Review: Sweet Melissa Baking Book

June 4, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Originally Posted at Paper Palate (paperpalate.net)  April 2, 2008.

Sweet Melissa Baking BookFor most of us, the first we had ever heard of baker Melissa Murphy was when she took home the grand prize this past year on the Food Network’s Edible Ornaments Contest. But the folks in Brooklyn have adored her devotion to making the finest baked goods in the five boroughs since she first opened Sweet Melissa Patisseries in 1998.

Since then, the accolades have been many. In addition to the Food Network victory, Sweet Melissa’s was also honored with the Zagat award for “Best Tarts and Pies” in New York City. Melissa and her bakery have been featured in both local publications, like the New York Times, and in national periodicals like Food & Wine and Fine Cooking. On the heels of this success, Murphy is releasing her much anticipated Sweet Melissa Baking Book from Viking Studio, a division of the Penguin Group.

Flipping through an advanced copy with a friend who loves to bake gave me some true insight to the Sweet Melissa methodology. Each stunningly photographed treat brought a similar response from my friend, “Ooh, that looks good, but I would have drizzled chocolate on the plate first,” or “Pretty.  I bet powdered sugar would have made that even prettier.” Murphy’s plate presentation is fine, but not the focus. She decided years ago to concentrate on always preparing the absolute best recipe, not the trendiest. In fact, she states in the introduction, “The best food doesn’t have to be challenging in its preparation, but should recall our fondest food memories.”

Thumbing through the recipes myself later on gave me the chance to fully appreciate why many say Melissa Murphy is the best baker in the nation. After reading some of her creative specialties like Guinness (yes, the beer) Gingerbread and Sweet Plum Clafoutis with Almonds, I then took time to notice her takes on some of the classics … sheer genius.

At times the narrative seems a bit cocky when you read things like, “The cakes in this chapter are so uniquely delicious, yet the ingredients are so familiar. If you make any one of the cakes from the chapter, you will become somebody’s hero!” But when you observe the attention to detail, you begin to understand that Murphy is not bragging, she is stating fact. What makes Sweet Melissa’s Red Velvet Cake so good? Dutch-process cocoa, red wine vinegar, and buttermilk in the cake batter. The secret to her Carrot Cake? The zest of one orange in the frosting.

The recipes used at Sweet Melissa’s are not just her spin on each dish, but rather the result of lots of trial and error. Murphy has tested hundreds of versions of each delicacy she produces to find what she, and her many patrons agree are the best recipes for each. One might say that the Sweet Melissa Baking Book is a greatest hits of baking.

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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."

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