{Cookbook Review} Asia: The Sweetest Spot

June 6th, 2007

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When it comes to Asian desserts in the Western world, most people don’t think of them beyond the plastic-wrapped fortune cookies that come with your Chinese takeout or the fried bananas at the Thai restaurant. But there really is a huge world of Asian sweets beyond those familiar stereotypes. Step into any bakery in Chinatown and you are greeted by an array of custard-filled buns and fruit-covered layer cakes to rival any French patisserie. When I was young, I remember my mother giving us bowls of sweet soup made from almonds or black sesame as dessert.

Especially exciting to see is the commingling of Asian flavors and desserts with European and Western pastry tradition. Not that this is a new thing, of course – visit any East-West fusion style restaurant (does anyone use the word “fusion” anymore? Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly, the moniker “California” cuisine appears to encompass, umbrella-like, everything from local and organic to vaguely Pacific Rim-influenced) and you’re certain to find a green tea-infused crème brulée or coconut-ginger-saffron pudding on the dessert menu.

But a cookbook on Asian-inspired desserts is a rare breed indeed and cause for much KitchenAid-fiddling anticipation. And when it’s written by Pichet Ong, well, it pretty much guarantees a purchase at the first moment of availability. So I am the very happy owner of Ong’s new cookbook The Sweet Spot, a veritable treatise on all things sweet and Asian.

Ong has made a career out of bridging culinary cultures – growing up in Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong, he put his background to good use in the pastry kitchen. His stints included Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s 66 and Spice Market, where his desserts featured Ovaltine kulfi and durian ice cream (for those of you who know what durian is, you know what a daring move that was!)

The Sweet Spot is an absorbing read, from the detailed “Asian Pantry” section at the beginning that enumerates the various unique ingredients used in Asian baking, to the illuminating headnotes preceding each recipe, filled with either fond anecdotes or helpful tips. The recipes themselves are definitely not ones to be found in your run-of-the-mill baking tome. There are recipes that are exotic twists on familiar dessert forms like banana cream pie or coffee ice cream, and there are recipes that seem imported directly from Asia, such as steamed pandan layer cake and mango sticky rice.

The focus of the book seems to skew towards China and Southeast Asia, with a sprinkling of India and Japan thrown in. Coconut features prominently, as well as matcha, almond, and tropical fruits like mango and pineapple. I was pleased to see sophisticated versions of my childhood favorites like almond tofu and egg custard tarts, as well as discussions on Asian dessert techniques such as steamed cakes or Indian cheesemaking – Ong even has a recipe for what he calls Asian puff pastry.

Overall, the Sweet Spot fills a much-needed gap in the baking bookshelf as a reference on Asian baking ingredients and a stellar collection of innovative recipes. One recipe that caught my eye while I was leafing through was a riff on those cakes in the Chinese bakeries made of layers of light sponge and whipped cream, adorned with fresh fruit. They are the Chinese equivalent of the buttercream-frosted layer cakes you find in American bakeries – I’ve had my share of them for my birthdays while growing up.

Ong’s version alternates a fluffy genoise-style cake with matcha-infused whipped cream. He calls for persimmons in the cream, but I used some beautiful mangoes I found at market instead. The result is, I think, as delectable as the inspiration and strikingly original as well.

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27 Comments so far ↓

  • kellypea #1

    These are so cute. I love the brown and white layers in your sidebar flickr shots.

    I developed a passion for polka-dotted cookies years ago and get a bit carried away when I make them. They end up looking like dotted swiss fabric.

  • carol #2

    mmmm, the cake looks and sounds delicious! thanks for the review of the book too, i definitely want to check it out.

  • Camilla Juliana #3

    Could you recommend some powered green tea to use in desserts? Thank you.

  • Kat #4

    this cake looks wonderful and yet another great cookbook to add to my list :)

  • maura #5

    Wow, that looks good!

  • Helen #6

    Looks like a designer piece of jewelry! Gorgeous!

  • Mandy #7

    matcha infused cream and mango! What a clever and intriguing combination. This book is going to be on my birthday wishlist!

  • Baking Soda #8

    If there was ever a spring dessert this is the one! Love the soft green, the thin layering and the dots.

  • cheryl #9

    What a beautiful dessert and something we don’t get to see too much. I can’t wait to see what else you make from this book.

  • J #10

    dear anita, we are so on the same cookbook buying wavelength ;) my copy sits fluttering with must-bake post-its while i dither with indecision as to what to try first. your beautiful cake, of course, was just the inspiration i needed to actually try something, anything, from the book!

  • Ales #11

    this book is definetely going on my must-have list! your cake looks delicious : )

  • lori #12

    I’m no fan of chefs’ cookbooks — most of them are just too complicated for me. Surprisingly, Pichet Ong’s new cookbook seemed quite manageable even for me, and it was a pleasant surprise to see that most of the ingredients are familiar to me (Ovaltine, matcha, condensed milk, etc) and are available where I live (in Asia!)

  • Lisa #13

    Wow! Now that looks light and delicious! And thanks (again!) for the head’s up on the book.. you’re right, I’m lumped in with “most people”, I had no idea of the array of asian inspired deserts. I look forward to discovering them!

