The restaurant cookbook offers home cooks the glamorous prospect of creating, in one’s own home, the very dishes served up in glossy, famous eateries. One could, conceivably, rush home from an expensive meal in a beautiful room and then, in the dingy, cramped space of your own kitchen, make the exact same dish just enjoyed, plated up on Ikea dishes instead of oversized French porcelain.
Truthfully, no one can pick up a restaurant cookbook and make precisely the same food served in the restaurant. It’s simply not possible. Not only do home cooks have consumer-grade appliances and cookware, but access to ingredients, time and sous-chefs is also sorely limited. The best a home cook can achieve is a reasonable facsimile, the flavors of a dish approaching but not duplicating something that comes from a professional kitchen.
Most cookbooks from restaurants offer seduction but not much else. There are requisite photos of sexy, plated dishes plus a few words from the chef about venturing to farmers’ markets or recommended wine pairings.
Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle moves beyond the realm of standard-issue restaurant food porn. Zuckerman, the pastry chef at New York City’s Chanterelle, has packed her cookbook with practical information for home bakers. Helpful sidebars give notes about ingredients, hints and variations. Other sections, entitled “Beyond the Basics” and “Technique Tip,” go into greater detail about learning the science and practice of baking.
Zuckerman credits Kirsten Hubbard, a culinary student and budding food scientist, with assistance in providing these deeper, technique-intensive sections. Here, Zuckerman shows good faith with her readers by assuming they want more than pictures to salivate over. Her openness and enthusiasm for baking is plainly evident in her careful, step-by-step instruction and guidance.
As for the recipes themselves, they encapsulate the whole of the pastry chef’s art, from tarts, cakes and cookies to soufflés, custards, mousses and confectionery. Some of the recipes fall into the “sounds intriguing on the menu, but I’m not making that at home” category, including Green Apple and Muscato Sorbet, Quince Fruit Jellies and Pineapple Chips. But there are many others which might truly have a place in the home baker’s repertoire, such as Whipped Brown Butter and Vanilla Birthday Cake, Maple-Pecan Meringue Cookies and Milk Chocolate and Almond Toffees.
Of the recipes I attempted, I found them all to be clearly written and readily executed, if a little labor intensive. The Spiced Apple and Sour Cream Cake produced a tasty spice cake that, while lacking in sour cream flavor and distinctive apple texture, made for a pleasant finish to dinner. The Dark Chocolate, Cinnamon and Espresso Truffles created slightly gritty truffles that would have benefitted from dissolving the espresso power in the heated cream.
Yet these are minor criticisms of a cookbook that successfully attempts to empower the home baker with at least a portion of the professional pastry chef’s understanding of ingredients and technique. I have never been to Chanterelle but I know that, if I ever do, I will enjoy Zuckerman’s desserts with a newfound appreciation.