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21 Days of Cookbooks – Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts

Hello. My name is Kim and I am a cookbook-aholic. I’ve flagged more cookbook recipes than would be humanly possible to make in a single lifetime. Yet my obsession with acquiring new and old cookbooks persists unabated. This month I share my compulsive tendencies via the “21 Days” series, featuring some of my favorite cookbooks from local authors and publishers. Please feel free to join me in finding new cookbooks to feed our passion at any of my favorite Triangle indie book sellers: The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf BooksQuail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh or McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro’s Fearrington Village.

Browned Butter Date Nut Tart (page 101) from the “Pie Primer” chapter in “Sweet Stuff”

If you had the chance to dine at Magnolia Grill before the Barkers retired and closed the restaurant, you know when you dined at the venerated restaurant you needed to make sure that you saved room for dessert. Karen Barker was the restaurant’s pastry chef and in 2003 was named Best Pastry Chef by the James Beard Foundation. In 2004 her cookbook with more than 160 recipes, “Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts“, was published.

I love the sophisticated flavors in this book and that it allows someone like me (a home cook) to channel my inner pastry chef and make restaurant quality desserts like the Browned Butter Date Nut Tart (picture above). But before I get ahead of myself, I’ve got to cover the basics, or as Barker refers to them “A Baker’s Building Blocks”. The opening chapter of recipes focuses on the fundamentals, a basic pie crust, tart dough, even a puff-style pastry dough. With those skills under our belt, we can move along to additional techniques to make the essentials – caramel sauce, cocoa fudge sauce, candied orange zest, and marshmallow fluff – before getting into the main desserts.

I believe I’ve shared my fondness for pie. Well, Barker’s pie recipes elevate familiar favorites by adding layers of flavor. For example, take a modest key lime pie, add coconut shreds to the graham cracker crust and a bit of dark rum to the whipped cream topping and you’ve got a recipe for Key Lime Coconut Pie with Rum Cream that will delight.  Each chapter in the book is filled with similar sweet pleasures: Banana Pudding Cream Puffs, Black Walnut Angel Food Cake with Sorghum Syrup, Burnt Orange Caramel Ice Cream, even Hazelnut Sandies, a riff on the cookie usually made with another type of nut. Believe me. It’s all good. 

Though we can no longer dine at Magnolia Grill, thankfully we have a legacy of recipes to cherish, both in “Sweet Stuff” and in “Not Afraid of Flavor“. Perhaps once the new residents have settled into the former restaurant space on Ninth Street, they’ll be inspired to continue forging new culinary paths (and maybe a donut cookbook… maybe?). 

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