Feast For The Eyes: 3 Cookbooks Just For Looking

  • The "Flooded Butterfly and Closed Tulip Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
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    The "Flooded Butterfly and Closed Tulip Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
    Lucy Schaeffer/Courtesy Wiley
  • The "Rustic Cake with Marzipan Fruits" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
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    The "Rustic Cake with Marzipan Fruits" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
    Lucy Schaeffer/Courtesy Wiley
  • The "Victorian-Styled Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
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    The "Victorian-Styled Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
    Lucy Schaeffer/Courtesy Wiley
  • The "Peaches and Cream Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
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    The "Peaches and Cream Cake" as pictured in Wedding Cake Art and Design.
    Lucy Schaeffer/Courtesy Wiley
  • Cupcakes shaped like Westies as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
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    Cupcakes shaped like Westies as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
    Alan Richardson/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Cupcakes shaped like corn on the cob as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
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    Cupcakes shaped like corn on the cob as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
    Alan Richardson/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Cupcakes shaped like spaghetti and meatballs as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
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    Cupcakes shaped like spaghetti and meatballs as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
    Alan Richardson/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Cupcakes shaped like sunflowers as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
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    Cupcakes shaped like sunflowers as pictured in Hello, Cupcake!.
    Alan Richardson/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • The "Counting Sheep" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
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    The "Counting Sheep" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
    Ellen Silverman Photography/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • The "Comfort Food" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
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    The "Comfort Food" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
    Ellen Silverman Photography/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • The "Deco-Licious" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
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    The "Deco-Licious" cake as pictured in Cakes To Dream On.
    Ellen Silverman Photography/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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I'm a cookbook reviewer, which means that every night I try recipes from far-flung cuisines or idiosyncratic food bloggers or test-kitchen perfectionists. I've always made a point of steering readers towards practical, thoughtful cookbooks that they'll use every week and hand down to their kids. But privately, there are some cookbooks I never cook from at all: frivolous books full of whimsical sugar art, devoid of nutritional value, and really, best eaten with your eyes. They are a kind of culinary Versailles, and most of us will find them better suited for gawking at than for actual aproning up. I adore them anyhow.

Wedding Cake Art and Design

Wedding Cake Art and Design: A Professional Approach

by Toba M. Garrett

Hardcover, 280 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, $50, published April 5 2010 | purchase
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  • Wedding Cake Art and Design
  • A Professional Approach
  • Toba M. Garrett

Toba Garrett, the wedding cake designer, is a consummate professional, and her book is for not for amateurs. But it's also full of visual pleasures for readers not ambitious enough to make a wedding cake, or in no need of one. Page after page unfolds, filled with visions of strenuous perfection: rose gardens in bloom, ribbon cascades, marzipan fruits. I have always loved peeking into the back stages of difficult professions, and the jargon of cake makers fascinates me: "The bottom tier is piped and decorated in classic Australian stringwork ... Below, near the cake board, is textured drapery work, flanked by hand-shaped rosettes and leaf relief." Well, that's just what I was going to say. For the record, I'm pretty certain it is more difficult to handcraft a hibiscus as perfect as Garrett's than it is to grow one from seed.

Hello, Cupcake!

Hello, Cupcake!: Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make

by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson

Paperback, 230 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.95, published April 24 2008 | purchase
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  • Hello, Cupcake!
  • Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make
  • Karen Tack and Alan Richardson

For every cook, there is a line in the sand one does not cross. I think I found mine when I first came face-to-face with cupcakes in the shape of terriers. Hello, Cupcake! was a New York Times bestseller in 2009, mostly because of its subversive, trompe l'oeil spirit. Here are cupcakes that look like billiard balls, cupcakes that look like corn on the cob, cupcakes that look like pandas and sharks. As in most cake decor books, taste is not the focus of Hello, Cupcake!, whose effects are created with jellybeans, Twinkies, and frosting out of a jar. I'm not sure what it says about us as a society that biting the heads off of small animals made of cake seems like good clean fun for kids' parties. But I do know that these clever illusions are enough to elicit a gasp and a chuckle every time I crack the book. And the authors' inventive use of Ziploc bags to pipe frosting is a trick every baker should know.

Cakes To Dream On

Cakes To Dream On: A Master Class In Decorating

by Colette Peters

Hardcover, 260 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40, published November 9 2004 | purchase
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  • Cakes To Dream On
  • A Master Class In Decorating
  • Colette Peters

This book has been my favorite show-and-tell book for dinner guests since it was first published. These cakes are like the tales of Baron Munchausen — so outrageous, so fanciful, so over-the-top that there is never even the slightest sense that they are something you ought to try at home. There are cakes that resemble marble fountains, or colorful piles of satin pillows — tufted, tasseled and buttoned. There is a five-tier construction decorated to look exactly (down to the quilted stitching) like a stack of mattresses. I always feel, after browsing this book that I've been on some kind of a surreal, beautiful journey. But I'm also always rather relieved that they're only on paper, after all. Because while I can't easily imagine making such works of art, I can even less imagine eating them.

Ultimately, I think part of the pleasure to be had from these books comes from reading a four or five page list of instructions, marveling at their ingenuity, and then being able to say "No, I don't think I will, actually." (Wasn't it Dumbledore who enjoyed reading knitting pattern magazines in the loo?) What I like best about these books is learning their secrets and then deciding not to act on them — preferably while lying in a hammock with an umbrella drink.

T. Susan Chang contributes to NPR's Kitchen Window series. Her blog, Cookbooks for Dinner, features writings on cookbooks and recipes.

Three Books... is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

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