Gale Gand's Just A Bite

by Gale Gand

Published by Clarkson Potter

304 pages, 2001

Apple Cookbook

by Olwen Woodier

Published by Storey Books

187 pages, 2001

Afternoon Delights

by James McNair and Andrew Moore

Published by Chronicle Books

96 pages, 2001

The Christmas Cookie Book

by Lou Seibert Pappas

Published by Chronicle Books

96 pages, 2001

Maple Syrup Cookbook

by Ken Haedrich

Published by Storey Books

137 pages, 2001





Just Desserts

Reviewed by Monica Stark


A friend and I were deciding on lunch at one of those deli-style places so kitsch they're trendy again. The offerings were all artfully arranged in an enticing manner in crystal clear glass cases. That type of ordering can make things difficult. With a menu, your mind adds colors and shades and nuance. It can help you decide. With those glass cases, however, and a practiced and skillful hand behind the counter, everything can look wonderful. And it did. It makes it difficult to choose.

After a while spent hemming and hawing over the choices, I found the thing that kept drawing me back was one of my favorite food groups: tiramisu. If you've missed out on this Italian dessert, run-don't-walk to the place nearest you most likely to serve it. It's the type of thing so filled with calories, it must be eaten standing up. And, like the best truly sinful desserts, almost everything in it is bad for you: whipped cream, espresso, liquour, rum, the works. And, yet, I'll eat the stuff for breakfast given half a chance. But this wasn't breakfast. It was lunch. While my eye kept being pulled back to the tiramisu, my friend had been bowled over by a delicate slice of lemon loaf. Really, it was unlike any we'd seen before: sort of half cake, half square and the icing looked like something best ordered by the bowl: very more-ish.

So here we were: our eyes were looking dutifully at mounds of green salads or even healthfully invigorating low fat wraps, but our hearts? Our hearts were firmly on the Forbidden Course.

"You know," I said finally, after we'd renewed our deli numbers a couple of times for higher digits and were in danger of making complete spectacles of ourselves -- between obvious indecision and possible drool on the glass cases, "why do we have to decide? We know what we want. Let's get it for lunch."

She looked at me momentarily aghast, as though this idea had never occurred to her. "But don't we need to eat a salad first? Or at least a little sandwich or something?"

"Well, I think it might be one of the compensations of being a grownup," I told her. "I mean, really, there must be some. Who's going to tell us we can't have dessert for lunch? Who's going to tell on us? And who would they tell?"

The pure logic of all of this did not escape her. We got both desserts. And then we shared. We accompanied them with lovely mocha espressos: with all of the chocolate and all the whipped cream, thank you. And while we ate, we didn't feel terrible at all. We felt delicious. Exciting. Maybe a little dangerous. The girls who don't pause for greens.

Why is it that salads never make you feel this way? Whoever heard of someone feeling dangerous after eating a salad? Hungry? Maybe. Dangerous? No. That's not to say that a salad can't be satisfying. It can. But that's not the same as feeling exciting. Not even the same as feeling delicious. Anyway, whoever heard of someone going into raptures over a Waldorf salad, or even a good Caesar? I've enthused about a good, blue steak served with garlic mashed potatoes and I've raved about a cheese soufflé done just so, but for sheer transportation? Nothing beats dessert.

Gale Gand understands all of this as well as anyone. Gand's Food Network television show, Sweet Dreams, has perhaps made her the most visible goddess of desserts anywhere. In her new book, Gale Gand's Just A Bite: 125 Luscious Little Desserts, Gand rhapsodizes with the best of them:

One of the reasons I became a pastry chef is that luckily, I never forgot how exciting desserts are when you are a kid. How delicious that after-school cookie is. How loved you feel when someone bakes you a birthday cake, or how good the first ice cream sandwich of the summer tastes.

Gand's take in Just A Bite is not merely for desserts, but for teeny, miniature desserts: truly, just a bite, but with those visions of childish delight at sweets for inspiration. And so, in Just A Bite, alongside elegant classic flavor combinations like Roasted Strawberries With Cherry Balsamic Sauce and Saffron Madeleines, you also find new Gand classics like Hot Chocolate Turtle Soup, Root Beer Slush-Vanilla Cream Cordial Cups and Chocolate-Mint Tiddlywinks.

The book's instructions are easy to follow and each recipe is accompanied by a "tasting trio" instruction box that advises, for instance, that Peanut Butter Cookie-Grape Jelly Ice Cream Sandwiches might best be served with Clementines in Mint Syrup and Chocolate-Caramel Cigarillos. If you love desserts, Just A Bite is the bomb.

