When master chef Yotam Ottolenghi released his dessert cookbook, Sweet, Ian Brown stepped up to the challenge. He now reports back on the perils and pleasures of life as a pastry chef
None of this is Yotam Ottolenghi's fault. Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef, restaurant magnate and cookbook author, the man who brought fresh Middle Eastern cuisine into the homes of so many North Americans, is a god. There is no disputing this.
I've spent hours plucking tarragon and cilantro leaves for his watercress, pistachio and orange blossom salad in his first book, Plenty. I have chopped and chopped to bring his grape leaf, herb and yogurt appetizer to a dinner party. I have braved his broccoli and gorgonzola pie in Jerusalem, his second masterpiece. I made and ate and relished the cauliflower cake and the quinoa porridge with grilled tomatoes and garlic in Plenty More, his third.
It was my awe for Ottolenghi, in fact, that made me reach instantly for Sweet, his most recent production – a dessert cookbook he published with Malaysia-born, Australia-trained pâtissier Helen Goh this past fall. They spent 10 years writing it. I admit to a slight pang of concern: Ottolenghi dishes can be detailed and time-consuming, and dessert-making is famously finicky, the culinary preference of the anally retentive. An Ottolenghi dessert sounded like a recipe for obsessive-compulsive madness.
I am an eager if amateur cook, but I'm especially drawn to making dessert. I'm not saying I'm Marie-Antoine Carême (the dessert-crazy chef – he invented nougat and meringue – to Napoleon and Tallyrand and George IV): I have a job and, more crucially, a fear of failure, not a helpful trait in a pastry chef. But I always liked cooking the last course – not for praise, but to surprise people with unexpected pleasure, which is the only possible reason for dessert's evolutionary existence. For years, I thought I had a minor talent for it. But after working my way through a handful of recipes in Sweet in the run-up to the holidays, I may abandon dessert forever. With the season of reinvention upon us, this is a good time to explain why.
The book arrived. It was 356 pages long and crammed with treats I had never imagined. Ottolenghi owns a string of restaurants in London, writes regularly for The New York Times and the Guardian, appears on the BBC and has sold nearly four million cookbooks, but his first job in a kitchen was whipping egg whites all day. Today, his restaurants and food stores are famous for (among other spectacles) their enormous spiced praline meringues.
Sweet was packed with so many photographs of so many exuberantly beautiful desserts, I didn't know where to start. I therefore consulted my main adviser on all questions of eating and/or cooking: my younger brother, Tim.
My brother and I have been cooking together, originally to divert the fury of our mother, since I was perhaps 10 and he was 8. The first recipe we followed was a dessert, an orange soufflé from volume one of Graham Kerr's Television Cookbook (he was the Galloping Gourmet on CBC.) My brother has gone on to become a superb all-course cook; I, well, as I say, I concentrated on a couple of desserts. He can see through a recipe's glitz to its core value, to whether the effort will produce a memorable result. I asked him to choose four Sweet recipes he thought I would enjoy making. In other words, this is his fault, too.
The first Sweet dessert I made was soft date and oat bars, which in Ottolenghi's native land are known as "flapjacks" – slices of crunchy toasted almonds, cashews, rolled oats, medjool dates and pumpkin and sunflower seeds, bound in butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, cinnamon and orange blossom water. In the picture in Sweet, they were three inches long and an inch wide, and looked elegantly precise.
Mine didn't look like cleverly designed date and oat bars; they looked more like the product of eating date and oat bars, after you finish digesting them. "What are those?" my wife asked in an ambivalent tone. "Those," I replied, "are nut logs." Baking is all about unexpected outcomes, about what you can't control in the oven, which probably accounts for the current popularity of the Great Bake Off series on television. In any event, I wasn't sure I liked the taste of the nut logs: The orange blossom water, while original, gave them a soapy topnote. My always gracious daughter said she liked them, but they didn't reap the oohs and ahs that, say, my raspberry, mint and lemon curd pavlova (her favourite) elicits, or the cheers my Guinness-chocolate cake induces.
I took the nut logs to work and laid them out on the counter of the communal servery in our office. I left a note: Anyone who wanted to could e-mail me with their (no holds barred) reaction. The nut logs disappeared instantly. Then – nothing. Not a word. Wait, that's wrong: One person said she liked them.
