Articles in Desserts

Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson

With her latest book, “Baking Chez Moi,” acclaimed author Dorie Greenspan has fait mouche (hit the bull’s-eye) again. In this luscious culinary tome, Greenspan manages to break through the mystique of French baking techniques with ease and humor. She is, quite simply, the perfect guide for any baker who wants to explore everything from approachable variations on haute pâtisserie to those classic weekend cakes called teaux de voyages.

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"Baking Chez Moi"

By Dorie Greenspan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

496 pages

» Buy the book 

Of late, I’ve been poring over countless cookbooks for research. It’s made clear to me how important the author’s voice is in translating subject matter, recipes and technique. Greenspan’s uncomplicated, personable style makes me want to study her cookbooks cover to cover, with notebook in hand and an occasional smile. After all, how many cookbook authors will attribute a recipe’s success to “the magic of that vixen: chocolate”?

Reading “Baking Chez Moi” is like spending time with a best friend who happens to know just about everything there is to know about French baking, and whom to ask when she doesn’t. Even better, she’s a whiz at translating it into something that readers can conquer, not fear. It’s a skill that is never handier than when trying to attempt trickier French desserts like colorful macarons or her riff on Pierre Herme’s sumptuous Carrément Chocolat.

Anyone who has attempted advanced baking knows that it is an art of precision. Following directions to the letter is normally recommended. Yet while Greenspan encourages the exactitude of using metric weights and measures, she also allows for some interpretation, and in many cases promotes it.

Affectionately nicknamed “Miss One More Minute,” the author suggests that recipe timing is meant to be a well-defined guide but not absolute — especially when oven calibrations are never the same. Through her own tales of hits and misses, she gives the reader permission to play, including inventive sidebar suggestions she titles “Bonne Idées” (good ideas).

Cannelés, a popular French pastry. Credit: Alan Richardson

Cannelés, a popular French pastry. Credit: Alan Richardson

But what I like best about Greenspan’s approach with “Baking Chez Moi” is her active style of cross-pollination between recipes throughout the book. She moves from recipe to recipe just long enough to unearth the special character of each, then whisks along to find clever ways to employ it elsewhere, inviting the reader to jump right in and join her. And I took that invitation — after a first read, my copy was left with 17 sticky notes tagging the recipes I intend to try first.

Cannelés

Yield: 45 mini cannelés

From "Baking Chez Moi"

"This recipe was given to me by Joëlle Caussade, whose husband, Gilles, owns a lively Paris bistro, Le Petit Vendôme, where Joëlle makes the mini cannelés that are served with coffee.

"A word on timing: The batter needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, so plan ahead.

"Serving: Cannelés are traditionally served alongside coffee or tea and often turn up on trays of mignardises, the small sweets that are after-dessert desserts.

"Storing: The batter needs to be refrigerated for at least 12 hours, but it can hold there for up to 3 days. As for the baked cannelés, they’re perfect the day they are made and still good, but firmer and chewier, the day after. Keep the cannelés in a dry place at room temperature. Lightly cover them if you like."

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk
  • 1¼ cups (250 grams) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce; 28 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (136 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2½ tablespoons dark rum
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • Melted unsalted butter, for the molds

