Proust had his madeleine, but for Stella Parks, it's a different cookie.
Recalling a tiny pack of Oreos she found while she was living abroad in Japan, the pastry chef/blogger/food editor/cookbook author says, "I never got homesick in the typical ways—I didn't miss American culture." It was when she wanted the simple pleasure of a PB&J or chocolate chip cookie that she missed home the most. And when she laid hands on a tiny package of Oreos, one bite instantly lit up something inside her.
Fast-forward to today, and you can read all about Parks's journey in her just-released cookbook, BraveTart, which bears the same name as her candid and popular blog. In the book's introduction, Parks's Serious Eats colleague (and Food Lab author), J. Kenji López-Alt, calls her a combo of Betty Crocker, the Keebler Elf, Mr. Wizard and Fannie Farmer. Crack it open, and you'll see why. Parks peels the plastic off the packaged desserts you grew up with and gives them a culinary school education, transforming treats like Fig Newtons, Cracker Jack, animal crackers and, of course, Oreos into modern delights—and you're about to reap the benefits.
At every turn, she lends another trick for achieving the holy grail of a homemade version of a store-bought classic that rivals the original but still retains its spirit. Use club soda for light-as-air Twinkies, she advises, or a winning combo of red wine and raw cocoa powder in red velvet cake for a tender texture and vibrant hue. Or, add a hint of coconut extract into an Oreo recipe to make the result taste shockingly authentic—and use a bikini cookie cutter to get the iconic peanut shape of a Nutter Butter.
Stella Parks' takeover starts tomorrow: stay tuned for a sneak peek into her (very delicious) adventures and a chance to win a signed copy of BraveTart, PLUS Stella's favorite @oxo scale! #bravetart #stellaparks #baking #dessert #bakingbooks #igtakeover #giveaway #bookgiveaway #bookstagram #igbooks #booksofinstagram
Growing up, when Parks visited her grandparents in Western Kentucky, her family would always stop at one particular restaurant. She remembers watching mile-high meringue pies being paraded out to other tables, "seeing the way they'd wobble and being amazed they didn't fall over," like an edible Flubber made of sweet clouds.
"That was the first time I wanted to make a pie," Parks says. To make her lemon meringue pie (see the recipe), you'll pour silky, sweet-tart custard into an all-butter crust, then top it with meringue styled like a middle schooler experimenting with frosted tips. Then, you'll give it a whirl in the tanning bed, courtesy of a hot oven. "I want that sense of awe," she explains, as she lovingly discusses diner pies (you know, the ones next to the giant shrink-wrapped rainbow sprinkle cookies).
This tart classic hasn't changed much from its original version, but we take Parks's advice, to swap the water for coconut water and coconut milk, and add lemongrass for an extra and unusual citrus boost.
Each BraveTart recipe has a backstory, which makes sense when the book has been such a long time coming; she's been actively working on it for six years. A cursory scroll through her bibliography is like leafing through a dissertation on centuries of America's sweet tooth.
For research, Parks bought up three-dollar boxes of 1950s memorabilia from Etsy and eBay—"random things from someone's grandparents' garage." We're talking about everything from anti-Masonic texts to a sorority newsletter and scores of local gazettes from around the country.
"It was like hunting for treasure," Parks says of bringing these lofty treats down to earth. Along the way, she discovered items like an old Nabisco employee manual and behind-the-scenes photos of how Nilla wafers used to be made, back when they were big disks sold in sleeves rather than the one-bite wonders we know today.
She shares a story about that time Jack Kerouac documented his one-day stint as a Girl Scout Cookie elf laborer, which Parks says "read like a chocolate-covered edition of The Jungle." And one about a group of Vassar College girls who helped catapult fudge to fame by stealing ingredients from the cafeteria and making confections in their dorm rooms.
By way of these found histories, the book truly is a collection of American taste and desserts, layering strangers' stories into one giant cake. And it comes at a fitting time, with a delicious fervor growing around nostalgic comfort food (guilty as charged). When it comes to pie, everyone from Bubby's in NYC to Magpie in Philadelphia to Bang Bang Pie in Chicago is throwing it back to the glory days of sugary diner pie joy. Sometimes you need to look back to move forward.
It should come as no surprise that homemade Oreos were the first recipe Parks published for Serious Eats. That mini package of Oreos reminded her how strong taste memories can be. "They have the power to transport us to an earlier time. We don't outgrow them."
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