Kosher Baker does parve recipes with verve

I love cookbooks and spend a lot of time with them. But there are just two kinds that make it onto my kitchen shelves: There’s the group that I go to for culinary history and food culture, and then there are the ones that I actually use for cooking.

Paula Shoyer’s “The Kosher Baker” is the newest addition to the latter category. Written for use at home, it contains a valuable compendium of dairy-free recipes for everyday and special occasions by the French-trained owner of a pastry cooking school in Chevy Chase, Md. She also teaches Jewish cooking and baking classes in the Washington, D.C. area and around the United States.

Eating commercially produced kosher baked goods that are parve — that is, made without dairy products — is usually a disappointment. Typically, they lack flavor. They are too sweet and often overly oily or dry.

The fundamental assumption of “The Kosher Baker” is that having a kosher meat meal or excluding dairy for other reasons should never preclude enjoying delicious desserts and breads. With more than 160 recipes, the book provides enough variety to keep even the pickiest and most prolific home bakers with good options for any occasion. 

Many of us are intimidated by baking in our own kitchens even if we grew up with a great baker in the family. It doesn’t have to be that way. Shoyer puts her experience as an instructor and editor of two of the cookbooks in Susie Fishbein’s well-known “Kosher by Design” series to excellent use. From the preface, in which the author describes her personal baking journey to the clear, step-by-step instructions, working with “The Kosher Baker” is like having a more experienced, fun friend alongside you at the oven.

The recipes are organized according to their complexity and amount of preparation time involved, a real advantage to anyone looking for a great last-minute dessert or planning a meal with home-baked pastries or bread.  Along with more familiar fruit pies, cupcakes and babka, Shoyer’s French pastry and dessert recipes are real gems. The Far Breton, a dense baked custard that I made with local organic raspberries soaked in rum, is into the oven in less than 15 minutes. It was a huge hit at my Shabbat dinner table, even with guests who prefer chocolate to fruit desserts.

The real test was the whole wheat challah. I regularly make challah in several varieties, but have never found a whole wheat recipe that I wanted to use again. That is, until now. This one balances white and whole flours, honey, sugar, yeast and eggs perfectly in a bread that looks beautiful as a crown or braid, tastes good, and has a substantial, but delicate texture. The dough rises three times so this is a not project that can be rushed. When you can plan ahead, the time is worth it.

There is so much to like about “The Kosher Baker,” including the many practical tips and attention given to special diets. With her sensitivity to dietary restrictions and commitment to expansion of the parve baker’s repertoire, the only disappointment is that Shoyer does not offer much advice to people who are generally concerned about making desserts and other baked goods more nutritious or are soy-sensitive.

It is very hard to get around using parve margarine in dairy-free baking, but trans-fat free versions are now widely available. Ingredients such as dairy-free “sour cream,” “cream cheese,” and similar products, which are typically soy-based and full of chemical additives, limit the appeal of the parve versions of classic dairy recipes such as rugelach and cheesecake. Even so, they may be a boon to those who also bake with dairy because the substitutions are easy to recognize.

“The Kosher Baker” is a wonderful gift and it will be on my kitchen shelf for a long time.

Rabbi Rebecca Joseph
is founder and owner of 12 Tribes Kosher Foods in San Francisco and creator of the Parve Baker, a dairy-free baking blog.

“The Kosher Baker”
by Paula Shoyer (312 pages, Brandeis University Press, $35)