Directions

  1. At least 1 day before making the cannelés: Bring the milk, ¾ cup of the sugar and the butter to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool until the mixture reaches 140 F. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cool the milk for 10 to 15 minutes; it should still feel hot to the touch.)
  2. While the milk is cooling, put the flour and the remaining ½ cup sugar into a strainer and sift them onto a piece of parchment or wax paper. Keep the strainer at hand.
  3. Working with a whisk, beat the eggs and yolk together in a large bowl until blended. Whisking without stopping, start adding the hot milk, just a little at first; then, when you’ve got about a quarter of the milk blended into the eggs, whisk in the remainder in a steady stream. Add the flour mixture all at once and whisk—don’t be afraid to be energetic—until the batter is homogeneous. You might have a few lumps here and there, but you can ignore them.
  4. Strain the batter into a large bowl or, better yet, a pitcher or a large measuring cup with a spout; discard any lumps in the strainer. Whisk in the rum and vanilla, cover the container tightly and refrigerate the batter for at least 12 hours. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)
  5. Lightly brush the cannelé molds with melted butter and put the pan in the freezer. The pan needs to be frozen only for 30 minutes, but if you put it into the freezer right after you make the batter, you won’t have to wait for it on baking day.
  6. When you’re ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Put a cooling rack on the sheet and put the frozen cannelé molds on the rack.
  7. Remove the batter from the fridge. It will have settled and formed layers, so give it a good whisking to bring it back together, then rap the container against the counter to debubble it a bit. Fill the cannelé molds about three-quarters full.
  8. Bake the cannelés for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 400 F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Cannelés are supposed to get very dark—black really—but if you’re concerned that yours are darkening too fast or too much, place a piece of parchment or foil over the molds. When properly baked, the bottoms will be dark and the sides of the little pastries will be a deep brown—think mahogany. (I spear a cannelé with a bamboo skewer and pull it out of its mold to inspect it.) While the cannelés bake, they may puff above the tops of the molds, like popovers or soufflés, and then, as they continue baking, or when they’re pulled from the oven, they’ll settle down. Pull the whole setup from the oven and put it on a cooling rack.
  9. Let the cannelés rest in their molds for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack. (Resting gives the tender pastries a chance to firm so they’ll hold their shape when unmolded.) Be careful: Even though you’ve waited 10 minutes, because of the caramelized sugar and melted butter, cannelés are hotter than most other pastries. Let the cannelés cool until they are only slightly warm or at room temperature.

 

 Main photo: Dorie Greenspan. Credit: Alan Richardson

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Kate Lebo's

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.

“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.

The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.

“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.

“Both of us are really interested in everyday objects, objects that we take for granted but really inform us in subtle and important ways of who we are, where we are, what type of relationship we have to a place.”

The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.

“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”

“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.

The poetry of pie instruction

“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.

Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.

Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”

After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.

Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”

“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”

Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?

People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.

“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.

Top photo composite:

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran

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First, a confession: I am not always a confident pastry maker. Yes, I make pastry, and sometimes it is good, occasionally very good, but I still approach each pastry-making session with some anxiety.

Because of this, I approached “Pastry” by Chef Richard Bertinet with a little trepidation. Quickly, though, I fell in love with the book, and now it’s becoming an old friend. I am not suddenly a great pastry maker because of this book, but, more important to me, I am no longer a nervous pastry maker.

“Pastry” has a lovely chattiness to it. This is not a book meant to intimidate, although the subject matter can be intimidating. Early in “Pastry,” Bertinet tells the nervous among us that, “There is an idea that some people are just naturally good pastry makers, or that you can only make great pastry if you have cold hands. I don’t believe that.”

That is good to learn about someone who began training as a baker in Brittany, France, when he was 14. He moved to Britain in the 1980s, and after many years as a chef, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath, England, in 2005.  The school now draws students from around the world, eager to learn the skills he has perfected and detailed in four books to date.

“Pastry” is his latest. His first book, “Dough,” received many awards, including the Julia Child First Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Award for Baking and Desserts. It was followed by “Crust,” which earned a Gourmand World Cookbook award. “Cook,” his third book, focuses on dishes taught at his school.

Making pastry not just about cold hands

In “Pastry,” Bertinet hopes that “by keeping things simple and starting from just four key recipes, you can relax, enjoy yourself, bake with confidence, and perhaps even show off a little bit.” This may be a tall order for some, but, with the exception of the showing off (which I’m working on), I have relaxed and begun to enjoy myself more when making pastry.

