[cookbook review] the secret lives of baked goods by jessie oleson moore

“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. 🙂

Recipe for Old Fashioned Doughnuts included.

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.

lemon meringue pie
Thanks to Elizabeth Coane Goodfellow for introducing Lemon Meringue Pie to America!

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.

princess cake
The beautiful Princess Torte in all its green splendor.
iced cookies
Pink Iced Cookies, a favorite of the Pacific Northwest.

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?

Gingerbread Men

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
Kids in America tend to “nibble away at the animals in definite order of dismemberment: back legs, forelegs, head, and lastly the body.”

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?).

line drawings cakespy
Sample of Jessie’s pen-and-ink line drawings for the book. They have a lovely nostalgic feel to them, don’t you think?

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.

“So for all of you tempted to call the blondie the bland version of the brownie: Quit it.”

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!

* * *

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:

cakespy contest
Click for official contest rules. Deadline for all entries is June 10, 2013.

* * *

stories, recipes, and illustrations by Jessie Oleson Moore
photographs by Clare Barboza
published by Sasquatch Books, May 2013
Hardcover, 192 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-57061-756-0
*Publishers Weekly Starred Review*

* * *

♥ Visit CakeSpy.com for Book Tour updates, contest news, and interviews with Secret Lives recipe testers and food stylist Laurie Pfalzer.

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.

21 thoughts on “[cookbook review] the secret lives of baked goods by jessie oleson moore

  1. It’s gorgeous! And I’ve always wondered about Duncan and Betty. Now I know where to find the answer. Thanks, Jama, and congrats to Jessie!


  2. I have the CakeSpy cookbook, which is so much fun to peruse, though I haven’t made anything out of it yet. This new one looks like just my kind of cookbook–sweet things, recipes, and stories. All the best!


    1. I’m the same way — enjoy looking through the first cookbook, but haven’t made anything from it yet. The recipes in this new book are good for the average home baker to have on hand, and even though I already have recipes for all of the pies and some of the cookies, I’m always interested in trying updated or tweaked versions just for comparison sake.


  3. I can see why you’re in love. I think my favorite draw though is investigating the coeds making fudge. I never got over my disappointment in college.


    1. You’re a smart cookie, Michelle — and I remember your posting about Derby Pie®, which is also mentioned in this book. 🙂


  4. This book looks amazing. I love cookbooks and have a pretty big collection. I have been cutting back though and donated about 3 rubbermaid tubs worth to my library. One that I love that has a story element was Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, but I think it is out of print. Great sweet potato recipes and the banana bread is to die for. David Lebovitz’s Ready for dessert is amazing, too.


    1. Hadn’t heard of Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine — will have to look for it. David Lebovitz is always good :).


  5. Oh a fudge story! Is this Miss Emelyn auctioning it off for the senior class? Always heard tall tales about the competition between Vassar, Smith and Wellesley about who made the best fudge. Can’t wait to uncover more sweet foodie history in this book!


Comments are closed.