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A Top Drawer Baking Manual. Buy It Now.
on October 14, 2006
`The Sweet Life' by Chanterelle (top New York City restaurant) pastry chef, Kate Zuckerman brilliantly succeeds in a very difficult cookbook category. A high end restaurant dessert cookbook, on the surface, would seem to have a very small audience, since the audience for making fancy desserts at home is surely even smaller than the audience for making fancy entrees, especially since it may be actually easier to buy high quality patisserie goods from a bakery than it is to buy haute cuisine take-out.
But, our Kate has written an excellently diverse book of both highly detailed recipes for fancy desserts and lucid explanations of the whys and hows and wherefores of some pretty arcane baking and dessert techniques. What is even better, the geek material is presented in such an appealing manner that even the amateur who just happens to want to make a custard or a caramel or a mousse will gain from reading Ms. Zuckerman's sidebars on technique and background.
Offsetting the rare interest in fancy pastry is the fact that pastry technique explanations seem to need the authoritative professional voice even more than fancy savory cooking. While I may have little interest in learning from Nobu how to acquire the knife skills I need to make sushi, I and thousands of others have a more than middling interest in how to make good homemade ice cream. And, as luck should have it, Ms. Zuckerman covers some of the really dramatic facts behind cheap versus expensive ice cream makers. I won't steal her thunder, but I will say that she names and explains how a small, inexpensive ice cream maker actually did a better job than big, expensive models. Staying with ice cream just a bit longer, she explains how ice cream is such a versatile base for so many different flavors, as if the demonstrations on `Iron Chef America' of everything from trout to avocado were not enough.
Ms. Zuckerman starts off at just the right point if her intention was to impress me personally, as she begins with tarts, especially tarts with citrus curd fillings. One of my favorite desserts is a Chez Panisse recipe for a lemon curd and blueberry tart, except that Alice Waters and company don't give a lot of details on the finer points of curds. Frau Zuckerman does all this and more, especially in both explaining how curds work and how to practically test whether or not their cooking is done. The very best thing I can say about Zuckerman's treatment of her subjects is that it is as good and Sherry Yard's discussions of the same subjects in her `The Secrets of Baking'. Yard's book may be just a tad better for the average baker in that it covers so many basic recipes, but Zuckerman is easier to read and easier to see how the nerdy content applies to practical techniques. If you are a serious baker, you really should have both books, in addition to a book on basics such as `Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook' and an advanced book on bread baking, such as `Artisan Baking' by Maggie Glezer.
In spite of all these great notes on technique and understanding, this is still a book about desserts at a high end Manhattan restaurant. Therefore, in these recipes you will find a lot of relatively expensive ingredients and some fairly arcane baking tools. Mdme. Zuckerman is especially fond of European butter (higher butter fat content), Meyer lemons, and high cocoa solid content chocolate. In spite of her name, one gets the impression that Miss Z. is half Italian (or Austrian, would be more logical), as her favorite flavoring ingredient is hazelnut. She seems to put the stuff in just about everything you can imagine, in just about every form imaginable. So, if you happen to be a Nutella junkie, this book is definitely for you. But then, just when you are awed by a fancy Viennese style dessert, Frau Zuckerman comes up with the very American Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp and roasted glazed peaches.
One of my fondest discoveries in this book is Ms. Zuckerman's discussion of the leavening power of steam and of the multiplex aspects of baking powder and baking soda in recipes. The three commonly used leavening techniques are yeast, acid and base chemical combinations, and egg white foams. The most obvious example of steam, as so aptly demonstrated by Alton Brown on `Good Eats' is pate a choux, but steam even helps to leaven bread where one imagines the heavy lifting (leavening) is being done by yeast. It also turns out that a little extra chemical leavener enhances baked goods by adding just a bit more salt to the party, further enlivening the taste of the dessert.
Ms. Zuckerman does not discourse much on baking equipment, but when she does, it's usually something out of the ordinary, and definitely deeper and more insightful than you may find on the average page of `Cooks Illustrated'. On black steel (not iron) baking equipment, she points out all the advantages of this very traditional French equipment, and why it works as well as it does.
Ms. Zuckerman is just a bit apologetic about the length of her recipes, but I find I love and respect each and every word. I happened to carefully read a recipe for stuffed roasted fall apples, which was even simpler than my dear Pennsylvania Dutch apple dumplings, except that her paragraph for prepping the apples is longer than the whole recipe in most of the Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks. But, if you've ever tried to core an apple to be stuffed with stuff, then bake it so that it is neither hard nor mushy, then you start to appreciate Ms. Zuckerman's detailed instructions.
This is an excellent and very serious book for very serious bakers of great desserts. It will improve your baking of recipes in this book and of every other patisserie tome you may own.