“Greetings to the lucky finder of this book,” writes J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director of the food blog Serious Eats (seriouseats.com), in the foreward to Stella Parks’ first cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts. “In your wildest dreams you cannot imagine the marvelous surprises that await.”
That Willy Wonka-esque welcome is not an exaggeration. When you pick up this book, you will hold the golden ticket to an array of inspired versions of classic creations.
Tres Leches Twinkies. Red Wine Velvet Cake. Banana Pudding with Malted Butterscotch. These are just three examples of the pastry chef’s brilliance, as Ms. Parks takes the simplest concepts and elevates them to ethereal heights.
Even the ingredients for these recipes have been miraculously transformed, such as sugar that has been roasted until it is bronzed. It looks as though it’s been sunning itself on the beach and then brought a bit of sand back as a memento.
Ms. Parks’ blog BraveTart (bravetart.com) inspired her book’s title. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and is Mr. Lopez-Alt’s colleague at Serious Eats.
But these are not the qualifications that she considers most important for you to judge her by.
“I believe in the power of fudge frosting, rainbow sprinkles, and warm cherry pie,” Ms. Parks writes in the introduction to her cookbook. “There’s a sleeve of Thin Mints in my freezer, and a jar of Skippy on the shelf. I set marshmallows on fire, I fry doughnuts in oil, I steal Santa’s cookies, and I always lick the spoon.
“That’s the resume that matters most,” she asserts.
BraveTart upholds the exacting standards of a scientific manual, offering precise measurements and techniques as Ms. Parks teaches the procedures necessary to replicate her results. A good dose of history textbook has been mixed in, as well, as the pastry chef has thoroughly researched the desserts she offers and tells their stories.
But even as she provides an extraordinary depth of detail with professional purpose, Ms. Parks does so with a chocolate-smeared grin rather than straight-faced seriousness. She makes it look like great fun to prepare every part of these luscious treats from scratch.
As much as the food porn photographs will entice you to bake (or, at least, want to devour) every recipe in BraveTart, Ms. Parks’ friendly encouragement and step-by-step hand holding will empower you to do so.
Now, go ahead and play with your food. Make something magical.
Caramelized White Chocolate
“In the gentle heat of a low oven, white chocolate turns to molten gold, taking on a malty complexity far superior to bagged butterscotch chips,” writes Stella Parks.
2¼ cups (12 ounces) pure white chocolate (not chips), such as Valrhona’s Ivoire 35%
Preheat the oven to 250F.
Roughly chop the white chocolate and scatter into an 8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish. “Roast” the white chocolate until golden and thick, pausing to stir every 10 minutes. It will take roughly 65 minutes total, though you won’t notice much change in color or texture until after the 30-minute mark.
Scrape the melted chocolate onto a sheet of parchment and refrigerate until hard, then chop or crumble into chip-sized pieces and shards.
Store up to 6 months in an airtight container at room temperature. Use in place of butterscotch baking chips or to replace plain white chocolate in recipes.
Yield: About 2 cups
Source: Adapted from Stella Parks, BraveTart
“In a low oven, granulated sugar develops a toasty flavor reminiscent of light caramel or turbinado, yet it remains powdery and dry. That means you can use it to replace white sugar in any recipe,” writes Stella Parks.
4 pounds granulated white sugar
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Put the sugar in a 9 by 13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish and roast, stirring well once every 30 minutes, until it darkens to a sandy tan with a coarse texture like turbinado, about 2 hours. The color change can be strangely difficult to judge in the dim glow of an oven, so scoop out a spoonful to examine in better light.
Let the roasted sugar cool away from any sources of moisture or steam until no trace of warmth remains, about 1 hour. If you notice molten caramel around the edges, pour the hot sugar into a heat-resistant container, leaving the melty bits behind; once cool, the baking dish can be soaked clean.
Despite its innocuous appearance, roasted sugar can be dangerously hot, so take care not to touch it. Store for up to a year in an airtight container at room temperature.
Yield: 4 pounds
Source: Stella Parks, BraveTart
Red (Wine) Velvet Cupcakes
The mixing of red wine and cocoa creates “a shockingly pale batter,” writes Stella Parks, but in the oven it develops “a mellow burgundy hue and rich cocoa flavor (plus, these acidic ingredients make for a velvety soft crumb).”
1½ cups (12 ounces) milk (any percentage will do)
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) sugar
⅓ cup (1½ ounces) cornstarch
3 large eggs, straight from the fridge
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups (16 ounces) full-fat cream cheese, cool but soft
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, cool but soft
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2⅔ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
¾ cup (2¼ ounces) raw or Special Dark cocoa powder
3½ sticks (14 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but cool
2 cups (16 ounces) brown sugar
2¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) vanilla extract
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups (12 ounces) dry red wine
1 3 or 4-ounce block or bar of white chocolate, for garnish (optional)
Make the frosting: In a 3-quart saucepan, bring the milk and vanilla bean to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover, and steep 30 minutes or, alternatively, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours to extract the deepest vanilla flavor.
Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a medium bowl, followed by the eggs.
Return milk to a simmer. Remove vanilla bean, scrape the flavorful pulp into the milk, and discard the pod. Ladle 1/2 cup of hot milk into the eggs, whisking to combine. Repeat with a second and third ladleful, then pour the warmed eggs into the pot and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the custard turns thick and lumpy, about 3 minutes. Once it begins to bubble sluggishly, continue cooking and whisking for 2 full minutes, to neutralize a starch-dissolving protein found in the yolks; the custard should be very smooth. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract.
Pour the custard into a baking dish about 7-by-11 inches to speed the cooling process. Press a sheet of plastic against the surface and refrigerate until thick and cool, about 1 hour. Alternatively, refrigerate for up to 1 week, then let stand at room temperature until wamred to 68F before proceeding.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stir the thick pudding until smooth.
Scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, then switch to the whisk attachment. Whipping on medium speed, add pudding a few tablespoons at a time, then drizzle in lemon juice. Scrape the bowl once more and whip for a few seconds to ensure that no lumps remain. The buttercream should be light and creamy, but thick enough to hang upside down from a spoon.
Make the cupcakes: Adjust oven rack to the lower-middle position and preheat to 350F. Line muffin tins with paper liners.
Sift flour and cocoa; set aside.
Combine butter, brown sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla extract in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to moisten, then increase to medium and cream until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes, pausing to scrape the bowl and beater halfway through. With the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated before adding the next.
Reduce speed to low and sprinkle in one-third of the flour/cocoa, followed by a third of the red wine. Alternate between the two, allowing each addition to be roughly incorporated before adding the next. Fold batter with a flexible spatula to ensure it’s well mixed from the bottom up.
Fill each lined muffin cup with 1¾ ounces of batter, about two-thirds full. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges with only a few crumbs attached. Cool until no trace of warmth remains, about 90 minutes, then frost the cupcakes.
Shave the white chocolate with a coarse-bladed microplane and use a spoon to sprinkle the shavings over the frosting.
Cover loosely and refrigerate if not serving the frosted cupcakes right away. Bring to room temperature to serve.
Yield: 40 cupcakes
Source: Adapted from Stella Parks, BraveTart
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