I mentioned the silence at a dinner party a few nights later. "Well," one of the guests, a psychologist, said, "they probably didn't want to seem fawning."
"You know how it is with such things," her husband, a prize-winning novelist, added. "You think, 'Oh, someone else will send him a note, I don't need to.' "
"On the other hand," a third person concluded, "maybe they're just afraid to mention them. Maybe they're calling you 'Old Nut Log' behind your back, and rolling their eyes every time your name comes up." Everyone found this hilarious.
The second recipe my brother earmarked was a beet, ginger and sour cream cake. Ottolenghi claims one of his test kitchen chefs was so taken with it, she tripled the recipe and inserted the result as the middle layer of her wedding cake. I have to wonder if she's still married.
There was nothing wrong with the cake, theoretically. The red beets, peeled and grated, served the same function as the carrot in carrot cake: They made it moist and sweet, but also rooty. Ottolenghi adds a crushed vitamin C tablet to brighten the beets, which then appear as bright magenta streaks when the cake is cut. The cake was moist, tasty, filling. Really, there was nothing to complain about. But there was nothing to write home about, either.
I always think a dessert should jump up off the table and colonize your mind, or slip under your consciousness and steal your heart. The beet, ginger and sour cream cake did neither. My wife found it "too beety." A woman at work ate a slice and said, "I love that, but then, I'm the sort of person who likes that sort of thing." Ottolenghi confesses in Sweet's opening line, "there's so much sugar in this book we thought about calling it, well, Sugar," and he isn't exaggerating. It's the book's only fault, but also its main one. Middle Eastern cooks have revered the luxury of sugar for more than a thousand years, and co-author Goh's jones for sweetness hasn't toned the recipes down any.
I moved on to a chocolate banana ripple cheesecake – "about as serious a teatime or end-of-meal treat as you can imagine," Ottolenghi notes. The base was walnuts and graham crackers, and cocoa powder and bananas; the filling was white chocolate and cream cheese and eggs topped with dark chocolate banana ganache. It was diabetes in a spring-form pan, and took most of a day to make. I carted the finished disk to a dinner party. The people at the party ate the cheesecake. They complimented it, but they did not ask for seconds. Perhaps this is an unreasonable expectation. Perhaps they were all watching their weight. The remaining four slices sat in a Tupperware container in my fridge for four days. That is not a wowza dessert item, my friends.
Whatever the problem was, the damage was being done. I was gradually losing my enthusiasm for desserts and baking. I just couldn't seem to produce any instant joy, the surprise a successful sweet always delivers. Maybe it was my age. Maybe it was the age. In his preface, Ottolenghi describes the endless conversations he had with Goh as they wrote the book. "You can discuss the minutiae of a chocolate ice cream or a nut brittle as if the fate of the entire universe rests on the conversation, without worrying for a second that this may be, just maybe, a tiny bit over the top." In 2017, in a world where everyone seemed to be at war with someone about something, my hope of making people feel better by giving them something sweet to eat seemed almost irresponsibly naive.
I pulled up my brother's last recommendation, tiny "Woodland meringues" dipped in chocolate and hazelnuts. Goh was inspired to make them when her young sons discovered conkers in a London park, and were disappointed they were inedible. It was harder than anticipated to locate a 1.5-cm piping nozzle to blurp the inch-wide meringues out onto the parchment paper, but I have to say I enjoyed my time with the piping bag, the squeezy illusion of control and precision and artfulness it imbued. I recommend the experience.
I was about to offer the meringues around the office a day later when something stopped me. A professional pastry chef, an Ottolenghi, makes dessert to be judged on it. An amateur dessert maker is looking for something else.
In the elevator on my way home, a guy I know passingly asked what was in the tin. "Have one," I said, "If you're not allergic to hazelnuts."
"What is it?" he said.
He ate it. Paused. "Is it supposed to be like that?" he said.
"Dry, you mean? Like, not creamy on the inside? Yes."
"Hmm," he said. He nodded. "Good." His favourite dessert, it turned out, was triple-layer chocolate cake. Nothing beats the familiar. "Thanks," he said, and we headed in opposite directions across the lobby. I was suddenly quite happy I'd made my meringues. Maybe the secret to sweetness of any kind, at this or any other time of year, is that to be a surprise, it has to be one for the maker as well.