10 August 2021 · Behind the Cookbook
Sports commentator-turned-baker Maury Rubin claims to have been weaned on Pop Tarts, but that early obsession didn’t stand in the way of him becoming an influential pâtissier.
Before embarking on his second career, Rubin studied the art of patisserie in Paris, before opening the famed City Bakery in Manhattan in 1990, which was open for nearly 30 years. His pretzel croissants were legendary, as were the bakery’s chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate.
A major thing – apart from his willingness to experiment – that sets Rubin apart from other bakers is his interest in design, as the vibrant photographs of the tarts and their strikingly graphic designs show. It’s no surprise that Book of Tarts won The Design Award in the Julia Child Cookbook Awards in 1996.
Book of Tarts is now just over a quarter-century old, which is bound to bring on a bout of nostalgia. The mid 1990s were a time of experimentation in the food world: on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and in our living rooms and kitchens, there was a burgeoning interest in chefs, cooking, food and travel – and cookbooks, which were becoming more colorful and more creative than ever before.
Rubin was in good company: also published around the ‘Class of 1996’ were Ken Hom’s Hot Wok, Gary Rhodes’ Open Rhodes Around Britain and More Rhodes Around Britain, Ghillie Basan’s Classic Turkish Cooking – and Two Fat Ladies Gastronomic Adventures, with Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
City Bakery sadly closed in 2019, but Rubin’s creativity helped set the standard for a new generation of baking talent, and Rubin is now turning his own creative talents to chocolate with The Wonderbon Chocolate Company.
We asked Rubin to give in to that feeling of nostalgia, to cast his mind back to the early days of City Bakery, and tell us about how Book of Tarts came into being.
By Maury Rubin
I remember one day in the early City Bakery years looking across the bakery and seeing Rose Levy Beranbaum having a pastry. Rose is the author of The Baking Bible (and other important baking books), and an important person in the pastry universe to a young baker.
I remember watching Rose get up from her seat and come towards – me! She introduced herself and wasted no time asking if I had considered writing a cookbook. Nice to meet you too!
Until that moment, writing a cookbook was not on my list. City Bakery was young, my pastry mind was in relative infancy and my pastry hands were a work in progress. Nonetheless, after meeting Rose, events moved quickly. I met a potential editor. There was a request for a proposal, the suggestion to hire an agent and research food photographers.
The next thing I knew, I signed a contract without even knowing what the book would be. I knew I wanted to write, design, and illustrate the book myself. I also wanted a book true to the experience of walking into City Bakery – a jolt of modern, the unexpected, and the sensory pleasure of a great bakery.
The bakery menu was lean in the early years. Viennoiserie, muffins, and scones for breakfast, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies, and exactly seven different tarts. As buzz about the bakery was growing, the tarts were always part of the chatter. A classic French tart for me is an ideal structure in which to create a world of dessert ideas. I think of the vacant interior of a tart like an architect looks at a house that needs furnishing. It was easy to decide on devoting a book to tarts and only tarts.
Today, 25 years later, and I’ve opened Book of Tarts for the first time in too long to mark the occasion of ckbk starting to offer the book online.
Looking at these pastries through a 25-year lens is like being at a 25-year class reunion: like old classmates, there are tarts I’ve missed terribly; there are others I had forgotten about but I’m glad to see once again; others that still look incredible after all these years.
Grapes Baked with Hazelnuts makes me hungry – and sentimental. Passion Fruit with a Raspberry Polka Dot reminds me of the infatuation I had with that pastry. White Chocolate Cream with Raspberry in a Hazelnut Crust is still the most ethereal pastry I’ve ever known. Orange Tart Made out of Apples reminds me of how many times I was asked to explain what that name meant. (“Apples baked in an orange sauce so when they come out of the oven they taste like orange.”) I would gladly explain it 1,000 more times for the pleasure of one in my hands right now.
I’m happy with how well the tarts have held up, and even foreshadowed pastry trends today.
Passion fruit was rare at the time in American bakeries; Milky Way Tart was an early example of elevating ubiquitous food like a common candy bar; Pear, Pineapple and Pepper brought savory to the realm of sweet; World’s First Stuffed Raspberry Tart was an example of the value of playing with your food.
Twenty-five years ago, the internet was a toddler and social media didn’t exist. But today, in the age of Instagram, it’s impossible not to think which of these tarts would have been Instagram darlings if they had the chance. Here’s looking at you, Cherries on Two-Tone Chocolate and Muskmelon in a Geometric State of Mind.
So many people have been so generous about Book of Tarts over the years. It’s great to have it available on a new platform today, for a new generation of bakery lovers. Enjoy!