A good cookbook is one in which a handful of recipes excite you. You dog-ear a few pages and slide the book onto your shelf. Maybe you’ll return to it later, and maybe you won’t. (You probably won’t.)
A great cookbook, on the other hand, practically shimmers with possibilities. You begin to dog-ear the pages, but stop halfway through because what’s the point of doing that to an entire book? You go directly to the kitchen and bake.
The three best baking cookbooks published this year land squarely in the latter camp. The recipes and photography are inspirational but not at all intimidating, and while there are new ideas and fun flavor combinations, absent are the 16-page treatises on how to construct a towering croquembouche or make croissants from scratch. Life is hard enough. Baking doesn’t have to be.
Leading the pack is “Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit” (Lorena Jones Books, $25) by Lisa Ludwinski, who worked at the bakeries Milk Bar and Four and Twenty Blackbirds before opening her own in Detroit. She has written a book with 45 adventurous pie recipes, like blueberry plum balsamic, toasted marshmallow butterscotch and malted lime.
Sister Pie’s salted maple pie.CreditTara Donne for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Liza Jernow.
I know my way around a cake pan, but pie crusts often vex me. Following Ms. Ludwinski’s detailed though easy-to-follow instructions for making a crust (two full pages for the recipe and several more dedicated to rolling, crimping and blind baking) rewarded me with my best pie crust yet. With it, I made Sister Pie’s signature buttery and rich maple pie, sort of a Yankee’s answer to the South’s chess pie. The crust was flaky and tender, even on the bottom.
Pie is the focus, but the book includes many other enticing recipes, like rose-pistachio shortbread, buttered corn scones, peanut butter-smoked paprika cookies and paczki, Polish-style doughnuts.
Another star this season is “Modern Baking: Cakes, Cookies and Everything in Between” (HarperCollins, $40) by Donna Hay, a popular Australian cookbook author and magazine publisher. The jaw-dropping photography is reason enough to buy this 400-page doorstop, but its 250-plus recipes more than follow through. Ms. Hay understands that she’s writing for the busy home cook: Her introduction is mercifully short, and most of her recipes are a half-page or less, so you can get right to it.
One of my favorites is her salted dark chocolate layer cake with milk chocolate ganache. It sounds fancy, but it’s a shockingly simple two-bowl affair that skips combining the wet and dry ingredients first — you just dump everything into a bowl and stir. I was dubious, but it yielded a tender, sophisticated cake that I know I’ll make over and over again.
Her caramel popcorn, salted almond and malt cookies were another surprise hit. Next on my list are the cardamom-pistachio caramels, and come summer you’ll find me making the blackberry-elderflower pie, which has a layer of pistachios nestled between the filling and the crust.
If there is one sticking point, it’s that some of Ms. Hay’s recipes call for ingredients like double cream that are not easy to find in the United States, and she provides no substitutes. (For pouring cream, heavy cream works fine, and for superfine sugar, granulated will often do). Most items can be found online or at specialty markets, and most of the book translates well, but it would be nice to see her books fully adapted for the American home baker.
For the baker looking for a sure thing with every turn of the page, there’s “Food52 Genius Desserts: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Bake,” (Ten Speed, $35), a collection of recipes compiled by Kristen Miglore, the creative director of the website Food52. Each recipe is a game changer using an unusual ingredient or a new technique.
I loved the food writer Charlotte Druckman’s crunchy-salty-sweet cacio e pepe shortbread (really more of a cocktail snack), which I’m looking forward to nibbling with a glass of something bubbly. And sure to grace many holiday cookie plates this year are the dessert doyenne Dorie Greenspan’s famous World Peace Cookies, a slice-and-bake treat that Ms. Miglore describes as “a little bit French chocolate sablé and a little bit American chocolate chip.”
But the recipe that really bowled me over was the chef Einat Admony’s easy baklava, which calls for rolling up the nut filling in the phyllo and slicing it into discs as you would cinnamon rolls, then baking and drizzling the slices with cardamom-rosewater-honey syrup. Like traditional baklava, they are shatteringly crisp, gooey and sweet in all the right places, but much less work.
Two cookbooks that deserve honorable mentions this year are “All About Cake” by Christina Tosi with Courtney McBroom (Clarkson Potter, $35) and “Rose’s Baking Basics: 100 Essential Recipes, With More Than 600 Step-by-Step Photos” by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35).
Ms. Tosi’s latest shows readers how to make Milk Bar’s whimsical cakes at home. In addition to her famous layer cakes and cake truffles, she offers several variations on her Crock-Pot cake (the orange Creamsicle version was a big hit at my house) and a recipe for a microwave chocolate mug cake that’s surprisingly delicious. Her recipes are more of a project than those in the other books listed here, but they’re not hard. They just take more time.
“Rose’s Baking Basics” features classic recipes accompanied by the meticulous details that have become Ms. Beranbaum’s trademark. I love the “mise en place” section of her recipes that prompt cooks to do the things I always forget to do, like remove the butter and eggs from the refrigerator 30 minutes in advance so they can come to room temperature. If you’re a nervous new baker looking for guaranteed results or an old hat looking to tidy up your techniques, her book will become a well-used addition in your collection.
You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment or a ton of experience to get the most out of these books — just a simple desire to get into the kitchen and bake something beautiful and delicious. Bonus points if you get a good Instagram photo out of the deal.