Tasting trips to Vienna, Tokyo and London. Late-night chats over homemade sourdough doughnuts and coffee ice cream with Julia Child. Red carpet snapshots with Hollywood stars toting a perfectly coiffed edible Oscar in one hand, a real one in the other. This is the life of pastry chef Sherry Yard.
In her latest book, “Desserts by the Yard,” the Los Angeles-based executive pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide tells the story of her career through desserts. She starts with the cheesecakes of her Brooklyn childhood, followed by her first pastry assistant job at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. A move to San Francisco lands Yard her first head pastry chef title at the Campton Place Hotel, followed by a call from Puck that was the turning point in her career. Soon Yard found herself in Los Angeles, at Chinois on Main and at Spago Beverly Hills.
It’s a refreshingly homespun snapshot of pastry stardom. Mainly the pages are filled with everyday sweets you’d imagine Yard making at home on a lazy afternoon with friends: warm bowls of apple-butterscotch grunt, slices of ginger-scented orange cake, platters of lemon tea biscuits, chocolate thin mints and PB&J cookies.
Many recipes are as easy to make as they sound. But others can be frustrating for those of us without two decades of professional baking experience. Several recipes lack essential instructions for the less-experienced baker, such as how to deal with overly sticky dough, or how to neatly glaze a craggy cake.
Still, it’s a captivating book. The subtitle, “From Brooklyn to Beverly Hills, Recipes From the Sweetest Life Ever,” is an apt description of its contents, with recipes arranged as chronological reflections on Yard’s life rather than by dessert type or ingredient.
It’s easy to get drawn into the book as an autobiography. Some recipes, such as strawberry ice cream sodas topped with pillowy lemon cream, were inspired by the people in Yard’s life (in this case, a feather-boa-wearing grandmother who held blind ice cream soda tastings for Yard and her sisters). Others center around events, such as the oatmeal cookies Yard delivered to President Clinton that landed her face down in the dirt, with Secret Service guns drawn and search canines barking up a storm over the contents of her trunk (they’d sniffed out pup treats for her own dog).
But the true test is in the recipes. The most successful are Yard’s variations on classics, often with innovative ingredients or serving suggestions. Those presidential oatmeal cookies, tender and buttery, are dotted with plump, white-wine-soaked raisins, and sticky toffee pudding cake owes its complex caramel flavor to fresh Medjool dates. “Mom’s Cuisinart chocolate mousse,” an easy-to-make version lightened with egg whites, is wonderfully versatile. At Spago, Yard serves it three ways: chilled, semi-frozen or warm like a molten chocolate cake.
Still, throughout the book she seems to take her intuitive baking knowledge for granted. Vanilla-scented fig bars are a worthy addition to my everyday cookie repertoire, but getting there required an awful lot of tweaking. Should the diced figs be tightly or loosely packed? (Tightly or the filling is too watery.) How do I roll out the extremely sticky dough? (Rolling it between sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper, rather than flouring the surface, will keep it tender.)
Some of the best nuggets of information are in the sidebars. Yard recommends creaming ground spices with the butter and sugar, rather than adding them directly to the dry ingredients, to release their fragrant oils. To make baklava, fold dough in half like a book and unfold each layer, buttering each “page” as you go (a great idea, but next time I’ll use half the dough; the baklava “book” was so thick it didn’t cook evenly).
“Vienna Interlude” is the chapter with every page dog-eared, each recipe one that I’ve already made or can’t wait to try, such as Linzer cookies with Chinese five-spice powder or farmers cheese dumplings poached in sweet white wine. Or the luxurious Sacher torte that’s moist and rich with bittersweet chocolate and layers of apricot jam.
With so many tempting photographs, it’s easy to be drawn to the most glamorous recipes. Then a hidden gem quietly tucked between two glossy pages quietly calls for your attention: Yard’s quick, elegant strawberry parfaits. The fragrant strawberries macerated in orange liqueur are a garnet-hued base for billowy mounds of coconut-scented whipped cream -- ready for its close-up.