Cookbook Review: Ready For Dessert
Nearly every home cook I know has a certain conflict with making desserts. It may have a little to do with food guilt but mostly I think it's practical. We head to the kitchen thinking, "I can either make dinner or I can make dessert. Not both." We've only got so much time, so much focus, so much budget (for groceries or calories) and something has to give. And so usually it's the dessert.
Then there's the silly bifurcate of bakers versus cooks. I've always thought this was unnecessarily exclusive. And as I learned more about cooking techniques, I realized it's also without any basis: the skills needed to make a pastry cream are exactly the same as for making a béchamel for asparagus lasagna. Likewise an onion quiche versus a cherry clafoutis. And tomato sauce really isn't that much different in method and process than for making a sweet fruit sauce or jam. Okay, sugar and chocolate require special handling, but so do some savory ingredients.
Dessert requires a certain state-of-mind, one that enthusiastically embraces the pleasures of food -- enough so that we make the sweets we love and crave. Not just holiday favorites or a birthday cake. I also mean the enormous repertoire of sweetness that is available to us as home cooks.
Which brings me to David Lebovitz.
David Lebovitz is the former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, a food writer and author, an American living in Paris, and the author of his very popular web site and blog, DavidLebovitz.com. He's also written several excellent cookbooks (we wrote about The Perfect Scoop a couple of years ago; see our link), his newest being Ready for Dessert ($35.00, hardcover with color photographs, Ten Speed Press). This 180-page volume includes what he calls his "best recipes," some of which are happy second acts from earlier and now out-of-print books.
Ready for Dessert
Here's what I love about this book. First, Mr. Lebovitz has gathered a selection of 170 recipes that is both complete and eclectic, including classics and innovations. While many of the recipes tilt French, the book also has its share of American favorites, like Black and White Cookies and Cheesecake Brownies, plus ones from other cuisines. And the luscious full-page color photography by Maren Caruso is also instructional; for example, there's a series of 13 photos that shows exactly what happens when you make caramel.
There are chapters about essential ingredients and equipment, and on-line sources for buying both. The recipes are organized by cakes; pies, tarts and fruit desserts; custards, soufflés, and puddings; frozen deserts; cookies and candies; and basics, sauces, and preserves. For example: Gâteau Victoire (a flourless chocolate cake); Pumpkin Cheesecake with Pecan Crust and Whisky-Caramel Topping; Lemon Semifreddo; Apple-Quince Tarte Tatin; Chocolate Ganache Custard Tart; Blackberry Sorbet; Chocolate Crack Cookies; and Pineapple, Rhubarb, and Raspberry Cobbler which I made for dinner guests last weekend (an unexpected trio but truly wonderful especially with local in-season rhubarb which is the cobbler's dominant flavor).
Dessert-Making Tips For City Cooks
David's voice is candid, sometimes conspiratorial, often funny, and always enabling. It's the same authentic voice that has made his blog one of the most popular food sites on the web.
While he has an impressive professional background, I love knowing that he now cooks at home in a Parisian apartment kitchen that's said to be even smaller than mine. He's very busy both with the book launch and giving chocolate and gastronomy tours in France and Italy, but he was nice enough to answer a few email questions. Knowing most city cooks have tiny kitchens, I asked him what he says to anyone who uses kitchen size as an excuse for not making dessert, especially when it comes to having special equipment.
"I advise people to stock up with basics, like 9-inch (23cm) cake pans and loaf pans, and stick to recipes that call for those. (When you have to buy all those obscure pans, they take up valuable storage space.) I also buy stacking bins for flour, sugar, and other ingredients, which make them handier to use and make baking more pleasurable," he wrote.
But what about ice cream makers? I'm a fan of making both sweet and savory frozen desserts but not everyone is willing to give up the space needed for clumsy-to-store ice cream makers. What does he do?
"To me, it comes down to priorities. I make a lot of ice cream and began with a model that you store in the freezer, which was actually a space-saving idea because it was nice to have a place to put it that was out of the way. Those machines are inexpensive, around $50. I upgraded to a self-freezing machine because I was churning out a lot of ice cream when working on my ice cream book. It takes up more space, but it was much faster and easier to make ice cream. And for those who don't have room in their kitchen, then can store theirs where I store mine: in the bedroom!"
At one point in his book, David divides the world into two camps -- lemon people and chocolate people. Since I'm a lemon person, I'm glad that his book has a generous chapter of fruit desserts. Just as home cooks are increasingly buying local and in season for our savory cooking, the same principles apply to desserts. David gave me this warning:
"Fruit must be bought in season because otherwise it doesn't taste good. Out-of-season strawberries are hard and bitter, and peaches and nectarines are not only lacking flavor, but are expensive to boot."
I may be one of the lemon people, but I know that most of you are in the other camp. To tempt you back to dessert making, see our link to David Lebovitz's recipe for Chocolate Pots de Crème.
Enjoy the sweetness.