Baking by the Book

When we have people over, dessert is my responsibility. I like to bake, but I’m by no means an expert baker, and if I want a fancy dessert I’m happy to let a pro make it for me. My go-to dessert recipe describes the finished product as the “Shar-Pei of cakes”—which is great because it’s supposed to look that way. But I’m a little bored with that cake. So when I learned that Tribeca Treats‘ Rachel Schifter Thebault wrote a cookbook, Sweet Chic, I resolved to bake something new from it—and Rachel agreed to help with any questions I had.

The theme of the book is that once you learn basic techniques and recipes, you can then dress them up: The homemade graham crackers, for instance, can be used in Rachel’s recipe for chocolate-dipped s’mores cookies. A subtheme is that if you’re entertaining, you might want to do all of the work, or at least most of it, before anyone rings your buzzer. I decided to bake snickerdoodles because they’re my favorite cookies at Tribeca Treats and graham crackers because I had never heard of homemade graham crackers. I probably should have pushed myself a bit more, but I love Tribeca Treats’ cakes, and I’d rather not make something that will only disappoint compared to those. (And while the book has recipes aplenty for candy, I have no aspirations of being a chocolatier.)

First up were the snickerdoodles, which are basically a sugar cookie with cinnamon. What appealed to me—besides the fact that they’re sugar cookies with cinnamon—was that (a) we were planning on having some friends over for dinner and we wanted to introduce them to the digestif Barolo Chinato, which I thought would pair nicely with the cinnamon; and (b) the recipe specifies how to make the dough in advance, leaving only two final steps. And who doesn’t like warm cookies?

Naturally, I had a question before I even started baking: Is cream of tartar one of those ingredients that goes bad? I didn’t know how old ours even was. “Professionally speaking, I should tell you to replace it every six to 12 months,” emailed Rachel. “But personally speaking, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it probably doesn’t matter. Cream of tartar is an acid that’s somewhat similar to baking soda, but unlike baking soda, a recipe won’t depend on it to rise—it actually just stabilizes other ingredients (like eggs) and gives things a kind of salty flavor.”

Two weeks before our dinner date, I made the snickerdoodle dough. One of the tips in Sweet Chic is to use a mini ice cream scooper with a trigger, so you can scoop the perfect size cookie. I missed the word “mini,” buying (and using) a regular-size scooper. I only realized my mistake after I had scooped most of the cookies and prepped them for the freezer. I downsized the rest as best I could and baked them. They were delicious, especially warm. Concerned that the ones in the freezer would be the largest snickerdoodles ever—which isn’t ideal because you roll the dough balls in cinnamon sugar before baking, and larger cookies mean a lower ratio of cinnamon sugar to cookie—I emailed Rachel. Could I cut the frozen dough balls in half? Should I defrost them first? (The book says you don’t have to defrost before baking, but I worried the dough would be too hard to slice.) Rachel said cutting would be easy either way, but defrosting would help them spread more. (My first batch was puffier than I would have liked.) It all worked out perfectly, except for the Barolo Chinato, which I’m beginning to accept that very few people enjoy.

As for the graham crackers (right), this was the first time I’ve bought whole-wheat flour or wheat germ. Making the dough was beyond easy, but it crumbled when I tried to roll it out. Instead of emailing Rachel, I forged ahead, doing the best I could. Most of my crackers ended up being the shape of U.S. states (coastal ones, that is), and I probably baked them a minute too long. But they were really good just the same—honeyed and crispy, far richer and more complex than a store-bought graham cracker. I’d buy the book for that recipe alone.

Sweet Chic is available at bookstores everywhere, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as at Tribeca Treats (where I’m sure Rachel will sign it for you).


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