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Fat Guy

"The Art of the Dessert," by Ann Amernick

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We recently received a review copy of "The Art of the Dessert," by Ann Amernick. Ms. Amernick has been discussed on dozens of eG Forums topics, as you'll see if you punch "Amernick" into the search box. The publisher, Wiley, describes the book thus:

Named one of the country's top ten pastry chefs by both Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines and nominated five times for the James Beard Pastry Chef of the Year award, Ann Amernick is one of the nation's most accomplished dessert makers. Now, in The Art of Dessert she shares nearly 100 recipes for artfully distinctive desserts - the summation of her long and distinguished career as a baker. Amernick's creations often recall familiar foods and flavors - a cheese danish, for example, or a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup - but in her hands, the familiar becomes something truly extraordinary: Apricot and Custard Danish Sandwiches, or Peanut Butter Cream Truffles with Shortbread and Raspberry Gelee.

Spanning the whole range of dessert possibilities - cakes and tortes, pies and tarts, cookies and candies, cold desserts, warm desserts, and dessert sandwiches - The Art of the Dessert is filled with recipes that are as innovative and sophisticated as they are homey and unfailingly delicious. Chocolate Toffee Torte, Lemon Caramel Tartlets, Almond Lace Cookies, Amaretto Nougat Cups, Toasted Coconut Pecan Souffle Tartlets, and Pumpkin Custard Napoleons are just a few of the dazzling creations you'll discover. For each recipe, Amernick offers detailed, step-by-step guidance on preparation, as well as sidebars that offer options for embellishing the desserts when serving.

Sixteen striking full-color photographs accompany the recipes, along with Amernick's "Trucs of the Trade" and expert advice on pastry making, including basic and advanced techniques, information on equipment and ingredients, and helpful tips on creating all kinds of dessert components and garnishes, from tartlet shells to fruit leather. If you want to refine your baking skills and add some show-stopping new desserts to your repertoire, let this extraordinary cookbook by a master pastry chef be your guide.

If you're a Society member and would be interested in reviewing this book for the benefit of your fellow members, please PM me and, if you're the first to respond, we'll send you the book. Your part of the bargain will be to post a review on this topic within three weeks of receiving the book, review to include tests of at least two recipes. NOTE: Because this book is larger than a flat-rate envelope, we'll only ship it to a US address, via USPS media mail. [EDITED TO ADD: This book has been claimed, but keep an eye out for more offers like this, as we plan to make member-contributed reviews a regular feature.]

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I was the lucky recipient of The Art of the Dessert, and I'll be posting my review this weekend. I'll also be starting a thread for us to make the desserts in the book, which I'll start with the ones I tested.

There's also a little surprise coming for all of you dessert afficienados out there!

So, go get the book and let's have some fun.

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The Art of the Dessert

Ann Amernick with Margie Litman

ISBN: 978-0-471-44381-0


I look back in fondness to the day I decided that making bars and brownies didn’t excite me any longer. Don’t get me wrong, I still eat them as if they were manna. But, when it comes to time in the kitchen, I much prefer to create something with pizzazz. My spouse says that my sadomasochistic side prefers desserts that take days of preparation for seconds of pleasure. I think he’s right.

My culinary transition came with the purchase of Professional Baking from Gisslen and Le Cordon Bleu. With Professional Baking I began to see the techniques behind the complicated desserts that I wanted so badly to make even though I had no formal training. Like many cooks who venture into the more adventurous realm, however, I find that the more "advanced" baking books leave the non-professionally trained pastry hobbyist behind due to technical jargon and unwritten assumptions. Adding to the problem are the books on the other end of the spectrum that offer recipes, however refined, that are still just for bars and brownies, which again, is not my interest. There are few books in the middle that offer both – the basics and pizzazz.

Enter The Art of the Dessert, the latest offering from famed American chef, Ann Amernick! Previously, Amernick has authored,Special Desserts and Souffles. Her fame has grown over the years, including working as assistant pastry chef at The White House, and now includes co-owning the Palena Restaurant in Washington DC. She has been nominated for the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef five times, and is regularly on “Top Pastry Chef” lists released by various publications.

With The Art of the Dessert I began to see the techniques behind the complicated desserts that I wanted so badly to make even though I had no formal training. Amernick (along with collaborator Margie Litman) has created that middle-ground book that allows the pastry enthusiast without a degree or years of apprenticeship to make desserts that push the envelope.

This hearty, cloth-bound guide presents cakes and tortes, pies and tarts, cookies and candies, and other warm, cold and sandwiched desserts. Some desserts are simple one-item sweets, while others include multiple components assembled into a tower of sugary grandeur. Along with over 100 recipes the reader gets a teasure trove of sub-recipes for the components that go into each overall dessert, making this book an immense wealth of information on the basics of fine pastry construction. Each recipe is very clearly organized, easy to follow, and detailed enough to ensure success. This is the book you need to make a fancy looking dessert easy to make.