The first chapter focuses on how to make the four basic pastries:  salted, sweet, puff and choux. Dispelling a long-held belief that you need cold hands to make good pastry, he nevertheless reinforces a truth of bad pastry: that “squeezing and overworking … heats up pastry and makes it greasy and sticky.”

The step-by-step photographs throughout the book, but especially in this first chapter, are excellent, clearly illustrating his instructions and showing you how the pastry should look at each step.

Chapter 2 is devoted to salted pastry, so named not because this type of pastry contains a lot of salt but because it is the name for savory pastry he learned as an apprentice. The chapter includes a number of hearty recipes clearly laid out and easy to follow, with hot and cold variations. Bertinet includes recipes for Onion Tartlets and a rich Chicken and Tarragon Tart, but a great quick lunch is his Cornish Pasties filled with rutabaga, potato and beef (not a poor man’s food anymore).

Amandine for the holidays

Next, sweets take center stage, such as Lemon Meringue Tartlets with their wild meringue swirls resembling chimney stacks. One of my favorite recipes in Chapter 3 is for Amandine, a classic almond tart made with frangipane (almond cream). Not only is this tart delicious, it freezes well, making it a great make-ahead dessert for holiday meals. The Prune and Rum Tarts — rum-soaked prunes and almond cream — are also delicious; make plenty because they will be a great success with friends if mine were any indication.

Also in Chapter 3 is a segment called “A Boxful of Sweet Cookies,” with varieties such as Orange & Chocolate Cookies that can be made from a sweet pastry base. While the Orange & Chocolate Cookies have a winning combination of flavors, the crisp Langues de Chat have a whimsical shape — that of cats’ tongues — and make great use of leftover egg whites.

Chapter 4 made me more nervous than previous chapters because its focus is puff pastry. I usually buy mine at the grocery store and appreciated when he wrote, “I hope that you will enjoy making your own puff pastry, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, choose a good ready-made all-butter one.” Still, following his instructions, my first attempt at puff pastry turned out well. I used it to make sausage rolls, which, with their lovely herb and spice seasoning, turned an often dry and flavorless thing into a delicious snack.

A perfect ‘how to’ on Croustillants

Another great use for puff pastry is in making Croustillants. These thin slices of puff pastry are coated in sugar, nuts or seeds and baked until crunchy, making a terrific and decidedly upscale substitute for potato chips at parties.

Chapter 5 is about choux pastry, the base for treats such as cream puffs and éclairs. In addition to these recipes, Bertinet includes a recipe for deep-fried Cheese Puffs containing either Cheddar or Gruyère. With a sprinkling of smoked paprika, these hors d’oeuvres will disappear quickly.

The last chapter is devoted to “Finishing Touches” and includes techniques such as how to finish fruit tarts so they are beautiful and delicious. This has much to do with how the fruit is cut and arranged and with the addition of warmed apricot jam as a glaze. Bertinet also offers recipes for fillings such as Chocolate Crème Patissiere and Crème Anglaise. If you can make the latter, he assures the reader, “you are halfway to making vanilla ice cream.” (And what vanilla ice cream it is.)

“Pastry” offers up many treats, but the best treat of all may be the book itself. It is great for building confidence in the pastry-shy baker and a further challenge for the pastry-secure baker. If you can’t get to Bertinet’s school in Bath, this book is the next best thing. It is indeed “A Master Class for Everyone.”

Top photo composite: The cover of “Pastry” and chef and author Richard Bertinet. Chef photo credit: Jenny Zarins

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Victoria Belanger and her book

I picked up a copy of “Hello, Jell-O,” a new cookbook by Victoria Belanger (Ten Speed Press, 2012), with my 9-year-old daughter in mind. Jell-O, I thought, would be a fun food to make together this summer. She looked at the book’s cover of “petite watermelons,” red gelatin in lime rinds, and a big smile appeared. She went through every page of the book and quickly picked out several recipes to try.

