Pros: Beautiful photographs, delicious recipes
Cons: May require specialty cookware and ingredients
It seems that in the current whirl of cookbooks and would-be cookbook authors, we have lost something of Julia Child. The obsessive quest to perfect a recipe so that it works every time for everyone is tedious and unappealing in the rush for exposure and attention. Luckily we have David Lebovitz to fill in that blank in the dessert category. Lebovitz, a pastry chef at Chez Panisse early in his career, and food blogger/cookbook author currently, does what I wish all cookbook authors would do: test and retest his recipes until they reach perfection, and then keep checking back on them to make sure they stay relevant. When he says these are his best recipes, he isn't kidding.
Ready for Dessert is actually an effort by David Lebovitz to bring requested recipes back into print. Several of his books from about 10 years ago are no longer available, so this collection provides the most requested recipes for a new group of readers. The paperback edition is printed on the same thick, glossy paper you would expect in a hard cover edition, and the photographs make you want to stop what you're doing and bring the dessert to life in your own kitchen. The only reservation I have about the book is that it may not be the place to start for brand new bakers. There are certainly simple yet fabulous desserts in here, but there are also quite a few that may scare some people off completely. There are a good range of desserts in the book, and there are even some recipes that I am unfamiliar with, even though I have been flipping through cookbooks for longer than I care to admit.
In keeping with the current season, I decided to try the Fresh Ginger Cake to get an idea of how well the recipes turn out. The cake was amazingly moist, as promised, and had a bold ginger flavor that is hard to get in the usual gingerbread. The other spices, instead of being overshadowed, just served to enhance the flavor. The cake was still delicious days later, and I confess I started eating it for breakfast with my coffee.
I was also lucky enough to get to interview David Lebovitz about his book and his thoughts on baking, so if you're not familiar with his blog, I highly suggest you read below and look for him online.
Q: What do you feel are the benefits of cooking in Paris versus the US, and vice versa?
For me, cooking always begins with shopping. And I spend just as much time gathering ingredients as I do preparing them. Fortunately one of the joys of living in Paris is shopping for food, which is a lot of fun. But one has to have the time to do it. I hear from a lot of people who say "I don't have time to cook!", which is always confusing to me, because I always want to say, "I don't have time to shop!"
Don't get me wrong, I love to shop for food. It's just that in Paris, it takes quite a bit of your day. You can't just run to the market and grab a few pears and onions; you need to go to the pear stand, wait in line, watch while the little old lady in front of you rifles through her purse for 3 centimes, while fending off people trying to cut in front of you, until it's your turn. Then you need to make the appropriate small talk with the pear vendor - like the fifteen people did in front of you - before you buy your pears. Then you need to go get onions at another stand, and repeat.
Foreigners are always surprised that the French shop in supermarkets, but few people have the time to spend at the outdoor market, waiting in line, and chatting with the merchants. So if I need, say, a few lemons, I need to wait until Tuesday or Friday, when my market is open. People who work 9-5 jobs, or whenever they work in Paris, don't have the luxury of standing in line, waiting for pears. French supermarkets are kind of interesting places, because in America, some supermarkets are luxurious with mood lighting, chair massages, and smiling, friendly staff. French supermarkets have some interesting things on the shelves (like duck confit, rabbit, and the famous yogurt aisle), but it's like being in a big, grey room lit by unflattering lights, where everyone is doing whatever they can to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. Including the cashiers.
Being from San Francisco, I had extraordinary produce to choose from, most of it locally grown. (At the Paris markets, a majority of the produce vendors are middlemen, or negotiants, who buy the produce at the Rungis wholesale market and re-sell it.) So I was used to having an array of farm-fresh produce to choose from when I lived in California. It was pricey, but there were beautiful tomatoes and raspberries in the summer, and wonderful winter greens to stew and serve with bowls of polenta, not to mention bean-to-bar chocolates from local chocolate makers. I also like at San Francisco markets how vendors and growers encourage you to taste things, because they know it will invariably lead to a purchase. In Paris, you just need to trust the vendor because they pick and choose what you will buy - and most importantly, shop at the same places each week. Because you don't want to go home and find rotten pears in your bag, right underneath the beautiful ones on top.
Q: What do you think is the best way for new cooks to become more comfortable in the kitchen?
Don't be overambitious. The worst thing is failure which is a downer. So don't tackle macarons or cassoulet as a first project, but start with brownies and cookies, or pan-seared chicken breasts with shallots and white wine, which are hard to mess up.
And bake! I always think it's funny when people say, "I can't bake." Because unlike cooking, where you need to actually use some intuition and knowledge to know when a steak is done, or how much salt to add to a salad dressing, baking calls for 1 cup sugar, 4 large eggs, etc. So there isn't as much room for error. So everyone should bake more!
