Bake It Your Own

How to develop a signature dessert, according to 'Sugar Fairy' Rebecca Masson

Everyone should have a signature dessert. The kind of thing friends, family and coworkers ask you to bring to every party and potluck. The one that has your mother-in-law begging for the recipe. For the serious baker, that might mean years of recipe development, baker's percentages and a deep understanding of flours, fats and leaveners. For the rest of us, it probably means a little bit of cheating.

If you know your way around a gram scale and can talk hydration ratios like a pro, more power to you. Thankfully, a lot of people have already put a lot of time and thought into creating time-tested recipes, leaving us with the (relatively) simple task of modifying them into something we can call our own. But when you talk baking, you're talking science. Recipe modification has its own set of rules and can be just as tricky as starting from scratch. Thankfully, there are some easy routes to sweet success, if you keep a few things in mind.

Rebecca Masson (aka The Sugar Fairy), owner of Fluff Bake Bar in Houston, Texas, and a contestant on season two of Top Chef: Just Desserts, knows a thing or two about craveable desserts. From her Veruca Salt Cup|Cakes to Unicorn Bait cookies to her own riffs on sack-lunch classics like Oreos and Moon Pies, Masson's style is often built around tweaks, taking a classic flavor or concept and giving it a little Sugar Fairy spin.

Here are her tips for how you can do the same.

There's no shame in borrowing, as long as you make it yours.

"I really like Milk Bar's corn cookie, but I can't serve Milk Bar's corn cookie. So I need to figure out how to make it my own," Masson, who likes to riff on existing recipes, says. "So I'm gonna add sour cream to this, because sour cream adds a different little tang, sour cream goes with corn. And it's going to add a little more moisture to the cookie, so we had to add a little more flour, so it isn't a soupy mess. Now I want something crunchy in my cookie, so if you watched me [on social media], I put Tostitos, I put lime-flavored Tostitos, I put Corn Pops, half-popped popcorn. None of it was really what I love. The next one I'm gonna do is Crunch Berry All Berries. I think that might be what we're looking for."

Though Masson is right at home reworking a recipe from the ground up, she suggests easier swaps for the home baker, to remove the threat of messing with basic mechanics. You can try your hand at tweaking a Milk Bar recipe, or you can look to mod one you probably already have in your pantry.

"The recipe on the back of the Nestlé Toll House bag. Seriously. There's a reason why it's still being printed. You could do anything in there," Masson says. Raid the spice drawer, add some citrus zest and pine nuts, crush up something salty and crunchy (Masson has been known to employ everything from pretzels to potato chips), and toss it in the mixing bowl.

Speaking of the spice drawer . . .

"The Snickerdoodle cookie is a good base, too," Masson says. She uses the classic dough as the base for her Unicorn Bait cookies. "It's not so sweet, and then you roll it in cinnamon sugar. We put Fruity Pebbles in the sugar for the Unicorn Bait." With its lightly sweet profile and flavored-sugar dusting, the Snickerdoodle is almost a blank canvas of a cookie, just waiting for your inspiration. While the classic warm baking spices are a good start, there's no reason to limit yourself. Just make sure you're looking at spices that work with a sweet profile. No garlic powder Snickerdoodles, thank you very much. Perhaps a small pinch of ground fenugreek, with its dark caramel notes, or even a bit of cayenne pepper for a spicy kick. Masson suggests Ras el Hanout as an outside-the-box spicing option.

Texture, texture, texture.

"[Especially] when it comes to cakes, cake is always one note. It's always creamy. Me, I like texture, so I add something crunchy," she says. Texture is a great way to put a personal twist, and the list of things you can use to get there is nearly endless. Nuts are a classic, but far from the end of the story. The snack aisle offers plenty of inspiration, with everything from pretzels to corn nuts to Cracker Jack practically begging for the dessert treatment. Masson likes to head to the cereal aisle for her sweets, noting that you're better off going with "nugget-type" cereals instead of flaky types, to avoid sogginess.

Serve it à la mode.

Now that you've got your chocolate chip snickerdoodle all gussied up with cereal clusters and marshmallows, then rolled in sugar and crushed pretzels, you might as well serve it with a scoop of ice cream. Customization can be a bit easier with ice cream, "because you can have a basic base," she says. "Quart of cream, quart of milk, 200 grams of eggs, 200 grams of sugar (and you can change the sugar); that's a basic custard recipe." From there, the same rules apply. Add-ins like dried fruit, nuts and candies are a relatively simple affair. The same holds true for infusions, adding flavorful ingredients to the base, then straining them out before churning. Tread carefully when adding liquid ingredients or ingredients that add a lot of fat to the mix, as those can skew the recipe.

Failure is always an option.

"It looks like we do everything perfect, but you don't see how many [screw]-ups we have," Masson says. "You never get to see the [screw]-up at Fluff Bake Bar. It's gone. It's not like we do it perfectly every time. We don't."

If you've stepped out of the comfort zone of simpler inclusions, which Masson finds to be the best route for home bakers, it's important to reverse engineer the error. Among the most common issues you might face, Masson finds the ratios of flour and fat to be particularly frequent sticking points. "If you have too much fat in your recipe, your cookies will spread, and they'll just be this blobby mess. Or if you have too much flour, or those kinds of ingredients, they're never going to spread, and they're just going to stay in balls." Keep that in mind and try again. You can always eat the failures yourself.

Find Milk Bar here, or in our DINE app.

Find Fluff Bake Bar here, or in our DINE app.