I flipped through the book, not expecting much. I snobbishly avoid the Jell-O mold my mother sometimes serves at family gatherings. Something holds me back. I don’t know if it’s the obviously artificial coloring that turns me off or the fact that it’s sweet and served with our main (savory) course, but I never touch it.

‘Hello Jell-O’ has lineage

Oeufs en gelée, however, the French traîteur staple of a soft-boiled egg suspended in gelatin, often with a flourish of ham or smoked salmon and a fleck of parsley, is totally acceptable. I love it, in fact. And rectangular “cakes” of meats and vegetables, held together with aspic, are quite lovely. Cooks have used aspic since the Middle Ages (as a way of preserving foods) and Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef, embellished many dishes with aspic glazes in the 18th century. When food, fish, chicken or meat is covered with aspic mixed with a white or brown sauce, it’s a chaud-froid — something prepared hot (chaud) and served cold (froid). In the 1800s, French chef Jules Gouffé fiddled around with subjecting fruit to the chaud-froid treatment.

So Jell-O has its beginnings in fine French cuisine. Some of Belanger’s recipes are downright chic. Take, for instance, “sparkling Champagne and strawberries.” What a lovely way to end a meal. (Or begin one!) The sliced strawberries and bubbles suspended in golden individual molds were beautiful. The other eight “boozy molds,” as Belanger calls these adult concoctions, sound good too. The minty mojito might be up next.

Kitchen laboratory for kid-friendly recipes

The Fourth of July seemed to be the perfect occasion to try my daughter’s all-American selection of “root beer float squares.” Making the treat was like undertaking a science experiment (my daughter poking it with her finger throughout the process). We watched the powdered gelatin soak up the water and get puffy. Then we poured boiling water over it, stirred, and mixed some root beer into our potion. A white foam appeared which we skimmed off.

We chilled the mixture until it set, then cut the wobbly stuff into cubes. Part two of the recipe had us transforming vanilla ice cream into soup on the stove (what fun for a kid!) then mixing it with more gelatin. We poured that over the root beer cubes, chilled it and cut it into more cubes — now brown and white. They were a hit, but the real highlight was making them.

The tone of the Belanger’s book is just right. In the “Tips, Tricks, Tools and Techniques” section, for example, a heading reads: “How the %&@# do you get it out of the mold?”

While the author is having fun with her subject (and how could she not), she delivers helpful information. There are some nice photographs by Angie Cao and plenty of great recipes.

Belanger, who writes a blog called The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, offers recipes for layered molds, creamy molds, seasonal molds and even molds made with agar rather than gelatin, for vegans. There’s a strawberry-Nutella mold, and one made with green tea and milk. Peaches and cream, too. All require very few ingredients and seem easy to whip up. And so my daughter and I will. All summer long.

Top photo composite:

Cover of “Hello, Jell-O” and author Victoria Belanger. Credits: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press.

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Spend any time with me and you’ll quickly learn that I love travel and I love sweets. Thus you can imagine my delight with Francine Segan’s latest cookbook “Dolci:  Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011). Here, the food historian, author and lecturer combines these two favorites, leading readers on a culinary tour of Italy’s extraordinary confections.

In “Dolci,” Segan shares the origins of and inspirations behind such classics as amaretti cookies, panna cotta and granita. She also looks at more contemporary creations, including yogurt semifreddo with radicchio marmalade and egg-less tiramisu. Throughout the book, she provides delectable recipes and fascinating insights into Italian culture and food.

Segan kicks off the journey by exploring the essential ingredients of this country’s sweets. These include candied fruit and fruit peel, grated vanilla bean and grape must syrup, or mosto cotto. She offers handy tips for grinding your own nut flour and substituting problematic ingredients such as raw eggs. Everything that readers need to create “Dolci” desserts can be found in the early pages of the book.

