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This is David Lebovitz' first of two books on desserts. The second is devoted entirely to desserts made with fruits. This volume is more general, including recipes for just about every different type of dessert you may think of. The collection is weighted in favor of recipes which would work well in a restaurant, so the number of recipes typical to the home are less common than you may find in a more general book on dessert baking. That is not to say this is a poor book. In fact, I am happy I reviewed Lebovitz' more recent book first, so I was able to appreciate the virtues of this book which were missing from the second volume.
Lebovitz' introductory chapter on `Essentials' is divided into three sections, each an extremely useful tool to the home baker. First, is a discussion of equipment, which seems to me to be one of the best around for baking tools. The ingredients section is similarly useful, although I wish the author, who is so careful to be precise about other items would avoid the descriptions of `bittersweet' or `semisweet' for chocolate and use, instead the percent cocoa grades as used by Vahlrona, a brand which Lebovitz endorses. The third section of essentials on Fruits is the star of this part of the book. The author not only gives the best season and the best properties and uses for a large number of fruits, he also supplies an extremely useful picture of each and every fruit, although the picture for coconuts is a bit puzzling. There must be varieties of coconut I have never seen in the very untropical northeast.
Lebovitz must be especially fond of fruits, as this general book has a very large portion of its pages devoted to fruit, with a wealth of interesting information on various varieties. I was especially surprised to learn that the grapefruit is a human invention developed by crossing the pomelo with the orange. Who know. Lebovitz is true to the traditions of current and former Chez Panisse writers such as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower in that he is especially careful to note the variety names of various fruits and sometimes, like both Alice and Jeremiah, go so far as to specify the botanical species names. This is all very good, except that few markets distinguish types of fruits beyond apples and pears. I have never, ever seen any peaches labeled Carnival, Suncrest, Elegant Lady, Elberta, Flamecrest, or Cal Red. More importantly, I have never seen persimmons distinguished by variety, even though persimmon variety is much more important to the way it is used than with most types of peaches. But all of this is not a reflection on the book, only on the author's access to better than average greengrocers. Bottom line is that the pages on fruits in this book are worth the price of admission.
The various types of desserts discussed, each in their own chapter, are:
Custards and Souffles
Sorbets, Sherbets, Ice Creams, and Gelees
Cookies and Candies
Liqueurs and Preserves
As noted above, the author is positively in love with fruits, as they appear in virtually every type of dessert in every chapter. The chapter dedicated to fruit desserts has an especially good discussion on how to make fruit compotes. I confess the author has endeared himself to me by pointedly avoiding the pairing of fruit and chocolate. I have never liked the popular raspberry and chocolate combination, as all those gritty little seeds just seems to spoil the chocolate experience. Lebovitz does cross the line just once in combining blueberries with white chocolate in a tart. I'm good with that.
The book ends with a very worthy chapter on basics which includes separate recipes for tarts, pies, and galettes where many other authors would simply give you a single recipe for all three. As other authors such as Wayne Harley Brachman point out, these three pastries simply have different requirements from their doughs. The basics also includes a section on caramelization guidelines. As this is an extremely scary topic for anyone like myself who has seen just enough Food Network shows to know what can go wrong, this section is invaluable.
The book's list of sources for equipment is better than average as it gives web sites, telephone numbers, and addresses, plus a detailing of what the organization supplies. The photographs are competent and add to the attractiveness of the book. The color scheme is much better than the glaring pink and orange used in the later book. The Bibliography is a delightful addition. I wish every cookbook had one. The entries point to many titles familiar to me and many which are not, which is even better.
This book is strongly recommended, especially for folks who are looking for new desserts for entertaining.