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Books to get you baking

Colder weather is an invitation to turn the oven on and start baking. Eight new books about baking offer recipes for everything from warm bread to trays of crunchy cookies; cakes five layers high or in a loaf; plus pies, tarts and popovers.

CAKES, COOKIES AND PIES

"Cake Keeper Cakes" (Taunton Press, 2009) offers 100 recipes for honest-to-goodness everyday cakes, the kind meant to be kept on the counter under a plain glass dome. Author Lauren Chattman's recipe for Cinnamon Pudding Cake and Almond Brown Butter Cake conjure winter days and warm milk. Pear Cake with Sea Salt Caramel Sauce appears dinner-party worthy without being fussy.

Meanwhile, cakes like Fig and Cornmeal with Pine Nuts or Chocolate Chipotle — a rich buttermilk loaf with a subtle, smoky kick — strike just the right balance between comfort and sophistication. Make no mistake: these are not quick cakes. They are simply simple cakes, no frosting, no flower cut-outs, no intimidation.

If Chattman gives us grown-up cakes, "Birthday Cakes for Kids" (Ryland, Peters & Small, 2009) is a one-stop shop for over-the-top creations sure to please any 6-year-old. Recipes go from relatively simple "Ice Cream Cupcakes" served in cones, to bunnies, dinosaurs, tractors, train sets and carousels. Yet author Annie Rigg has made it seem simple.

Basic recipes for yellow cake and buttercream serve as the base for many recipes, and step-by-step instructions (and diagrams!) for cutting patterns, piping decorations and using food coloring guide the determined parent. The "Fantastic Chocolate Cake," a three-tiered chocolate buttermilk extravaganza stacked like a wedding cake and frosted with rich buttercream, lives up to its name.

And then there's pie. Mythologized and elusive, the perfect pie stands as some bakers' Holy Grail. "Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies," (Ten Speed Press, 2009) with recipes from Staunton, Va.'s "Pie Lady," offers a primer that will launch beginners and inspire experts.

Six varieties of crust — from plain to vinegar to cookie crumb — form the base for more than 50 different pies. Five kinds of apple pie alone front the section on fruit pies, followed by extravagant delights like Mrs. Brown's Grape Pie, heaped with Concord grapes and topped with sweet cream, and Damson Plum Pie, full of nothing but plums, sugar and butter.

Of course, Southern favorites like Sweet Potato Pie, Coconut Cream, and Pecan Pie get their space, but specialties like Green Tomato Mincemeat Pie and Watermelon Pie are even more intriguing.

Even people who love to bake often find themselves short on time to do it. Enter "The Ultimate Shortcut Cookie Book" (Sourcebooks, 2009).

Like the "Cake Mix Doctor" books before it, this handy volume upscales refrigerated dough and cake mixes with butter, chocolate chips, oatmeal, fruit and other "from-scratch" ingredients.

The 745 recipes for drop cookies, fancy cookies, bars, brownies and frostings presented in easy-to-read broad type are appealing and well-suited for kids to help.

Almond Joyfuls boost prepared sugar cookie dough with coconut, almonds and chocolate chips. More exotic treats like Blackberry Sage Thumbprints and spicy Chocolate-Filled Aztec Cookies aim beyond the chewy, gooey kid-friendly cookies at a more adult palate.

GENERAL BAKING

The title says it all. "Baking" (Ten Speed Press, 2009) by award-winning author and cooking instructor James Peterson delivers 350 recipes and techniques for achieving the craft's fundamentals: tender pie crust, bread with a proper rise, evenly set cakes, sufficiently airy mousses.

Peterson takes an academic approach, for instance, announcing in the cake chapter that there are only six types of cake — sponge, butter, oil-based, yeasted, meringue-based, custard — and mastering them is key.

Peterson offers the same comprehensive instructional approach to pies and pastries, cookies, breads and custards. More than 1,500 photos accompany the text, making it all seem doable. A volume for serious bakers, or those who want to be.

"The Craft of Baking" (Clarkson Potter, 2009) is as inspiring as Peterson's tome is academic. This is the first book from Karen DeMasco, the award-winning pastry chef behind Tom Colicchio's "craft" and other restaurants. She folds pure ingredients and a simple approach into exciting, unusual recipes.

From breakfast treats like Sour Cherry Scones and Brown Butter Waffles to Pecan Shortbread Cookies, Bittersweet Chocolate Cake, meringue pies, custard tarts, and fresh-fruit cobblers, DeMasco makes you eager to turn on the oven.

She advocates real-people ingredients, like Land O'Lakes butter and plain old all-purpose flour, but combines them in ways that yield exciting treats like Pink Peppercorn Brittle, salted Butterscotch Pudding, Lemon Olive Oil Cake and Pine Nut Tart with Rosemary Cream. She throws in a few tricks of the trade — for instance, that Vitamin C powder keeps fresh fruit sorbets from oxidizing and losing their vivid colors — but the book's real appeal is its loving approach to the food.

SPECIALTY BAKING

Finally, a baking book for those without a sweet tooth. "Savory Baking" (Chronicle Books, 2009) by acclaimed pastry chef Mary Cech evokes the wonderful world of scones, tarts, biscuits, puff pastries and other salty, herby, cheesy delights too often passed over in the baking canon.

Peppered Pear and Goat Cheese Scones, Spicy Tomato Crumble, and Fingerling and Crispy Bacon Pizza exemplify the inventiveness of the book's 75 recipes. A Cambozola and Pear Cream Tart highlights one of the world's great cheese-fruit combinations, and an array of cookies — Thyme, Lemon, and Sea-Salt Shortbread; Sour Cream Fig Spirals; Black-Rimmed Pistachio Wafers — would make elegant snacks for a wine tasting.

Everything about "Bread Matters" (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2009), from the book's stout weightiness to its unadorned cover, telegraphs the comfort of homemade loaves. Professional organic baker Andrew Whitley's ode to making bread rants a bit about industrial bread, but anyone sick of store-bought loaves and the additives they contain will appreciate his thoughtful approach and useful prescriptions for making your own.

After a thorough schooling on leaveners, preservatives, emulsifiers and the like, Whitley offers more than 50 recipes for everything from Basic Bread to Milk Bread, Rye Bread, Stollen and Ciabatta. The recipes are involved, but if you harbor fantasies of warm loaves on cold days, this is your book.

Books to get you baking