What do all of prolific baker and cookbook writer Alice Medrich's books have in common? An incredible attention to detail that's intended, you'll discover, to make baking simpler by taking away the guesswork and ensuring (as much as possible) reliable results. You won't have to wonder about where in the oven the cake pan should go or how many minutes the cookies should cool on the sheet versus the wire rack.
But with eight books on her CV, where to start? The trajectory of the cookbooks follows that of her career, from pastry kitchen to home kitchen, incorporating the problems she found most interesting at the time, be that making desserts lower in fat or wheat-free.
Peruse the list below and decide whether you're a chocolate devotee (Seriously Bitter Sweet) or a wannabe baker with the heart of a cook (Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts). Or maybe you need the entire collection!
Whatever book—and recipe—you start with, Alice requests one thing: "I wish people would do it my way just once—and then do it however they want."
Click through on the titles to read a summary and find a sampling of desserts to start with.
Alice's books start off where she started off: professional pastry. When Alice opened her bakery Cocolat in Berkeley in 1976, the idea was to offer desserts—chocolate and otherwise—that were unavailable in the rest of the country. And this book fills a similar void: "That book was capturing that experience—very complex dessert recipes—and at that time, there were few, if any books that had done that for the home cook."
While Cocolat is a book for an ambitious project baker, it's not one destined—as many fine dining books are—for the coffee table: "It's really a teaching book," says Alice, with an enormous amount of detail. You can use it. The thin-lined illustrations and the extensive front and back matter ("Shortcuts and Production Tips," "Working with Chocolate: A Guide for Dessert Makers," and "Building Blocks") will help you through complicated processes.
And while you'll find recipes for truly complex desserts—French-style gâteaux composed of real buttercream and liqueur syrup and genoise and praline and, she writes, the other "complex and challenging desserts of the great pastry chefs of Europe"—there's also incredible simplicity: The first chapter is dedicated to the pared-down chocolate tortes (like the Bittersweet Chocolate Truffle Tart) that came to represent Alice's style.
(Maybe wait a couple of months before buying your copy of Cocolat—we heard from a little birdy that it's going to be republished soon.)
After Cocolat, Alice's point of view changed—she was thinking in terms of the home cook, someone not working in a professional shop where all the constituent parts of a multi-day dessert were easy to make—but not her expertise.
Alice's answer to the diet craze of the time, yes, but also her response to what she'd personally been noticing in the world: "It became clear that what was needed were desserts that tasted like desserts and weren't just fruit desserts."
It was a challenge that she found incredibly rewarding—"That's what I love to do the most: to solve a new problem, to look at a project from an angle that's different from the way other people look at it"—and an inclination to find innovative solutions that would come up in later works like Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts (written with cooks, not bakers, in mind) and Flavor Flours (which features non-wheat flours as hero ingredients).
It reflects her belief in using real ingredients—all the stuff that would normally be used in desserts, but juggled so that smaller quantities offer greater impact. As Jeffrey Steingarten wrote in The Man Who Ate Everything, Alice "has taken the job of creating low-fat chocolate desserts extremely seriously." Most of her creations are new—not low-fat versions of her earlier recipes—and she uses high-quality, natural ingredients strategically rather than replacing them with food substitutes. "
While this book doesn't have the same kind of problem-solving mission, it's a nice collection of Alice's chocolate recipes—and it's organized by season. There's Honey-Drizzled Chocolate Cheese Fritters in fall; Chocolate Cranberry Babka for winter; Chocolate Easter Baskets in spring; and Hot Waffle Ice Cream Sandwiches in summer.
Most of the recipes are fairly simple, but a few—like the Chocolate Cream Puffs with Spun Sugar and the Chocolate Hazelnut Roulade—will satisfy more advanced (or ambitious) bakers. The new edition is inexpensive, too—a perfect gift for the chocolate lover in your life (which may as well be yourself).
A big and fascinating project, Bitter Sweet pulls in desserts from all points in Alice's career with an eye towards how to adapt old recipes to accommodate the purer, more flavorful chocolates that were becoming more widely available in the U.S. at the time.
Alice published the book right before a sea change in the chocolate world: the marketing of bars with their cacao percentage, once considered trade secrets, right on the label. But since she published the book before that happened, she had to twist herself "into a pretzel to explain it to people." By the time the book was revised and republished as Seriously Bitter Sweet in 2013, all of the bars from American companies were sold with the percentages on the packaging—and the method to her madness was revealed.
