Reading through this year's contestants in the dessert books category, you have to wonder where these authors were when the diet revolution was announced. From their pictures and their prose, we can judge these folks to be normal human beings, and yet they're still eating dessert. Not only that, they make the consumption of dessert sound normal, like something normal people do sometimes, and will continue to do.
Oh, there are more angel food cakes (no cholesterol). But what's refreshing is the lack of either defiant bluster ("I'm going to eat that cheesecake no matter what you say ...") or apology ("every now and then, once a year, I treat myself ... ").
Testing recipes from dessert books this year, I was struck by how many didn't work. Here are some books whose recipes do work:
Italian cuisine is not known for its desserts, but in "Great Italian Desserts" by Nick Malgieri (Little, Brown and Company, $19.95), Malgieri has done a loving job of research. What's reproduced here are the best recipes of both home and professional cooks, Italians all, whether they're located here or in Italy. The recipes range from quite complicated to very simple but all are written in a thorough, confident style that makes the reader/cook feel prepared to succeed. Malgieri covers the well-known and not known among Italian yeast breads, fritters, tea cakes and biscotti, among other things.
To some of the less evolved among us, Maida Heatter's overweaning presence in every minute detail of recipe preparation generates a sort of violence, a feeling that we will arrange the oven racks however we damn well please and will put the dull side of the aluminum foil down instead of up if we want to. Having said that, Heatter's ebulliant attention to detail is what makes her books so valuable. She loves finding another brownie recipe, developing a new way with pound cake, walking us through the correct frosting of a cake. It also means that her recipes work, a relief in this era of who-cares writing and editing. Her latest volume, "Maida Heatter's Best Dessert Book Ever" by Maida Heatter (Random House, 1990, $24.95), encompasses cakes, ice creams cookies and many hybrids. It's not a book for the confused or the indecisive; there are so many seductive possibilities here that choosing one might take days.
Faye Levy's approach to French food has a scholarly aura. Her books are thorough, well researched, thoughtful and come equipped with no bells or whistles. In "Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations" by Faye Levy (Dutton, $22.95), it's as if she had taken all the glittering, overwhelmingly sensuous qualities of a French pastry shop and converted them into erudition. For the cook, that works nicely. Levy has mastered the art of translating all that pa~te and cre`me au buerre into understandable directions
This is a book of classics, and it includes all the cakes, tarts and smaller treasures available in patiseries, as well as the custards, mousses and fruit desserts more often prepared in restaurants. This is not a book of quick gourmandism, but should be the volume of choice for those who are interested in French desserts done comme il faut.
"Puddings Custards and Flans" by Linda Zimmerman (Clarkson Potter, $10.95) is one of those cute little books Clarkson Potter has done in recent years. Potter and its authors have developed a remarkable skill for combining miniature size, suave recipes for desirable categories of food, and writing that manages to be friendly and workable but very short. Those qualities are certainly present in this teensy, 43-recipe volume for creamy, soothing desserts. The first recipe is for rice pudding, the last for cre`me brulee. In between are a few nonsweet puddings such as Tex-Mex Polenta Mini-Puddings (the other thing the Potter people are good at is recipe titles) and Herbed Onion Bread Pudding. The recipes are always interesting and Zimmerman has paid attention to how things taste -- something that ought to be automatic in a cookbook recipe but isn't.
It's hard to know what publishers mean when they put "country" in a title. In "Ken Haedrich's Country Baking" (Bantam Books, 1990, $24.95), Haedrich lives in the country but his recipes are as sophisticated as any urbanite's. They range from scones to cookies to bread, and they are unusually interesting. Take the Whole-Wheat Sour Cream Muffins, for example, or the Winter Squash Chocolate Cake. Because of the unusual combinations, which generally work quite well, "Country Baking" is not a basic book but one to acquire when the basics have worn thin. Haedrich's directions are complete but efficiently written. You can skip the introductions to each recipe, which tend toward the overwrought.
"Cocolat" by Alice Medrich (Warner Books, $35) may be the most beautiful dessert book in circulation. The photography is so beautiful it makes your eyes ache. The book even feels good. And Medrich, who owns the northern California chocolate dessert shops called Cocolat, has produced the best basic directions for dessert making that I've ever seen in print. Her trouble-shooting section (what to do if the buttercream falls apart or the chocolate seizes) is likewise peerless. There is one flaw, however, and that is that in a few of the cakes the amount of buttercream called for is hardly enough to fill, let alone cover the cake. That means, in the case of the gorgeous Aztec Layer Cake, for example, that you have prepared the chocolate genoise, made the two meringue layers and prepared the chocolate and coffee buttercreams, a not inconsiderable amount of work. You then discover that you have about half as much buttercream as you need. This maddening mistake might be attibutable to bad translation from Cocolat's large-scale production down to the home cook's one-cake recipe. That the book may very well be worth buying anyway is an homage to Medrich's skill.