Dessertsby Pierre Hermé
Little, Brown & Co., 224 pp., $35
There is complacency about sweets in our country. It is fueled by the likes of folks who acquiesce to lackluster desserts following marvelous meals and who maintain a reverence for sweets that shields desserts from a fair and through critique. Their Pavlovian palates seek out excess chocolate, cloyingly sweet raspberry sauce, or cheesecake-any-flavor. They settle for chalky Royal icing on wedding cakes and for indelicate chocolate truffle pie. Even in their most heroic culinary moments, when they fuss about rubbery calamari and insist on anchovies in their Caesar salad, they fail by desserts, opting for pre-fab pies or grocery store cakes. They accept starchy glutinous fruit fillings and stiff, grainy frosting. They aren't bothered by dry cake and dig even the spongiest scones.
Desserts by Pierre Hermé is not for these folks. If you cook professionally, you already know of Hermé, France's accomplished, fourth-generation pastry chef. If you haven't, you'll be impressed to learn that he was the only pastry chef ever to be decorated as Chevalier of Arts and Letters as well as being named France's youngest Pastry Chef of the Year. And, even if all this means nothing to you, this book will be compelling.
Dorie Greenspan, accomplished food writer and Dessert editor, deserves special credit for providing one of the most exceptional introductions to any cookbook I have ever read. Her voice is animated and engaging, and her synopsis of Hermé's work is intelligent. And her belief in it is exuberant. Yet hers is not merely the testimony of an awed disciple, but that of a fond friend. For example, explaining to Hermé her pleasure in serving one of his cakes to some friends, she writes that, "he smiled his quiet smile, nodded with understanding, and said, "I know. I feel that every day.'" With this introduction, Greenspan rolls out the red carpet to a magnificent collection of prized desserts.
Broadly, "dessert" for Hermé is more than chocolate with heavy cream. He makes liberal use of citrus, like lemon, grapefruit, and lime, and includes things like corn to surprising effect. In a whimsical creation called "Golden Lemon Fruit Layers," the corn provides a sweet contrast to the tartness of citrus. Because Hermé's craft is restricted less to categorical terms than to a refined aesthetic, his dessert selection includes loaf cakes and candied fruit, cold soup and French toast. He subscribes to "the architecture of taste," a way of sculpting flavor and employing texture to enhance and sustain it. So he'll sprinkle black pepper, salt, and coarse sugar on thin slices of pineapple to play on, and in turn sublimate, the sweet acidity of the ripe fruit. Then he'll add coconut milk, which, even when blended with extra cool pineapple, adds a certain comforting warmth, and he'll top it off with lime sorbet, which adds a puckering effect.
Hermé's recipes exhibit what I would describe as intelligent curiosity or, perhaps, disciplined wonderment. He arrives at the pinnacle of taste and texture through studied innovation: a touch of salt and pepper to Pineapple Carpaccio, olive oil added to a Ligurian Lemon Cake. But his desserts are not mere attempts at novelty, it seems; they are expressions of obvious vision, even (I might venture), a reflection of a coherent system of ideals. If you've ever watched an accomplished chef compose a dish, you notice his intense, patient, close study of what a dish should be. He is attentive to what the dish wants and needs, responding to it, no longer like the opportunist of his early training who would have molded it to his current desire. Instead, he has an idea of its perfect form, where it tastes, smells, and looks "right."
Hermé's creations reflect this kind of sensitive reasoning, employing components that pull and push at each other, that are distinct -- but prudent and precise -- combinations that are perfectly fitting, and so very right. In this sense, his desserts become a locus of moral reasoning, and cooking an ethical exercise. Strawberry-Rhubarb Soup is one example. It is a bold dish whose tartness is offset by sour and sweet. It combines otherwise indelicate rhubarb, poached in sweet strawberry sauce, with crème fraîche for body and tang.
No surprise, then, that Hermé's recipes aren't edited for the easily daunted. But, while many of them require advance planning, they are still rather accessible. This is a useful book for people interested in professional desserts, because it offers a clear instruction on pastry technique. But it is especially of interest to any dessert lover who might fancy a professionally glossed tart. Other readers take heed: Should you try your hand at the likes of the Carioca Cake, a recipe for a genoise-mousse layer cake that employs five other recipes and runs five pages long, you might well write off your peanut butter pie for good.