Cookbook Tester: The Craft of Baking

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From 2001 to 2008, Karen DeMasco was the pastry chef who conjured the desserts at Craft, Craftbar, and 'wichcraft, providing a blissfully lavish counterpoint to Tom Colicchio's studiously executed cooking. DeMasco's since moved on to Locanda Verde, where she's currently demolishing diets with things like maple budino and pistachio brown butter cake.

DeMasco's desserts, so full of straightforward yet elegant pleasures, would suggest that the chef would make an excellent guide for the home baker. Her new book, The Craft of Baking (Clarkson Potter), provides definitive proof: its pages contain recipes suitable for both avid and beginning bakers, written in a voice that's as authoritative as it is understanding. In her section on making caramel, for example, DeMasco concedes that it "can be intimidating at first," and then walks readers through the process by comparing the various stages of caramel to the colors of various dog breeds (for yellow-gold, think yellow Labrador retriever; for dark amber, think Irish setter).

The beginning of the book, which was written with Mindy Fox, includes a comprehensive guide to pantry basics and tips for techniques. Recipes include "Varying your craft" sidebars that provide ideas for riffing on DeMasco's already inspired creations, helping to disprove the idea that baking doesn't allow for coloring outside the lines. Peanut butter-chocolate sandwich cookies sound lovely, but so do peanut butter ice cream sandwiches, and that points to the most difficult technique the book asks readers to master: trying to decide what to make. DeMasco pays homage to numerous members of the cake, cookie, pie, tart, cobbler, ice cream, and breakfast pastry families, grounding her recipes in the familiar and homespun and giving them a seasonal, modern update.

DeMasco's recipe for Carrot Cake Sandwich Cookies with Cream Cheese Filling illustrates her book's great strengths, taking a generations-old classic and transforming it into conveniently portable (and thus more easily gorgeable) form, with simple ingredients and clear instructions. While the book's baking time differed significantly from how long the cookies actually took to finish (though this can be attributed to the unpredictability of varying oven temperatures) and the amount of filling was a wee bit scant, the result was tender, moist, and not cloyingly sweet, somewhat resembling a moon pie in appearance and crystal methamphetamine in its addictive properties. The recipe follows below.

Makes 1/1/2 Dozen

Cookies
3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (you can use the powdered stuff, too)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
3/4 cup roughly grated carrots (about 11/2 medium carrots)
1/4 cup raisins

Filling
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Pinch of kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Grind the oats in a food processor to make a fine flour. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oat flour, all-purpose flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and vanilla extract on medium speed until well combined. Add the egg and beat to combine, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the dry ingredients in two additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each one. Add the carrots and raisins, mixing just to combine. The dough will be very sticky.

Drop 1-tablespoon mounds of the dough onto the prepared baking sheets, spacing them 1/2 inch apart. Bake, rotating the sheets once halfway through, until the cookies are golden brown and spring back when gently touched in the center, about 12 minutes. Cool the cookies completely, on the baking sheets set on a wire rack, before filling.

To make the filling, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese, butter, lemon zest, sugar, and salt on medium speed until well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. (The filling can be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Let it come to room temperature before using.)

Using a small spoon or spatula, spread 1 teaspoon of the filling over the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich with the remaining cookies, flat sides together.

The cookies can be kept in an airtight container for up to 2 days.


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