Suzi's Blog

Cookbook Review: Sweet by Valerie Gordon

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Blum Cake

 

Author Valerie Gordon’s earliest memories include taking baked goods on a family visit to business associates. By the time she was in the third grade, she had developed what she bravely admits was a “serious baking habit.” Today, she oversees a Los Angeles empire of sweet shops devoted to pleasing those who dine in. And pleasing those who carry her sweet goods out for visits to family or business or whomever is lucky enough to be showered with her exceptional creations. Some people just buy for themselves.

Her book, Sweet, is filled with ideas for gifts and for that personal enjoyment. The cover, as you can see, is black and gold. And this book is just that, gold. Well, more exactly, it is the perfect goldilocks book. You remember the fairy tale? Some things were not quite enough, some were too much, and then there was the one thing that was just right.

Sweet is the just right baking book for you. That makes it an important book for you to consider. Baking books come in three categories:

  • The good but low key type where the “high end” dessert is an exotic brownie
  • The exceptional but high end book, typically by someone from Paris, whose creations are astonishing and quite beyond your reach [and mine]
  • The rare but wonderful goldilocks book, one that will raise your skills and let you succeed in fashioning something exceptional.

Sweet is just that book. Valerie begins with a series of her historic recreations, dessert recipes from now shuttered institutions that offered American baking classics. That smaller picture above is for one of the gem recipes in Sweet: Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake. A chiffon cake — like angel food but made with oil, an historical marker on its own — is layered and frosted with coffee whipped cream. The ensemble is then studded with fragments of coffee crunch candy. The cake is legendary. And you have to make it and then eat it. Right now.

The Blum’s cake is one of the first recipes in Sweet. The last recipe in the book is Tangerine Sour Cream Pound Cake, one of Valerie’s creations, not yet listed as historic but perhaps destined to be. In between the first and last recipes, the book is divided into sections for celebration desserts like Blum’s, every day cakes, pies and tarts, chocolates and confections, spoon able desserts, cookies and bars, and jams and marmalades.

While my first tendency would be to call this a baking book, that would be wrong. Those candy and jam chapters make this a comprehensive dessert resource. Brownies are included here, I should acknowledge, but why would you settle for mere browniedom when you can select from seriously wonderful concepts like:

  • Apple and Caramel Aged Gouda Crostata
  • Apricot Basil cream Galettes
  • Blueberry Vanilla Cream Hand Pies
  • Bullocks Wilshire Coconut Cream Pie
  • Chasen’s Banana Shortcake
  • Cucumber Lime and Mint Sorbet
  • Single Malt Scotch Truffles
  • White Nectarine and Lemon Verbena Jam

Sweet has been published in an over-sized format which makes the full page photos by Peden + Munk even more gallantly compelling. There is a Hazelnut Cake covered in shiny dark chocolate ganache that seems ready to ooze out of the page and onto my waiting fingertips. It makes me want to say, “Suzen, there’s something I have to show you.” I can pretty much assume that the picture will convince my wife this must be the dessert for our next dinner party.

Although, I should counter myself, Nora Ephron has called that Blum’s Cake the “greatest cake in history.” That may be the one modest drawback to Sweet: where do you begin? The answer is that with this book, any page you select is a gateway to success and enjoyment. Extravagant enjoyment.

Sweet is a book that will entertain and educate you. It was written for you, the typical cook. You don’t have to be a Parisian trained pastry chef to use this book. But you’ll have fantasies of being one.

Cookbook Review: Southern Italian Desserts by Rosetta Costantino

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If you happen to walk by a copy of Southern Italian Desserts, I challenge you to keep on moving. Yeah, don’t stop. Just ignore that cover. Go on, take the next step. No, wait. Oh.

If you are human, if you are a foodie, then that cover is going to make you pause. It certainly did me. A pastry top, sugar, pistachios, and something deeply red inside. What, I asked myself, is this?

It is the Crostata al Gelo di Mellone, a watermelon pudding tart from Sicily. A short crust pastry is the home for a watermelon pudding that is cooked, not on the stove, but inside the lattice-topped pastry. Exceptionally beautiful, Suzen and I have this on our “make when the watermelons finally arrive” list.

Author Rosetta Costantino was born in Calabria but raised in Oakland from age fourteen. She earned a chemical engineering degree at Berkeley and had a successful professional engineer. But, it was the draw of another kind of chemistry that finally won her heart. Today, with her mother, she teaches Southern Italian cooking and writes very successful cookbooks [My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South].

 

This new book features dessert delicacies from across Southern Italy: Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily. Southern Italy is often described as poor, but I think it is fairer to describe it as more traditional and more bound to the earth than the “richer” Northern Italy.

I’ve driven the Po valley up north, past the miles and miles of factories with the same metal chimneys and polished glass headquarters buildings. In the south, I’ve simply walked two lane roads, basked in the heat, and smelled the rocket arugula that is a “weed” on the side of the road. I like the South.

We often write about a country having regional foods. Italy is the benchmark. It’s not just “regional” in the sense of Sicily versus Tuscany. You can be a village and find two “better” ways of cooking a dish on the opposite ends of the only road that passes from thru. There is variety in abundance in Italy and surely in Southern Italy.

Which is why Southern Italian Desserts is so important. In the south, traditions — often coupled to annual religious feasts — have kept a dessert heritage alive. This heritage — threatened by modern manufactured food and demographic trends — is a world culinary treasure. This book is major step to saving that heritage and promoting it. Rosetta has traveled extensively throughout Southern Italy, eaten the original dishes, befriended professional chefs and local food experts, and compiled this encyclopedia with meticulous authenticity. The recipes come with one or two or more pages of instructions to take you through every twist and turn and filling step. It’s all deliciously doable.

You will find here combinations that, unless you’ve walked those southern streets, you will not have experienced:

  • Ricotta and Pear Tart
  • Ricotta and Pistachio Mousse Cake
  • Strawberries with Limoncello
  • Italian Sponge Cake Filled with Pastry Cream and Strawberries
  • Mandarin Orange Pudding
  • Eggplant Layered with Sweetened Ricotta and Chocolate Sauce

Yes, that last idea really is an eggplant-based dessert. The picture in the book can only be describe as enticing. No, it doesn’t look like eggplant. Suzen and I will be making this dish and we’ll happily report on the results. If you think the idea is still too weird, I can assure you that the addition of sugar, ricotta, almonds, crushed amaretti cookies, and lots of orange peel is certain to generate a flavor profile that is not “vegetable.”

If you page through Southern Italian Desserts, you are going to be captivated. Like me in the picture above, you’ll find yourself putting little stickies on page after page. The only decision is where to begin. My vote is for the Almond Filled Spiral Cookies: a simple nut pastry is rolled out flat, topped with a layer of almonds and orange marmalade and candied orange peel and honey, then rolled up and sliced.

If you need desserts that are gluten free, then you will discover that Southern Italians have employed that option with gusto. Here you’ll find Pistachio Cake and Flourless Almond Cookies with Cherry Preserves.

No matter your dessert passion — cake, cookie, pie or pudding — Southern Italian Desserts will expand your options in delightfully tasteful ways.