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HOLIDAY BAKING SPECIAL | COOKBOOK WATCH

It's a great season for thrillers

December 13, 2006|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

IT'S not easy to head off by yourself in a new direction in baking, especially if you're a home cook looking for a holiday showstopper amid all the recipes for chocolate chip scones and blueberry muffins. Where are the passion fruit curd tarts, fromage blanc Bavarian cakes and the chocolate-ginger pots de creme?

Thankfully, this season's cookbooks offer recipes for these delicious desserts and more.

Of half a dozen new baking books I cooked from in recent weeks, three are distinguished by innovative, often easy-to-execute ideas: Kate Zuckerman's "The Sweet Life: Desserts From Chanterelle" (Bulfinch Press, $35); Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson's "Tartine" (Chronicle Books, $35); and "The Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking With Fine Chocolate" by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg (Hyperion, $35).

But tradition's not neglected. Dorie Geenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours" (Houghton Mifflin, $40) and "Whole Grain Baking" (The Countryman Press, $35) from the King Arthur Flour Co. are worthy entrants in the encyclopedia baking book field. And for the professional who need only see a full-page, close-up photo of elaborately plated desserts and little instruction to grasp a recipe, there's "Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Desserts and Pastries" by Alain Ducasse and Frederic Robert ($195, Stewart, Tabori & Chang).

"Sweet Life," "Tartine" and "Essence of Chocolate" each includes spectacular recipes that are also seriously labor intensive -- a lemon meringue pie transformed into a grand cake from "Tartine," for example, or a "Sweet Life" recipe for goat cheese and purple basil souffle (yes, it's sweet, and it's delicious) that calls for running between the stove and the stand mixer to make an Italian meringue.

Tantalizingly basic

BUT many of the recipes from these three books are fairly uncomplicated and allow you to achieve sophisticated desserts such as an orange chocolate ganache tart from "Essence of Chocolate" or pears baked until they're beautifully blistered and caramelized from "Sweet Life."

Since 1999, Zuckerman has been pastry chef at the luxurious French-focused restaurant Chanterelle in New York. Her "Sweet Life" is filled with elegant desserts, for which she explains pastry kitchen techniques: prune Armagnac creme brulee, apricot and almond tart, that goat cheese and purple basil souffle. Her directions are smart and for the most part thorough and her voice is friendly, straightforward and personal. She also knows the value of a good cookie.

In fact, she likes to cream butter. To cream and cream and cream. For a tart's hazelnut crust, butter and sugar are creamed together for up to eight minutes. She says longer creaming produces a crunchy, cookie-like texture (though it's easily chipped).

The book is packed not just with detailed recipes and tantalizing photos but also with in-depth tips -- for cooking a stirred custard or making a caramel. And she's willing to do a lot of hand-holding, offering the kind of encouragement home cooks often need, with words like "don't be alarmed...."

Yet some instructions could be better. For the goat cheese and purple basil souffles, there are no directions on whether to put the ramekins straight into the oven, in a water bath or on a Silpat-lined baking sheet, so I cooked some each way. The best were the ones from the baking sheet; they puffed up nicely (though not near as much as the one in the photo), and the lightly sweetened goat cheese with a fresh herbal note made a wonderful dessert.

Her long-roasted pears are much easier to prepare, and they're visually stunning and delicious in their own caramel-y poaching syrup. They're baked with sugar, honey, water and lemon zest.

The "Tartine" cookbook is a peek into what happens in the kitchen at the ridiculously popular Tartine Bakery in San Francisco's Mission District and includes recipes for the creations -- buttermilk scones, pumpkin tea cake -- that draw crowds.

The book's design is attractive, with stunning, full-page photos, but the typeface for ingredients lists is small. The tone is somewhat matter-of-fact and the tips under "kitchen notes" are sometimes cursory, but it's a fun book because there are so many exciting flavors: a toasted almond and lavender parfait, a raspberry and geranium cream tart, a passion fruit and lime Bavarian.

A recipe for lemon bars yields a near-perfect lemon curd, bright with lemon flavor and not too eggy, and the shortbread crust studded with pine nuts makes the bars that much better.

An almond-lemon tea cake is moist, dense and rich with almond paste. And it's intensely flavored, the citrus heightened by a glaze of lemon juice, orange juice and sugar. The sugar crystallizes so when you bite into it, you get little crunchy explosions of flavor.

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