It's a great season for thrillers

Times Staff Writer

IT'S not easy to head off by yourself in a new direction in baking, especially if you're a home cook looking for a holiday showstopper amid all the recipes for chocolate chip scones and blueberry muffins. Where are the passion fruit curd tarts, fromage blanc Bavarian cakes and the chocolate-ginger pots de creme?

Thankfully, this season's cookbooks offer recipes for these delicious desserts and more.

Of half a dozen new baking books I cooked from in recent weeks, three are distinguished by innovative, often easy-to-execute ideas: Kate Zuckerman's "The Sweet Life: Desserts From Chanterelle" (Bulfinch Press, $35); Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson's "Tartine" (Chronicle Books, $35); and "The Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate" by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg (Hyperion, $35).

But tradition's not neglected. Dorie Geenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours" (Houghton Mifflin, $40) and "Whole Grain Baking" (The Countryman Press, $35) from the King Arthur Flour Co. are worthy entrants in the encyclopedia baking book field. And for the professional who need only see a full-page, close-up photo of elaborately plated desserts and little instruction to grasp a recipe, there's "Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Desserts and Pastries" by Alain Ducasse and Frederic Robert ($195, Stewart, Tabori & Chang).

"Sweet Life," "Tartine" and "Essence of Chocolate" each includes spectacular recipes that are also seriously labor intensive -- a lemon meringue pie transformed into a grand cake from "Tartine," for example, or a "Sweet Life" recipe for goat cheese and purple basil souffle (yes, it's sweet, and it's delicious) that calls for running between the stove and the stand mixer to make an Italian meringue.

Tantalizingly basic

BUT many of the recipes from these three books are fairly uncomplicated and allow you to achieve sophisticated desserts such as an orange chocolate ganache tart from "Essence of Chocolate" or pears baked until they're beautifully blistered and caramelized from "Sweet Life."

Since 1999, Zuckerman has been pastry chef at the luxurious French-focused restaurant Chanterelle in New York. Her "Sweet Life" is filled with elegant desserts, for which she explains pastry kitchen techniques: prune Armagnac creme brulee, apricot and almond tart, that goat cheese and purple basil souffle. Her directions are smart and for the most part thorough and her voice is friendly, straightforward and personal. She also knows the value of a good cookie.

In fact, she likes to cream butter. To cream and cream and cream. For a tart's hazelnut crust, butter and sugar are creamed together for up to eight minutes. She says longer creaming produces a crunchy, cookie-like texture (though it's easily chipped).

The book is packed not just with detailed recipes and tantalizing photos but also with in-depth tips -- for cooking a stirred custard or making a caramel. And she's willing to do a lot of hand-holding, offering the kind of encouragement home cooks often need, with words like "don't be alarmed...."

Yet some instructions could be better. For the goat cheese and purple basil souffles, there are no directions on whether to put the ramekins straight into the oven, in a water bath or on a Silpat-lined baking sheet, so I cooked some each way. The best were the ones from the baking sheet; they puffed up nicely (though not near as much as the one in the photo), and the lightly sweetened goat cheese with a fresh herbal note made a wonderful dessert.

Her long-roasted pears are much easier to prepare, and they're visually stunning and delicious in their own caramel-y poaching syrup. They're baked with sugar, honey, water and lemon zest.

The "Tartine" cookbook is a peek into what happens in the kitchen at the ridiculously popular Tartine Bakery in San Francisco's Mission District and includes recipes for the creations -- buttermilk scones, pumpkin tea cake -- that draw crowds.

The book's design is attractive, with stunning, full-page photos, but the typeface for ingredients lists is small. The tone is somewhat matter-of-fact and the tips under "kitchen notes" are sometimes cursory, but it's a fun book because there are so many exciting flavors: a toasted almond and lavender parfait, a raspberry and geranium cream tart, a passion fruit and lime Bavarian.

A recipe for lemon bars yields a near-perfect lemon curd, bright with lemon flavor and not too eggy, and the shortbread crust studded with pine nuts makes the bars that much better.

An almond-lemon tea cake is moist, dense and rich with almond paste. And it's intensely flavored, the citrus heightened by a glaze of lemon juice, orange juice and sugar. The sugar crystallizes so when you bite into it, you get little crunchy explosions of flavor.

Descriptions in important steps could sometimes be inaccurate, though. The pre-ferment for a brioche dough is described as a smooth batter. I made it twice, once by using the volume measurements called for and once with the weight measurements that are also given. Both attempts resulted in not a smooth batter, but a very dry dough. I didn't have the courage to continue with the recipe because there were many more steps involved and hours of rising time.

But instant gratification came from an easy chocolate pudding (not baked, but one of the bakery's best-sellers) that is astoundingly good -- essentially a pastry cream made silky and smooth in a blender.

The more than 100 recipes in "The Essence of Chocolate" are culled from Scharffen Berger files and include contributions from chefs, such as Thomas Keller's TKO cookies from Bouchon Bakery (a white chocolate filling sandwiched between two chocolate wafers) and Michel Richard's black and white creme brulee (a vanilla custard with a surprise layer of chocolate mousse). For the brulee, brown sugar is baked then finely ground, and when torched or broiled, it makes a perfect caramel-y burnt sugar crust.

