{Cookbook Review}: Alice Medrich’s Sinfully Easy Desserts

July 9th, 2012

balsamic cherries 2

When a great deal of your personal and professional life revolves around baking, you forget how much of the vernacular you’ve absorbed over time. When I taught a few enthusiast classes at Tante Marie’s, it was a reminder of how easy it is to take all I’d learned in pastry school and over the years for granted. That you need to have butter at room temperature before attempting to cream it. That you use the beater attachment for creaming and the whisk attachment for whipping (doesn’t sound quite as obvious when spelled out that way, does it?)

Although I try to gear most of the material on my site towards home bakers with at least some baking experience, it’s always good to have a reminder to look at the craft through a neophyte’s eyes, and refresh my perspective. Sometimes I get asked how I come up with the recipes for my site. Well, of course, when I started, I made recipes straight out of cookbooks I admired. It wasn’t until I became more confident in my baking skills that I became brave and curious enough to experiment. To me, if a recipe is tricky or difficult, it doesn’t necessarily turn me off. It means it’s a challenge to see if I have the skill to execute it. But I realized for many people who aren’t perhaps as baking-obsessed as me, that baking can seem like a stressful, dry venture where if you don’t have your ingredients in exactly the right amounts or the oven at the right temperature, you’ll end up with a flat cake, tough crust, burned custard – or worse. Being creative? Who knows if you add that extra ingredient to a cake, that it won’t deflate? or explode?

That’s why when I received a review copy of Alice Medrich’s new cookbook Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts, I realized that the perfect reviewer wouldn’t be me, but Mike the Husband. Medrich had mentioned to me that she wanted to write a cookbook about baking for non-bakers; this is the book she created, with recipes geared towards cooks who don’t normally enjoy baking. Mike is the cook of the household, and falls fairly firmly on the “cooking” side of the the “cooking vs baking” line. Like most guys, he prefers savory to sweet (although he faithfully tries every dessert I make!) He also very nicely claims to defer to me in since I’m the one with the pastry background. Making a complicated layer cake or rolling out puff pastry isn’t really his thing: although I’ve offered numerous times to teach or “supervise” him, I think he’d rather watch me sweat it out in the kitchen frosting the cake or assembling the pie.

But, it doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in learning how to make a few simple desserts. He enjoys being in the kitchen and having a recipe turn out well. He told me that he would love to have a few recipes for some easy desserts that don’t require a ton of strange ingredients or complicated steps – the quintessential cook who spend most of his time on making dinner and just wants something quick to pull together for a sweet ending.

He’s also an engineer, which means he likes precise, well-written recipes that work. He’ll complain about recipes with confusingly-written directions, imprecise cooking times (don’t we all hate those!), and, of course, disappointing results. This actually made him an excellent recipe editor for sated magazine: he was meticulous at pointing out discrepancies between the ingredient list and instructions, or questioning exactly what a particular step meant.

So I gave him Alice’s cookbook, told him to pick out some recipes that looked interesting, make them, and report on the results. I promised not to interfere or interpret the recipes for him, because I wanted to see whether he agreed with the book’s back copy – that Medrich would “turn all cooks – even those nervous about baking – into confident makers of simple and simply fabulous desserts.”

gingerbread cake

Dark and Stormy Gingerbread

Mike is a huge fan of gingerbread so it was no big surprise that he gravitated to the gingerbread cake recipe. It’s a streamlined version made entirely in the food processor and then baked in the oven. Mike made the Dark and Stormy version, which included rum in the batter and drizzled over the top of the finished cake, and lime zest-sprinkled whipped cream.

Verdict: This is a terrific, spicy gingerbread. The fresh ginger gives a particularly piquant kick, and the rum ensured the gingerbread was nice and moist. The whipped cream is a pleasant, cooling counterpoint to the gingerbread and I liked the lime zest.

Mike thought the recipe was easy to follow and he liked that all the ingredients were already in our pantry so he didn’t need to do extra shopping (he’s not a fan of multiple esoteric ingredients unless there’s a definite payoff). I think it also speaks to the “quick and simple” nature of this cookbook that the recipes mostly call for common, or easily obtainable ingredients, and don’t require a professional chef’s larder.

