Food & Cooking

The Best Baking Cookbooks of 2021

recommended by Becky Krystal

Voraciously

The Washington Post's

Voraciously

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Every year Becky Krystal of the Washington Post and staff writer of "Voraciously", a food column with a strong 'how-to' focus, chooses the best cookbooks of the year for us. In 2021, she's focusing on books about baking, an activity she's passionate about—and many of the rest of us have been doing more of in the past year or two.

Interview by Benedict King

Voraciously

The Washington Post's

Voraciously

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Before we focus on the books on baking, have the social changes that the pandemic has forced on us produced a different direction in cookbooks in 2021 in general? Has there been an attempt to service the needs of people who are staying at home and not going into the office?

Yes, I think that is probably one thing we’ve seen more of, books targeted at people who are staying home, people who maybe aren’t going to the grocery store as much. A lot of recipes are offering alternatives for ingredients.

A lot of us are burned out from being at home and cooking. And I think there are certainly lots of books that are aimed at those people.

The other thing that I think we’re seeing a lot of—and I’m looking at the books that are in my room here—is a racial reckoning. Food media, like a lot of other industries, has had this and there is lots of talk about representation and who gets to write books and what books are published. I think it is satisfying to see representation of more types of people who maybe wouldn’t have been offered a seat at the table before. There are a couple of books, for instance Black Food compiled by Bryant Terry, that have made this a big deal.

It’s not perfect. It’s not as good as it could be. But I think we’re seeing more representation of different cuisines and backgrounds than we ever have before.

Okay, let’s move on to your choice of the best cookbooks of 2021, focusing on baking. First up is Mother Grains by Roxana Jullapat. Tell me about this one.

I am a pretty passionate baker and this book really spoke to me. Her focus is on whole grains that people want to bake with for nutritional and ecological reasons. She takes a lot of recipes that you might otherwise make with regular flour and uses different grains in them. So, you’ll see things made with barley, buckwheat, corn, rye, sorghum. She also talks about wheat, which is obviously what most of us use, but she focuses on whole grains, wholewheat and local varieties that aren’t as processed and don’t require the same kinds of resources.

This is a great book for both cooking and reference. She divides it up into chapters that are headlined by each of the grains. She gives you a lot of great information: history, how to buy them, how to store them and how to use them. I didn’t actually realize until I read the book that she has a background in journalism, which really comes through—it’s very well-researched. There are sweet and savory options, everything from cakes and cookies to salads and stews. They all feature the different types of grains that she talks about.

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It’s also got great reference material in the back, which for someone who geeks out on baking, I found extremely appealing. There are charts about weights and measurements. What’s also really awesome is she has a page that breaks out the recipes that appeal to specific diets, which is sometimes hard when you’re looking at a cookbook. If you’re someone who’s vegan, or gluten-free, you don’t have to look through all the recipes and figure out which ones you should use. She’s got a page that says, ‘these ones are vegan, these are gluten-free.’

She also offers lots of alternatives in the recipes to switch the grains and see which ones you like better. So it gives people permission to experiment with stuff a little bit.

Next up is Nadiya Bakes by Nadia Hussain. She doesn’t need much of an introduction, at least in the UK.

Yes, this came out in the UK last year but it didn’t come out for us in the States until 2021, so I didn’t get my hands on it until this year and I’ve gone ahead and included it. I watched the Netflix show of the same name last year when I was at home, not doing anything, and it was just a breath of fresh air. A lot of the recipes that were on that series are also in this book, which certainly drew me in. But she’s such a good writer, her voice just jumps off the page. She talks a lot about her family and her kids, which is appealing to me as someone who is herself a parent.

A lot of the recipes feel like they’re meant for families. They’re generous, they’re sharing. One of the things that she does a lot of, which I love, is the tear-and-share, big things that people can pull off, family-style. She describes the recipes as ‘traditional, twisted and everything in between.’ Nothing is sacred. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, she doesn’t take food too seriously. She’s willing to use store-bought ingredients and does some really clever things: she has a cupcake recipe where the frosting includes softened ice cream, which is so smart. There’s also a cookie in the bottom of the cake part. She just comes up with things that I would never have thought of. She has a layer cake, but it’s a loaf cake, and you cut the loaf cake into layers. I’ve made layer cakes, and I’ve never done that with just a regular loaf cake. And I’m like, ‘Why haven’t I done that? That makes total sense and it’s cool looking.’

“She doesn’t need any introduction, but if you were to need an introduction to Nadiya, this would be the book”

The photography is really nice. She has some good process photos that show you some of the steps that might be trickier, which I always appreciate. A lot of cookbooks have the finished, glamour shot, but they don’t show you how to do stuff. I think that’s really nice. It’s just really fun.  It includes sweet and savory and there are certainly some savory ones I want to try. There’s a big noodle dish where you throw dried noodles into a dish with some liquid and it cooks and no boiling is needed. She’s just really smart about shortcuts or things that you might not have thought of that save you time. Like you said, she doesn’t need any introduction, but if you were to need an introduction to Nadiya, this would be the book. It’s a great book.

Let’s go to One Tin Bakes Easy by Edd Kimber.

I love a good sequel. He had One Tin Bakes last year. This is One Tin Bakes Easy, which I think was inspired in part by people being at home so much. The premise is the same. Everything is made in a nine-by-13-inch tray. The recipes are a little more streamlined than the recipes last year. He has a whole chapter on five-ingredient recipes, which is great. And he has included a lot more recipes that are designed to be gluten-free and vegan in this book, which people are always interested in. This is not just swapping stuff. These are recipes specifically designed to be vegan and gluten-free.

