I basically want to be Mary Berry
June 5, 2017 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I daydream of having a cakestand on my counter full of sweet treats. Alas, I am a complete baking novice but I want to learn. Could you recommend a book I could bake my way through, a la Julie and Julia?

I am interested in sweet and savory traditional bakes. I am not interested in new age stuff like black bean brownies. I want the victoria sponge, the baked alaska, etc etc. The more butter and sugar the better.
posted by pintapicasso to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite cookbook EVER is Alice's Tea Cup from the tearoom in New York City. There are lots of recipes for cakes, cookies, scones (sweet AND savory), sandwiches, salads. I've made many of the recipes from the book and they've come out great. The scones are hit or miss for me, but I think that's my fault, not the fault of the recipes. The banana bread is AMAZING, as are chocolate peanut butter cookies. The red velvet cupcakes, which I haven't yet attempted but have eaten in the restaurant, are the best I've ever had.
posted by Aquifer at 9:42 AM on June 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not a cookbook (but maybe they have one?) I find the The Great British Bake off of great to grab traditional recipes from.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:44 AM on June 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am a fairly good baker and I can recommend this cookbook as a good overall guide to basic traditional baking. Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook.
posted by sulaine at 9:46 AM on June 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Even though it's only available used, I strongly recommend Rosie's Bakery All Butter Fresh Cream Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book. I know it's a little random, but she has some of the best recipes for the basics I've ever encountered...her shortbread is special. Look at the reviews...it's an out-of-print 1991 book and people are still writing in to amazon calling it an all-time great.

Also, because I suspect someone will suggest it, I kind of anti-recommend Baking from My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan. This may just be my experience, but the recipes aren't particularly appealing (even though they are also consistent with the "classic" baking theme) and the ones I've tried just didn't turn out spectacularly well. Then again, it gets good reviews, so maybe YMMV.
posted by R a c h e l at 9:47 AM on June 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

Do you have the most recent edition of the Joy of Cooking? It's a strong foundational text that covers tools, techniques, ingredients, and measures in as much detail as its recipes.

I encourage you to seek out a baking class to go along with a cookbook's instruction. Even a one-day course will give you all sorts of knowledge that will be helpful as you guide yourself through learning to bake. A chef I follow on social media was passing through my town a couple years ago and offered a $50 course on sauces. I went on a whim, and ended up learning much more than I thought possible. I wish I'd taken more courses over the years!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:47 AM on June 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I was coming in to not recommend Baking from My Home to Yours, and see that R a c h e l has beat me to it. A lot of effort for mediocre results, in my opinion. Also, many people will forgive a passable flavor for au courant cake decoration, so perhaps spend time of your (fun!) time learning decorating techniques.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:03 AM on June 5, 2017

Mary herself has over seventy cookbooks including Mary Berry's Baking Bible.
posted by soelo at 10:13 AM on June 5, 2017 [11 favorites]

Bakewise by Shirley Corriher. It's a lot of reading (if you're interested in the reading, you can skip it and still follow the recipes) but so interesting and full of delicious recipes.
posted by crush at 10:20 AM on June 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Rose Levy Berenbaum's The Cake Bible. She's fussy and precise, but if you follow her directions everything works guaranteed.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:37 AM on June 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I apologize for adding some additional answers to a question you didn't ask, but in your search for a baking cookbook, I strongly recommend choosing one that measures ingredients by weight in place of/in addition to volume, i.e. a cookbook that specifies "125g flour" or "4¼ oz flour" instead of or in addition to "1 cup flour," and buying a digital scale to use.

Weighing your ingredients is the best way to ensure you are following the recipe exactly as written and for consistent results, and it's generally less messy.

Also, as you mention Victoria sponges, all British cookbooks, including Mary Berry's, and the majority of non-US/Canadian English-language cookbooks will specify things only by weight (in metric units) anyway.

If you end up really wanting to look into traditional baking, I have British Baking by Peyton & Byrne and I really like it -- I've made the marmalade loaf and the carrot cake and they were both excellent. It's not quite for beginners though (it's not advanced, but there's very little introductory material on basic baking techniques.)
posted by andrewesque at 10:51 AM on June 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

(I wrote the above comment assuming you are in the US, sorry -- if you're in the UK you don't need to be convinced by me!)
posted by andrewesque at 10:52 AM on June 5, 2017

Seconding The Cake Bible.
posted by knownassociate at 11:03 AM on June 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not a baker myself (though I am a fan of Mary Berry) but I am a huge cookbook nerd and the baking book of the summer is definitely BraveTart by Stella Parks.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:15 AM on June 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

You can't go wrong with Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, by the late and much-missed Laurie Colwin. They include a slew of easy recipes for all kinds of comfort food, including many sweet treats.

