What to CookDessert

10 Things Writing the 'Genius Desserts' Cookbook Taught Me About Baking/Life

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Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook. But today...

On this, the day of Genius Desserts' birth, I’m feeling nostalgic about the wild two-year, seriously sticky journey that we all went on together to bring this book to life. You, the Food52 community at large, were there from the start, sending me your most dependable all-star recipes and the new discoveries that got you all excited.

But there were in-between times that I retreated into my cave and didn’t share much about the adventures that were going on with the book—and there were a lot. In honor of Genius Desserts launching into the world today, I gathered up the ten behind-the-scenes lessons working on this book taught me about baking/writing/life below. Not surprisingly, the most memorable ones came from you.

An Infamously Genius Caramel Almond Tart (+ A Call For Your Best-Loved Desserts)
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An Infamously Genius Caramel Almond Tart (+ A Call For Your Best-Loved Desserts)

1. Testing baking recipes is very different (and much harder) than testing savory ones.

I learned quickly that testing and retesting hundreds of baking recipes is a special kind of animal because you usually can’t tweak a recipe midstream, and the things that go wrong (flattened cakes, exploding cookies—I’ve seen it) are often more inscrutable.

This is why we need to treasure and support our baking geniuses like the ones in this book, because while most people can create an amazing salad, not everyone can create an amazing (especially a new or paradigm-shifting) cake. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how they do it. This is also why it’s extremely important for baking recipes to be well-tested and well-edited—with a lot of help from my friends (see #2 and #4), I took this very, very seriously.

2. The most important feedback I got came from you.

In addition to the tireless help of a small army of longtime Food52 recipe testers and our test kitchen crew, I asked the Food52 Baking Club on Facebook if anyone would be interested in taking some of the book’s recipes for a spin. I thought I'd be lucky to get a dozen responses, but was absolutely floored by their enthusiasm and commitment—over 100 recipes were claimed in under an hour, so we kept releasing more batches for second and third tests. Our head recipe tester Stephanie Bourgeois came up with an elaborate system for tracking feedback and photos, which were invaluable in many ways, including a particularly big one…

The loudest pleas we heard were for ingredients to be listed consistently in grams, and to not switch between grams for dry ingredients and milliliters for wet. (Don’t worry, every ingredient is also listed in cups/tablespoons/etc.) Until now, Food52's cookbook standard—and that of a majority of U.S. cookbooks that include metrics, even many baking books—was to use milliliters and liters for any liquid measures, rather than grams.

But the experienced home bakers in the club were absolutely right—if you’re already measuring in grams for accuracy and ease, it’s silly, slow, and annoying to have to dirty extra measuring cups for oil and milk and cream. So at a fairly late stage (sorry, Ten Speed!), we decided to convert all our milliliters and liters to grams, and retest the recipes. This was a real editing hairball, but I’m grateful that our testers were honest in their critiques, and we were able to make the book more useful and accurate, for both new and seasoned bakers.

Measuring Flour Right: 3 Tips for Better Baked Goods
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Measuring Flour Right: 3 Tips for Better Baked Goods

3. I had the chance to fix my own cookbook pet peeve (but it was harder than I thought).

If you’re measuring dry ingredients like flour by volume, the way you scoop can make a huge difference in how dry and heavy your baked goods turn out—a detail that’s included in the front of lots of cookbooks, where it's easy to miss (or get lopped off when a single recipe is reprinted online). So with Ten Speed’s blessing, we added a nagging reference to every flour and cocoa powder measurement in the book. Combined with the imperial and metric measurements, this became a bit of a design challenge, but we made it work. I hope that this saves at least a few people from clunky, dense cakes and cookies.

4. Curveballs can come up at every stage of editing.

After the mega-brisket incident of ’15, I knew I wanted to be extra cautious in checking against the original recipes to make sure no errors snuck in along the way. The process of editing a cookbook is ultra meticulous and goes through many rounds: The original manuscript gets a developmental edit (for things like story and overall concerns like, Whoa, we are waaay over word count) and a copy edit (for things like consistency and grammar), then gets flowed into the book design and reviewed three more times, including by an outside proofreader once, and pretty much continuously by my editor Kelly Snowden and myself. At Food52, we also hire a superstar fact-checker named CB Owens at the end, to be extra crazy.

A tiny, single-digit miss at any of these stages could mean I’m sending people shopping for a freakish 16-pound brisket instead of a respectable 6-pound one, until the book gets a reprint and we can fix it. In watching the original recipes hawkishly this time around, I found little changes that snuck in at every stage, and squashed them. (A heaping cup of sugar does not equal a cup of sugar, so let’s make that a cup + 2 tablespoons and re-test to make sure it works, and so on.) If I missed any, I trust you’ll let me know.

Are You There, Genius Lemon Bars? + 17 More Desserts I’m Hunting
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Are You There, Genius Lemon Bars? + 17 More Desserts I’m Hunting

5. The best collection comes from all angles, including unexpected ones.

To find these recipes, I asked you, our community, first. I asked pros who write about baking. I asked pros who bake. Sometimes people went above and beyond, like baking legend Nick Malgieri calling up Maida Heatter’s longtime editor to confirm her most popular recipes for the cause (for the record: East 62nd Street Lemon Cake, Palm Beach Brownies, Queen Mother Cake, Skinny Peanut Wafers—guess which two we squeezed into the book?).

