Probably like most home bakers, I spend a lot of time trolling for recipes that look like winners. So you can imagine my excitement when the Monitor’s food editor approached me with a review copy of “Cook’s Country Blue Ribbon Desserts,” by the crew at America’s Test Kitchen (ATK).
I’m an ATK fan and happy to interrupt my college football viewing on Saturday afternoons to watch my two favorite weekly cooking shows, the namesake “America’s Test Kitchen, “ followed immediately by “Cook’s Country,” both hosted by Christopher Kimball and featuring his regular on-air sidekicks.
These guys don’t know how to leave well enough alone. The ATK foodies basically assume they can improve if not perfect every recipe under the sun – even the classics (I took a stab at the Deep-Dish Apple Pie; more on that in a minute). Sometimes this presumption of achieving culinary perfection can be a little grating, but it’s hard to argue with the consistently satisfying results.
Nontheless, to see the ATK team eat a little humble pie proves that these experts don’t have all the answers. They confess in “Blue Ribbon Desserts” that their habitual fiddling couldn’t improve at least one classic: Wacky Cake.
My wife has had this old reliable in her recipe box for many years, so I knew it was yummy, even without frosting. It took ATK, however, to dig out the history behind this “make-do,” mix-in-the-pan concoction that dates to World War II. They also explain the chemistry of what they describe as the easiest cake they’ve ever made, and one that is “surprisingly good.” The offbeat ingredient, white vinegar, lifts the batter with a last-minute reaction with baking soda.
Like all ATK-produced cookbooks – and it seems there’s a whole library now – “Blue Ribbon Desserts” is as much engaging textbook as collection of recipes. In this case, the recipes range from the conventional (angel food cake and chocolate chip cookies, e.g.) to the alluringly offbeat ( Blackberry Roly-Poly, Sand Tarts, and Cranberry Upside-Down Cake, to name several).
Besides the detailed instructions and background on each recipe, there are numerous tips, including equipment recommendations. Among the pointers: toast nuts in a dry skillet for the best results; coat a bundt pan with a paste of melted butter and flour or cocoa for quick release; and when looking for a top-performing pie plate, look no further than Pyrex’s 9-inch standby.
As boring at it seems, the first recipe I decided to tackle in this book was for Deep-Dish Apple Pie – partly because it’s apple season, and partly because despite the idiom “as easy (or simple) as pie,” I know things aren’t always a snap when it comes to making a successful pie.
Much, of course, is a factor of the crust, so I made sure to follow the directions closely. Although the results weren’t as flaky as I’d like (or expected), they were quite satisfactory, producing an easy-to-roll-out dough with a distinctive homemade quality (the recipe uses both butter and shortening).
ATK recipes sometimes add to the preparation time in the pursuit of superior results. This was the case here as the testers sought to prevent five pounds of apples from swimming in “an ocean of liquid” and to keep an air pocket from forming between the cooked apples and the domed crust. I’ve personally never been bothered by these “gaping holes, “ especially since all pies crumble the second a fork descends upon them, with no impact on flavor. But, hey, it’s just such details that drive the ATK team. They want a sliced piece to be solid apples from top to bottom crust. After all, aesthetics count.
The strategy, therefore, is to precook a mixture of tart and sweet apples in a Dutch oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or long enough to extract a fair amount of juice without turning them to mush. The precooking also aims to avoid a soggy bottom crust.
I can speak for the results, and the photo above attests to the no-air pocket interior profile. This is a good-looking, good-tasting pie, but I found that even the minimum 10 apples the recipe calls for are too many unless you want a Kilimanjaro-peaked pie.
– Ross Atkin edits the Monitor's Daily News Briefing and keeps the newsroom well-supplied with baked goods.