She liked gingerbread and had several recipes for it; here's a good one from Home Cooking:


4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, additional for buttering pan
½ cup light or dark brown sugar
½ cup light molasses
2 large eggs
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ tablespoons ground ginger, or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons lemon brandy or vanilla extract (see note 1)
½ cup buttermilk (or milk with a little plain yogurt beaten into it)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and set aside. Cream remaining 4 ounces butter with the brown sugar. Beat until fluffy, add molasses, then beat in eggs.
Add flour, baking soda, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
Add lemon brandy or vanilla extract and buttermilk and turn batter into pan.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes (check after 20 minutes -- see note 2). Cool on a rack.

Note 1 (from The New York Times): Lemon brandy is hard to find, but recipes for homemade lemon brandy can be found online and in cookbooks. Do not use lemon extract.

Note 2 (from virago): Take a toothpick and insert it in the center of the cake. If it comes out clean or with a few moist crumbs attached to it, the cake is done; if it comes out with wet batter, you'll need to bake it another five to 10 minutes.

If you wind up baking it a little long, it'll still be really good with some vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, and you'll know how long to keep it in the oven next time! Don't sweat it. ;)
posted by virago at 12:24 PM on June 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

If Beranbaum is too precise for you (although that's why her recipes always work), I'd suggest Maida Heatter.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:47 PM on June 5, 2017

If you are a big Mary Berry fan, I would recommend the show Great British Baking Show Masterclass on Netflix, which features Mary and Paul cooking recipes inspired by the show, with good instructions for home bakers. All the recipes are online, so you could cook your way through the show/recipes with Mary to instruct you! http://www.pbs.org/food/features/ great-british-baking-show-season-masterclass/
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:27 PM on June 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions! I'm looking at the Mary Berry and Martha Stewart books and also the Cake one since it gets great reviews but may be a bit advanced for me. I've voraciously consumed all media r/t GBBO, including Master Class and I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone else reading the question. Cheers!
posted by pintapicasso at 2:34 PM on June 5, 2017

Rainbowbrite stole my idea. A lot of those masterclass items are probably beyond your skillset right now but the earlier episodes could be right up your alley. I am also going to double down on the suggestion of baking by weight not measuring cup. Find a cookbook that does weight and you will find yourself enjoying baking so much more. I also find that British baking books tend to make smaller amounts which is great when you are learning and don't want to eat sponge roulade for every meal.

I own Mary Berry's Baking Bible and Paul Hollywood's How to Bake and enjoy the hell out of both. Those two, coupled with those masterclasses is what I would do. You will totally find them using the recipes in these two books as bases for their recipes they developed for the masterclasses. For the Great British Bakeoff, they tend to do easier categories of bakes in the first few episodes. I would concentrate on the first three episodes of each season and bake along with their challenges out of the two cookbooks I've recommended. I've essentially done the same and enjoyed it a lot!
posted by Foam Pants at 12:54 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Popping back in to say, if you are in the US and end up choosing a UK baking book or media such as Mary Berry's book or those masterclasses, this page on "translating" cooking terms between various English-speaking countries is very useful, particularly the flour, dairy and sugar sections, as there seem to be a large number of differences in these areas.

In addition, there's this Ask MeFi question on replicating UK self-raising flour (which IME is used all the time in British recipes). The conclusion, which agrees with this ask Nigella page, is that you need to add 1 tsp of baking powder per 75g all-purpose/plain flour, with no salt, to replicate UK self-raising flour.
posted by andrewesque at 7:47 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

andrewesque totally brings up a good point. Mary Berry loves using self rising flour but don't buy the stuff we have because it is not really the same. I have used Nigella's replication and it works. When they ask for self rising flour in cakes, however, I often use American cake flour and put in the baking powder, something like Swan's Down that comes in a box. European flours tend to be less glutenous than ours.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:35 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I ended up with the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook. I've only made one recipe (cheesecake cookies) but I found the recipe very explicit and the cookies were AMAZING.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:16 PM on June 30, 2017

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