In this book, Alice was using new chocolate in old recipes in order to introduce chocolate with higher cacao percentages at a time when not much American chocolates exceeded 60%. If you're wondering how these percentages affect baking, Alice suggests suggests trying all of the brownie recipes in the book, each with a different percentage of chocolate: "That's a good thing to do: a delicious, interesting exercise."
Seriously Bitter Sweet is for a baker who's passionate about chocolate and wants to work with a variety of chocolate ingredients (it was the first book in this country to include many recipes for cocoa nibs, both sweet and savory). Much of the information will inform how you use chocolate in other books and other recipes.
Where Chocolate Holidays is seasonally driven, Pure Dessert is divided up by ingredient—milk, grain/nuts/seeds, fruit, chocolate, honey and sugar, herbs and spices/flowers/leaves, wine/beer/spirits. It's an organizational method that seems instinctive to us now but that was new at the time. Alice uses ingredients—many of which are just gaining real popularity in the U.S. today (sesame, palm sugar, gianduja, muscovado sugar)—as the starting points (and it was in this exploration of different types of flours and grains that Flavor Flours was born).
"It's a quiet little book, not spectacular but has spectacular recipes," said Alice, who notes that the idea-driven, inspiration-heavy book is particularly suited to chefs and creative types—those who want to use the ingredients as jumping-off points: to adapt as they see fit or mix and match the recipes as elements of fancy plated desserts.
And for those of us who are more impatient than adventurous, we can turn to the book for simple recipes that are not taxing on time or ingredients (like Mexican Chocolate Soup with Cinnamon Toasts—ice cream floating in a pool of melted chocolate with sweet croutons—and Nutella Bread Pudding).
(And don't miss the quark soufflés and the sour cream ice cream either.)
It was after Alice hosted a professional food society bake-off that she realized that cookies, among the easiest and most joyful desserts, are also the most befuddling. "The recipes were too simple: Little details that made a difference were not even included in the recipes."
So Alice set out to write a book—Alice Medrich's Cookies and Brownies (1999)—that would suss out what makes cookie recipes work—the little details like how to cream the butter and sugar (over-creaming can give you a not-so-nice cookie) or where to place the baking sheets that make big differences. "The whole thing was to be explicit in these really simple ways."
Eleven years later, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies was put out as a new and improved version. Now we have unbleached flour instead of bleached, plus new ingredients like coconut, sesame seeds, peanut butter, and lemon. There's a variety of meringues (including meringue cookies flecked with seeds and swirled with nut butters) and desserts made with freeze-dried fruit powders, and probably half a dozen chocolate chip cookies.
If you're put off by long recipes with details at every turn (or if you question your skills in the dessert arena), this is the book for you. It's Alice's attempt to get as far away from "the pastry chef-ness of it all," to "write a baking book for the cooking mindset," with simpler, more forgiving recipes that readers could have their way with. (Of course, this was hard for her, baker that she is).
It's filled with lots of lists and ideas, like how to turn a bar of chocolate or a tub of plain yogurt into a special dessert. With opening chapters like "The Dessert Maker's Basic Pantry," "7 Great Things to Have," and "Magic Ingredients" (none of which feel obvious or stale), the book sets you up for a quick dessert at any moment in time.
Recipes also include ideas for variations and "Good to Know" tips (like five ways to switch up carrot cake or that the Mocha Fudge Frosting can, when heated, function as a sauce).
Try a "Lickety-Split Cake"—Alice recommends the food-processor Almond Cake; the Buttermilk Panna Cotta; or any of the fruit sauces and no-churn ice creams, and then...
Much as Alice approached low-fat desserts, she thought of non-wheat flours: not as a substitute for all-purpose, but as a new challenge that would yield exciting solutions. In Flavor Flours, which is divided by flour type, Alice pays them their fair dues, exploring the taste, flavor pairings, and particularities of each one as an ingredient in its own right. She uses the flours not to mimic all-purpose for those who can't eat gluten, but in order to create desserts that are more flavorful than those we've known.
The White Rice Chiffon Cake is the texture of an angel food, but with "a more intriguing flavor and far less sugar sweetness," for example (and there are plenty of suggestions for dressing it up); the earthy-sweetness of the corn flour in the dough of the Blueberry Corn Flour Cobbler stands up to the assertiveness of the fruit.
So the desserts are more interesting desserts, yes—and consider it an added bonus that you'll be able to feed many of them to your gluten-free friends.