I have always felt incredibly cheated when the dessert offering is fruit. For me, dessert involves sugar, usually some kind of fat, and frequently has a pastry component. Perhaps I would think differently if fruit were rarer, or if the fruit readily available to me were at the peak of perfection. Actually, perfect fruit alone just might do for dessert, but then I have had exactly one perfect strawberry in my life and one perfect pear. But fruit as a component of dessert is acceptable. Since the older I get, the more concerned I am with healthy eating, and fruit desserts are not totally unhealthy, it was time to finally try out some fruit dessert cookbooks. The three books featured in this post are all by celebrated names in the food world. I ended up being quite surprised at which of these books had desserts that I liked.
I have very few books by Jacques Pépin. I think of his food as being old school and meat dominated. Of course, meat is not much of an issue in a dessert book, but I still did not have very high hopes for his book, Sweet Simplicity: Jacques Pépin’s Fruit Desserts. The cover photo is not very inspiring: cooking pears and adding a sugar syrup does not quite elevate them to dessert status. It is also hard to have much confidence in a book that actually lists “hydrogenated vegetable shortening” as an ingredient (“Méme’s Apple Tart”, page 16). But my initial impression was so wrong! We ended up with two sublime desserts, and one loser.
Once in my late childhood I was served poached pears as a dessert by a person who fancied herself a gourmet chef. I was very unimpressed; the pears compared unfavorably to canned pears in heavy syrup. With these pears in mind, I decided to try “Tender Pears in Caramel Sauce” (page 140); I was prepared to dislike this dessert, and use this recipe as evidence against Jacques Pépin. These pears, however, with their sauce, turned out to be the best dessert consisting mainly of cooked fruit that I have ever had. In this dessert, the pears are poached in a sugar syrup. When they are done, the syrup is boiled down until the sugar caramelizes, and then cream is added. The resulting sauce tastes very much like cream candy, which is not surprising since cream candy, a delicacy rarely seen outside of Central Kentucky, is just sugar and cream which have undergone interesting chemical processes. The pistachios on top, instead of being distracting, were a nice complement to the smoothness and sweetness of the pears and their sauce. [Go to the recipe.]
I also picked the recipe “Chocolate, Walnut. and Apricot Cookies” (page 36) with failure in mind. Dried apricots in chocolate chip cookies seemed like a very bad idea. Once again, I was wrong. These cookies were amazing. The actual cookie dough had some deviations from the standard American chocolate chip cookie dough, and, when cooked, had the perfect texture. And, strangely enough, the apricots worked!
After two such stunning successes, I was convinced that Jacques was a wizard, and could make anything taste good. Although “Fragrant Melon Soup” (page 120) just seemed to be melon pieces and a few blueberries floating in a mixture of tangerine juice and white wine, I thought that after Jacques worked his magic, the juice and wine would morph into some ambrosial nectar that would transform the melon and blueberries into their Platonic forms. Alas, no. This soup was nothing more, nothing less, than melons and blueberries in a mildly unpleasant syrup.
Although I had been (erroneously) not expecting much from Jacques Pépin, I assumed that David Lebovitz’s Ripe for Dessert: 100 Outstanding Desserts with Fruit would have nothing but great recipes inside. Wrong again, this time with sorrow. Of the four recipes I tried, three were duds, and the one recipe that was acceptable David had cribbed from Cooking Light, a periodical that is not, in my mind, a reliable source of great tasting recipes. I also found that the recipe directions left something to be desired: the directions are brief, occasionally leaving crucial steps out, as in the chocolate tangerine sorbet. I acknowledge that my taste does not coincide with David’s: one dessert that he was quite pleased with was “Blood Orange Sorbet Surprise” (page 84), a baked Alaska type dessert with blood orange sorbet in orange shells covered with meringue. Although he claimed that all his recipe testers all wanted to test this recipe first, I did not find the recipe the least bit tempting.
