At almost 4 ½ pounds, the heft of Sarabeth’s Bakery suggests serious satisfaction for the sweet tooth. A gorgeous cover shot of a baker’s apron filled with brioches—yeast buns taught to every culinary school student—also says serious recipes will follow.

Filled with the classics, this cookbook (released by Rizzoli in October 2010 and written by Sarabeth Levine with Rick Rodgers) won’t satisfy trend-seekers, but bakers seeking solid recipes will still find some new ideas here. Although few of the recipes are for true beginners, they offer enough detail to put inexperienced bakers at ease (who will, however, need to own a fair amount of equipment, including a stand mixer, metal cake rings of various sizes, brioche tins, and a kitchen scale).

Sarabeth Levine, now the owner of seven restaurants, opened Sarabeth’s Kitchen in 1981 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She became known locally for her pastries and nationally for her jams, sold across the country. In this book, she provides the rich recipes for such pastries as croissants and babka; muffins and scones; yeast breads, including stollen and a sandwich bread enlivened with sunflower, poppy, and sesame seeds; plain (though not necessarily simple) and fancy cakes; pies and tarts; cookies including rugelach and palmiers; puddings; ice creams; and a few (not enough!) jam recipes. A thorough index makes finding the recipes and their variations easy.

Things are done the old-fashioned way in this book; melting chocolate, for example, always happens in a double boiler, not the microwave, and croissants and Danishes take no shortcuts (and if you want to make super-buttery pains de Matin, you’ll be making the dough for both). Photos for the method of making layered doughs walk bakers through the process, along with long, clear instructions. (All the photos are attractive but not overly stylized; the chocolate soufflé cake, for example, shows clearly how the top droops, rather than picturing a slice dolloped with whipped cream to cover the cracks.)

One recipe that doesn’t stick to the classic method, English muffins, offers a very easy method of baking instead of cooking the muffins on a griddle, a trickier proposition. Bakers need to plan far ahead for these, but actual work time is minimal, and the results well worth it, producing high-rising, light, slightly crunchy muffins. Bakers should be sure to thoroughly prepare their muffin rings (the tested muffins were a little tricky to dislodge); ramekins worked reasonably well in a test for bakers who don’t own a full 12 rings.

Another recipe, apple cinnamon bread, will seem odd to bakers unaccustomed to “chop breads.” This takes a slightly enriched dough, rolls it around diced apples, and chops the roll into small pieces that, topsy-turvy, fill a loaf pan. It comes out golden, barely sweet, and tender. Bakers should be sure to butter the top edge of their pans, as this bread puffs up and over the tops and sticks easily; they should also heed Levine’s instructions to take a loaf’s temperature at the end of baking, given how moist the loaf is.

Levine’s unusual recipe for pie dough could set panicky pie bakers at ease. It doesn’t have classic American flakiness, tending more toward a European tart dough, producing a very tender, delicate crust. Although it still shouldn’t be manhandled, the dough, made by creaming butter with milk before gently beating in flour, can banish some of the fear of traditional crusts that require minimal mixing. However, for a recipe such as the apple pie, the need to roll out and transfer a thin, 15-inch dough round may reinstate a bit of that fear, as the delicate dough can be tricky to manipulate. It takes well to patches, though, and the final, buttery richness makes it a worthwhile recipe.

Cookie recipes are fine but fairly standard, including shortbread, brownies, rugelach, palmiers, Linzer cookies, cookies sandwiched with jam and dipped in chocolate, and pecan shortbreads.

Many of the “spoon desserts” also seem fairly ordinary—crème brûlée, crème caramel, chocolate pudding, bread pudding—but the tiramisu, made with a delicate chocolate orange cake, stands out, rich and different.

All of Levine’s recipes are rich—no low-fat attempts here. Her ice creams use eight egg yolks, cream, and whole milk; rice pudding uses just whole milk for the rice, but stirs in a crème anglaise made with cream and egg yolks for creaminess.

Making jam seems like a dream in these recipes, and their sweet simplicity may come as a relief to bakers who fear canning. Her apple preserves, gorgeously golden and delicately flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, can be made in about an hour, perfect for Christmas gifts. The quick cooking in most of the jams ensures a soft set with deep, fresh flavors.

A final chapter on frostings and sauces provides a straightforward recipe for Swiss buttercream (by far the ideal cake frosting, and easier than one based on an Italian meringue), with lemon-rose, hazelnut, and mango variations. Sarabeth’s Bakery closes on a terrific recipe for plumped vanilla beans, which should be standard in every baker’s kitchen, offering an easy way to soften vanilla beans for extracting every last bit of the seeds inside; the emptied beans can then be dried and turned into a dust to add to any recipe in need of some vanilla oomph.

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

One Response to “Book Review: Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours”

  1. I was so thrilled to read your review of my book!. It amazed me how thoroughly you read the book; that you even noticed the indexer’s handiwork!. Your baking expertise is evident! It was the most thoughtful and comprehensive review that I have received yet. Thank you so, so much.