Basics in place, the author leads readers through beautifully photographed chapters on cookies, cakes and sweet breads; pies; refrigerator cakes; frozen desserts; and spoon sweets. Traditionally, spoon sweets refer to honeyed preserves served on a spoon. Yet Segan goes beyond this definition to include such treasures as Sicilian watermelon pudding, ricotta sundae and the velvety yet crisp coffee on a fork.

The creativity doesn’t end with spoons sweets. In the following chapter, “Weird and Wonderful, Unique and Unusual Desserts,” Segan highlights such inventive and toothsome gems as sweet chickpea baked ravioli, chocolate eggplant and pasta cake. Of the 11 desserts featured in this section, I am particularly smitten with the delicate mounds of pan-fried angel hair pasta known as Sicilian pasta crisps. Drizzled with orange-infused honey and then dusted with ground cinnamon and pistachios, these crisps are a snap to make and a joy to eat.

Holiday recipes from ‘Dolci’

Equally pleasurable are the offerings in the “Holiday Tradition” chapter. Once again, pasta makes a memorable appearance, this time in honey-drenched roses and the chocolaty Christmas walnut macaroni. Thanks to these inspiring treats, I no longer relegate pasta to savory dishes. Instead I do as cooks in Piedmont do — slather my vermicelli with creamy gianduia and present it as a surprising and sumptuous last course.

“Dolci” winds down its culinary trek with after-dinner drinks. Here Segan delves into homemade liqueurs such as cherry red alchermes and tart limoncello. She also explores such non-alcoholic beverages as hot chocolate and caffe shakerato — espresso sweetened, tumbled in a cocktail shaker and poured into chilled glasses. Glossaries on espresso, dessert wine and liqueur types are also provided.

The 10th and final chapter returns to essential ingredients. It features recipes for such fundamental dessert components as pie crust, sponge cake and pastry cream. Additionally, it covers jams, marmalade and candied orange peel. No need to waste time rummaging through gourmet shops searching for preserves or candied fruit. You can make these ingredients at home with minimal time or effort.

Recipes direct from Italy

The recipes in “Dolci” are unquestionably authentic. They originate not with New York-based Segan but with home bakers, pastry chefs, commercial producers and food writers throughout Italy. For each dish, Segan notes the region from which it came, for example sweet ricotta crepes from Puglia and “ugly but delicious” cookies, which are a specialty of Piedmont but are found throughout northern Italy. She likewise attributes the sweets to the locals who crafted or aided her in creating them.

Whether you adore travel and sweet treats or merely crave a new way to cap off your evening meal, take a peek at “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” This comprehensive and clever cookbook is bound to inspire you.

Top photo composite:

Author Francine Segan. Credit: Daniela Stallinger; cover of “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” courtesy of the publisher

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Whether Michael Krondl’s latest — “Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert” — is a must-read depends not on the size of your sweet tooth but on the extent to which you’re a history buff. The latter may well devour his painstakingly researched exploration of the evolution of dessert in a few key places around the world, places chosen “because I think they have wielded the greatest influence on other societies’ sweet-eating customs.” But given the extraordinary attention to detail he pays to the content and context of, say, baklava, biscotti and Sachertorte — from the economics of ingredient production to nomenclature and etymology — less avid historians may find it hard to see the forest for the trees (or the pastry through all its layers, as the case may be).

This is, in short, a serious read. Though the prose is lively enough, it isn’t sugarcoated by the accompaniment of sumptuous photographs (or illustrations of any kind), and recipes are few and far between. Fair or not, I found myself growing impatient at several junctures with Krondl’s decision to privilege historical depth over geographical breadth: after a bewildering catalog of India’s milk-based sweets or a lengthy tangent about syrup in the age of “A Thousand and One Nights,” for instance, I craved a bite of mochi; a word on the Mexican wedding cookie and its counterpart, the Russian tea cake; or a spoonful of Polish fruit soup.