Q: What led you to create a "greatest hits" cookbook?
I wrote Room for Dessert in 1999, which got good notices when it came out. And as the years went on, I'd run into people who'd say, "Your recipe for __________ from Room for Dessert is my favorite! I use it all the time!" which is always very gratifying. There are so many cookbooks that come out every year that it's nice to hear years later that people are still using yours. However, the publisher did some cleaning house, which involved editorial changes (my editor left, as did everyone else I knew there) and my first two books went out of print.
Yet people kept asking me where they could get the books over a decade later (prices for used copies had gone through the roof), so I worked with my current publisher, Ten Speed Press, to do a book which would initially be a re-edition of them both together. I originally thought that I would just cut-and-paste everything together, and be done in a week. But then I started looking at the recipes, and realizing that I'd made changes to a few over the years, or I did things in a different way - so I'd fine myself heading into the kitchen to re-make a recipe, then another. Then another. So I ended up updating all of them and releasing it as a sort of a "greatest hits" kind of book. It's the recipes I personally use over and over again myself, so I'm really happy that I can share them again.
Q: How has blogging changed the way your cookbooks are developed?
When it was just cookbooks, people didn't have the interaction with the author and would have to figure things out for themselves. When I write a recipe for a cookbook, I'm always thinking between 'assuming the obvious' and giving enough information so people understand the recipe and have success with it. Because they rely on the printed description, and that's all.
However, nowadays, there are so many variables, like artisan bean-to-bar chocolates, premium high-fat "European" butters, a variety of salts, and stronger flours, that it's hard to account for every possibility. And audiences are more international, so there are even more variables to take into account when writing a book.
I assume when people buy a cookbook, they've made a financial commitment, and I assume they will take the time to buy fresh herbs or shallots, if called for. Plus, it's printed and you can't change it, so I spend a huge amount of time testing recipes and getting them just right.
Blogging is different because if you leave anything open-ended, or there's something to question, it's bound to be asked. When I wrote just books, no one would ask what I meant by "1 medium-size apple". Now people would want to know the weight of the apple, the variety of the apple, the circumference, possible substitutions, and if the apple can be frozen. (When I wrote The Perfect Scoop, a book about ice cream, I remember thinking "Ha! No one will ask me "Can that be frozen?" - however, someone sharp found a way around it and asked, "Well, how long can that be frozen?")
I don't mind questions, but it's hard to answer things like, "If I can't get leeks, what can I substitute in the leek soup?" But on the other hand, the questions make you think about how people cook and what's available. And I have really great readers who tell me about things, and teach me as well. A really wonderful thing about the internet and blogging is that you can really interact with an international community, and the food bloggers and readers are really terrific about sharing information.
Q: What can we expect from you next? Any projects in the works?
I am working on a book which is going in several directions. I think straight cookbooks are on the wane, unless you have a bang-up subject that is a "guidebook" or a single-subject book - people nowadays are looking for stories, as well as recipes.
I've been thinking a lot about cookbooks lately because on one hand, people complain about complicated "chefs" recipes, then those massive, pricey chef's books become bestsellers and everyone say how amazing they are. And smaller books get lost.
Plus, the internet has changed things, and if you want a peppermint brownie recipe, you can find one online (although quite a number are taken from people's cookbooks). And cookbook sales have been on an upward streak for a while. I love cookbooks, so I hope they are with us forever.
Fresh Ginger Cake
Makes one 9-inch (23-cm) cake; 10 to 12 servings
4-ounce (115 g) piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup (250 mL) mild-flavored molasses
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 cup (250 mL) vegetable oil
2½ cups (350 g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup (250 mL) water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch (23-cm) springform or round cake pan with 2-inch (5-cm) sides and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade or with a chef's knife, chop the ginger until very fine. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, and pepper.
In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil, then stir in the baking soda. Whisk the hot water into the molasses mixture, then add the chopped ginger.
Gradually sift the flour mixture over the molasses mixture, whisking to combine. Add the eggs and whisk until thoroughly blended.
Scrape the batter into the prepared springform or cake pan and bake until the top of the cake springs back when lightly pressed with a finger or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let cool completely.
Run a knife around the sides of the cake to help loosen it from the pan. Invert the cake onto a plate, peel off the parchment paper, then reinvert it onto a serving platter.
Serving: Serve wedges of this cake with whipped cream, a favorite ice cream, or a fruit compote.
Storage: Because this cake is so moist, it keeps well for up to 5 days at room temperature. It can be frozen for up to 1 month.