Restaurant News & Reviews

American desserts celebrated in new cookbook by Lexington baker

Lexington baker Stella Parks made a name for herself baking desserts for local restaurants like Wallace Station and Table 310. She began writing with her blog, BraveTart, and her first cookbook just won a James Beard award.
Lexington baker Stella Parks made a name for herself baking desserts for local restaurants like Wallace Station and Table 310. She began writing with her blog, BraveTart, and her first cookbook just won a James Beard award. BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts

Lexington pastry chef Stella Parks, known to many in food circles as the blogger BraveTart, is releasing her first book, “BraveTart, Iconic American Desserts,” a nearly 400-page tome of food you think you know, such as the chocolate chip cookie, oatmeal creme pies and the classic coconut cream pie.

But it’s much more than a cookbook; Parks reveals the stories behind the sweets you think you know, and how to make them better than you ever though possible.

Like her blog, BraveTart’s book is a fun read, full of history and science. Want to know how to make a meringue that doesn’t weep? Parks has the answer.

Think you know the story behind chocolate chips cookies? You almost certainly don’t, but Parks — who researched much of her book locally either in the University of Kentucky’s W.T. Young Library or the Cincinnati public library — has uncovered it.

Want to know the origin of coconut cream pie? She’s got the real recipe, along with her perfect pie crust and topped by her no-weep marshmallow meringue.

Parks spent about six years writing the book but it’s clear that she’s actually been working toward it her whole life.

For instance, her carrot cake essay, which takes you through the wartime history (real and not-so-real) of the recipes, includes a beautiful photo featuring roses made from twisted ribbons of actual carrots. Parks reveals that she perfected this bit of culinary magic when she was a little girl from a Southern Living magazine recipe.

“I was so captivated ... I could probably make those before I could make the cake itself,” she said.

That’s saying something, since Parks has been baking professionally since she was 14. She went to the Culinary Institute of America straight from high school.

The connection to childhood serves her well; as her fellow science-obsessed cook J. Kenji Lopez-Alt said in the forward to Parks’ book, she manages to make food taste more like your memory of it than the actual food does. In his case, it was a dessert play on a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.

Her recipes do this, in part, because the original, industrial version often has evolved.

It isn’t your imagination, the Little Debbies/Graham crackers/Oreos/whatever you had as a kid really did taste different. Often because they were made differently; ingredients have been shifted to extend shelf life or cut costs.

But Parks goes beyond switching back to real butter. She taps into the changes in our taste buds.

“You have a different palate as a child, with a higher tolerance for sugar and lower for bitter,” she said. So that when you taste your childhood favorites now, they seem somehow disappointing, she said.

That led her to explore what it is that makes the fairly plebeian Graham cracker such a staple of kid cuisine, then to make a thoroughly adult version that’s rich and buttery.

Or to give the unsexy Fig Newton an orangey intensity that lives up to Nabisco’s “fruit and cake” description, even with the fun variation that includes bacon.

Parks’ recipes aren’t necessarily difficult, but there’s a reason she writes about the man who invented the specialized machinery that made Fig Newtons possible: they are a lot of work.

“Some of these are definitely a project — they certainly not cheaper or easier than buying them, and really not healthier,” Parks said of the pastries. “They still have sugar and fat. ... It takes the kind of person who would really enjoy spending the afternoon in the kitchen.”

And that’s part of the fun of the book, seeing if you can make something yourself that tastes like a memory.

“It’s definitely to satisfy my memory of 6-year-old Stella having a Fig Newton with her cousin while watching TV on the couch,” she said.

If you go

Stella Parks will sign and discuss “BraveTart, Classic American Desserts” at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle, at 7 p.m., Aug. 15, the book’s launch date.

Parks also will be doing a demonstration and book signing at Crave, Aug. 12-13, at Bluegrass Fairgrounds at Masterson Station Park.

Frankie’s coconut cream pie

Coconut custard:

1/2 cup | 4 ounces light brown sugar

1/2 cup | 3 1/2 ounces white sugar

1/3 cup | 1 1/2 ounces cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom or cinnamon

1/2 cup | 5 ounces egg yolks, from about 8 large eggs (reserve whites for meringue)

3 1/2 cups | 28 ounces unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk

1 1/3 cups | 4 ounces sweetened shredded coconut, plus more to garnish

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 fully baked no-stress all-butter pastry crust

1 recipe marshmallow meringue

Prepare the custard: Whisk brown sugar, white sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cardamom together in a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, followed by egg yolks and coconut milk. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking gently until steaming hot, about 5 minutes. Increase to medium and continue cooking until thick, about 5 minutes more. When the custard begins to bubble, set a timer and continue whisking exactly 2 minutes. Off heat, stir in coconut and vanilla.