Which isn’t to say the book isn’t chock full of passages that reflect in fascinating ways on the nature of culinary creativity then and now. Did you know that an early version of baklava was made with lentils? That medieval Italian banquets might start with eels in marzipan and culminate in the presentation of a pie filled not with fruit or custard but precious jewelry? That the trend in contemporary American restaurants toward spiking desserts with savory ingredients was well known to 18th-century European craftsmen, who offered the likes of artichoke ice cream and parsley or celery-flavored crèmes? That the wine cocktails of today were also a thing of the past? Me neither; Krondl does a fine job of exposing the myth that is linear progress. (Speaking of myths, let it be known that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”)

A certain amount of coherence derives from the final chapter, as Krondl lays the differences between the culture of sweets in America and that of much of the rest of the world at the feet of professional artisans and trade guilds; lacking those, he points out, “in the United States, the story of dessert is very much about mothers and factories.” Here we can discern well the distinction between a macaron and an Oreo, say, or tiramisù and s’mores. Ultimately, though, an overarching narrative about the global development of dessert per se doesn’t clearly emerge. Under those circumstances, I’d just as soon be treated to an array of delectable tidbits from the world round as grow satiated on a handful. Still, Krondl’s complete mastery of the material at hand is undeniable; those with a greater taste for the discrete yet thorough than I apparently possess should by all means indulge.

Buy Michael Krondl’s “Sweet Invention” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.

Top photo composite:

Michael Krondl. Credit: Joanne Dugan

“Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert” book jacket courtesy of Chicago Review Press

 

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Chef David Chang’s Momofuku empire is smoking hot. In the short span of a few years, he has morphed into a culinary phenomenon with a swath of insanely popular Manhattan restaurants, including Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Ko, Má Pêche and four Milk Bar bakeries, not to mention Sydney’s Momofuku Seiōbo and the upcoming Momofuku in Toronto.

Chang also has a new cutting-edge food magazine called Lucky Peach, and two years ago he published his first cookbook, Momofuku, which was an Amazon bestseller.

The newest product to emerge from this sensation was penned by his pastry chef, Christina Tosi. Milk: Momofuku Milk Bar (Clarkson Potter; 2011) is as much of a fun read as Chang’s sassy volume. And, like “Momofuku,” “Milk Bar” tells us about the personal journey of a very young and talented chef who trained well, worked hard and then managed to surf the culinary zeitgeist with astonishing success.

Consider the sophisticated stoner

Unlike pretty much any other pastry cookbook out there, this is a cheeky distillation of sophisticated techniques combined with a stoner’s addled cravings for sugar-loaded munchies. As The New York Times noted, Milk Bar bakery is “a time capsule of arrested adolescence, an homage to American processed food.”

One of the signature products of Milk Bar, for example, is its Cereal Milk: boxed cereals like cornflakes and Cap’n Crunch are soaked in milk, then more sugar is tossed in after the flavored milk is squeezed out. These childhood taste memories are then transmogrified into things like panna cotta and ice cream pie. The final incarnation here is a drink I can picture seriously tempting that definitive slacker Jeff Lebowski: Tosi’s Cereal Milk White Ruskie, a combination of Cereal Milk ice cream base with Kahlùa and vodka.

Simple tastes made complicated

It’s an odd world that Tosi rules, one that merges slacker culture with refined techniques. A baseline of working for David Bouley’s pastry chef, Alex Grunert, as well as for Wylie Dufresne at wd~50, gave this graduate of the French Culinary Institute the chops that place her skills within the refined world of high-end restaurateurs. What she did after accepting Chang’s offer to run his pastry kitchen, though, is what makes her creations so unusual.

Take, for example, her Pistachio Layer Cake. Hard-to-find ingredients abound here, like pistachio paste, pistachio oil and glucose. Three round layers of pistachio-flavored cake are slathered with pistachio oil, coated with lemon curd and spangled with a signature ingredient called Milk Crumb (milk powder combined with some starch, butter and white chocolate) before being topped with Pistachio Frosting. But at three cups of sugar plus glucose and that chocolate, this is such a sugar bomb that it probably shouldn’t be served to children even under strict parental supervision.

