What do Key lime pie, pineapple-upside-down cake and mint chocolate cookies have in common? They are all classic American desserts, but not in the way you might think. Each was invented by the food industry as a way to hawk more stuff.
The Key lime pie? It was originally a lemon-cream pie dreamt up by the folks at Borden, who wanted to sell more sweetened condensed milk. The upside-down cake was an invention of the Association of Hawaiian Pineapple Packers, which wanted American consumers to use the fruit for more than just special occasions. The mint chocolate cookie was created in the 1930s, a response to the summer slump in cookie sales.
These facts and other fascinating insights are in “BraveTart,” one of the most engaging baking books to be published in years. Stella Parks, a pastry chef in Lexington, Ky., and a senior editor at SeriousEats.com, is a gumshoe, a vivid storyteller and a damn clever cook. The book upends what we think we know about our nation’s most popular desserts, and in the case of packaged treats, such as Oreos and Thin Mints, improves on them.
A case in point is that Key lime pie. Legend has it that the cook of one William Curry, a millionaire who lived in Key West, created it in the 1860s. In fact, there is not a shred of evidence to support the story. The inventor was less likely a home cook than a food scientist, who would have known that the milk protein casein would thicken when combined with a heavy dose of acid (the limes.) Parks credits Jane Ellison, an imaginary homemaker — Borden’s answer to Betty Crocker — who published a Magic Lemon Cream Pie recipe in 1931, and reasons that Key lime was a regional variation that caught on.
Parks also uncovers the story of my favorite cookie, the snickerdoodle. (Haven’t you always wondered how it got its name?) Dusted with cinnamon and sugar, it descends from the snip doodle, a thin cinnamon-dusted cake that was cut into squares for serving (and, as a result, went stale quickly). The “snip” comes from shnipla, or “to snip,” in old Pennsylvania Dutch. Doodle derives from hoodle or doomel, which translates as “in a hurry.” The snickerdoodle cookie is an evolution of that cake.
Parks spent five long years developing her recipes, and the smart tricks sprinkled throughout the book show it was time well spent. For her yellow layer cake, she recommends adding a tablespoon of super-absorbent potato flour to keep it moist. And though I grumbled about making a special trip to the store and paying $8 for a bag, she’s right. It works.
Instead of the vegetable shortening typically found in a snickerdoodle recipe, Parks lands on coconut oil, which creams up in the same way and results in a light, crunchy-edged sugar cookie. Her One-Bowl Devil’s Food Layer Cake, a moist, three-layer stunner that all but demands a cold glass of milk, uses rich and slightly acidic ingredients such as coffee and cocoa powder to spur the baking soda to work its magic. This has the added benefit of allowing you to basically dump everything in a pot and stir, skipping the step of beating the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Another plus: Almost every one of the book’s 100-plus recipes offers variations on the original. With a few substitutions, you can turn that devil’s food cake into a chocolate cherry, German chocolate, grasshopper or toasted marshmallow cake. Most recipes also include gluten-free variations.
Much of “BraveTart” is dedicated to homemade versions of the packaged desserts of our childhoods, including the Hostess Cupcake, Fudge Stripes and Magic Middles. Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of re-creating processed foods. I remember rolling my eyes 10 years ago at the awed descriptions of New York chef Wylie Dufresne’s attempt to re-create Funyuns, those industrial onion-flavored corn rings. I’ve had to stifle this reaction again and again — to the $5 homemade Pop-Tarts found in hipster coffee shops and the “healthy” homemade Twinkies proposed by cooking magazines.
Parks has convinced me that there is merit to the idea, if done right. (To be clear, this does not include any version of Funyuns, which I hope most sober people can agree have no culinary merit.)
I took a stab at the Thin Mints, a favorite cookie of mine, and was happy to discover that Parks uses the same dough to make them as she does for an Oreo, my other favorite commercial cookie. (Coincidence? I don’t think so.) The dough was a cinch to make and easy to roll out.
The cookies’ chocolate coating required more courage. Judge me if you must, but I had to give myself a pep talk before beginning to temper the chocolate. (For the uninitiated, tempering is a process that protects melted chocolate from overheating so it snaps and stays glossy when it cools.) You need two pounds of good, dark chocolate to do it, which cost a pretty penny, and I was sure I was going to accidentally heat it too high or fail to “seed” it at a rate that kept it at the ideal 90 degrees.
I didn’t fail. Parks’s instructions are careful and detailed. But, as I suspected, making nostalgic favorites is generally not for bakers like me who favor quick and easy. My husband burst out laughing when he saw me sitting on a stool by the stove reading a novel as I stirred and stirred and stirred a pot of homemade sweetened condensed milk that I could have bought for about two bucks. (That said, he liked the resulting Magic Key Lime Pie.) And again, Parks was right. Her version is thicker and creamier than the canned kind and has caramel notes that make the commercial stuff, which previously I would have been happy to eat straight from the can, seem flat and tinny.
It turns out there is a lot to be said for being able to make the perfect version of whatever your childhood guilty pleasure was — and a lot more to be said for one book that delivers them all. Parks adds a remarkable new voice to the world of baking books. Combine smarts with whimsy and you get delicious results.
Black is a Washington-based writer who covers food politics, culture and cookbooks.
By Stella Parks
W.W. Norton. 400 pp. $35