I followed every lead—even Google Translate came in handy. I ordered a lot of $.99 used cookbooks online. I thought about what was missing, and asked you for even more help. I tried to be open to new discoveries as I tested, and checked with the geniuses about any big tweaks I wanted to make: For example, I loved the smooth, cinnamon-scented filling of a Portuguese egg tart, but I found the technique for a Hong Kong–style oil & water dough to be a really intuitive and friendly way to make puff pastry, so I asked both sets of geniuses if it was okay with them if I combined the methods in one super-recipe (with the longest list of credits in the book: FROM YANK SING WITH RACHEL KHONG & GEORGE MENDES WITH GENEVIEVE KO).

The book we all came up with together is a collection of desserts that bring with them their own beloved quirks and rich history, one that no author could have created on their own.

6. Iconic recipes didn’t get that way by accident (but we don’t always know why).

François Payard’s flourless chocolate walnut cookies are well-known and published widely because they’re a puzzle and a delight: fudgy, light, and chewy, without having any flour, butter, or oil. Only once I talked with Payard on the phone did the why make perfect sense: He’d been inspired by French macarons, which also rely on little more than egg whites, sugar, and nuts for their texture. Similarly, as I tried to figure out why Claudia Fleming’s Guinness Stout Ginger Cake had developed such a devoted following, I finally noticed that there were virtually no ginger cakes using malty, bitter stouts before Fleming published her version in 2001. (Usually it was hot coffee or water.) If you look hard enough, there’s a good story and a clear reason behind the recipes everyone loves.

7. Some of the most surprising recipes are the ones that blogs and food magazines haven’t been talking about for 20 years.

As much as I loved digging into the iconic recipes in the book, I also loved what would happen when I just got a great baker or chef to tell me about their undiscovered tricks. Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri restaurants and Bake Lab casually mentioned a naturally vegan and gluten-free lemon cookie that’s bound by avocado, which she came up with by request of her daughter while sitting at a stop light. Alex Raij of Txikito and other restaurants shared a single batter that works for crunchy cookies or fluffy sponge cake, along with a bunch of inventive spin-offs, including one that you can also make from any stale cake scraps. No one’s talking about these yet, but I hope they’re about to!

8. It’s extremely lucky (and rare) to be both the recipe obsessor and on-set food stylist.

I’m very lucky, as a control freak thorough researcher, to have been able to get involved in not just the testing, research, and writing of the Genius cookbooks but the photo shoots, to make sure the recipes all look just as they will when you make them, and hopefully as the original authors intended. This time around, I was even more lucky to work with our talented art director and prop stylist Alexis Anthony (you’ll notice that improvement) and wonderful baker and food stylist Erin McDowell running the whole baking operation. Occasionally, I'd realize later in editing that I’d done something rogue (like oops, there’s clearly more than a tablespoon of caramel on top of those butterscotch budinos), and was able to clear up my deviance in the instructions.

Stella Parks' No-Stress, Super-Flaky Pie Crust
Stella Parks' No-Stress, Super-Flaky Pie Crust

9. Recipes that are genius individually sometimes don’t piece together well in a cookbook.

Individually, you may be glad when pie and galette recipes come with their own recommended crust. But in a single cookbook, you probably don’t want to have 5 different basic flaky pie crust recipes. Luckily, Stella Parks has an extraordinarily genius one, so it became the de facto flaky crust in the book. Unluckily, that meant we needed to do more heavy lifting and retesting in that chapter to make sure the amounts and steps from the master dough recipe fit seamlessly into all of the others. I’d also initially included a couple ideas to use her ultra-flaky dough as a substitute for puff pastry to make palmiers and tarte tatin, but the further we got down the path, the more it seemed like we needed more instructions than could fit on the page, so they had to go (you can still totally do this by swapping Parks' dough in for puff pastry—it’s really good).

A Genius Chocolate (Vegan) Birthday Cake with Super-Fluffy Frosting
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A Genius Chocolate (Vegan) Birthday Cake with Super-Fluffy Frosting

10. You know a recipe really is genius when it defies all odds and still works.

I love when the genius part of a recipe gets proven out in trying circumstances. On the day we were shooting Anita Shepherd's vegan chocolate birthday cake for the cover, it was about 90° F in the studio, so Erin and I consulted about our options. We were prepared to have to fiddle with the frosting to get it to hold up on the cake, just like you might need to if it was 90° F in your kitchen (there are tips in the recipe for that). Erin burst into the studio to let me know that she’d been nervous that the last dose of almond milk would make the frosting runnier, but then poured it in anyway and poof, it got as fluffy and billowy as it was supposed to, face-melting heat notwithstanding. The frosting then held up in the studio through hours of shooting, with Erin’s pup Brimley circling encouragingly at our feet.


Tags: Genius Recipes, Cookbooks, Behind The Scenes