Baked hot chocolate, baked in mugs or ramekins, is listed in the "Intensely Chocolate" category and it's just that. The top layer comes out crisp, the center is like a chocolate pudding and the bottom is like very thick hot chocolate. But it's too gooey and rich for a full-mug serving. Smaller ramekins or espresso cups would better serve the recipe.

An orange chocolate ganache tart is just as intensely chocolate, but orange zest in both the crust and the ganache is refreshing, and it can be thinly sliced.

Maybe some of the pitfalls of "The Sweet Life," "Tartine" and "The Essence of Chocolate" are rooted in the fact that these are written by first-time cookbook authors. So when it isn't all wine and rosewater in the kitchen, it's comforting to be able to turn to longtime cookbook pros.

In "Baking: From My Home to Yours," Dorie Greenspan is rooted in the home kitchen, offering no less than 14 recipes for brownies or brownie variations. Greenspan has written cookbooks with Pierre Herme and Julia Child, and her recipes work consistently. They're laid out clearly with what-you-see-is-what-you-get photos.

Cream scones are deliciously flaky. French yogurt cake is moist and flavorful with a tender crumb. A French pear tart came out perfect. Far Breton, a lovely crepe-y cake studded with Armagnac-soaked prunes, is delicious. The only recipe that I didn't love was her brioche; the dough wasn't smooth and elastic, and the bread turned out dense and poundcake-like.

A notch above

AT the other end of the spectrum is "Grand Livre de Cuisine," the second volume in Ducasse's series. The desserts are amazingly beautiful in photos -- caramelized apple napoleons, fromage blanc tart with fraises des bois, apple quince cake.

But the recipes aren't for novice bakers or anyone who doesn't happen to know what atomized glucose is, and the errors throughout the text and ingredients lists don't help: The texture of a pistachio tart made with just 12 grams of pistachio paste, as indicated in the recipe, turned out like cornbread, but with 120 grams of pistachio paste, it was moist and luscious.

For sturdy recipes, "Whole Grain Baking" includes recipes that call for a variety of whole grains, the result of experiments with wheat, oats, corn, barley, rye, spelt or buckwheat in quick breads, crisps, yeast breads, crackers, cakes, pies and pastries.

It's a workman-like book with more than 500 pages of not just recipes, but a lot of useful information about using liqueurs in frosting, how far ahead you can prepare your muffin batter, the advantages of getting your bread dough started by using a pre-ferment. With hundreds of recipes, you'll sometimes find more than one to a page, but they're easy to read and illustrations help make methods clear.

The chocolate bete noir from "Sweet Life" was far more rich and delicious than the whole wheat chocolate zucchini cake from "Whole Grain Baking," but on the other hand, "Whole Grain's" sour cream blueberry muffins made with whole wheat flour, its cornmeal pancakes and milk and honey corn muffins were all great for breakfast.

But you'll get way beyond breakfast as you flip through the pages of these baking books: date cake with toffee sauce, blueberry lemon chiffon tart -- I'd better go find my apron.

betty.hallock@latimes.com

*

Orange chocolate ganache tart

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus

3 hours chilling time for the dough and 3 hours standing time for the finished tart

Servings: 12

Note: From "The Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate" by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. You'll need a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

1 large egg yolk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest,

divided

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces

12 ounces 72% bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons ground hazelnuts (they can be chopped by hand or in a small food processor)

1. In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk with the vanilla. Add 1 tablespoon orange zest and set aside.

2. Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly to blend the ingredients. Add the butter and pulse for about 30 seconds, or until it is cut into tiny pieces. With the processor running, add the yolk mixture through the feed tube. Mix for about 1 minute, or until the dough forms a ball and wraps around the blade.

3. Transfer the dough to a board and shape into a 6-inch disk. Wrap in a double layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If frozen, defrost the dough overnight in the refrigerator.)

4. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it temper for just a few minutes if the dough is too hard to roll. Roll the dough between two sheets of lightly floured parchment paper into a 13-inch circle. Flour the dough as necessary to keep it from sticking. Remove the top sheet of parchment paper and brush off any excess flour. Roll the dough up around the rolling pin and unroll it into the tart pan. Gently lift the edges to ease the dough into the corners of the pan, then push down gently. Trim the dough to a 1-inch overhang. Fold the overhang over and press it against the sides of the pan to form a secure double layer. If the dough tears, it is easy to press and patch into place. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

5. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat it to 375 degrees. Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork. Line the shell with aluminum foil or parchment and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for 12 minutes.

6. Remove the parchment and weights, prick the bottom of the crust again, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until golden. Remove the pan from the oven and cool completely on a rack.