Aside from the premium recipes, the aspect of the book that I found most useful was Amernick’s precision. Unlike comparable books where you have to flip back and forth to find sub-recipes (“To make this torte, make the gènoise on page 31, the pastry cream on page 46, the frosting on page 74…”), this time-saving gem includes all of the recipes and sub-recipes in order and on the same page. Her precision carries forward into her ingredients where she calls for very specific flours, sugars, butters, etc., all of which her years of experience have found to be the best for the task at hand, and largely available in most communities. For example, “I have also found that the lower the fat content in cocoa, the higher a génoise will rise. For chocolate génoise, I would use Droste cocoa, which is Dutch-processed.” Such tips are indispensable for both the novice and the professional.

She also spends significant time encouraging the reader to “know your oven.” Feeling that I knew my oven, but wanting to be true to her instructions, I tested my oven according to the book, and was surprised to find that my oven is, in fact, wildly inconsistent and uneven. The upside is that I now have an excuse for every burnt or undercooked pastry! The downside is that my oven will have to be replaced.

The only area that I found lacking in the entire book was photos. As chronicled on a recent eGullet topic, photographs can be very inspiring and instructional in pastry work. The book skimps in this area with only a handful of glossy color photos, augmenting these with a dozen or so recycled background images. These background images become confusing since they appear to be associated with a certain recipe, but in reality, are totally random.

This one shortcoming aside, though, the book is easy enough to follow for a beginner, challenging enough for an avid home cook, and full enough of expert tips to make it invaluable for the professional. This is one pastry book that is already covered in spilled chocolate and flour in my kitchen. And as for the photos…I’ll just have to take my own!

We can post our creations from the cookbook with photos here.

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While reviewing The Art of the Dessert, I took the opportunity to contact Ms. Amernick to invite her to participate in an interview. She was incredible accomodating and willing to help eGullet Society members as they prepare desserts from her book – an attitude that is clearly reflected in the book itself. This is obviously not a person who hoards knowledge, but seeks to share her experiences with the world.

Here are a few thoughts that she has shared with us:

What was the first pastry that you remember making?

Strawberry Tarts. I was fascinated with pies, pastries and most of all fruit-filled tarts. I was just out of college and off for the summer. I baked all manner of miniature tarts.

Who have been your culinary role models?

Gaston Lenotre, as soon as I became aware of him, but I loved Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simca Beck. Then, I revered Yves Thuries.

If you were standing next to someone using your book in their kitchen, what would you whisper in their ear?

Get a scale if you don’t have one, and USE GRAM MEASUREMENTS. I fought long and hard to get grams into the book. The theory is that Americans don’t like to use grams, but, well, don’t get me started.

What is the food that you love so much that you would gorge yourself on?

Maryland Strudel, I love it almost more than anything. Then I might go for the Cranberry and Cassis Bars, and then the Prune Turnovers.

What technique or skill would you still like to hone up on?

I’m doing that right now with breads and starters. I got a great sour going and I’ve been really happy with the fat sourdough loaves I’ve been making and the soft sour white rolls, as well. But the area I really would like to get involved in is chocolates. I have a lot of gaps there. I never really had any true training in most of the pastry and definitely creative chocolate would be the place I’d need to start.

What pastries did you eat while you were growing up?

Hot Milk Sponge Birthday cakes, maybe some cookies, but my mother was more of a cook than a baker. But she taught me to make very thin Blintzes so that when I made crepes, they were paper thin.

How has the opening of Palena impacted your pastry work?

Definitely going more for the a la minute style of plating. When I worked at Jean Louis, there was the big pastry cart and everything was made, finished and set out to serve. Now I like all the components to be made ahead and then the dessert to be completed on order. It’s a little slower to serve, but the pastry is always fresher and crisp instead of soggy. But now that I’ve stepped back from the day to day at Palena, I don’t always follow what is going on in the dessert station all of the time.

What was the most memorable time at the White House?

It would have to be when the kitchen was koshered for the Begin/Sadat Peace Accord in 1980.

What do you consider the most difficult pastry skill to master?

Probably pulled sugar. I did it so much in the ‘80’s that I have no finger prints left. I had to have my prints taken 3 times and then get a note from the doctor explaining why I have no fingerprints, when we were applying for the liquor license for Palena.

Closing thoughts?

This book killed me. I have never worked so hard on anything. The bakery and restaurant were backbreaking and I was no spring chicken then (57). Tack on a book and I could barely stand up.The first two books, Soufflés and Special Desserts were a piece of cake (no pun intended) compared to The Art of the Dessert.

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Rob, I really enjoyed reading your review and interview. I'm curious what Maryland strudel is, though. What are its contents? (I also wonder how Ms. Amernick manages to say slim! :biggrin:)

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After her comment, it moved way up my 'to make' list! Here it is:

Strudel dough with sour cream

Filling: golden raisins, dark raisins, currants, cranberries, apricot preserves, walnuts, cinnamon

The books says to serve with manchego and champagne grapes (something tells me she just cuts a chunk off and gobbles) :biggrin:

And thanks for the comment on the review.

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There's also a little surprise coming for all of you dessert afficienados out there!

Was this the interview with her or are you sending us pastries? PM me for my address!

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