Baking, like anything else in life, is a skill acquired and developed through practice. I used to say when asked, “I can cook but I’m definitely not a baker!” because it always seemed that it was a binary thing, either a person was a baker or wasn’t. But what I’ve come to understand over the past few years is that baking has rules and, if you learn them then you can bake pretty much anything (side convo: it also doesn’t hurt to have a scale and use weighted measures when they’re given). So, when I was sent a copy of Claire Saffitz‘s Dessert Person, I knew that Saffitz’s goal was to help home cooks realize their potential as bakers (it’s also worth noting that there is a YouTube channel dedicated to Saffitz demonstrating the recipes from the book).
Dessert Person offers a tangible way to learn how to bake or how to become a better baker by adding to their repertoire of skills and techniques. I think one of the most useful parts of the book is the Recipe Matrix which presents recipes in terms of level of difficulty and the amount of time you’ll need to spend making it. Having this information so usefully laid out is a great tool for the reader because it gives different entry points — almost like a choose your own baking adventure. The Recipe Matrix also provides another way to organize the recipes within the cookbook. Either way, I appreciate these types of infographics in cookbooks.
It’s clear after reading through the introduction that Saffitz has a passion for baking. The recipes are organized into 7 chapters: Loaf Cakes + Single Layer Cakes, Pies + Tarts, Bars + Cookies, Layer Cakes + Fancy Desserts, Breakfast + Brunch, Breads + Savory Baking, and Foundation Recipes. She pays particular attention to what ingredients she uses — working in the test kitchen at Bon Appetite Saffitz learned the realities facing home cooks, “It requires time and money to shop for ingredients.”(12) There is a preference given to seasonal produce and, what she strives for in her recipes is balance between finding the right combination of flavours and textures.
So, while the book is full of common recipes such as cakes, pies, cookies, breads, Saffitz has used flavour and texture to create recipes that are uniquely hers. One of the things I love to bake are scones and biscuits (extra points if the recipe contains buttermilk!) because creating the flaky layers of either of these delightful treats isn’t that hard but the end results always make me feel like I’ve really accomplished something special. With Saffitz’s Miso Buttermilk Biscuits, she has found a way to enhance the savouriness with the addition of miso (which also lends a slightly cheesy flavour). I loved how she directs the home baker to make biscuits that are so flaky with many layers. So, while this was not my first time making biscuits, I appreciated Saffitz’s instructions. Even though I have methods that work for me, I’m never averse to learning others!
The Buckwheat Blueberry Skillet Pancake is another example of how Saffitz takes a familiar recipe (the Dutch Baby pancake) and gives it a bit more flavour and texture. One of life’s great wonders: how the batter creeps up and puffs out of the skillet while it bakes away in the oven. So, with the skillet pancake (a close relative to the Dutch Baby), while it puffs and browns in the oven, it takes texture cues from custardy clafoutis. Not overly sweet, the brown butter, buckwheat flour, and blueberries offer something much more interesting in terms of both flavour and texture than what the run-of-the-mill pancake or plain Dutch Baby offer. As my daughter said when she was just wee, while she watched with wide eyes as the Dutch Baby would work its magic in the oven: “It must be fairies!”
There is this feeling with baking that it must be magic, that anyone who creates something lovely and delicious from flour, butter, and sugar must know the secrets of the universe. But as Claire Saffitz would tell you: it’s all about practice and patience. It’s also about persevering even when things aren’t turning out how you’d like them to or how you think they should. Things that don’t work or fail offer a learning experience. Like when I was baking the Pistachio Pinwheels from Dessert Person. Pistachios are a pricy ingredient so when I noticed that my pistachios weren’t as green (more of a murky brown) after being pulsed in the food processor I felt annoyed. The whole point of using the pistachios is for the vibrant green they produce so that the pinwheels look even more striking. The green also offers a visual cue as to what the flavour of the swirl in the pinwheel cookie might be. I even tried buying a different type of pistachio to see if this would work but, in the end, I added a neon green food colouring so that I could have a lush green swirl in my cookie. The cookies turned out fine and I added them to my holiday cookie boxes.
Another thing I baked from Dessert Person that I shared with my neighbours was the Coffee Coffee Cake. I took Saffitz’s recipe notes to heart and really took my time creaming the sugar, butter, and oil together because I wanted to achieve the fluffiness that she describes. It was during the five minutes while I creamed these ingredients together that I realized that I probably haven’t been properly creaming anything together, maybe ever. In setting a timer for 5 minutes, I could see that 5 minutes felt like an eternity and without Saffitz’s instruction to do so, I’m not sure if I would have lasted even a minute before feeling as though I’d done enough. The final cake got rave reviews from my neighbours! While I was on my morning walk, a car window lowered so a little voice could yell to me “Hey Katie’s Mom! I love your coffee cake!!” Even my neighbour’s daughter loved it!
Claire Saffitz’s Dessert Person offers an opportunity to home bakers to build their confidence by baking delicious recipes. With this cookbook Saffitz has struck an even balance between teaching methods and techniques and giving the home baker a range of different recipes to try. From quite simple to more elaborate and for any occasion, the recipes within Dessert Person offer a scaffolded approach to learning and practicing the art of baking, while showcasing the final results in photos beautifully styled by Sue Li and taken by Alex Lau. As Saffitz tells us: “I am a dessert person, and we are all dessert people.”
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Penguin Random House Canada / Clarkson Potter Publishers for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.