A Savory-Sweet Pastry Project to Tackle on a Snow Day

Melissa Weller’s new cookbook ‘A Good Bake’ helps everyone become a baking whiz.

December 16, 2020
Photo by Johnny Miller

After reading through just a few recipes, it’s clear that A Good Bake by Melissa Weller is one of those cookbooks that will be used, not simply admired. Indeed, my own copy bore butter stains within a week.

Read through any publication's baking coverage and you'll likely spot Weller's name—and maybe her swirled cover-star babka, which she's been making for years. Its mass appeal was the first element that jumped out at me about A Good Bake: I’d be just as inclined to gift a copy to my Julia Child–loving aunt as I would my 23-year-old sister who finds most of her recipes on Instagram.

After working at Sullivan Street Bakery, High Street on Hudson, Per Se, Bouchon Bakery, Roberta’s, and Sadelle’s to name only a few, Weller is currently baker-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Gertie, slinging schnecken, babka, and plenty more treats for which anyone should be willing to make the trek outside. (Just the other weekend, as it poured rain on Saturday morning, the team worried about the freshly-baked pastries going to waste; everything was sold out by noon.)

It’s this love for restaurant baking that actually inspired Weller to write a cookbook. Though she started out in a career in engineering, her heart was in the recipes she sneakily read during downtime at her desk. “I know a lot of bakers who were engineers,” Weller told me over the phone. “We did something practical…but we had these passions and we wanted to follow them. It was easy to use our background to help us with baking.”

Her first job in pastry was in 2004 at Babbo in Manhattan. “I was really blown away by my experience. My mentor was Gina DePalma and she was writing a cookbook,” Weller said. Though Weller knew she wanted to write a cookbook of her own even then, something was missing: “I really needed my own point of view. I needed to work at these places first and see different things before I felt ready to write my own book.”

Indeed, only a certain type of baker could produce something so monolithic. Weller’s recipes are more of an investment from an everyday one-bowl bake (though there are recipes for cookies, bars, quick breads, and “casual cakes” in the collection as well). She covers laminated pastry, enriched dough, savory bread, and deep-frying—all of which can be quite intimidating. But she takes the time to explain technique in a clear, detailed way, so that even a first-time baker could flip open the book and make a batch of kouign-amanns successfully.

In fact, Weller explained that the writer she worked with on this book, Carolynn Carreño, had never made a laminated dough—the pastry that gets its shatteringly flaky layers from a block of butter, or a beurrage to use the French term, folded into the dough over and over—before testing Weller’s recipes. Yet she was able to get through the chapter without a hitch. Weller wanted “to make sure that everybody knows what to do with this butter packet.”

Though her Black Pepper Fantails look like pastries worthy of a Parisian display case, they’re not as tricky as they seem. Weller explained that during her time at Sadelle’s, the team wondered if she could transform her infamous chocolate-glazed babka into a savory bread. Naturally, she knew exactly how to figure it out: “I put [the recipe] in an Excel spreadsheet, looked to see how much sugar was in my babka dough, cut it in half, and that became my fantail recipe.”

Pro tip: Though the recipe says the butter packet should be chilled (and it should be at first!) that doesn’t mean you want it cold cold, the way you might when making pie crust; the butter needs to soften a bit in order to properly fold into the dough: “It's better to err on the side of warmer butter and colder dough,” she explained.

Of course, there are still many who’d prefer to read A Good Bake like a novel in between bites of pastry from their favorite local bakery, and Weller is all for that, especially this year. “Order from restaurants. Take out as much as possible,” she said. Even if you can’t get to Gertie for one of Wellers’ glaze-covered delights, I bet there’s somewhere nearby that makes a good laminated pastry and strong cup of coffee.

Have you made laminated pastries? Deep-fried? Let us know in the comments!

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.