I’ve noticed something about food blogs – people respond to dessert photos and baking recipes more than any other kind of post. Bloggers can write about a perfectly seasoned rack of lamb or an earth-shattering spicy papaya salad and people will enjoy it, but as soon you start talking recipes for brownies, cupcakes or ice cream, readers seem to fall out of their chairs in ecstatic euphoria.
The same seems to go for cookbooks, too; baking recipe books are intensely popular and seem to cull a more visceral reaction than their savory siblings. The people have spoken, and they want their sweets. So for those of you who live and die by baked goods, this week I’m reviewing David Lebovitz’s newest cookbook, Ready for Dessert: My best recipes.
First off, I just have to say that any dessert book by David is bound to be a good one. After producing six dessert cookbooks, spending over 12 years as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, continuing his pâtisserie education is Paris and blogging on the topic for over ten years (!!), the man obviously knows his sweets. Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single one of his baking recipes that I’ve tried and failed. Having missed out on his first two books when they were still in print, I’m always on the lookout for them when I’m shopping in used bookstores – usually to no avail. So, I was really stoked when I heard that he was updating and rereleasing some of his older recipes in Ready for Dessert.
My first observations were regarding the variety of desserts David’s included in this new book. There’s a lot here that you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, and I’m excited to see such an array of interesting and creative recipes. Think Buckwheat Cake with Cider-Poached Apples (page 44), Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse with Pear and Fig Chutney (page 122), and Orange-Almond Bread Pudding (page 136). There are many classics as well, and the hearts of traditionalists will likely be stirred by old favorites such as Butterscotch-Pecan Ice Cream (page 150) and Date-Nut Torte (page 56). For those of us somewhere in the middle, this book is a veritable playground of temptations and inspirations, fueled further by Maren Caruso’s understated yet deliciously compelling photography.
I really liked the fact that the vast majority of recipes don’t call for the use of specialty ingredients – in fact, substituting gimmicky, hoity-toity products may alter the finished product, according to David. Sure, there are some ingredients that you’ll have to search for or wait to come into season, such as figs and persimmons, but Ready for Dessert isn’t a book about chi-chi European butters. For all of the recipes I made from this book, I had every single required ingredient in my kitchen already. I really appreciated not having to make a special trip to the grocery store.
As always, though, not needing specialty ingredients does not mean that you should scrimp on your everyday stuff. Simple, high-quality elements make for a refined finished product. Or, as David puts it: “I’m even more convinced nowadays that it’s easier to make something tasty if you start with good ingredients and do as little to them as possible.”
Style-wise, David’s writing is a crack up. If you liked Living the Sweet Life in Paris, his wit and candor have returned in Ready for Dessert. Alongside his culinary sarcasm, readers get glimpses of his inner sage, sharing little bits of what makes him tick as a pastry chef. I particularly liked this quote:
“Baking is all about sharing … We just love to do it, not for ourselves, but for others – I’ve yet to come across a dessert recipe that makes only one serving. Cakes, pies, and batches of cookies are meant to be shared.”
I made five recipes from this book:
- Chocolate-Caramel Souffle (page 132)
- Coconut-Tapioca Pudding (page 139)
- Champagne Sabayon (page 238)
- Tangerine Butterscotch Sauce (page 242)
- Orange-Almond Bread Pudding (page 136), topped with the above Tangerine Butterscotch Sauce
I did something different for the testing of this book. Instead of making a bunch of recipes and sampling them myself, I opted to have an Easter brunch event with a bunch of friends. Promised tasty desserts people came in droves, and like locusts, they ate every last bit of food presented to them. I polled everyone to see what the most popular dishes were, and there was a lot of hemming and hawing about not being able to decide. In the end the Chocolate-Caramel Souffle won hands down, with the Orange-Almond Bread Pudding coming in second and the Coconut-Tapioca coming in third.
The Chocolate-Caramel Souffle was an incredible dish. Guests were literally writhing in their seats, arguing with spouses over who would get the last bite. I used Scharffen Berger 70% dark chocolate baking chunks instead of chopped chocolate since I wanted little nuggets of goodness instead of an overall chocolately texture, which turned out to be a good call. I also added sea salt to sugar topping and the dusting of the buttered ramekins, which really made the dish according to a few swooning dessert lovers.
The Orange-Almond Bread Pudding was my personal favorite, and I even made it gluten free by using a loaf of rice bread. Since bread pudding is thick and soaked through with a cream-egg sauce, the gluten free bread made for a very good substitution (if you try this at home, use white rice bread – the nuttiness of brown rice bread may trample the delicate flavors of this recipe). Topped with the Tangerine Butterscotch Sauce, this dessert caused me to have a full-on dessert-gasm.
If you like tapioca, you’ll really like the Coconut-Tapioca Pudding in Ready for Dessert. This rich classic appreciates a creamy boost from the addition of coconut milk, which gives new dimension to an old-fashioned recipe. If you don’t like tapioca, though, this dish probably won’t change your mind.
The Champagne Sabayon was good, but didn’t win the overwhelming favor of a single bruncher. I was surprised to find that it didn’t come into it’s own until the next day, when its texture lightened and to me, improved. For this dish I could definitely recommend using a high-quality champagne. Cheap bubbly will ruin this dish, since it’s the primary flavor.
Overall, I’d say Ready for Dessert is a winner. If you love desserts and want to expand your repertoire of sweets, David is an experienced guide who will take you where you want to go.
Check out this short video that he released the day his book came out. It isn’t really about the book, but it’s still a fun little snippet (and I never thought to shape cookies like that… duh).
- With the writer’s extensive pastry experience, you’re getting 170 creatively diverse recipes that actually work, even for the novice baker
- Besides being a good cookbook, Ready for Dessert is also a good read in general. If you enjoyed The Sweet Life in Paris, you’ll love another dose of David’s dry wit.
- I really enjoyed the caramelization guidelines in the book’s appendix, complete with photos
- A handful of the recipes are not for beginners (though the vast majority will treat baking newbies just fine)
- The obligatory introductory chapters on ingredient and equipment don’t really share anything new for experienced bakers (but the uninitiated will indeed appreciate these sections)
- Perhaps obviously, but worth stating: these recipes are not for folks avoiding fat and sugar. David advises not alter recipes to try and make them “healthier” – meaning you’ll have to eschew the artificial sweeteners and don’t substitute fat-free milk for whole. Those of you who are hoping to fit your desserts into a special diet might try a specialized book.
- 4 tablespoons (60 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 cup (215 grams) packed light brown sugar
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
- 1/8 teaspoon salt (I like mine salty, so I added more - a touch more than 1/4 teaspoon)
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed tangerine juice
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) Triple Sec (or other orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
- In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together butter, brown sugar, cream and salt. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 3 minutes without stirring, allowing the caramel to cook through.
- Remove from heat and let sit for 2 minutes. Stir in juice and liqueur, mixing completely. Serve warm.
- Storage: Can be stashed in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, though David recommends that you heat it up a bit before serving.