Mike also thought the instructions made it easy to tell when the batter was ready to bake and when it was done. Note for Alice: The only confusion he had with the recipe was that he thought “greasing the pan” meant he had to use shortening. I admit I helped out a little here: when he asked me if we had any shortening in the house, I inquired why he needed it, and he answered for greasing the pan. I explained that butter would work just fine. It’s kind of interesting the different ideas we all pick up from our various backgrounds and experiences, isn’t it?

honey figs

Honey Caramelized Figs and Baked Honey Balsamic Figs

Mike is also a huge fan of figs so I wasn’t surprised to see him try out these recipes as well. Because they were both so simple, he thought it would be fun to buy a whole bunch of ripe figs and compare the two recipes. The first recipe involves caramelizing figs in a pan with honey and adding some sherry to make a sauce; the second involves mixing figs with honey and balsamic vinegar in a baking dish and letting them bake in an oven until they become deliciously soft and syrupy. These are both wonderful summer to fall recipes for when you’ve got an abundance of fabulous fruit that really need a minimum of manipulation to shine. Mike is a big fruit fanatic: he’d rather just eat a peach or bunch of berries than spend time mucking about with them in the kitchen, so these recipes appealed to him because of their low-fuss simplicity.

Both recipes turned out very tasty. The warm, slightly gooey figs were wonderful with some vanilla ice cream and downright divine with some goat cheese. I think we both preferred the honey caramelized figs by a hair, because the sherry added a extra note of complexity to the intense sweetness of the figs, and I think caramelizing them in the pan also helped increase their flavor. But for ease of execution, you really can’t beat the baked figs: you essentially stick them in the oven and just pull them out when they’re done.

Part of the reason Mike also enjoyed making these recipes is that, from his perception, they were very “cook-like” recipes. The instructions directed him to cook the figs until they looked caramelized and to add enough sherry to the cooking liquid to make a sauce, and to add lemon juice or pepper if desired. This open-endedness was more appealing to him: he felt like it gave him the freedom to adjust the recipe to his liking, which is more in line with the myriad little decisions cooks make to fine tune their cooking on the fly.

The relaxed nature of these recipes may surprise those used to Medrich’s meticulously precise directions in her other works, but Medrich herself writes in the introduction to Sinfully Easy that she intended the recipes in the book to be forgiving and flexible, and “to rely on the taste-and-adjust habits of good cooks rather than the pastry chef’s patience, precise measuring habits, and trust in the chemistry of the recipe.” I hope she’s thrilled to know that Mike came to this same conclusion about her book independenly. So often I’ve heard from other non-baking-inclined friends that they don’t like baking because “there’s too much measuring”, or “you don’t have any control over the result – you just stick it in the oven and hope for the best”. Clearly Medrich has done her best to gear her book to Mike and other baking-phobes, by giving them recipes where they feel they can control the outcome by exercising their cooking skills and judgment, instead of abandoning those instincts.

balsamic cherries

Cherries with Balsamic Vinegar

This was the last recipe that Mike made, and it turned out to be his favorite. It’s another simple way to enhance fruit in season: cherries quickly macerated in sugar, balsamic vinegar, and a little lemon juice, then cooked off in a saucepan into a compote.

Mike found this another super easy recipe to do, and the results tasty and impressive. He liked that it involved steps familiar to him as a cook, such as sauteing in a saucepan and reducing a sauce down. He also liked that Medrich suggested several ways to use the finished compote, including spooning it over ice cream, serving it with fromage blanc and some cracked black pepper, or next to her Sour Cream Souffles, another one of her recipes.

In fact, after leafing through the cookbook, Mike mentioned that one of the things he found exciting was that the many of the recipes were like building blocks to assemble into more elaborate desserts. Almost all the recipes feature quick variations, like the Dark and Stormy Gingerbread, or they have serving suggestions, oftentimes combining them with other recipes in the book. The book is also scattered through with lists of ideas to put creative spins on old dessert standbys: for example, Medrich has a whole page on what to do with yogurt, including flavoring it with different nuts and extracts, using it as a topping for some of her fruit compotes, or using Greek yogurt to create a composed dessert. As Mike explained to me, the multitude of options made him feel like he could put together a sophisticated dessert easily, out of approachable components. Instead of being intimidated by the idea of a complex recipe, or facing a bowl of plums and not knowing what to do with them, all of a sudden he was inspired by Medrich’s ideas. I think this is the biggest success of Medrich’s book: successfully bridging the gap between cooks and bakers and showing that inspiration and creativity are just as valuable as formulas and ratios in the world of baking. Cooks needn’t feel stifled by rigid lists of ingredients and imperatives, but can find the same freedom to experiment and express their culinary tastes.

