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Books of 2021

Oak Park, Illinois is a regular destination for the Pastry clan, especially around the holidays. While there we never pass up an opportunity to stop at The Book Table, one of the handful of independent bookstores still left in the Chicago area. All of us love browsing the crowded stacks, and how often do you get the chance to actually handle a book before you buy it these days? I sure miss that in the age of Amazon, particularly when it comes cookbooks. I also miss discovering a gem versus being served it via algorithm. On which note, I practically fell over when I saw this: the reissued (and retitled) edition of Lenôtre’s Desserts and Pastries, first published in 1977.

I have an original copy, and it’s long been a Joe Pastry secret weapon. I’ve swiped no end of techniques and ideas from the late master pâtis­sier. Now I’m well and truly busted. Snap this up when you get a chance. I definitely will on my next trip up, as I’m curious to see the changes that the Lenôtre team has made in the interest of bringing this classic up-to-date.

I’ve been looking for a good for-the-masses Chinese pastry book for years now. This one treats the subject better than any I’ve seen, with its great photography and easy-to-follow instructions (there’s some decent history thrown in as well). I haven’t tried any of the recipes yet, but this book will definitely be my go-to from now on.

My daughters love this show, so they dove for this book when they saw it on the shelves. I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a “greatest disasters”-type of show retrospective, but a collection of the actual recipes that the hapless contestants used to create their cringe-inducing monstrosities. Grandpa bought them a copy, and while I don’t see myself using it much, I can say it was a fun one-time browse.

I was drawn to this little book more or less instantly, since I’m always looking for easier, less time consuming recipes for first-timers. I thought the presentation, “lazy baking”, was genius (most people wouldn’t think to put those two words together). It’s a great little book that I can tell I’ll be using often. The ideas in it are so simple they can be riffed on almost endlessly. Way to go Jessica D.!

I make a lot of brick oven pizza, but there’s always more to learn, and I liked the approach of this book quite a bit. The title isn’t exactly inspired, but the photos are good and there’s plenty of information for people who want/need to get under the hood of Neapolitan pizza. Newly minted Ooni owners, I’m looking at you.

Seems like every year there has to be at least one comprehensive “mastering the basics”-type baking book on the shelves, all done in rich tones of gold and brown, with plenty of aprons and floury implements. Bread Ahead is a solid addition to the genre, even if, like most of the others, it’s a long-form brochure for a cooking school you’ll never go to. Some really nice tips in here, and a handy mix of both bread and pastry formulas.

Since I’m talking about books of 2021 I shouldn’t neglect to mention Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which I received as a Christmas present and am very happy with. There’s a fair amount of familiar territory in it, but it’s an excellent book even so, particularly for anyone relatively new to Dorie’s work.

And since I’m reminiscing about Oak Park, I want to remember an old friend from there who died not terribly long ago: John Mahoney. It’s not every day you accidentally form a casual drinking buddy friendship with a big time film and TV actor, but what can I say, we used to go to the same bar. A proud Oak Parker, John was nothing like the cranky old dad he played on Frasier. Rather he was sophisticated and witty, interested in people, and with a smile that couldn’t help but make YOU smile. A lot like his character in Moonstruck but without the regrets. We lost touch when I moved to Louisville. I was sad to hear that he’d passed a couple of years back, though I still like to drop into Poor Phil’s and think of him. Goes to show you never know who you’re going to bump into in this life. Ya gotta keep your eyes peeled!

Oh and, did you know that in addition to Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray Kroc, and Bob Newhart, Betty White was also from Oak Park? Fare thee well, golden girl!

8 thoughts on “Books of 2021”

  1. Hi Joe!
    Good to hear from you in this new year.
    I have been hinting at Jessica Elliott Dennison’s Lazy Baking as a suitable birthday present to complement the new oven ;)!
    It is one of those cookery books which includes metric measurements *in the ingredients list* rather than as a generic (and generally unused) add-on 200 pages later, which is a big plus for me as a European-based cookery enthousiast!
    Wishing you and yours a great 2022!

    1. Same to you, Claudine! I didn’t notice the metric measurements, but then I haven’t really gotten into the book yet. I’m looking forward to it!


      – Joe

  2. As a next-up book on Chinese pastries, try to find Florence Lin’s Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads, copyright 1986. This is one of the mix-and-match type of cookbooks; she goes into great detail about various doughs, suggests what to put in them (also in great detail) and then leaves you to it! I was able to combine a dough and ground sesame seed filling with great success. Her spring rolls are wonderful.

    I’m glad you’re back. I can’t have been the only one who was worried.

    1. Florence Lin! I haven’t thought about her in ages. Great idea! I had a cookbook of hers in my college days way back when, one-dish meals or something. I loved that book. I think a girl friend borrowed it and never gave it back.

      I’ll look for the noodle and dumpling book!



  3. From the guy who is a master at teaching others how to make the most involved and intricate pastries, this is quite funny!

    “I was drawn to this little book more or less instantly, since I’m always looking for easier, less time consuming recipes for first-timers. I thought the presentation, “lazy baking”, was genius (most people wouldn’t think to put those two words together)”

    Your simple recipes are great; your ability to communicate the complex ones is incredible.

    1. Ha! Funny, Marie. I guess you’re right about that. I like to try to keep things simple. Whether I succeed or not is the issue (hence the need for more and elementary ideas in Joe world)!

      Thanks for the insightful (and flattering) comment!


  4. I work in River Forest (right next to Oak Park) and I’m embarassed to say that I didn’t know about this bookstore! I have to confess that my running around in the area is usually limited to finding coffee or lunch. But the French pastry book looks especially interesting. I was just in Oak Park yesterday for a Betty White tribute! Who knew that she was born there?

    1. Hey Jeff!

      I have in-laws in River Forest, so I know that town pretty well too. But yes, it’s funny how many people of note are from Oak Park. Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway are just the start of it. But yes, do drop by that place. I think you’ll enjoy it (cookbooks to the extreme right, just as you walk in the door).


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