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Sugar high

(article, Christina Eng)

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To paraphrase a line from those aw-shucks Jell-O commercials of years past: There’s always room for dessert. 

In CakeLove: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch, Warren Brown shows how to create terrific treats in home kitchens. The Washington, D.C., resident left a law career in 2000 to open a business, something my lawyer friends often dream wistfully of doing themselves. 

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CakeLove, the bakeshop Brown opened, now has five locations in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. In his book, Brown shares not just recipes for CakeLove favorites (such as Cherry-Chocolate Chip Cupcakes) but also mix-and-match recipes for pound, butter, and foam cakes, as well as frostings, glazes, fillings, and meringues.

The secret ingredient in many of Brown’s batters is potato starch. “It’s very pure and feels silky between the fingers,” Brown writes. “It tastes clean, absorbs twice as much moisture as wheat flour, cooks at a lower temperature than cornstarch, and is softer than grain-based starches.”

Brown uses a tablespoon or two of potato starch in a Light and Lemony Cake, for example, and in Sassy Cake, a spicy-sweet pound cake made with orange, mango, and cayenne. 

Other innovations incorporate oven-dried mint, rum, limoncello, and lime (Mojito Pound Cake), beer (Stout Pound Cake with Roasted Pecans), pure maple syrup (Maple Pound Cake), whiskey (Chocolate Sponge Cake), and vanilla powder (Vanilla Meringues). The recipes demonstrate a willingness to experiment with different flavors and textures, to not stop at the ordinary. They're worthwhile, but they do take a bit of getting used to. 

While Brown essentially taught himself, Sherry Yard trained professionally as a pastry chef in New York and London. She worked in San Francisco and the Napa Valley during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and has collaborated with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Los Angeles since 1994.

She charts this journey in Desserts by the Yard: From Brooklyn to Beverly Hills, Recipes from the Sweetest Life Ever, with anecdotes and brief introductions to a variety of food items.

Nostalgic for desserts from her Brooklyn childhood, for example, Yard re-creates a white cake with chocolate frosting she and her sister got from a local bakery on their birthdays. She develops a classic cheesecake that reminds her of the ones she and her mother had at an old-fashioned department store after hours of shopping. 

Much of the discussion, however, centers on her years at Spago, “a neighborhood restaurant with regular guests, but \[whose\] regulars happened to be the Hollywood elite,” she writes. 

In moments of mildly irritating name-dropping, Yard describes specifics on the dessert menu when certain actors, agents, or directors dined there. 

She writes also of the Oatmeal Cookies former president Bill Clinton liked; the Jam-Filled Peanut Butter Cookies she brought to the table for astronaut Buzz Aldrin; and the Honey-Glazed Corn Bread former San Antonio Spurs player David Robinson and his teammates asked for when they traveled to Los Angeles. The tone borders occasionally on self-congratulatory.

Though interesting enough, her chapter on the Academy Awards reads somewhat superficially, too. (Spago caters the Governors Ball that follows the ceremony every year.) She details elaborate chocolate desserts we could never have enjoyed ourselves or would likely tackle on our own. Six-Layer Dobos Tortes with Coffee Ice Cream and Oscar Tuiles, for example, look and sound remarkable. But who among us — professional pastry chefs like Yard excepted — would not be intimidated by the preparations?

Like Brown, Elizabeth Falkner owns popular bakeshops, in this case San Francisco’s Citizen Cake and Citizen Cupcake. She’s also the executive chef at Orson. Also like Brown, who landed a gig in 2005 hosting “Sugar Rush” on the Food Network, she, too, has been on national television, as a challenger on “Iron Chef America” and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Falkner’s cookbook, Demolition Desserts: Recipes from Citizen Cake, reflects both her pastry background and her punk-rock sensibility. In it, Falkner highlights many of the cookies, cakes, and cupcakes that have been consistent hits with her customers. There are recipes for Chocolate Chip Espresso Cookies, S’More Brownies, and Rocky Road Cupcakes — chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream frosting, marshmallows, and chopped walnuts. 

(The book’s most surprising revelation? Falkner, as a child, was allergic to chocolate, “the hives welting up all over \[her\] face” when she ate it. But one day at school when she was 9, she “willed \[her\] way” out of it.)

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A stack of Sherry Yard's Jam-Filled Peanut Butter Cookies."]

Alongside her comfort-food classics, Falkner gives detailed directions for her more unusual culinary constructions. While Yard tries to refine timeless dishes, Falkner likes to flip them out of their baking pans entirely, changing their overall look and appeal.

In her hands, tiramisù becomes Tiramisushi, a cocoa sponge cake with a Marsala mascarpone filling, served with a mocha-rum dipping sauce, fruit ribbons, and crisp, edible biscotti chopsticks. Pineapple upside-down cake becomes a refreshing Upside-Down Pineapple Parfait, with bites of vanilla mochi cake, coconut cream, and vanilla gelato. 

Traditional carrot cake becomes Karrot Keiki, featuring cubes of carrot cake as well as cream cheese-currant-and-walnut balls, plated with a pear sesame salad and sesame vinaigrette. Gingerbread and lemon meringue pie, perennial crowd-pleasers, get similarly re-configured. 

Truth be told again though, you'd have to be quite ambitious to attempt these impressive desserts yourself. 

Of the three titles, Brown’s CakeLove, with its practical ideas and tasty combinations, is the most accessible and worthwhile. Yard and Falkner offer classic favorites, too, but Desserts by the Yard and Demolition Desserts are the ambitious ones, the tomes you turn to for richly designed, memorable sweets. Should you feel toque-worthy, prop one open and go for it.

p(bio). [christina_eng@hotmail.com "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to Culinate.


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