I think Mike’s review of Medrich’s new cookbook can be summed up by this statement: “I’ve never tabbed so many recipes in a cookbook before.” He was genuinely excited and inspired by the cookbook to go and bake something in the kitchen. If that isn’t a clear endorsement that Alice has nailed her target audience perfectly, I don’t know what is. As a seasoned baker, I also found Medrich’s book a joy to flip through, for its gorgeous layout, lovely photos, and her always-novel approaches to even the simplest of recipes that get me re-envisioning desserts in whole new ways. This book gets a hearty endorsement from both the cook and the baker of our household!

Cherries with Balsamic Vinegar

  • This recipe is from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts and is one of three quick recipes she gives for fancying up fresh cherries in season. So simple and delicious with vanilla ice cream.
  • 1 pound (16 oz) ripe cherries
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • pinch salt
  • Wash, pit, and halve cherries and place in a bowl. Combine with rest of ingredients. Let stand for about 5-10 minutes, stirring a couple times, until sugar has dissolved.
  • Heat a wide skillet (wide enough that you can spread out the cherries without crowding them) over medium-high heat until it is hot enough that a cherry dropped in will sizzle.
  • Add in cherries and cook for just a few minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon so they cook evenly and don't burn. When the juices are bubbling and thickening, pour out cherries into a bowl.
  • Refrigerate, or you can serve warm over ice cream, cake, or fromage blanc.

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Laura Dembowski #1

    Such a fascinating post; one of the best I’ve read in a long time on any blog. Though I haven’t been baking that long, and have never gone to pastry school, I love baking and experimenting and tend to take for granted that not all other people do enjoy it. If there were more cookbooks like this, maybe more people would give baking a try. My dad also prefers savory food to sweet, but I think trying all of my desserts has heightened his sweet tooth quite a bit. Thanks for the fabulous post!

  • Janae @ Bring-Joy #2

    I second Laura’s remarks. I hope you know what a fantastic writer you are. I appreciate words well placed & put together, & often this is lacking in the food blogging world. People can often cook & many people can write, but it’s rarer than not to find the two skills melded in such a way that seems seamless.

    A great review, I especially appreciate the use of contrast in your fig photo (makes me think of your presentation at BlogHer that I attended).

    • Anita #3

      Hello Janae,

      Thank you for such a wonderful and kind comment! It really made my day after spending so much time putting this review together. I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and glad you enjoyed my BlogHer presentation as well!

  • isea #4

    this is beyond fantastic! i’ve always enjoyed baking but i’ve come across too many recipes that seemed intended for someone with a pastry chef degree.

    i live in the tropics and we don’t have much access to cherries and figs. does alice share recipes for more common fruit like bananas or oranges? i’d love to get a copy of this book when it’s out.

    • Anita #5

      Hi Isea,

      Yes, there are many recipes using fruits like apples, bananas, lemons, etc. If you click on the link in my post to the Amazon listing for the book, you can see the index and get an idea of the recipes included. Good luck, I think you’ll enjoy the book!

  • anneliesz #6

    The dark and stormy gingerbread sounds like a great recipe to pull up this fall. I love that Mike was your tester and reviewer, giving a unique perspective. Nice!

  • Michelle MacPhearson #7

    Your Cherries with Balsamic Vinegar are perfect. Easy to do and delicious too!

  • Let Me Eat Cake #8

    sometimes simple is the way to go even if you have the skills for something more complicated! now i’m dying to make that dark and stormy ginger bread recipe please :)

  • Frugal Frights and Delights #9

    I’ve already marked down at least 3 recipes I have to try. Although I’m an avid cook, I’d stick with simple too because of the time factor. You also do a fabulous job with photos, thanks!

  • Teri Smyth #10

    Loved your blog. I’m anxios to see if you put dk beer in your gingerbread cake like i do!
    Yummy in Fall or Winter.

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