    Beautiful as always. :D
    xoxo

  • monica #14

    Gorgeous, gorgeous! Everything you do is so damn beautiful! I took a look at the book before it went into press and the photos were black and white. I don’t recall seeing this recipe, but it was awhile ago…thanks for the review and I’ll definitely have to go check it out. Definitely want to eat at his newly opened spot, too! If you ever make it out to NYC, perhaps I’ll take you!

  • T #15

    Anita,

    Thank you for writing about this book! I have it on my wishlist and was holding back (don’t know exactly why!), but now after reading this post, I HAVE to get it!

    I also love the Chinese dessert soups and “Chinatown Bakery” cakes from my childhood!

  • Lucidity #16

    Excellent. I’m going to have to get that book!

  • jef #17

    Excellent and very light looking. Much better than the heavier store bought varieties, I’m sure.

    What are the green dots on top of the cake made out of? Are they just dyed sponge piped onto the cake before baking?

  • Ivonne #19

    A fantastic review, Anita! And I’m particularly impressed by the points you made about Asian desserts/sweets. I don’t think we know nearly enough. As usual your creation is just too beautiful!

  • Anita #20

    Kelly,
    Thank you! I should play around with dots more – your cookies sound like they’re adorable!

    Carol,
    Thank you! I think it’s a great book – hope you check it out!

    Camilla,
    I’m lucky enough to have a Japanese grocery near me where I pick up my matcha. I’m not sure of the brand since it’s all in Japanese. But if you look online there are many sources for matcha. matchasource.com and teanobi.com appear to carry several varieties.

    Kat,
    Thank you! I am sure you must have a lot of wonderful green tea desserts over in Japan – I’m envious!

    Maura,
    Thank you! I thought it was really nice – light and filling at the same time!

    Helen,
    What a wonderful compliment from you! I am inspired by your plating skills!

    Mandy,
    Thank you! I found the combination really nice! Hope you get the book for your birthday!

    Baking Soda,
    Thank you! It does look a bit like an opera cake, doesn’t it? But much easier to make than a traditional layer cake!

    Cheryl,
    Thank you! It was one of the prettiest looking recipes in the book – but so many more of them are calling out to be tried!

    J,
    I’m not surprised that this book caught your eye:) I look forward to your usual eye-catching renditions of the recipes in there – I know there are several more clamoring for my attention – and oven!

    Ales,
    Thank you! It’s definitely an unusual and intriguing book – hope you check it out!

    Lori,
    It’s true – I was surprised that many of the recipes in the book are for desserts served in restaurants he’s worked at, yet they are made quite doable for the home baker. Quite a feat! And, of course, I’m jealous of your easy access to all those “exotic” ingredients – I need to return to Asia more often!

    Lisa,
    Thank you! I have to confess I haven’t baked as many Asian desserts as I would like – I’m looking forward to exploring and sharing my new discoveries!

    Monica,
    Aw, thanks! I always try to work on my presentation skills! Definitely when I make it out to NYC, we need to do a pastry tour together!

    T,
    Thank you! It’s great to hear that others have the same dessert memories that I do! I think it’s a great book, hope you get a chance to check it out!

    Lucidity,
    Thanks! I hope you like the book, I think it’s really neat and well done!

    Jef,
    Thank you! Yes, the dots on top are made from the same cake batter mixed with some matcha powder and then piped onto the sheet pan. Put the sheet pan in the freezer to let the dots firm up, then spread the rest of the batter over the dots and bake it off!

    Bea,
    Thank you! It was fun to make, and the possibilities for different variations is endless!

    Ivonne,
    Thank you! I’m learning more about Asian desserts myself – can’t wait to try more and blog about them!

  • Kelly-Jane #21

    That’s so pretty :)

    I’ve recently managed to buy sme matcha, so I’ll be experimenting soon!

  • Gourmet #22

    So cute!!!! I love the green o this dessert!! :)
    And I love your photos too!
    Great!

  • cathy #23

    i just found this cookbook at the bookstore the other night and had to have it! it is a wonderful book and i was enamored – cannot wait to try out some of the recipes etc.

  • lauriel #24

    oh, thanks for the review of Sweet Spot!! I’ve been isolated from my kitchen and my cookbooks have been all pushed into dark cardboard confines while I have my place on the market… (so much has happened!!! I started my dream job about a month ago!!) But I hope to be settled soon, and back to my cookbook collecting and cooking. :) Your desserts are always looking more and more lovely…! Hope all is well with you, and let me know if your schedule ever slows down to get together!

  • peabody #25

    That looks fantastic.

  • Anita #26

    Kelly-Jane,
    Thanks! I look forward to seeing the results of your matcha experiments!

    Gourmet,
    Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed my site!

    Cathy,
    Glad to hear you love the book too! It’s so hard to decide which recipe to try next!

    lauriel,
    Glad to hear you’re doing well and we’ll definitely have to catch up soon!

    Peabody,
    Thank you! It was a fun project to put together!

  • Kim #27

    This site truly amazing!!!n

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