7. To prepare the hazelnuts for garnish, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, place the nuts in a baking dish and toast until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

8. For the ganache, place the chocolate in a medium bowl and set a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon zest to the cream, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Let steep for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and bring the cream back to a boil over medium-high heat. Strain onto the chocolate. Let stand for 30 seconds, then use a whisk, rubber spatula, or immersion blender to blend the mixture until very smooth.

9. Pour the ganache into the tart shell and spread it evenly. Sprinkle the top with the hazelnuts or zest. Let stand at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours, or refrigerate for about 1 hour, until the ganache is set. (The tart can be made ahead and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days. Once the ganache is set, cover the top with a piece of parchment paper and wrap the entire tart with aluminum foil.) To serve, remove the ring of the tart pan, sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts and cut the tart into thin slices.

Each serving: 388 calories; 4 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 28 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 73 mg. cholesterol; 36 mg. sodium.

*

Honey-glazed roasted pears

Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Servings: 10

Note: From "The Sweet Life: Desserts From Chanterelle" by Kate Zuckerman. This pear dish requires the use of a hot oven for about 2 hours; you can roast these pears while you plan to be in the kitchen working on another dish. You will need a 12-by-8-inch metal roasting pan. The pears are just as beautiful if you do not core them after roasting.

1 lemon

10 medium (about 5 pounds) ripe pears (Anjou, Comice, Bartlett or Bosc)

2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup honey

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Set the rack on the top shelf of the oven. Peel the lemon's zest into 4 long strips. Peel the pears and leave the stems on if they have not already fallen off. Cut a slice 1 inch in diameter and one-third-inch thick off the bottom of each pear so it will stand up in the roasting pan. Place the pears in the roasting pan and add the lemon zest, butter, sugar, honey and 2 1/2 cups water. You do not need to mix the ingredients ahead of time because they will all melt together into a syrup in the oven.

2. Place the roasting pan on a cookie tray just in case the juices boil over. Bake until all the sugar and honey have dissolved and the tops of the pears are beginning to brown, about 30 minutes.

3. Remove the pan from the oven. Using a rubber spatula, push the pears over so they are lying on their sides. Return to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pears to the opposite side and bake another 20 minutes. The pears will continue to take on color. Do not be alarmed if the tops of the pears become a very dark brown. You want them to caramelize.

4. The pears are poached when a knife inserted into the center slides in easily and the pear is somewhat soft to the touch. If the pears seem hard and uncooked, bake them lying down for up to 20 minutes longer.

5. Once the pears are poached, stand them back up and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and baste the pears with the caramelized juices (which will continue to reduce into a syrup). Return the pears to the oven and repeat this process three more times for a total of 45 more minutes. The pears are done when the tops are almost black and the flesh is a shiny, deep caramel color. You might need to roast the pears for another 10 to 20 minutes to get this beautiful caramel shine. Remove the pears from the oven and baste one last time. The basting liquid should by now have become a syrupy caramel.

6. Carefully remove the pears from the roasting pan and place them on a tray or plate to cool. Save the caramel sauce, discarding the lemon zest. Once the pears have cooled, remove the core from the bottom with a small melon baller or paring knife. You need to carve out a cone shape from the bottom to remove the pear's seeds. To serve, reheat the pears in the oven.

7. Place each pear on a plate with a dollop of whipped cream or creme fraiche and a drizzle of the pear caramel sauce.

Each serving: 252 calories; 1 gram protein; 62 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 6 mg. cholesterol; 3 mg. sodium.

*

Almond-lemon tea cake

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus cooling time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: From "Tartine" by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson. Almond paste is available at gourmet stores and some supermarkets.

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (plus some for preparing the pan)

3/4 cup pastry or cake flour, sifted (plus some for preparing the pan)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup almond paste, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons orange juice

3/4 cup sugar

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt twice. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk together just to combine.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute, depending on how soft and warm it is. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, the paste won't break up as well.

4. Cut the butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. Continue on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then turn on the mixer to medium speed and beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. With the mixer still on medium speed, add the eggs in a very slow, steady stream and mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer and again scrape down the sides of the bowl. Turn on the mixer again to medium speed and mix for 30 seconds more.

5. Add the citrus zests and mix in with a wooden spoon. Add the flour mixture in two batches, stirring after each addition until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, then spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with an offset spatula.

6. Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 to 7 minutes while you make the glaze.

7. To make the glaze, stir together the lemon and orange juices and the sugar in a small bowl. Place the wire rack holding the cake over a sheet of waxed paper or aluminum foil to catch any drips of glaze, and gently invert the cake onto the rack. If the cake does not want to release, run the tip of a small knife around the edge to loosen it. Brush the entire warm cake with the glaze, then let the cake cool completely on the rack. The cake breaks apart easily when warm, so don't attempt to move it.

8. When the cake is cool, transfer it to a serving plate, using two crisscrossed icing spatulas or the base of a two-part tart pan to lift it. Serve at room temperature. The cake will keep, well-wrapped, for 1 week in the refrigerator.

Each of 10 servings: 446 calories; 6 grams protein; 51 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 25 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 154 mg. cholesterol; 93 mg. sodium.

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