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.
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.