“Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” ~ Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
Call my name, brand new cookbook! I’ve dallied between your covers and I’m under your spell. You speak my language: Animal Crackers, German Chocolate Cake, Alice B. Toklas Brownies, New York Cheesecake, Lemon Meringue Pie.
Yes, I’ll marry you.
I’ve just had the best time devouring Jessie Oleson Moore’s, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America’s Favorite Desserts (Sasquatch Books, 2013).
Like she says: “everything tastes better with a backstory.”
Think about the hundreds (okay, thousands) of doughnuts you’ve eaten in your lifetime. Who invented the holes? And did you know “the hole is so the calories can fall out”? (I feel so much better now.)
You probably already know that Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie at Massachusetts’ Toll House Inn, even that Nestlé gave her free chocolate for life in exchange for permission to print her recipe on the back of their semi-sweet chocolate bars. But did you know it wasn’t until after the cookie became a national superstar (featured on a Betty Crocker radio show), that Nestlé invented chocolate chips?
In her first book, CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-Filled Life, Jessie served up 60+ tricked-out, decadent, over-the-top desserts along with her trademark whimsical drawings of unicorns, robots, and the illustrious Cuppie.
This time she’s mined the classics and tripled the deliciousness of 40+ recipes with irresistible bits of history, lore, little-known facts, anecdotes, delightful musings and thoroughly engaging tales of how the recipes evolved through time. You know how it is with “true stories” — so much depends on who’s telling them, when and why. All the more to chew on, I say, all the more fun.
Happily, some of my burning questions have now been answered. Why call it Boston Cream Pie when it’s really a cake? Why call it Whoopie Pie when it’s really a cookie? Which came first, Oreo or Hydrox? Are Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker real people? And what was up with all those coeds in prestigious Ivy League schools making fudge every night?
Oh yeah, I live for this stuff.
Have no fear that Secret Lives is a textbook-y type tome specially seasoned to please the rarefied palates of diehard food historians. The operative words here are celebration and storytelling, infused with Jessie’s trademark whimsy and humor. Secret Lives is eminently readable, fascinating and entertaining throughout with its accents of social and cultural history. Who wouldn’t smile at this?
Really, he’s the perfect man. He’s tall, dark, and handsome. He smells nice. He’s quiet but not brooding. And when you get tired of him, it’s totally OK to bite his head off. And then eat the rest of him, too.
Naturally, after you read all the backstories you’ll want to make some of the treats yourself. The recipes are divided into 7 sections:
- Classic Cakes
- Timeless Cookies & Bars
- Traditional Pies
- Lost & Found
- Foreign Affairs
- Commercial Favorites
- Curious Confections
I like how along with timeless American favorites, Jessie further sweetens the batter with recipes inspired by Commercial Favorites most of us grew up with but never thought to make at home (Girl Scout Cookies, Animal Crackers, Toaster-Style Pastries), as well as several Curious Confections, those unique, offbeat treats we’ve always wanted to know more about: Alice B. Toklas Brownies (not really just a “pot” brownie), Urban Legend Cookies (Neiman Marcus cookie revenge?).
Ingredients are listed in the side column with numbered directions in the main column. I like the accessible, non-intimidating format, Jessie’s endearing, old-fashioned pen-and-ink spot illustrations of select utensils and ingredients, and the full color photographs that accompany many of the recipes. And I love her list of Sources, which includes traditional print books, periodicals and websites. It’s great to see her notes on where the recipes came from and how she adapted them for this book.
Want to try:
- Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (invented in Virginia!)
- Blondies (mmmm, butterscotch)
- New York Cheesecake (a New Yorker accidentally invented cream cheese)
- German Chocolate Cake (Samuel German invented a sweet baking chocolate for Baker’s, but he wasn’t German)
Secret Lives is a good choice for the home baker looking for a concise, unpretentious collection of solidly tested dessert essentials. Most recipes are doable and easy-to-follow, with several more time-consuming ones for when you’re up for a challenge (Opera Cake, Smith Island Cake, Princess Torte). But of course, this book is worth it for the stories alone. How many of us have been eating these treats for most of our lives yet never knew much about them? You’ll appreciate anew that bite of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and likely think a little differently about your next piece of birthday cake or ubiquitous brownie. Besides, everyone loves a good secret.
Three cheers for our favorite dessert detective and her superbly sweet sleuthing skills!
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Maybe by now you’re thinking about the personal story behind your favorite baked treat. Check out this cool contest where you can win a signed copy of The Secret Lives of Baked Goods along with some other wonderful baking goodies:
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THE SECRET LIVES OF BAKED GOODS
stories, recipes, and illustrations by Jessie Oleson Moore
photographs by Clare Barboza
published by Sasquatch Books, May 2013
Hardcover, 192 pp.
*Publishers Weekly Starred Review*
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♥ Click here for my review of Jessie’s first book, CakeSpy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar-filled Life.
♥ Read my 2010 interview with Jessie here, especially if you’re craving French pastries.
BTW, how do YOU eat animal crackers? As with gingerbread men, I always bite the head off first to minimize pain.
Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.