As with all of her uniquely styled cakes, the sides are left unfrosted and ringed with acetate to show off the multiple layers. It’s a charming and quirky approach that gives these creations their undeniable allure. I particularly relished the ideas behind her reworking of that old chestnut, Carrot Layer Cake: three layers brushed with milk, topped with her Liquid Cheesecake, studded with more of that Milk Crumb and topped with a novel frosting that mixes a Graham cracker crust with yet more milk, butter, sugar and a dash of cinnamon.

I couldn’t wait to cook from Tosi’s book because the author is charming and entertaining, and I could almost smell the cookies in the photos. Her directions are clear, the book is well designed around 10 basic recipes like fudge sauce, nut brittle and mother dough, and both American and metric measurements given. The front part of the book is especially amusing and extremely readable, written like a hip friend channeling directions on how to succeed as a pastry chef (” … by no means does pear sorbet in a quenelle shape taste better … But it is a pretty cool hardbody technique to master.”)

Uh oh

Problems became apparent as soon as I started to bake from the book, as not one of the recipes worked that well. This made me wonder whether enormous quantities had been divvied down into manageable amounts using a calculator, and then no one tested these final directions. Or maybe some steps or ingredients were left out. Or maybe it’s because everything turned out so darned sweet or, in the case of a focaccia, impossibly salty. Honestly, even stoners might find it all just too much.

For example, the head note to Tosi’s Corn Cookies says “this was a recipe I didn’t let out of my kitchen,” which makes me think that this was a treat she made at home a lot and found so irresistible that she kept the formula under lock and key. However, the enormous discs looked nothing like the photo and ended up tasting like very sweet Kix ground into sugar cookie dough. But then again, perhaps that was the point of the exercise, and I am simply not what advertisers would call a target consumer.

The delicious-looking Cinnamon Bun Pies and Chinese Sausage Focaccia were also only so-so. I considered hunting down the ingredients to make some of her cakes and especially her Crack Pie (basically pecan pie without the nuts) if for nothing else than that inspired name, but was too discouraged by my steady lack of success to even try.

As the Dude would say, Bummer.

Buy David Chang”s “Momofuku” Now!

Buy Christina Tosi’s “Momofuku Milk Bar” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.


Top photo composite:

Book jacket courtesy of Random house
Christina Tosi. Credit: Gabriele Stabile

 

 

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With the economy the way it is, I didn’t get to travel this summer as much as I wanted. Luckily I found a few new cookbooks that made me feel as though I had been to some exotic countries and even taken a haphazard trip across the country.

Food-tripping through Vietnam

Kim Fay is a noted expert on travel literature and Vietnam. Returning to Los Angeles after living and teaching in Vietnam for four years, Fay, a self-proclaimed foodie, was hungry for the Vietnamese dishes she had grown to love. Local cooking classes and Vietnamese cookbooks only made her miss the food and culture of her Vietnam more. Fay decided she would have to return to her adopted home to learn all she could about Vietnamese food, cooking and family traditions. The result is the deeply personal travelogue and cookbook “Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam,” from Things Asian Press. Armed with a well-thought-out itinerary and a list of chefs, local foodies, cooking teachers and even a planned dinner with the granddaughter of the chef of Vietnam’s last emperor to help guide her on her quest, she began her journey. Fay enlisted the help of her sister, Julie Fay Ashborn, a photographer, to document the trip. She found a past student and close friend Nguyen thi Lan Huong to translate for them. Starting north in Hanoi, she began in the markets learning about herbs and the significance each has to a specific dish. Then traveling and eating her way south through many cities including Hue, Hoi An, Dalet and ending in Saigon, where she had begun her love affair with Vietnam, Fay writes a poignant, funny and engrossing tale of food, culture and tradition in a country obviously so dear to her heart.

