There are oatmeal cookies, and then there are Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Luxury Oatmeal Cookies. In her decorous yet unwavering pursuit of perfection, she replaces plain old rolled oats with not just granola, but homemade granola, to get the balance of sweet and crunchy just right. The full recipe runs three exacting pages, which does not surprise her fans worldwide. They expect nothing less from the queen of baking cookbooks.
Inducted into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in 2004, Beranbaum has a featherbed of laurels she could rest on, including three James Beard Awards and two International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year Awards. (None of her dessert books, going back to her first, 1988’s The Cake Bible, has ever gone out of print.)
But rather than gaze dreamily at the Delaware Water Gap from the upstairs writing room of her home in Hope Township, near Blairstown, Beranbaum has produced her 10th cookbook, The Baking Bible, a 560-page magnum opus published in October by HMH. It is packed with new recipes, tips and techniques, updated classics and hundreds of ravishing color photographs of cakes, pies, pastries, candies and more—all with the fail-safe instructions for which she is famous.
Or infamous. In this grab-and-go world, many home bakers prefer recipes that promise speed and ease. “They look at mine,” Beranbaum says, “and think, There’s so much to do here, it must be complicated. Then they do something simpler, and end up writing to me to ask why it didn’t work. I call what I do the antithesis of the quick-and-easy approach. I think people are into that because they’ve never tasted something that’s really done right. Once they do, their eyes open wider, and they get it.”
Beranbaum may be a doyenne, but she is no dictator. In the Luxury Oatmeal recipe, she recommends, but doesn’t demand, that you use Muscovado brown sugar from the volcanic soil of Mauritius in place of regular brown sugar, and Valhrona pearls instead of regular chocolate chips. What makes these better?
“Compared to other brown sugars,” she says, while baking a batch in the state-of-the-art dessert kitchen in her home, “the natural residual molasses [in Muscovado] is not removed, which gives it a complexity and depth of flavor lacking in others.” As for the Valhrona pearls, these tiny, shiny dots, smaller than standard chocolate chips, ensure that you will taste them in every single bite.
Beranbaum, whose light, lilting voice shines with delight, finds inspiration everywhere. She dedicates the recipe for her Renée Fleming Golden Chiffon cake on page 86 of The Baking Bible “to my favorite soprano of the golden voice.” But creating a recipe worthy of that association required 17 tests before she and her longtime collaborator, Woody Wolston, achieved what they considered the perfect texture for the moist, lemony—“in a word: divine”—sponge cake.
But while the science of baking intrigues her, it’s the emotion behind every dessert that keeps her going. “They call it a hearth for a reason,” she notes. “An oven is the beating heart of the kitchen.”
Beranbaum is that rarest of crossover artists: adored by her followers and revered by fellow food professionals. Her website, realbakingwithrose.com, gets 1 million unique visitors a year. Bakers of all abilities flock to her roughly 160 free instructional videos on YouTube.
Meanwhile, praise from her peers pours in from both the sweet and the savory sides of the kitchen. “I’ve always admired Rose’s tireless research and attention to detail,” says noted pastry chef and cookbook author Claudia Fleming. “She has helped move the baking world forward with her innovative techniques and mouthwatering recipes.”
Dan Barber, the renowned Blue Hill chef and sustainability advocate, tells of receiving a recent e-mail. “Rose,” he says, “forwarded me some research she had done about the effects of GMO vs. non-GMO cornstarch on a genoise recipe. Apparently, there’s a difference, and it’s not a slight one. It struck me how characteristic that e-mail was—how perfectly it illustrated her tireless curiosity, even about ingredients as humble and overlooked as cornstarch. It’s fair to say that Rose has already created the world’s most authoritative baking cookbooks, and yet she continues to interrogate her tools, and her ingredients.”
Beranbaum is 70, and happy to admit it. “I think it’s important for a woman to be fearless about telling her age,” she says. She attributes her youthful looks partly to genes (“My grandmother died at 99-plus, and she looked 20 years younger.”) and partly to “staying physically active.” As this issue went to press, she embarked on an extended book tour, with stops on November 22 at the Barnes & Noble in Bridgewater, December 6 at Chef Central in Paramus and December 10 at the Miele Center in Princeton.