Scrape into the prepared crust and cool until a skin forms, about 30 minutes. Proceed to the next step, or wrap in plastic and refrigerate until needed, up to 24 hours.

Finish the pie: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 375°F. Spread marshmallow meringue over the custard (work gently if it’s still warm), making certain it touches the crust all the way around. Sculpt into swoops and swirls with the tines of a fork. If you like, sprinkle with coconut.

Set the pie on a wire rack in a baking sheet and bake until light tan, with slightly darker caps here and there, about 20 minutes. Cool for 1 hour, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate until cold and firm. Covered in plastic, leftovers can be refrigerated about 1 week.

Yield: One 9-inch pie; 12 slices

No-stress all-butter pastry crust

1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon | 8 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon | 1/2 ounce sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)

2 sticks | 8 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup | 4 ounces cold water

If the temperature climbs above 73°F in your kitchen, be aware that everything from your countertop to your rolling pin and the flour itself will act as a heat source to the butter. Combat these conditions by refrigerating your pie plate, rolling pin, and dry ingredients until cool — not cold or frozen. If needed, chill the countertops of a sweltering hot kitchen with bags of ice water.

Making the dough: Sift flour into a medium bowl (if using cup measures, spoon into the cups and level with a knife before sifting). Whisk in sugar and salt. Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes, no smaller, and toss with flour to break up the pieces. Roughly smash each cube flat—nothing more. Stir in cold water and knead until the dough comes together in a ball. With a dough temperature at or below 70°F, it will feel dry to the touch.

Transfer to a generously floured work space, sprinkle with more flour, and roll into a 10-by-15-inch sheet. Fold each 10-inch side toward the middle, and close the packet like a book. Fold top to bottom to make a thick block, then cut in half. Using as much flour as needed, roll one portion into a 14-inch round. Brush off excess flour, drape over a 9-inch tempered glass pie plate, making sure it’s flush against the pan.

Trim excess dough into a 11/4-inch overhang all around, then fold over to create a 3/4-inch border that sits on the rim of the plate; if positioned inside the rim, the crust will be too shallow to accommodate the filling. Pinch or press the border into a zigzag pattern, and repeat with remaining dough. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight. Alternately, formed crusts can be frozen up to three months and thawed in a refrigerator before use.

Baking the crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F. Line the chilled crust with a large strip of foil (not parchment or wax paper), letting the excess loosely cover the rim. Fill with plain white sugar, an alternative to options like rice or beans.

Bake on an aluminum baking sheet until fully set and golden brown, about 1 hour. If the sides of the crust seem puffy or pale, continue baking 10 minutes more. Cool to room temperature. Use immediately, or wrap in plastic and store at room temperature for up to 24 hours.

Yield: Two 9-inch pie crusts or one double crust

Marshmallow meringue

1 cup | 8 ounces egg whites, from about 8 large eggs

1 3/4 cups | 12 ounces sugar or Roasted Sugar (page 102)

1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon rose water, or seeds from 1 vanilla bean (optional)

Key point: With gently simmering water, the meringue should cook fairly fast. If you find the temperature climbing too slowly, simply crank up the heat.

Fill a 3-quart pot with 1 1/2-inches of water and place over medium-low heat, with a ring of crumpled foil set in the middle to act as a booster seat. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine egg whites, sugar, salt, cream of tartar, and rose water or vanilla bean (if using). Place over steamy water, stirring and scraping constantly with a flexible spatula until thin, foamy, and 175°F on a digital thermometer, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip on high until glossy, thick, and quadrupled in volume, about 5 minutes. Use immediately.

Troubleshooting: If a speck of yolk slips into the whites, fish it out with an egg shell. If the yolk can’t be neatly removed, start fresh, as fat can inhibit both the volume and stability of meringue.

Oil-based extracts, like lemon, orange, and mint can destabilize the meringue. Use sparingly and fold in by hand when the meringue has finished whipping.

Yield: about 8 cups; enough to generously top a 9-inch pie.