If Julie Powell could bake her way through "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and actually master the art, then I can see any number of serious bakers do the same with "The Art and Soul of Baking" (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $40) from Sur La Table with Cindy Mushet.
This is a gateway into the world of baking from someone who has not only mastered the art of creating memorable dishes, but also the elusive art of conveying even the most complex of techniques in a style that makes it seem understandable and not too hard to follow.
Or, as chocolate queen Alice Medrich writes in her introduction, Mushet is, simply, "a superb and empowering teacher who relates to the beginner as well as the seasoned baker."
Take, for example, these instructions on how to buy and thaw sheet phyllo: "Choose phyllo packages from the back of the freezer case, where the temperature is more consistent. Phyllo sheets that have been thawed and refrozen will stick together and tear unmercifully. Always buy an extra box, just in case you get one that has thawing damage. Thaw frozen phyllo in the refrigerator for 24 hours before use. if you try to thaw it quickly on the counter, condensation will form, the dough will get sticky, and you won't be able to pry the sheets apart. After it has thawed in the refrigerator, place the box on the kitchen counter for 1 to 2 hours and allow the dough to warm to room temperature. Cold phyllo is prone to cracking, whereas room temperature phyllo is more supple and easier to work with."
It doesn't get much more straightforward than that.
Recipe: Cream Scones
Then consider the dazzling array of recipes, from Cream Scones
and Peach-Gingerbread Dumplings to Malted Milk Chocolate Tart and Chocolate Velvet Pound Cake. Few of us with a sweet tooth could resist a summer stunner like Apricot-Cherry Almond Cobbler with almond paste in the crust. Or the exquisite Raspberry Soufflés With Hidden Chocolate Truffles, a photograph of which graces the cover of the book. (That mouthwatering photo and more from Maren Caruso will should sell more than a few copies of the book.)
The book isn't all sweets. There are recipes for various breads as well as savory treats, such as Potato, Onion and Gruyère Galette and Pesto Rolls.
Still not convinced you can be a great baker? The book breaks each section (quick breads, tarts, fruit desserts, cakes and so on) begins with a primer on the general techniques involved in each.
There are also "What the pros know" notes accompanying many of the recipes. Here's one: "There's a trick to making pumpkin pie that keeps the prebaked crust crisp against the liquid custard filling, and it defies logic. You've probably always heard that a prebaked pie crust should be cooled before being filled with custard and sent back to the oven. Not here. The crust should be hot from the oven (or reheated until hot) and then filled with hot custard. It's crazy, but it works beautifully. The bonus is that hot crust plus hot custard equals a shorter baking time. While pumpkin pies usually take an hour or more to bake, this one is finished in about 30 minutes. Now that's a reason to be thankful."
Bakers will certainly be thankful not just for such juicy morsels, but for the whole banquet of flavors revealed in this expansive work.