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Homey, Sweet Homey Sweets

May 03, 2000|RUSS PARSONS

Although there is no mistaking the appeal of a finely crafted pastry, in reality most of us would probably be happier most of the time with something simpler. Save your multilayered, incredibly wrought confections for that special night on the town. Tonight I want pie.

Two new cookbooks address this truth, with sharply differing results. Tish Boyle's "Diner Desserts" (Chronicle Books, $18.95) is a respectful look at the homey desserts that made America's diner cuisine great. Well-researched, with great black-and-white photographs by Clark Irey, it makes a strong argument that Boston cream pie and cheesecake deserve the same regard that we pay to clafoutis and tiramisu. The recipes, which are divided into pies, cakes, cheesecakes, cobblers, puddings, cookies, doughnuts and ice cream treats, tread the difficult line between authenticity and modernity with hardly a false step.

In fact, it's remarkable how well Boyle, food editor at Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines, is able to update and refine dishes that have all too often become a bit shopworn. In her tender care, even old recipes like devil's food cake and butterscotch pudding shine in a new light. The cake is the real kind, turned red by the combination of nonalkalized cocoa and baking soda, and the pudding is flavored with a mixture of light and dark brown sugar and butter. Other than a rather ugly cover, this paperbound original is pretty much everything you'd want from a small cookbook.

Wayne Harley Brachman's "Retro Desserts" (William Morrow, $27) is something else. Brachman is the former pastry chef at Mesa Grill and Bolo in Manhattan and is something of a rising star on the food scene, working at three restaurants at the same time. Unfortunately, though his book had strong points, they are mostly lost in a visual blizzard of kitsch and cheap irony.

Of course, it could be that anything with the word "retro" in the title is bound to be that way. But it's hard to tell which is more annoying: the actual text of the book or the overload of typographical riffs and period gewgaws that decorate the pages and obscure the text.

There is good stuff to be found here, but it takes some digging. Brachman makes clear, at last, how the strawberry shortcake evolved from the biscuit it traditionally was to the foam-rubber cake it too frequently is now. He says it's diner food (though Boyle's is a biscuit). Presumably, bakery sponge cakes stayed moist longer.

Too often, though, Brachman overreaches for recipe ideas and strains to be cute. This is the kind of cookbook that gives us from-scratch versions of Ho-Hos and Ding Dongs. The s'mores recipe calls for making your own graham crackers and marshmallows. Do we really need all of that and Brady Bunch trivia too?

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