When I met up with Veronica of Veronica’s Test Kitchen a few weeks ago, not only did I get the pleasure of a fun night out with a fellow baker, but I was also clued in to an early release of Alice Medrich’s newest book, Pure Dessert – one I’d been eagerly awaiting. Veronica had just taken a class earlier in the day from Medrich at my alma mater, and what surprise did Medrich have in store for her students but several copies of her latest tome, fresh from the printer! Of course my immediate question was, “Are there any copies left?” Veronica, who shares my ardor (and impatience) for new cookbooks, very sweetly had a copy set aside for me when she returned to class the following day, for which I’m happily indebted to her. Thanks so much, sweetie!
In a sea of lookalike cookbook releases, many of them tired riffs on dusty old themes, Medrich’s book is an elegant, assertive breath of fresh air. Moving far beyond her familiar domain of chocolate, she re-examines the very concept of dessert from ingredient up, espousing her new philosophy of simplicity and purity. There are no elaborate, multi-component desserts or fancy, cutting-edge techniques in this book; instead, Medrich returns to the basics and turns them inside out, reinventing them into something new and exciting.
Medrich does what I would love to do all day long (alas, until I find someone to pay me for it, I must fit kitchen time in with the rest of real life): experiment in her kitchen. She takes apart recipes, examines methods and ingredients, and hones everything down to reach the most perfect, purest expression of flavor. Her boundless curiosity and rigorous methods are illuminating and inspiring; like the very best standard-bearers of any field, she makes possibilities seem endless and exploration an exhilaration. I’ve had people ask me, “well, how many desserts could there be? After you’re done a chocolate cake and a vanilla cake and a strawberry tart and a blueberry pie, haven’t you pretty much made everything?” Medrich’s book is a resounding no to that sentiment and an exuberant yes to experimentation, creativity, and imagination.
In her book, Medrich plays with the variety of ingredients, new and old, available to bakers: buckwheat and kamut flours in her scones, kafir cheese in her tarts, sesame oil and muscovado sugar in her cakes. She reconsiders baking techniques and recipes with the mind of a scientist: cakes are made with both cold and room temperature butter; spices are incorporated into batter or sprinkled directly over just-baked cookies; tea infusions are made with both hot and cold cream. Her thoughtful reasoning, and her dissection of her experiments, leads to some fascinating discoveries and a greater understanding of how baking works and how to best use various ingredients in this process.
The result is a wonderfully eclectic, marvelously original, and deeply personal collection of recipes. Like some of my other favorite recent cookbooks (Kate Zuckerman’s The Sweet Life, Pichet Ong’s The Sweet Spot, and of course Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours), Medrich’s book moves beyond a mere compilation of desserts to a glimpse inside the author’s mind and her thoughts and feelings – you share in her ideas writ tantalizingly in sugar, chocolate, fruit, and honey. I found what Medrich had to say enormously captivating. She wants one to see baking the same way cooking is being viewed today, as the search to best express the qualities and flavor of an ingredient. Baking doesn’t have to mean tons of white sugar and whipped cream everywhere; it also doesn’t have to mean following the same rigid rules to get the exact same result every time. It can mean using unrefined sugar or honey to give new nuances of sweetness to custards, or using whole grains to add nutty dimension to shortbread, or cooking fruit to enhance its flavor before turning it into ice cream.
Inspired is the perfect word for how you will feel after reading this book. You will be inspired to run to the grocery store and pick up ingredients you had never used before in baking. You will be inspired to look at the ingredients you have in your pantry with a new eye. You will be inspired to look at a basket of berries, or a jar of honey, and think about how to best capture and showcase it in a cake, or ice cream, or cookie. You will be inspired to know that you don’t need to make a multi-layer cake or an elaborate composed dessert or use ten different pastry techniques to make something sweet and satisfying.
One of the many desserts that caught my eye as I was leafing through the book was Medrich’s Bittersweet Citrus Tart with Jasmine Cream. You may remember that she had a similar recipe in her Bittersweet cookbook, the tempting Bittersweet Chocolate Tartlets. Here, they are reimagined in a more elegant incarnation, with a deliciously grown-up combination of flavors. One thing I like about Medrich is that she is unafraid to reexamine and redo her own recipes. There is no resting on her laurels, only a constant drive to update and improve. The new version of her tart has a ganache-like layer of citrus-hinted chocolate in a crisp buttery tart shell. Infused with the zest of pink grapefruit and blood oranges, enriched with butter and egg, the chocolate is as luxuriously smooth as a truffle center and pleasantly tangy to the taste. Medrich places a dollop of jasmine scented cream on top, but I took it a step further and turned it into a delicate ice cream. A scoop of this ethereal, floral ice cream make s refreshing and intriguing foil to the robust richness of the tart.
Pure Dessert should be available in most bookstores by now, so you can see for yourself what Veronica and I have been raving about. As an inveterate bedtime reader of cookbooks, I can vouch that this book has not left my nightstand since I’ve gotten it!
Bittersweet Citrus Tart
adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert
makes one 9 1/2 in tart or (6) 3 1/2 in tarts
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup (4 1/2 oz) flour
8 oz semisweet chocolate (62% preferred, I used Guittard 61%)
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon grated blood (or regular) orange zest
1/2 teaspoon grated pink grapefruit zest
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1/4 cup boiling water
For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the melted butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a bowl and mix together with a wooden spoon.
Add in the flour and mix until combined. You can let the dough sit for a few minutes to firm up if it seems too soft to manipulate.
Grease the bottom and sides of your tart pan(s) – I suggest ones with removable bottoms to make it easier to remove the tarts after baking. Press the tart dough into the bottom and sides of the tart pans, taking care to spread the dough as evenly and thinly as possible (this is not difficult but may take some time and patience.)
Bake the tart shells in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the shells appear golden brown and firm. Remove and let cool completely on a wire rack.
For the filling: Combine the chocolate, butter, and citrus zest in a bowl and set over a saucepan of simmering water to create a bain-marie. Stir frequently to ensure the chocolate and butter melt together evenly. When the mixture is completely melted, take off the heat and set aside.
Place the egg yolk in a small bowl and slowly whisk in the boiling water, taking care not to cook the egg. Place the bowl over the simmering water and whisk the egg mixture continually until it reaches a temperature of 160 degrees F.
Pour the egg through a strainer into the chocolate mixture and stir gently to combine – try to avoid creating air bubbles in the mixture.
Pour the filling into the tart shells and spread evenly. Place the tarts in a covered container and chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 to 4 hours to set the filling.
When you ready to serve the tarts, take them out of the refrigerator about half an hour beforehand to let it soften and regain the shine on its surface.
Jasmine Ice Cream
makes about 1 quart
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons loose jasmine tea (leaves or pearls will work)
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and place on stove over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, heat until the mixture just comes to a boil.
Take mixture off heat and let cool to room temperature. Pour into a container, cover, and chill for at least 6 hours or overnight. You may want to check the mixture while it is chilling to make sure it has not become too strongly flavored from the tea.
Strain the mixture to remove all the loose tea. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.