“Like he says in the intro—easy doesn’t have to be boring”

Like he says in the intro—easy doesn’t have to be boring. You’re not looking at this book and going, ‘Oh, no, these are really too simple.’ You look at these and you say, ‘I want to make that’, ‘I could make that’—it’s very accessible. I made this chocolate-dipped honeycomb, which was super easy and fun.

It really shows you how much you can do in that style of tin, whether it’s a cake or a bun or scones—his croissant bread pudding looks great. I think that’s also appreciated because bakers in particular feel like they have to have every type of specialty tool—I’m guilty of that myself. But seeing how much can be done in this one tin really can open your eyes. A lot of the equipment needed for these is fairly straightforward. There are some recipes for cookies or cakes that are thrown together in a food processor, which I think is also great. You don’t even need a stand mixer for some of them. And he shot his own photos and they look great. I’m definitely going to hold on to this one.

Next up is Baking with Dorie by Dorie Greenspan.

Dorie Greenspan is one of those upper echelon cookbook authors. I love her. I’ve worked with her a bit and I never cease to learn something from her. It’s a gorgeous book, first of all, and it’s got so many different types of bakes. They just run the gamut. If you want something really simple, like a simple loaf cake, that’s in here; if you want a showstopper layered cake, that’s in here, too.

She has a whole section devoted to chocolate chip cookies. You think, ‘Okay, how much can I do with those?’ She makes a compelling case that there’s a lot you can do with them, swapping in flours, using some cocoa powder. She has one recipe, which I’m really excited to try, that turns them into slice and bake cookies, and then you bake them in a muffin tin, so you get these chocolate chip cookies with really crispy, caramelized edges. It’s so smart. Again, someone who comes up with things that I would never have thought of. She does a bread pudding with scones. Of course, why not?

She has a reputation for being very reader-friendly and that certainly comes through in this book. She is always offering information, like how to store things, which is missing in a lot of recipes. Or whether you can do any of the work ahead of time. Basically, any time a recipe has that option, she includes it. She also has little sections in most of the recipes called ‘playing around’ that give you ideas on how you can customize it to your own tastes, swapping out chocolate or flours or decorating them differently.

And she has a very good writing style. My colleague Ann Maloney, who has baked a lot out of this book, said that she always feels like she’s standing next to you, but not in an overbearing way. She tells you what to anticipate. If something’s going to look weird, ‘don’t worry, it’ll come together’; ‘Here’s where you might run into trouble.’ It’s a very reader-friendly style. Even if there are more complicated recipes in here, I still think this is a book that a baker who’s a relative beginner could pick up and have some success with. She said this was her 14th cookbook and it’s the 30th anniversary of her very first cookbook. Dorie is here to stay. And we are lucky.

Our last best cookbook of 2021 is Life is What You Bake It by Vallery Lomas.

Vallery’s is a great story. She used to be an attorney. But then she turned to baking full time. She was on the Great American Baking Show, which is the US version of the UK’s Bake Off. And she won. But her season was cancelled after an episode or two, because of allegations of impropriety by one of the judges, so we never got to see it. When your only prize is exposure and not money or deals or anything like that, that was a huge blow. So she decided to bounce back and people tried to help her out. She has this great metaphor in here about bread, that it rises, it gets punched down, and it rises again. That comes through in this book a lot. She talks about her experience, how she’s trying to make the most of this opportunity, which was also a limited opportunity.

So this is a little bit like one of the books I was talking about earlier in relation to representation. There hasn’t been a lot of representation of people of color writing baking books. Vallery has learned a lot from her grandmothers and her great-grandmothers and aunts, all these women who played an important role in her life. For many years—and probably even now, to some extent—that type of home cooking and baking was not given the respect it deserves. She goes into the history of her family. These were people cooking in their homes, women of color, who were often working for white women. There are a lot of Southern recipes that her family makes. But it’s a great mix because she also spent a lot of time in France, so you get cannelés and crepe cakes and all these French pastries—she even had a macaron business at one point. Mixed with that are a lot of recipes that draw on her Louisiana heritage: crawfish pie, fruit cobblers and stuff like that.

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She also has a very accessible way of writing, interspersing anecdotes with tips on everything from making biscuits to flaky pie crust. One thing which I think is really cool and innovative—I don’t know how many people have done this—but at various points throughout the book, she offers you an online option, either ‘scan the QR code’ or ‘go to my website and I’ll show you how to do this’ which I think is great. It’s not just a static book. My colleague Aaron Hutcherson, who has cooked some from here, was raving about this pecan Bundt cake, which looks very unassuming, but it’s packed with pineapples and raisins and uses brown sugar instead of regular white sugar. He loved it and his book club went crazy for it. But I think this is also a good beginner-friendly book, too. I hope it’s just one of many we’ll see that give more representation to people who maybe wouldn’t have been given a deal in the past.

Interview by Benedict King

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal is a writer for The Washington Post's Voraciously, a destination aimed at novice and intermediate home cooks. She came to the Post in 2007, and previously spent five years working for the travel section.

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Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal

Becky Krystal is a writer for The Washington Post's Voraciously, a destination aimed at novice and intermediate home cooks. She came to the Post in 2007, and previously spent five years working for the travel section.