Articles in Desserts
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.
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Cover of “Hello, Jell-O” and author Victoria Belanger. Credits: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press.
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.
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Author Francine Segan. Credit: Daniela Stallinger; cover of “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” courtesy of the publisher
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.
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.
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Michael Krondl. Credit: Joanne Dugan
“Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert” book jacket courtesy of Chicago Review Press
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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Book jacket courtesy of Random house
Christina Tosi. Credit: Gabriele Stabile
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
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.
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?
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I love the feeling of excitement I get when I start reading a new a cookbook and know right away that it’s something very special.
Kim Boyce, a former Los Angeles pastry chef at Spago and Campanile and frequent contributor to Bon Appetit magazine has written that “something special” in her debut cookbook “Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours.” The book is special in the way that Boyce doesn’t just give us a book of recipes that use whole-grain flours to make us think we’re eating healthier. Boyce explores the art of balancing flavors by mixing different whole grains together, pairing them with seasonal ingredients, creating a richness and depth of flavor in a collection of recipes that completely changed the way I thought about whole grains.
Working with 12 different whole-grain flours from amaranth to teff, Boyce begins each chapter with an introduction explaining the origins and characteristics of each flour. When she introduces readers to teff flour, we learn it’s used in making the flatbread injera, traditionally served in Ethiopian restaurants. Teff is gluten-free so it’s mixed with whole-wheat flour to make a starter and allowed to ferment overnight, creating the sour taste distinctive to this spongy, crepe-like bread.
I had never heard of this flour, so I was excited to try Boyce’s graham cracker recipe. Mixing this rich malt-flavored flour with all-purpose flour and graham flour, these crackers could not have been easier to put together. I even perforated each cracker to mimic the store-bought varieties. There is something so completely satisfying about making a recipe that simple that tastes better than anything you can buy in a store.
One of my favorite things about Boyce’s book is that instead of overwhelming readers with a huge number of recipes, she plays it smart with just 75 well-crafted, sophisticated recipes, ranging from breakfast pastries, breads and cookies to desserts.
Boyce, an avid jam maker, includes a chapter on home-made jams and compotes, using the best seasonal fruits and vegetables available from your local farmers markets. There is also chapter for mail-order sources. I thought it might be difficult to locate some of the flours Boyce used, but after a quick look around my local Whole Foods Market I found nearly every whole grain needed.
There are many books on the market using whole-grain flours. Most that I have read are complex and academic in their approach to the subject, but Boyce has made the subject appealing, friendly and interesting. If you were to judge a book by its cover, Quentin Bacon’s beautiful color photography would certainly make this a bestseller. I have always had a fear of baking with unfamiliar ingredients, but Boyce has changed all that. I can’t wait to finish baking my way through this remarkable first cookbook.
Tim Fischer managed The Cook’s Library in Los Angeles, named one of the “Top 10 Cookbook Stores in the World” by Saveur. He also has been a judge for the IACP Cookbook Awards for four years.
Photo: “Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours” By Kim Boyce with Amy Scattergood.
Credit: Stewart, Tabori & Chang
If you’ve ever thought about becoming a pastry chef or want to know how a restaurant dessert makes its way from an idea to the kitchen to the plate and ultimately to your table, Robert Wemischner’s, “The Dessert Architect” would be a wonderful addition to your library. Wemischner has taught baking and pastry at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College for 18 years. He has written four culinary books, was a pioneer in the gourmet-to-go trend and is a regular contributor to Food Arts and Pastry Art and Design magazines.
Written for pastry students but accessible to anyone interested in learning the essentials, “The Dessert Architect” (available at RobertWemischner.com) is an informed look at what it takes to work in the business today. Featured throughout the six chapters are sidebars from several professional pastry chefs like Gale Gand, Claudia Fleming and Pichet Ong, writing about personal experiences in their own kitchens, offering inspiration and helping to expand this clearly writtenbook into a satisfying baking tool.
