The Year’s Best Baking Cookbooks, for Novices and Pros

This happened to me after following the pie dough recipe in Erin Jeanne McDowell’s wonderful book, “The Fearless Baker” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). After reassuring readers that pie making isn’t so terrifying, she spends more than a dozen pages carefully breaking down the steps in classic pie crust recipe — everything from why the size of a butter cube matters to why you need to chill the ingredients at every step.

My biggest takeaway was to stop using the food processor. Although the machine does bring everything together in a flash and without the possibility that the heat of your hands will melt the butter, it’s also too easy to overprocess, yielding a crust that’s tender but flat as a cracker.

As Ms. McDowell promises, mixing by hand gives you more control, thus a flakier result. And if you have perpetually cold hands, as I do, spending a few minutes squashing butter doesn’t seem to do the cubes any harm.

The crust I made for her intensely flavored bourbon-rosemary peach pie was so airy and crunchy it was almost like puff pastry, something Ms. McDowell also teaches readers how to make. She even includes an innovative variation for chocolate puff pastry, which, following her detailed instructions, I pinched and sugared into adorable chocolate palmiers. With her as my guide, the whole process wasn’t that much more complicated than making pie dough — exactly her point.


These intense, easy-to-make gluten-free chocolate cookies are like a cross between fudge and the deepest of brownies.

Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

There are dozens of simpler recipes in the book as well, including a cinnamon-scented, fudgy, one-bowl flourless cocoa cookie that my daughter and I stirred together in minutes. A gluten-free keeper for sure.

When it comes to pie, in “BraveTart” (Norton, $35), Stella Parks, a former pastry chef, takes the notion of flaky dough one step further in her “no-stress” pie crust recipe. In addition to hand-squashing each chunk of butter, she also folds the dough over itself a few times, creating something a lot like rough puff pastry, but a heck of a lot easier.

It’s an excellent recipe, but it’s not the main reason you should buy her book. Buy it for her fascinating historical essays that show, over and over, how many of our favorite American dessert recipes (pumpkin pie, white…

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