“Chocolate-Tangerine Sorbet” (page 97) was a waste of two perfectly good chocolate bars. Fortunately, Plum Market had been selling Endangered Species chocolate for $2.00 per bar, so this was not as expensive a mistake as it could have been. The identical recipe appears in David’s ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, which also has a recipe for David’s much lauded chocolate sorbet. The directions for the chocolate sorbet go into much more detail than the directions for the chocolate-tangerine sorbet. Rather crucially, for the chocolate sorbet we are instructed to blend the sorbet base in a blender for 15 seconds, then to chill it thoroughly, whereas for the chocolate-tangerine sorbet, we are just told to add chopped up chocolate to boiling sugar water, stir in tangerine juice when the chocolate melts, and then freeze in the ice cream machine. I did cool the sorbet base first, since I am not sure that it would have frozen otherwise, but when I did freeze it, the sorbet was very granular, which was not acceptable. Thus I melted the sorbet overnight in the refrigerator; then, before freezing again, I ran the mixture in the blender for some time. The final product, after freezing, was better than its first avatar, but still a little gritty. As for the taste, I myself liked the tangerine chocolate combination, but some of our guests did not.
I though for sure that “Caramelized Pineapple Flan” (page 69) would be a good dessert: pineapple is my favorite fruit, caramel is possible my favorite sweet taste, and any dessert with vanilla bean is almost guaranteed to be good. Again, my expectations were dashed. The pineapple, which is chopped up and cooked in a skillet until cooked and dried, just did not go with the smooth flan and caramel. It only tasted bitter. The custard itself, made with whole eggs (instead of just egg yolks, as Rose Levy Beranbaum prefers) was okay but not remarkable; the subtle vanilla bean taste was drowned out by the bitter pineapple caramel. We had one little ramekin of custard left over after our guests left; I did not even angle to get it for myself but graciously ceded it to Danny.
“Syrian-Style Date-Nut Torte” (page 124) is a cake that David’s mother would make and pack in his school lunches. He comments in the recipe introduction on the contrast between his date torte and the other students’ brownies or chocolate chip cookies. Something must have happened between the time when his mother made this dessert and when the recipe appeared in print in this cookbook, because there was nothing unusual or exotic about the cake that I made from this recipe. It is a little bit interesting that the cake has no added fat, but it is still just a basic fatless cake with dates and walnuts. David seems to think that the amount of dates is excessive; perhaps if he used twice the amount of dates (instead of suggesting in a note to cut the amount in half), the cake might be more exciting.
After three faiulures from this book, I was starting to get desperate. I did not want to feature any of the three recipes above in this blog, and yet I am committed to one recipe per cookbook. I also hesitated to keep cooking from this book, but surely, every recipe couldn’t be bad. Thus I looked for as standard a recipe as possible; one that had been around for sometime, and had only been subjected to a small dose of David Lebovitz’s creativity. I settled on “Cranzac Cookies” (page 147), Anzac cookies with dried cranberries. The acronym ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a World War I army corps, active most notably and tragically in the Battle of Gallipoli. According to culinary folklore, Anzac cookies were sent to the soldiers of ANZAC in care packages. The essential ingredients of these cookies are coconut, oats, and golden syrup. David’s recipe is based on a recipe from Cooking Light, and the addition of dried cranberries is his contribution. Finally, I had found a recipe in which David does something right. Cranberries are probably the ideal dried fruit to go with these cookies. The recipe instructions are, as seems to be the norm in this book, brief; it was no trivial matter getting the dough to stick together, which David could have mentioned in the instructions. But these cookies turned out to be quite good, at least for those who like coconut, oats, golden syrup, and dried cranberries. [Go to the recipe.]
I am a huge fan of Deborah Madison; The Greens Cookbook, which she coauthored with Edward Espe Brown, is one of my favorite cookbooks. I have not so loved any of her subsequent cookbooks, but they are good enough, and Deborah Madison is a cookbook author to be trusted. Her drawbacks as a cookbook author (at least based on my preferences) are her tendency to go encyclopedic, which is related to her overabundant use of rather obvious recipes. Both of these drawbacks are on display in her fruit dessert cookbook, Seasonal Fruit Desserts. I suppose that her listing of various fruits, with recommendations on varieties and simple ways to serve the fruits might be useful, and recipes such as “Mangoes with Minced Strawberries” (page 63) (mangoes, strawberries, sugar, and lime juice) might inspire some, but this is the stuff I skipped right over. The recipes that I was attracted to were the recipes with dried fruit, nuts, or fruit jam. (And I must say, Deborah, that it’s a bit of a stretch to include nut recipes in a fruit cookbook, but I’m glad you did.) I only tried three recipes, but I have full confidence that any others I might try will range from very good to excellent.