Wemischner begins with a chapter on the four cornerstones of pastry: flavor, texture, temperature, and contrast. He uses charts to categorize each, demonstrating, for example, ingredients that are dominant flavors (chocolate, hazelnut), sour (lemon, cranberry), and pungent (ginger, cardamom). As a result, readers are better equipped to understand how the layering of these elements can make a dessert complex. The chapter’s final recipe, “A Couple of Doughnuts,” incorporates all four cornerstones: caramel coated poached white peaches with white doughnut peach and violet mousse, and a highly recommended buttermilk spiced doughnut precariously perched on top. I have never made doughnuts before so I was eager to try this part of the recipe. With a beautiful assortment of spices including mace, nutmeg and cinnamon, and straightforward instructions that were easy to follow, I could not have been happier with the final results. Now all I have to do is figure out what to do with a gallon of spiced frying oil.
Other chapters focus on ingredients and equipment, creating a dessert menu, beverage pairings, and particularly interesting, plating. Wemischner establishes guidelines on how much sauce to use (too little can be just as bad as too much) and illustrates basic shapes for cakes and ice creams. The tip that I found most useful for home bakers is to draw your design before you put the dessert on the plate.
The book’s more than 50 meticulously detailed recipes (you’ll need your kitchen scale — ingredients are measured by weight) are accompanied by full-color photographs by Elon Schoenholz. Recipes, designed for restaurants, are comprised of several components. For instance, the Chocolate Melting Moments Torte Flavored with Assam Tea includes the chocolate tea torte, malted milk chocolate ice cream, a tea-infused plating sauce and an Isomalt (a sugar substitute) and tea garnish. As a home baker, I find it extremely helpful that alongside each recipe is a list of equipment needed and the order in which to make each component. After finishing a recipe, Wemischner challenges his students to think of ways to create that same dessert using the recipe only as a guideline and incorporating alternate flavors or different techniques.
The appendix is filled with information on ingredients, specialty produce, equipment, a concise glossary, and website addresses for spots like the Culinary Institute of America, the French Culinary Institute, even King Arthur Flour, that offer educational opportunities for students.
After finishing Wemischner’s book, readers will have a much clearer understanding of what it takes to be a part of a pastry kitchen. But what I enjoyed most about “The Dessert Architect” is Wemischner’s commitment to his students: He never lets them stray too far from the fundamentals, and always encourages them to push harder.
Tim Fischermanaged The Cook’s Library in Los Angeles, named one of the “Top 10 Cookbook Stores in the World” by Saveur. He also has been a judge for the IACP Cookbook Awards for four years.
Photos of praline napoleon, top, and crepe cake marjolaine, bottom, by Robert Wemischner from “The Dessert Architect.”
Cookbooks make perfect Christmas gifts and publishers know this, so they bring out their best offerings this time of year. Because I am a baker, I most look forward to the baking books, and this is a stellar year. From the very simple to the extremely creative and challenging, here are four new books that are right for the bakers on your list.
If you love gingerbread, look no further for your favorite holiday treats than “Gingerbread: Timeless Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Desserts, Ice Cream, and Candy” by Jennifer Lindner McGlinn. (Chronicle Books, $19.95)
McGlinn, a pastry chef and former executive editor of Art Culinaire Magazine is a true lover of all things gingerbread. She realized her passion after her grandmother passed on her 1950 edition of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.” She made her first gingerbread cake and was hooked. This is a beautiful hardback book full of color photographs and recipes for everything from gingerbread pancakes for breakfast to a charming gingerbread replica of The Betsy Ross house, complete with brickwork, fireplace and dormer. Lindner starts off with cakes. She covers everything from simple pound cakes, a beautiful spiced pear upside-down cake and the very grand celebration cake covered in praline butter cream. Cookies are next with everything from a crunchy easy-to-make gingersnap to the gingerbread-maple moon pies, treats that will make your house smell like Santa’s workshop. Don’t miss the gingerbread ice cream or the rich and gooey sticky toffee gingerbread pudding.
If there are gingerbread lovers on your Christmas list or you’re looking for new recipes for your own collection, “Gingerbread” is the book for you.
For the more sophisticated bakers, look for “Unforgettable Desserts: More than 140 Memorable Dessert Recipes for All Year Round” by Dede Wilson (John Wiley, $29.95)
Wilson is the host of the public television cooking show “Seasonings with Dede Wilson,” author of numerous cookbooks and a contributing editor to Bon Appetit magazine.
