Food + Drink

From Mid-Century to Modern: An Inside Look at The Vintage Baker

Most of us foster a collection of some sort, and in the case of cookbook author, baker, and recipe developer Jessie Sheehan, her weakness is vintage recipe booklets.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

A long-standing fan of old-fashioned sweets and treats, Jessie began to tweak classic recipes she discovered with modern twists. She first focused on icebox cakes, but soon went beyond: adapting cookies, bars, pies and other delicious treats previous generations used to make.

“The recipes from my booklets are the perfect blank canvas for a recipe developer,” says Jessie, who eventually turned her baking projects into her second cookbook, The Vintage Baker.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

The Vintage Baker includes over 50 old-fashioned recipes from Jessie’s personal collection of cookbook ephemera, updated and improved for the 21st century baker. We sat down with Jessie to talk a bit more about the cookbook and what it’s like to transform an old recipe into something new.

How did the idea for this book come to you?

I have always loved old-school desserts: I order a piece of layer cake based on how thick and fluffy the frosting is, and a cookie based practically on size alone (the bigger the better, if you must know). In other words, I still very much have the palate and sensibility of a child when it comes to sweets, and there is something about the simple, homey recipes from my collection of vintage booklets that speaks to the kid in me.

After co-writing Icebox Cakes, a book about an iconic old-fashioned dessert if ever there was one, it was a short leap to writing a book about a whole bunch of classic oldies (but goodies). I’d been adding to my pamphlet collection for over 10 years—baking from them and luxuriating in their artwork on the regular—and I knew I wanted them to play a major role in whatever book came next.

I settled on writing a cookbook full of the booklet recipes that truly spoke to me: either because I loved them at face value (sticky buns, layer cakes, baked Alaska), because of the frequency with which the recipes popped up in booklet after booklet, or because of their clever and funny names (a “Fig Newton” was called a “fig pincushion,” and an almond cookie, a “sand tart”). I then twisted and tweaked the booklet recipes for the 21st century baker with adjustments like nut flour, or an alternative milk, or an unusual spice, while always remaining true to the original. A description of the provenance of each recipe made its way into each headnote, and an image from a vintage pamphlet accompanies almost every recipe, as well. The result is a book that combines my love of old desserts with my love of my old booklets, and with just a touch of sass, sprinkled on top.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

When you adapt a vintage recipe for a modern audience, what is the process like?

Typically there are very few ingredients, very few instructions, and not a lot of emphasis on making something super flavorful (i.e. most recipes do not call for salt, vanilla, or for spices of any sort, really, save for cinnamon). In tweaking my recipe for butterscotch pecan curls, for instance, I started with a simple recipe for cinnamon buns, adding loads more spice and flavor from additional cinnamon, and even a bit of cayenne, and of course salt. I added nuts, but deeply toasted them for optimum flavor, and substituted yeast for the baking powder, because who doesn’t love a yeasted morning bun?

The result is still very much old-school—simple and sticky and fluffy and sweet—but modernized to appeal to the more sophisticated palate of today. And of course I called them “curls,” as a name like that needs no tweaking.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

What are you hoping people take away from this baking book?

The Vintage Baker is special in that it walks the line between (excellent!) cookbook and (gorgeous!) design book. The recipes are easy to follow, fun to make, and a joy to share. The combination of Alice Gao’s incredible “retro” photographs and the original vintage art from the booklets makes for a glorious coffee table book, too—even for those that can’t tell the difference between a whisk and a spatula. Thus, in a perfect world, this book would embolden those who love the way it looks to bake from it, and inspire those that want to bake from it to take the time to look at each image and relish in the vintage drawings and bold, modern photographs.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

What was the process like working with the design team at Chronicle Books? Did the pamphlets inspire design?

It was always my intention that The Vintage Baker would marry both the vintage and the modern via its recipes and its look, and the Chronicle design team understood that implicitly—and, in fact, implemented it more beautifully than I could have ever imagined. We all agreed that the booklets would play a vital role in the design, and I was able to choose the ones that inspired my recipes and that I loved the best.

The design team worked with my choices, finding room for many of them in the book, and created whimsical drawings throughout the book based on them. They also had the mad genius to hire Alice Gao to photograph the book—the contrast of her photos, the booklet art, and design team drawings makes for a captivating package—and the recipes are pretty good, too!

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

What is one recipe from the book you’re very excited to share with the world and why?

I am extremely excited about A LOT of the recipes in the book—like maybe all?—but if I had to pick one, it would be the Silver Cake with Pink Frosting. In some ways, this is a funny choice for me, as I am vey much a chocolate cake kind of girl, and this is very much a white cake with vanilla frosting kind of cake. However, the cake is so moist and fluffy and deeply vanilla in flavor and the frosting is my favorite: old school buttercream (made of softened butter and confectioners’ sugar), tinted my favorite color, pink. This is an instance where I’ll forego chocolate, for…silver.

Moreover, Alice Gao took the most incredible photo of this cake AND the cake has the most amazing name! White cakes in my booklet collection come with a myriad of names (White Moon Cake, Penny-Wise Silver Cake, etc.), but I went with just plain “Silver Cake” for this one.

The Vintage Baker by Jessie Sheehan, photographed by Alice Gao

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You can find The Vintage Baker here.

Book photography by Michelle Park, food photography by Alice Gao

Alexandra Brown

Alexandra was the Lifestyle Marketing & Publicity Manager at Chronicle Books. She collects original editions of Hemingway books, owns far too many fleece onesies and aspires to be an accomplished gluten-free baker. She spent a year traveling around the world and documented the experience on her blog: thisispossible.org.
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