If there's a little bit of everything in Just A Bite, there's a whole lot of one thing in Apple Cookbook by food, garden and nature writer Olwen Woodier. Apple Cookbook sets the mouth watering from the first glance: the beautifully designed cover consists almost entirely of a detail of a single, perfect apple. An apple so beautiful, it would give Snow White hunger pangs. Appropriately for this author and this book, Apple Cookbook begins with a bit of history and so we learn that "Man has been munching on apples for about 750,000 years," and that apples are 85 to 95 per cent water and that the acid content in the fruit "acts a natural mouth freshener, which makes apples a perfect ending to a meal."

While all of this is very interesting -- and where else would you find it all under one roof? -- Apple Cookbook is, as the title advertises, a book for cooks. And not just desserts here, either: though they're included as well. Along with Apple Sorbet, English Apple Crumble and Apple Apricot Cobbler, Woodier has included recipes for savories like Curried Ham and Apples, Beef and Apple Deep-Dish Pie and Roast Chicken with Apples, Turnips and Garlic. Apples for breakfasts, apple drinks, apple salads and entrées but, of course and as usual, nothing transports like the desserts.

From the near-legendary test kitchen of James McNair comes a book completely concerned with the lighter side of the dessert life. Afternoon Delights, co-written with longtime collaborator Andrew Moore, concerns itself entirely with Coffeehouse Favorites: Cookies & Coffee Cake, Brownies & Bars, Scones & More. The author of over 40 cookbooks, McNair seems to have an ability for coming up with the specialized book in an area that hasn't been overworked or even fully mined. More importantly, he seems to always approach these little gems with passion and complete conviction. The inspiration for Afternoon Delights, however, seems to have been quite homey:

We especially enjoy making cookies, brownies, and other similar treats, and like to put them out when we get together for afternoon coffee or tea with friends and family members. Since our guests have often seemed amazed by the offerings from our kitchen and have repeatedly asked us for recipes, we have decided to do this little volume.

And it is a "little volume," though, like all books with James McNair's name on the cover, it is as beautiful and well-produced as it is enlightening. The recipes run from solid classics for the basics everyone seems to, at one point or another, try their hand at -- chocolate chip cookies, scones, shortbreads and biscotti -- to more complicated and sometimes slightly odd recipes that you'd never think of, but look like a lot of fun to try -- Madeleines, Snickerdoodles, Lemon Bars and Carmelitas. These last, for McNair, are from the more odd side of the book. "Chewy caramel-nut-chocolate delights," that McNair and Moore tell us are "based on an entry from a Pillsbury Bake-Off in the 1960s." Weird, but wonderful: rolled oats, chocolate, nuts, caramel sauce: all sandwiched together in a terribly tempting -- and easy to make -- bar.

The Christmas Cookie Book by Lou Seibert Pappas covers a similar food aspect -- baked confections that seem to taste best when accompanied by a hot beverage -- but from a very specific place: namely Christmas. In her introduction, Pappas writes about a traditional American cookie background blended with European travel and a Greek husband: the ideal ground, it would seem, for an international cookie junkie to spring from.

The Christmas Cookie Book is broken into several -- forgive me -- bite sized chunks. Pappas covers the history of Christmas cookies, the ingredients, equipment and other basics of Christmas cookie making. The recipe chapters include "Timeless Traditional Cookies" -- included here are cookies like German Springerle and Lebkuchen, Gingerbread -- "Family Favorites" (which is a bit of a misnomer, since I know families whose favorites include some of those already mentioned) -- like Sugar Cookies, French Lemon Wafers and Swirled Cherry-Hazelnut Chocolate Chip Cookies. There are also chapters that feature recipes suitable for mailing and gift giving and, finally, "elegant Party Cookies," including, you guessed it: Florentines, as well as various Balls, Macaroons and Crinkles.

While we're already thinking of the holidays, Maple Syrup Cookbook by Ken Haedrich, can put one in a holiday kind of mood. While Haedrich spends more time on savories here than on sweets, there's something so festive about maple syrup, it begged to be included in this round up. Haedrich explains it best:

Real maple syrup is so special that its very presence in a dish or at a meal inspires awe and grabs attention. Serve it on pancakes, drizzle it on ice cream, marinate meat int it, or sweeten a cheesecake with it, and people take note, feel honored, as though a visiting dignitary had joined them for a meal.

And so Haedrich proceeds to add maple Syrup to Gingered Pork Medallions, Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash, Maple Roasted Root Vegetables, Creamy Maple Syrup Dressing and Ham Steak in Rum Raisin Sauce as well as things you'd expect to be sweet, including Maple Syrup Candies, Maple Apple Pie and Tawny Maple Cheesecake. Sweet! | November 2001


Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.