California Cook: Seasonal fruit desserts that are ripe for creativity

Veteran writer Deborah Madison.
(Laurie Smith)

Deborah Madison has a new cookbook out called “Seasonal Fruit Desserts,” and I think it might be her best one yet. Of course, I think everything she does is terrific, but then I’m prejudiced. We’ve been friends for 25 years.

It all started at a late-night party in the mid-'80s at the International House of Pancakes in Lubbock, Texas. Yes, you read that right.

It was an after-party for a benefit concert for my old friend C.B. Stubblefield (Stubb’s Bar-B-Q), and there was a crowd of musicians — Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Terry Allen. At one point that bleary night, Allen’s wife, playwright and actress Jo Harvey Allen, came over and said, “Russ, here’s someone you have to meet — he’s a chef at Chez Panisse.”

Let me repeat: 3 a.m.; International House of Pancakes; Lubbock, Texas. But even by then I’d learned that, as Willie Nelson wrote, “miracles appear in the strangest of places,” and that seemed to be particularly true around this crowd.

It wasn’t Madison but her then-husband, a marvelous itinerant Zen monk named Dan Welch, who indeed had waited tables and cooked pizzas for Alice Waters. One thing led to another, and after a long car ride back to New Mexico the next day, Dan moved in with us for a couple of weeks. Then a month or so later, he came back with Deborah and they stayed for a while longer.

Besides working at Chez Panisse (she ran lunch service with future Zuni Café chef Judy Rogers), Deb had been the founding chef at a restaurant run by the San Francisco Zen Center called Greens.

Everybody knows about Greens today. It was the first fine-dining vegetarian restaurant in the country. But I was just getting interested in food then, and I’d never heard of it. And, to tell the truth, when I found out it was a vegetarian restaurant, I wasn’t particularly impressed. It was the ‘80s, remember, and I had had my fill of nut loaf.

But one evening Deb showed me the proofs of the cookbook she was writing, and I was dumfounded. This was not vegetarian cooking as I knew it. It was exactly the kind of food I was learning to cook from my Richard Olney and Elizabeth David books, and it just happened to be meatless. This was food I had to cook.

Apparently, I was not alone in that opinion, as “The Greens Cookbook” went on to sell roughly a gazillion copies. She’s written about a dozen since, including the encyclopedic “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” a book every cook, vegetarian or not, should own.

“Seasonal Fruit Desserts” is kind of the opposite of that one; it’s slender and tightly focused. But everything I’ve cooked from it has been superb. Even better, it’s full of the kinds of little twists that you can adapt and make part of your own repertoire.

One perfect example is what she calls “nearly candied quince” — basically, that fall fruit baked in a lightly sweetened wine until it turns rosy and is bathed in a sticky, concentrated syrup. I fixed it once last fall, served it with a little yogurt and, to keep my wife happy, had to make three more batches in the next couple of weeks before quince went out of season.

And as a lifelong pastry-phobe, I found her basic dough for galettes foolproof (it must be — it’s worked perfectly every time I’ve used it).

It helps that Madison and I share similar tastes in desserts. Indeed, on one level, reading the book is an exercise in frustration for me — I keep looking at dishes and thinking, “That sounds like something I’d do; why didn’t I?” I have musician friends who joke about having written each other’s songs, and now I know how that feels.

Though Madison has worked as a pastry chef, when it comes to sweets she has a cook’s taste. I mean that in the nicest possible way — her desserts focus on direct, clean flavors and simple presentations that highlight the beauty of the fruit rather than obscuring it with ornamentation.

This doesn’t mean the dishes aren’t pretty; they are gorgeous. But it’s a natural beauty. There is nothing contrived about them.

Take her “broken jellied wine,” for instance. It couldn’t be simpler to make: Essentially you just set some sweetish wine with gelatin, cut it into chunks and spoon it into a bowl with fruit. But the gel is so soft that it kind of folds around the fruit, cradling it and setting off the color with a clear, golden glow.

It’s terrific with spring fruit such as strawberries, blackberries and blueberries (lightly sweetened and with a little orange flower water, maybe? Perhaps even topped with some sliced toasted almonds?). But I’m certain I’ll also be using it this summer with melons, peaches and nectarines as well.

The same is true for what she calls “Swedish cream” — like a panna cotta made with part buttermilk. Madison suggests unmolding it, but I prefer her alternate method of simply serving it in a jelly glass, topped with lightly sugared fresh fruit.

What I like even more about these two preparations is that I am already thinking of ways to twist them.

I’m already planning to make the wine jelly with a rosé, but what about steeping the wine with spices too? I love to serve fruit salads with spiced syrups, and that would be just one step further. Cinnamon seems like a natural, but maybe clove would be better, or cardamom or even whole black peppercorns. What about fresh basil or tarragon with melon? It’s just a matter of finding the flavor note that will make the fruit sing.

And while Madison flavors Swedish cream with vanilla, I can see the same set of spices being used to perfume the cream. I’ve already tried steeping the hot cream with about a tablespoon of lightly crushed rose geranium leaves. The slight trace of perfume is perfect with berries, and I think it’ll be great with peaches and nectarines too.

Some recipes are like somewhat interesting strangers you meet at a cocktail party; you fix them once and even if you like them, you never try them again. Others become old friends that you go back to time and again. Like maybe you met them at the IHOP or something.