“Sweets are near and dear to my heart,” says Magnolia Grill pastry chef and co-owner Karen Barker. “I find them one of the easiest ways to make people smile.” Barker then flashes a grin of her own, and with good reason. Not only is Barker pastry chef and co-owner (along with chef husband Ben) of Magnolia Grill, a neighborhood restaurant on Durham’s Ninth Street with a national reputation, but she’s just delivered a manuscript to the University of North Carolina Press that come April 19 will be published as Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts. And to top it off, she was honored in May with an award from the James Beard Foundation– Outstanding Pastry Chef in America–the culinary world’s equivalent of an Oscar.

How did a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn become the dessert queen of the Triangle? For starters, Barker says she comes from a “family of food lovers” and family gatherings always centered around food. Her grandmother lived upstairs and prepared a hot lunch for her every day. Her family ate out a lot in Brooklyn’s ethnic eateries–Chinese, Italian, you name it–and when they traveled to places like Montreal and Mexico they always sampled the local cuisine. She loved visiting her uncle’s deli in Miami Beach–especially the bakery in the back, where she ogled “stacks” of cakes and baked goods. The high-school-age Karen liked to bake, including treats for her mother’s mah-jongg group.

During her college years at SUNY-Stonybrook out on Long Island, Barker worked in student cafes, waited tables, and even baked cheesecakes for a local restaurant. She found that she liked the people she worked with as well as “the mentality of restaurant life.” She picked up her first issue of Bon Appetit. Still, when graduation time rolled around, the history major considered graduate school. Fortunately for North Carolina dessert lovers, though, her professors emphasized the dismal job market for young Ph.D.s and it occurred to Barker that her interest in cooking might translate into a career.

Barker laughs when she admits her parents thought she was nuts to think about going to cooking school, but her father agreed they should at least pay a visit to the CIA–the Culinary Institute of America–in bucolic Hyde Park, N.Y. The rest of the story is familiar to Triangle food mavens. Karen enrolled, met North Carolinian Ben Barker on the first day, fell in love, and married him on Valentine’s Day, 1982. After graduation, Ben encouraged her to head south, and they cooked and baked their way through Chapel Hill’s La Residence and Pittsboro’s Fearrington House before opening Magnolia Grill in the former home of Wellspring Grocery in November 1986.

On a recent Wednesday night at the Grill, all this translates into desserts such as Blueberry Upside-Down Cake with Lynchburg Lemonade Sauce and Blueberry Fool. “What makes it Lynchburg?” I inquire of Cris Goss, whose job it is to assemble and plate the desserts. Goss flips a cake onto a plain white plate and blueberry-scented steam fills the air.

“That would be the bourbon,” she replies, finishing off the dessert with a dollop of the fool (a mixture of whipped cream and pureed fruit), and a spoonful of sauce.

The lineup of sweet stuff that evening is a testament to Barker’s philosophy of desserts and dessert making. She prefers desserts that are “full of flavor and not overly sweet,” and adheres to the American tradition rather than the European style of desserts, which by her description means “homestyle” desserts that are “less fussy” with “bolder flavors.”

The warm plum dumpling with homemade vanilla cardamom ice cream reflects this unpretentious style. She also tailors the dessert menu to available seasonal ingredients–thus the answer to the question, “What are we going to do with all these blueberries?” becomes not only the upside-down cake with its accompanying fool, but also a compote glistening with the berries topping a creamy key lime coconut pie.

In addition to showcasing classic favorites, the dessert menu also evidences a penchant for innovation. Barker makes sure there is always a “savory” selection on the menu, like tonight’s toasted walnut fig crepes with oven-roasted grapes and buttermilk blue cheese. And until recently, the soup in the cantaloupe sherbet with sugar baby watermelon soup and fresh strawberries was topped with candied bacon bits. Goss shrugs. “It’s selling better without the bacon,” she admits, blow-torching the sugar topping of a ginger creme brulee to brown and crunchy perfection, but assures me that the bacon-topped version was “absolutely delicious.”

Barker likes desserts that are “interesting to eat,” and one way she creates such interest is through contrast, both in texture (creamy/crunchy) and temperature (warm/cold). Barker also makes sure there is always something chocolate for those aficionados who believe that if it isn’t chocolate, it isn’t dessert. On this particular evening, contrast meets chocolate in a thick slice of (crunchy, warm) toasted cocoa poundcake with a scoop of (creamy, cold) mint chocolate chip ice cream. Goss grabs a plastic bottle of chocolate sauce and squeezes an artful zigzag across the dessert. Visual contrast is part of the picture too, and accordingly she graces the plate with a final touch–a sprig of bright green mint leaves. It’s ready. “Dessert runner, Jason!” Goss yells, and a minute later Jason appears, lifts the tray to his shoulder, and takes it away to a table of lucky diners.