Wilson begins with a basics chapter featuring building-block recipes such as a simple sugar tart crust, quick puff pastry, dark and moist chocolate cake, and her signature buttercream, all recipes that you will use to create many of the beautiful upscale desserts featured throughout this colorful hardback volume. There is an extensive list of the many types of chocolates and cocoa powders that are used in Wilson’s recipes as well as pages of “do ahead tips” for pies and cakes. The cake chapter clearly is a favorite of Wilson, who has already done two books on wedding cakes. Whether a simple, straightforward chocolate cake with little embellishment or the extravagant Clementine-chocolate-almond torte, her recipes are all approachable and easy to follow. Wilson even includes a vegan strawberry ganache cake using soy ganache. If it’s an elegant dessert you’re looking for, “Unforgettable Desserts” will not disappoint.
Lauren Chattman, author of 10 cookbooks and co-author of dozens more brings us “Cake Keeper Cakes: 100 Simple Recipes for Extraordinary Bundt Cakes, Pound Cakes, Snacking Cakes and Other Good-to-the-Last-Crumb Treats.”
When Lauren’s husband and children gave her a Mother’s Day gift of an antique cake plate, she placed it on her kitchen counter and vowed never to let it go empty.
This slim paperback book is full of easy-to-follow recipes that take no time at all to mix together using ingredients that most cooks already have in their pantries. Almost all of Chattman’s cakes are mixed together using one bowl and can easily be put together in the time between finishing homework and starting dinner, but are still special enough for last-minute dinner guests.
There is a short but concise primer on proper pan sizes, ingredients, tips on mixing techniques, and ways to tell when your cake is done. There are even tips on how to keep your just-baked cakes fresh.
Chattman begins with snack cakes such as chocolate malted snacking cake — perfect for after-school treats. Her chapter on loaf cakes features more than a dozen simple pound cakes such as the Nutella swirl cake or the grown-up walnut whiskey pound cake with a whiskey glaze, which is potent and delicious. The peanut butter-sour cream bundt cake is a favorite too.
For simple, rustic, easy-to-make cakes, look for Lauren Chattman’s “Cake Keeper Cakes.”
One of my favorite books of the season has to be “All Cakes Considered: A Year’s Worth of Weekly Recipes Tested, Tasted, and Approved by the staff of NPR’s All Things Considered” by Melissa Gray. (Chronicle Books, $24.95)
Melissa Gray, a producer at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” is known as The Cake Lady. Every Monday morning Gray brings a home-made cake to the office to share with her co-workers. She figures that the average American worker spends eight to 10 hours a day with people to whom they’re not related but who are, in a sense, their adopted families. Monday was picked as the day because “that is the day you look forward to least.” Remembering the baking of her mother and grandmother, she found she had only a few cake recipes in her repertoire. Gathering recipes from friends, neighbors, the Internet and even spiral-bound church collections, Gray set a goal of learning to be a better baker.
The project began more than a year ago with a few simple rules: No box mixes, no canned frosting, no margarine, no low-fat sour cream, no fake sugar and, most of all, no repeats.
Starting with a recipe for “The Man Catcher,” a sour cream pound cake that she says no man can resist, Gray explains in hilarious detail how to make this cake from beginning to end. After reading this chapter, you should never have another question about what it means to cream butter and sugar or how and when to add eggs or what, exactly, is meant by “bake 90 minutes.”
Chapter 1 is full of easy cakes that any beginner can master, such as a simple brown sugar pound cake or Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa sour cream coffee cake.
Moving on to bundt cakes, Gray holds your hand while baking dozens of delicious goodies and then dives right into the wonderful chapter on layer cakes. She even includes a chapter on cookies and bars because after baking all those cakes you’ll be ready for a break.
Full of beautiful color photography from Annabelle Breakey and featuring delicious, easy-to-follow recipes and baking tips that will give confidence to even the most timid bakers, “All Cakes Considered” is charming and witty and sure to find a permanent spot in your ever-growing collection.
All of these books will help you to become a better, more confident baker. So whether you are looking for that perfect slice of gingerbread, a quick dessert for your family, or an elegant end to a holiday meal, there is something for every dessert lover on your holiday shopping list.
Photo: Christmas tree cut-out cookies. Credit Emilia Stasiak