Stir-frying for everyone

Grace Young, a three-time International Assn. of Culinary Professionals award winner and author of the bestselling books “The Breath of a Wok” and “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen,” will put any fears you may have about stir-frying aside with her book “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge,” published by Simon & Schuster.

Young, in her authoritative but friendly voice sends readers on a culinary journey around the world telling the stories of Chinese immigrants in new surroundings who learned to adapt  their style of cooking to suit the needs and taste of their new cultures. With more than 100 flavorful recipes and Steven Mark Needham’s beautiful color photographs throughout, Young begins by explaining the differences in the many types of woks available, teaching us how to choose the best equipment that will produce the best result. Chinese stirfry from Grace Young

The chapter teaching readers how to season and clean a wok are invaluable and not to be passed over. Peppered throughout, Young interviews home cooks and professionals that share their personal stories of the importance of not just the technique of stir-fry but the rich culture and traditions learned and passed down from generation to generation. Young has given us the definitive book on stir-fry, and her joy of teaching us everything she knows about the subject jumps off the page. This is a beautifully written and user-friendly book for the beginner as well as the experienced cook.

This is one not to be missed.

Special desserts from the White House pastry chef

Does the thought of orange supreme muffins get you going in the morning? What about a stone fruit galette for an afternoon tea or a spectacular 16-layer red eye devil’s food cake to celebrate a birthday? One of my favorite baking books this summer is “The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion” from White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses and James Beard award-winning author Melissa Clark. This sleek, sexy hard-back volume published by W.W. Norton has beautiful full color photographs by Marcus Nilsson and features nearly 80 of Yosses’ most creative recipes.

Organized by occasions that bring family and friends together, Yosses realizes that contemporary dessert taste has changed and our growing interest in health and diet has influenced him greatly. In some recipes, less butter is used and sugar is reduced or even substituted with honey and other sweeteners. For dessert eaters who like their butter and sugar, don’t worry; there are plenty of recipes that will satisfy your sweet cravings. Instead of the classic restaurant dessert warm molten chocolate cake try the vanilla version using creamy white chocolate and lots of fresh vanilla beans.

From delicious recipes for a simple brunch to restaurant desserts you will actually be able to make at home, this is a collection of new and fun recipes that a baker with any level of skill can handle. Don’t miss the terrific chapter, “I’ll bring Dessert,” which includes tips on how to pack and transport your creations to ensure they will arrive at their destination in one piece and looking spectacular.

A cake — or dessert — for every state

Warren Brown, owner of Cake Love, a Washington D.C. chain of bakeries, celebrates baking with recipes representing all 50 states in his second book “United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State,” published by Stewart Tabori & Chang. In his introduction, Brown is concerned that baking from scratch in America is becoming a dying art in need of preservation. As he also wonders what it is that connects a particular cake with a particular state, you can almost see the light bulb in his head go on. Though the title might suggest a cake from every state, we quickly find out this is not necessarily so.

Organized regionally, Brown represents each state by updating classic recipes such as South Carolina’s Lady Baltimore cake or creating new recipes like Avocado cupcakes representing California. Here’s what confuses me: If Brown was trying to represent each state, though not necessarily with a cake, then why remake the famous Kentucky Derby Pie into a cake and change a maple cake from Vermont into Maple Crème Brulee? Throughout the book each state is also tagged with a random piece of trivia. Did you know Maine produces about 30 million pounds of blueberries a year? Why then was Maine represented by Whoopie Pies and not a blueberry recipe? Brown, who starred in the 2006 Food Network show “Sugar Rush,” has written a very nice collection of recipes but it is just that.  Forget the gimmicky theme; why not concentrate on developing good solid recipes that teach readers the joy that can come from baking a cake from scratch?


Photos, from top:

Tamarind crab from “Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam.”
Credit: Julie Fay Ashborn
“Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young
Credit: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster


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