Creating, preparing and serving hundreds of desserts a week is definitely a group effort of which the evening staff is only a part. Five mornings a week (the restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays) head baker Phoebe Lawless and assistant baker Amy Rogers can be found in the restaurant’s small back kitchen, baking cakes, cranking out ice cream and stirring up sauces. “Amy has a sweet tooth,” teases Barker. Rogers smiles and pours chocolate cake batter into two bundt pans without denying the charge. Lawless, who is listed on the menu along with Barker as one of Magnolia Grill’s pastry chefs, is a self-described “pie fan” who sports a dancing salt-and-pepper shaker tattoo on her left shoulder. Today Lawless is deftly peeling a pile of gala apples for a sorbet she developed. “It’s delicious,” she declares, “tastes like apple cider.” She came to the restaurant about four years ago intending to work as a cook but “fell in love with baking. ”

Love. That’s a word often used by both Barker and those who work with her. “I can’t say enough about my staff,” enthuses Barker, sliding a tray of fragrant toasted walnuts out of the oven. They have the “secret ingredient that makes things taste good–they love what they’re doing and love the finished product.” And to hear Karen Barker talk about her new cookbook, it sounds like the secret ingredient plays a role there, too. According to Barker, although there are some “more sophisticated restaurant-oriented things” like chocolate waffles with peppermint ice cream, there are also family favorites, such as “My Cousin Steve’s Cheesecake,” historical recipes like mocha molasses shoofly pie, Barker’s version of Brooklyn’s famous blackout cake, and “good stuff for picnics and bake sales and brunches.”

I ask Barker if she has anything to say to the Enemies of Dessert–you know, nutritionists, the low-fat crowd, Atkins dieters and other lo-carb disciples. She reflects a moment, unperturbed. “I think dessert can be a mental health thing,” she says. “Dessert is something that makes people happy. It’s okay to feel the enjoyment you get from dessert.” On that note, I think I’ll have one of those “Banana Milky Way Shakes with Itty Bitty Peanut Butter Cookies.” It doesn’t get any mentally healthier than that.

Extra crunchy peanut butter cookies
Makes 2 dozen

These crumbly, crunchy cookies are loaded with honey roasted peanuts. They are dedicated to my husband, whose biggest junk food vice is eating generous spoonfuls of chunky-style Skippy straight from the jar. Our son is a purist, though, and prefers these “plain”–made with smooth peanut butter and no added nuts. Either way, this cookie is a satisfying example of comfort food at its best.

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (2 ounces) vegetable shortening
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chunky-style peanut butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup honey roasted peanuts, chopped into medium-sized pieces

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Using a mixer with a paddle, cream the vegetable shortening, butter, and both sugars. Add the peanut butter and mix to blend. Add the egg and vanilla and mix, scraping the bowl, until combined. Mix in the baking soda and salt. Scrape down the bowl. Add the flour and mix just to blend. Add the peanuts and mix just until distributed.

3. Portion the dough into generously rounded tablespoon mounds and place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, leaving several inches between cookies. Flatten them slightly with the heel of your hand. With a fork, press lightly and form a crosshatch pattern on the top of each cookie. Dip the fork in sugar if sticking is a problem.

4. Bake the cookies at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. They should be just set and just starting to pick up a bit of color. Remove from the oven and cool.

Baker’s Note: This dough can be made ahead of time if kept refrigerated or frozen. Be careful not to overbake these–the tops will remain quite pale but the bottoms will be a light golden brown when done.

From Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts by Karen Barker. Copyright 2004 by Karen Barker. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Key lime coconut pie with rum cream
Serves 8

A simple crumb crust combined with a filling that is quickly whisked together makes this dessert practically foolproof. I’ve added nontraditional accents of coconut and rum to create a unique version of this Florida favorite. If you have access to fresh key limes, by all means use them. I have substituted both bottled key lime juice and the more readily available Persian limes with delicious results.

For the Crust:
1 1/3 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sweetened shredded coconut (preferably the frozen kind), defrosted
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) butter, melted

For the Filling:
3 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 14-ounce cans of sweetened condensed milk
1 cup key lime juice

For the Rum Cream Topping:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 tablespoons dark rum
3 tablespoons sweetened shredded coconut, toasted until light golden brown

Preparation for the Crust
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-inch pie plate.

2. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, coconut, sugar, and melted butter in a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Press the mixture into the bottom and up the sides of the reserved pie plate, tamping down the crumbs to form an even crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes till lightly golden. Reserve and prepare filling.

Preparation for the Filling

1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream of tartar. Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk. Gradually whisk in the lime juice till well combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared shell.

2. Bake at 350 degrees approximately 15 minutes, until the filling is just set. Remove from the oven, cool completely, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Preparation for the Topping

1. Whip the cream till lightly thickened and gradually whisk in the sugar. Beat to soft peaks and whisk in the vanilla and dark rum. Whip to medium soft peaks.

2. Spread about two-thirds of the whipped cream over the pie filling. Place the remaining cream in a pastry bag fitted with a large open star tip and pipe a shell border or a series of whipped cream rosettes around the perimeter of the pie. Sprinkle the whipped cream with the toasted coconut. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Baker’s Note: If you don’t want to bother with decorating the pie with a pastry bag, just serve slices of pie topped with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkled with toasted coconut.

From Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts by Karen Barker. Copyright 2004 by Karen Barker. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu