`Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts' by, of course, Maida Heatter, comes with enormous expectations. Not only do you have the presumptuous title, you have the enormous reputation of the author as a writer of superior dessert cookbooks for the last 30 years. Piled on top of that, you have the fact that the cover includes the placard announcing that the book has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Wow!
I am happy to say that this book lives up to expectations. On the most basic level, it contains recipes for virtually all the famous desserts you can think of. So, in very modest terms, the book can be seen as a collection of recipes for those desserts that have achieved greatness by enduring in popularity all these years, going back long before Ms. Heatter came on the stage.
This reassuringly long (528 pages for a scant $26.95 list) book has 22 chapters covering virtually every major type of dessert you can think of. These are:
Tortes (European `cakes' with little or no flour) such as the Linzer Torte, Dobosh Torte, and my own favorite Hungarian walnut torte.
Chocolate Cakes and Layer Cakes such as the Devils Food Cake and the Rum Chocolate Layer Cake
CoffeeCakes, Nut Cakes, FruitCakes, and Cakes Made with Fruit such as the Carrot Loaf, Pumpkin Cake, Banana-Nut Cake, and Walnut-Peach Kuchen.
Plain, Loaf, and Other Old-Fashioned Cakes such as a sponge cake, marble loaf cake, and buttermilk spice cake.
Pound Cakes, such as the King's (as in Elvis) Pound Cake and the Black and White Pound Cake.
Cookie Jar Cookies (sturdy cookies not prone to break easily) such as Oatmeal cookies, Hungarian Butter Biscuits, and French Chocolate Wafers.
Bar Cookies and Rusks (sheet cookies) such as brownies, date bars, and Biscotti.
Icebox and Shortbread Cookies such as Swedish Icebox Cookies and Scotch Shortbread.
Dainty Cookies such as Hungarian Hazelnut crescents, Viennese Almond Crescents, Ladyfingers, and Madeleines.
Rolled Wafers and Paper-Thin Cookies such as Oatmeal Wafers and Moravian Ginger Thins.
Individual Pastries and Petits Fours such as Mushroom Meringues, Chocolate Cupcakes, and French Almond Macaroon Crescents.
Fried Cookies and Pastries such as French-fried Wafers and Beignets Souffles.
Crepes, Blintzes, Popovers, Cream Puffs, Puff Pastry, and Chocolate Souffle. Enough Said!
Icebox Cakes and Cake Rolls such as Lemon Chiffon Icebox Cake, Black Velvet, and Cream Roll
Crumb Crust Pies such as Rum Pie, Vanilla Cream Pie, and Black Bottom Pecan Cream Pie.
Cheesecakes, Oh My!
Pots de Crème, Custards, and Puddings such as Flan, Crème Brulee, and Pumpkin Custard
Mousses, Cold Souffles, Bavarians, and Gelatin Desserts such as Orange Cream and Irish Coffee Jelly.
Ice Creams and Frozen Desserts such as Honey Parfait, Walnut Ice Cream, Lime Sherbet, and Spanish Lime Pie.
Fresh Fruit, and Fruit and Ice Cream Desserts such as AppleSauce, Peches Melba, and Bananas Nicoise.
Sauces such as Sauce Melba, Suzette Sauce, Ginger Cream and Chocolate Sauces.
Etcetera with garnishes such as chocolate cones, leaves, slabs, and cigarettes.
It should be clear from this sampling that this is not a book primarily about baking, but about ALL kinds of desserts, even those which require no oven. This means that while there are many difficult recipes in this book, there are also several simpler ones in the final few chapters.
This book leans fairly heavily toward famous European desserts, so many `American' classics such as Apple Pie; Pecan Pie; Shoofly Pie; Fruit Cobblers, Crumbles, and their allies, and Key Lime pie are not here, although some come close, as with the `Spanish Lime Pie'. This is not a great loss, as there are at least four or five excellent recently published books on American desserts by Wayne Harley Brachman, Nancy Baggett, and Judith Fertig.
This is also not a baking manual. While the detail in the recipe procedures is excellent, and I have found some techniques here I have not seen in other baking or dessert books, you will not find a lot of highly detailed expositions on technique separate from the desserts themselves. This is only fair, because as Ms. Heatter makes a point of saying, many recipes must be treated in their own special way, as in the technique to judge doneness. No one test fits all recipes. If you want well-illustrated training on technique, get Martha Stewart's new `Baking Manual'.
This book also does not have a LOT of bonhomie headnotes. There is some introduction on those recipes that come from personal sources, but this book is largely about the business of the recipes. I do get some sense that the book is showing its age by having no reference to, for example, silicone baking mats or silicone bakeware, but her instructions on when you want extra nonstick protection should be more than adequate to show when it is recommended you use the Silpat, if you have it.
The only very minor lapse I detected was with the Moravian ginger cookies, which she describes as being a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. While living in the same general neighborhood as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Eastern Pennsylvania), the Moravians are neither Mennonite nor Amish, and these cookies are much more commonly baked in the Moravian enclave in North Carolina rather than in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
But that's trivia. For all I know, Ms. Heatter may have a much better source than I, in spite of my vantage point as a Bethlehem native.
As we all expect, this is hands down the best general book on classic desserts I have seen. Many of the more difficult recipes may require several practice runs, but I think you can always have faith that with the right care and effort, you will make great desserts from this book.