as a video host and occasional contributor, even though I am no longer on staff full-time. Working in the test kitchen taught me to develop recipes with a sensitivity to the realities and limitations that home cooks face. As much as you or I might love being in the kitchen, I know that it can feel like work. It requires time and money to shop for ingredients. It requires washing dishes. It requires patience and attentiveness. Most significantly, it requires practice if you want to be even remotely good at it.
One reason I suspect people who cook say they don’t, won’t, or can’t bake is because baking poses a particular challenge. Unlike cooking, where you can correct course and make adjustments as you go, baking is less forgiving. It requires an understanding of certain rules and principles. Ingredients combine and transform in unseen, mysterious ways inside the oven. Success never feels like a guarantee. It took years of practice for much of my anxiety about baking to abate, but despite all my professional experience, I sometimes still feel uneasy in the kitchen. Will the filling thicken enough? Is it browning too fast on the bottom? Did the center fully bake even though the tester came out clean? These feelings are normal, and Dessert Person
is here to help!
I wrote this book to celebrate and defend my love of desserts, and also to empower reluctant home bakers to work with new ingredients, attempt new techniques, and bake with more confidence. Each recipe is carefully written to provide all the information necessary to achieve a successful result. I provide notes to help explain basic baking principles, like why the butter in pie dough should stay cold, or how to whip egg whites so they form firm peaks. My goal in explaining the hows and whys of each recipe is to demystify the baking process and make it more rewarding.
My approach to baking is similar to my approach to cooking, which means I use seasonal produce whenever possible. Fruit desserts are my preference, and I usually want whatever I’m making to check one or more of the following boxes: crispy, chewy, cakey, custardy, or buttery. Just like in cooking, I strive for balance in my sweets, which is why I especially love using bitter ingredients like tahini and unsweetened cocoa, since they combine with sugar in such interesting and delicious ways. By countering the sugar in my recipes with other bitter, sour, and salty flavors, I aim for desserts that are just sweet enough. A variety of pleasing textures is important, too, so you’ll notice lots of crispy-edged, chewy-in-the-center cookies and flaky-bottomed, cream-filled tarts.
You won’t find a lot of individually prepared desserts here, since composed dishes just aren’t as fun as shareable ones. I treasure the tiny thrill of setting down a whole burnished pie, glistening tart, or fluffy layer cake on a table surrounded by friends, and the spectacle of cutting into it. Even when it turns out a little wonky, dessert is always a centerpiece, an attention-grabber, and an object of excitement.
You will not find these recipes overwrought in terms of styling, either. I see no need to try too hard, make a fuss, or be overly precious when it comes to presenting a dessert. If it tastes good, it usually looks good, too. I want a homemade dessert to look homemade, not social media–perfect. Every recipe should still be beautiful—an artful dollop of whipped cream here, a scattering of sparkly sugar there—but I’m guided by the principle that any decoration, embellishment, or garnish should also enhance flavor.
Some of the recipes feature clever, unexpected elements or flavor combinations, like the Preserved Lemon Meringue Cake (page 206) or Brioche Twists with Coriander Sugar (page 229). A lot will look familiar, too. For example, I rely on the tried-and-true mix of buttery pastry and brown sugar in my recipe for Apple Tart (page 91), since there’s simply no improving this combination. Whether it’s a recipe as unusual-sounding as Kabocha Turmeric Tea Cake (page 42), or as familiar as Chocolate Chip Cookies (page 133), I hope you’ll want to make many of these recipes again and again.
From simple Marcona Almond Cookies (page 127) to a complex Peach Melba Tart (page 121), the breadth of desserts in this book means that everyone from the beginner to the veteran home baker will find a comfortable entry point. I rate the difficulty of each recipe on a scale from 1 (Very Easy) to 5 (Very Challenging). The easier recipes are designed to make even a novice baker feel like a pro without great effort, while the more challenging recipes are projects. For more on this ratings system, read How to Use This Book (and Be a Successful Baker) on page 17.
I’ve tried in each recipe, no matter the level of difficulty, to ease the burden for home bakers. I call for standard pan sizes whenever possible. Most ingredients are ones you can find at any well-stocked grocery store, and I make every attempt to minimize odds and ends. For example, a recipe will use the full 8 ounces of sour cream in a single container, rather than 7 or 9. I strive for each recipe to have a sense of self-containment and wholeness, meaning I won’t call for two ingredients where one will do.
This book asks you to spend time in the kitchen, but it also tries to make that experience fun and interesting. I hope that it leads already committed home bakers down a path of experimentation, creative expression, and maybe even stress reduction. I hope it gives novices the confidence they need to start learning and to feel less intimidated. And finally, I hope that it persuades any skeptics that baking is more adaptable and multifaceted than they thought. There are no “just cooks” out there, only bakers who haven’t yet been converted.
Self-identifying as a dessert person is my way of declaring that no foods are good or bad. Food holds no moral weight at all. Dessert is not “sinful,” and I don’t need permission from anyone, myself included, to enjoy it. This is a book filled with practical recipes for the home baker, but it’s also my personal meditation on the benefits and pleasures of living less restrictively. I hope that you not only make something from this book, but that you enjoy it, guilt-free, with family and friends. I am a dessert person, and we are all dessert people.
Copyright © 2020 by Claire Saffitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.