Sticky pudding is a dessert that has always fascinated me, but one that, until recently, I had never tried. It is probably good that I waited for Deborah Madison’s version, “A Not-Quite-So-Sticky Pudding” (page 164), since, despite the title, this puddling was plenty sticky. Sticky pudding consists of a thick date cake batter pressed into a pan and covered with a syrupy buttery liquid. I was not at all sure that this was going to work when I put it in the oven. But work it did, and with heavy cream poured on the servings of hot pudding, this dessert was one of the best I have had in a long time (and I have been making pretty good desserts recently). [Go to the recipe.]
Black walnuts are the Slytherin of the nut world. Black walnut trees themselves are quite evil. Not only do they rain down hard nuts on cars and roofs, staining and denting, but the roots kill any living thing (maybe an exaggeration) in their vicinity. The taste of the nuts (which are not trivial to extract from their shells) is quite distinctive, and not to many people’s taste. I like black walnuts as an ingredient, but do not particularly enjoy eating them out of hand. They are not always that easy to find, so when I see a bag of black walnuts in the grocery in the fall, I will buy it and stick it in my freezer until I come across a recipe such as Deborah’s “Black Walnut Brown Sugar Cookies” (page 171). This is not that innovative a recipe, just black walnuts in a chocolate chip cookie type dough (without the chocolate chips). The cookies are a little low on sugar, and are flavored with coffee. Still, one has to like black walnuts to like these cookies, so I was quite surprised when I brought them out and my guests gobbled them up. Maybe I just chanced to have a black walnut crowd at my table, or maybe Deborah knows how to make this difficult nut palatable to the masses.
The first Bakewell tart I made (or ate, for that matter), was from Sam Stern’s Virgin to Veteran, featured in an earlier post. I was not too impressed. But after cooking Deborah Madison’s “Three-Layer Almond Tart with Fruit Preserves” (page 133), I see why people like this dessert. A Bakewell tart is a tart with a layer of jam covered with a cakey almond topping. The two recipes are not all that different, so maybe I was more in the mood when I sampled Deborah’s tart, or maybe Deborah’s attention to small details made a big difference. I am inclined to take the second of these explanations, since this dessert was also quite popular with my guests, unlike Sam’s Bakewell tart, and despite the fact that there was also a very yummy flourless chocolate cake also on the table. Deborah’s proportions of ingredients are different from Sam’s, and she uses vanilla in the almond filling. Her crust was better than Sam’s crust; it was a basic butter crust but with flavorings added. These small differences added up to a superior tart.
Poached Pears in Caramel Sauce
Adapted from Jacques Pépin, Sweet Simplicity
2 pears, Bosc recommended
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄3 cup sugar
11⁄4 cups water
2⁄3 cup cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped and toasted unsalted pistachios
Peel the pears, halve, and remove the cores. Place the pears, cut side down, in a pan in which the pears will just fit. Combine the lemon juice, vanilla, sugar, and water, and pour over the pears. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pan, and simmer until the pears are tender. The time will vary according to your pears; after 30 minutes my pears still were not quite done, but it could also take a much shorter time. Check on the pears while they are cooking, and add more water if it seems necessary.
When the pears are tender, remove them, and cook down the syrup until most of the water evaporates and the sugar changes color. Pour in the cream, being careful not to spatter, and stir and cook until the sugar and cream are combined. This should not take much time at all. Pour the caramel sauce over the pears, top with the pistachios, and enjoy.
Cranberry Anzac Cookies
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ripe for Dessert
11⁄4 cups flour
1 cup rolled oats
3⁄4 cup brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened coconut
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1⁄4 cup golden syrup
Preheat the oven to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Mix all the dry ingredients together, then add the wet ingredients. Mix everything together; this will take some work and your hands might be useful. Divide the dough into 24 pieces; roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly. Place on the baking sheets and bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
Adapted from Deborah Madison, Seasonal Fruit Desserts
8 ounces Medjool dates
1 cup flour
1⁄2 light brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1⁄2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons walnut oil
1⁄4 cup coffee
1 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
2⁄3 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons Kahlúa
Preheat the oven to 350º. Find a baking dish that will hold 2 quarts (8 cups). Pit the dates and cut each into 6 pieces.
Combine the flour, light brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the dates and walnuts, making sure that the dates are not sticking together. Add the buttermilk and oil and mix everything together. The batter will be stiff. Press the batter into the bottom of the baking dish.
Bring the coffee, water, brown sugar to a boil. Pour this over the batter in the pan, then bake for 30 minutes. When the pudding comes out of the oven drizzle the Kahlúa over top.
Serve warm, with heavy cream poured on each serving.