Downtime, it seems, is for others. “Somebody has to set the standard,” she says.
This exacting baker has precision in her genes. Her mother was a dentist. Beranbaum used to use a dental tool to make spun sugar until she decided that a whisk with its rounded end cut off worked better. Her mother’s tool still sits on a shelf behind the work counter. Beranbaum’s father, a fine woodworker, made his wife a glass-front cabinet to hold her instruments. Now mounted on the wall of Beranbaum’s test kitchen, it holds her glassware.
Rose Levy grew up in New York City, first Queens, then Greenwich Village. As a child, she found most desserts—including the cakes her mother made from mixes—too sweet. “I was in college before I had my first from-scratch cake,” she says.
Levy took a long time to find her groove. She attended three different colleges and the Fashion Institute of Technology before she earned a B.S. in food studies, cum laude, from NYU in 1974—13 years after graduating from high school. She stayed at NYU another year and earned a master’s in food science and culinary arts.
She married at 19 and left college early in that ill-fated union “because I was bored, and then I was bored working as a secretary at a brake-lining factory in Trenton.” Her only respite was riding with her husband to Temple University in Philadelphia, where he was working on his master’s, so she could sit in the dorm and watch Julia Child’s first cooking show.
“We couldn’t afford a TV at home,” she says. “That was 1963. I never thought I’d meet her. But when The Cake Bible came out in 1988, I was on the Today show. I got home and the first call was from my mother. The second was from Julia. I always get chills when I tell this. She said, ‘Congratulations, Dearie, I’m so proud of you.’ That was the pinnacle of my career to that point.” And, she’s proud to say, the start of a lasting friendship.
She got a divorce and was finishing her master’s when she met Elliott Beranbaum, a radiologist who had two children from a first marriage. They wed a year later and now have three grandchildren.
For years, Beranbaum wrote for magazines and taught baking. Then in 1980, Procter & Gamble asked her to help revamp the too-sweet Duncan Hines cake mixes of her childhood. That eventually led to a contract to write what became her career-making cookbook, The Cake Bible.
But times and tastes have changed in the intervening quarter century. “Ingredients change and technology changes, so recipes change,” Beranbaum says. “And I make discoveries by traveling. For example, the cover photo of The Baking Bible. It’s of a French pastry called a kouign amann. I never heard of it until a few years ago. I discovered it in Paris and went to huge effort to reproduce it in my home kitchen, and finally came up with a version better than any I had, except on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.”
Another thing she’s discovered is that full-time life in rural Warren County is, to use one of her favorite words, divine. For decades, Rose and Elliott lived in Greenwich Village and spent weekends at the house in Hope. In 2013, with Elliott’s retirement, they moved to Hope full-time and converted the unfinished basement into what Beranbaum calls “the kitchen of my dreams.”
“I always hated to leave to go back to New York,” she admits. “Now it’s like being on permanent vacation. I work just as hard here as I ever did in New York, but it’s a different feeling.”
When you make 17 versions of a chiffon cake before you hit the bullseye, you miss 16 times. “If you want to take creative leaps, then some things won’t work,” she says. In their Greenwich Village apartment building, Beranbaum recalls, “I was throwing something out and one neighbor said, ‘Your disasters are our life’s delight.’ So I started giving away a lot. In the apartment building, I would give the maintenance people desserts, and if I had a leak or some kind of problem in the apartment, I didn’t have to wait two minutes before somebody was there.”
The building staff has been replaced by the people who work at the local bank and the Blairstown post office, where they get their mail, and by close friends who own a farm nearby. Beranbaum and Wolston, her baking collaborator, bring those fortunate folks generous samples.
What can follow an epic like The Baking Bible? “We cut an entire chapter on wedding cakes,” she says. “And there is still much to be discovered about bread.” Beranbaum would also like to write a memoir in which she could tell stories like that of her friendship with Julia Child.
“I feel so blessed that all the disparate things I’ve done, and all my learning, I’m able to put to use every day,” she says. “That’s the secret of happiness.”
Karen Stabiner teaches journalism at Columbia University and is at work on a book, Generation Chef, about the opening of a young chef’s first restaurant.Click here to leave a comment