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Baking Chez Moi: French Baking That's Not Scary at All

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You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, in Books We Love, we'll talk about our favorites.

Today: With Dorie by your side, you'll see that French baking is a lot less intimidating, a lot more accessible, and a whole lot simpler than you ever thought.  

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When Julia Child needed someone to write the compendium of baking techniques and recipes that became Baking with Julia (published in 1996), she turned to Dorie Greenspan. One day, as the two were getting ready for an outing, Julia realized that Dorie was planning to leave the house bare-lipped. She was shocked. “Julia said to me, ‘You can’t go out without lipstick. You don’t know who you might meet,’” Dorie remembers. “We went into Walgreens and she bought me the lipstick she used -- ninety-nine cent lipstick in a green tube. She used it because it lasted for 24 hours so she never had to worry about retouching.”

But when Dorie applied Julia’s beloved lipstick, her lips turned a hideous shade of orange and she was stuck with it for a full day. Sometimes, things are better au natural.

That’s also the principle behind Dorie’s latest book, in which she applies a whole lot of make-up remover to the illustrious and intimidating realm of French patisserie. As Dorie puts it, Baking Chez Moi offers “a peek into what’s a parallel universe to fancy French pastry” -- this is French baking when it’s done at home in sweatpants, no lipstick in sight.

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Perhaps you think of the French as effortlessly elegant -- all coiffed poodles and dangling cigarettes and long legs and perfectly positioned scarves. But as Dorie reveals, the French are just as unguarded and low-key as we are, at least when they're baking for the people they love. Look beyond the fancy French names and, with Dorie’s help, you’ll find the French version of the banana bread and chocolate chip cookies you bake in a half-coma on a Monday night: They are weekend cakes, custards, and sablés, and they are not the kind of recipes you’ll get by asking any beret-ed Parisian what he or she bakes at home. No, they’re the product of long-standing relationships and persistent prying. 

It took Dorie five years of active work to collect the recipes for this book, but to her, it feels like it took forty. When she finally coaxed them out of her French friends (Martine, Laurent, Bernard, Edourd…), even she was surprised by just how simple they were. “They all said the same thing: ‘You don’t want this recipe -- it’s too simple.' I heard it over and over again. When I finally said, ‘I want it,’ I saw that they were simple.” Don’t open this book and expect a show of fake humility -- these are not desserts you’ll slave over all day only so you can flip your hair and squeak, “Oh this thing? I just threw it together!” They are not the sorts of recipes that expect you to use homemade puff pastry.

More: How can you make your kitchen more Parisian? Start by switching to salted butter.

Though these recipes truly are simple, they’re also special and inspiring -- each one has the kind of flavor and ingredient combinations you’ll wish you had thought of yourself. Dorie’s recipes are the product of her friendships in France, the time she splits between Paris and the East Coast, and her ability to take what she tastes and refashion it in her own style. There’s a recipe for Slow-Roasted Spiced Pineapple with liquor, pink peppercorns, and fresh ginger that Dorie pulled from a hair stylist at her salon; there are custardy, chocolate crunch-topped Cream Cheese and Toast Tartlets inspired by a fromage blanc tartlet from Cherrier; and there are Crispy-Topped Brown Sugar Bars, which, unlike the “chubby and tooth-achingly sweet” Rice Krispies treats of American childhood, are “supermodel slim, chic, and bittersweet.” It’s Dorie’s incredible understanding of French and American desserts that allows her to weave them together seamlessly.

More: Watch Amanda and Merrill make Port Jammer cookies with Dorie herself.
 
No matter who you are, Dorie wants you to succeed. She is a master baker, but not one who mandates recipes from high above. She has made all of the mistakes for you and is here to walk you through the recipe rather than to drag you along. For novice bakers who cry, “I love baking but it’s too precise,” Dorie will introduce you to her French friends who estimate freely, ignoring weights or measuring cups. For thrill-seeking bakers, Dorie has plenty of show-stopping desserts for you, too. These are the kind of creations that real-life French people would leave to the pastry professionals, but that appeal to our American desire to spend entire weekends project baking. Just take a look at the chocolate-glazed, chocolate-filled, multi-layered Carrément Chocolat or the Pithiviers, which consists of two rounds of puff pastry embracing a layer of almond cream and prune jam.

More: Dorie's Cardamom Crumb Cake belongs on your holiday table, your breakfast table, and your nightstand, too.

Dorie gives practical advice on serving and storing your finished product; she calls out important notes on timing and equipment so that you won’t be surprised when you reach a step that involves an overnight chill or a candy thermometer; and she offers a whole lot of “Bonnes Idées”: suggestions for making the dish your own (Scatter some fresh berries over your lemon squares before baking! Make DIY Milanos by sandwiching Cat’s Tongue cookies with chocolate ganache!). You’ll want to take credit for all of these recipes, and you’ll get the sense that Dorie wouldn’t be angry -- she’d be proud.

It soothes a baker’s anxiety to know that these desserts aren’t intended to be perfect. While it is a relief to hear Dorie say that they “do not have to impress anyone,” it’s even better to know that they will impress nonetheless -- for their taste and for their funny and cute French names, both.

The only problem you’ll have with this book is deciding what to make first. But Dorie has an answer for that, too. Bake the Custardy Apple Squares “because it’s fall, because there are so many varieties of apples in the market, and because it’s a simple, back pocket recipe that you can make it in the spur of the moment.”

Photos of chocolate cookies and crumb cake by James Ransom; all others by Alan Richardson


See more from the illustrated biographies of 16.5 global desserts

Tags: dorie greenspan, baking chez moi, cookbook, cookbook review, baking, desserts, french, france, parisian, pastries