on 6 July 2011
I come from the school of thought that says rock bands shouldn't release their Greatest Hits album until their career is complete. Likewise, chefs should restrain themselves from re-releasing their favorite recipes until their career enters a culminating phase. That said, David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes will be excused since some of his previous books are no longer in print, and his greatest hits truly are classics worth reprinting.
Quite frankly, when this book's release was announced I was surprised. Lebovitz seems to have left the hustle of the big kitchen for a quiet life in Paris where he writes and offers culinary tours. He already had a string of successful and widely lauded cookbooks, some of which have become standards on many a baker's shelf. And his blog fanbase has grown steadily, suggesting a comfortable ex-pat existence in the City of Love. I've always viewed Lebovitz as a modern-day Julia Child. Proven creds, strong training, and a wit that wraps his recipes like taut butcher's twine. But his books aren't so far out of print that they aren't accessible. Even so, this was an opportunity for him to hone and update a few recipes and re-present them with gorgeous photography and a new lens - the lens of a wising elder.
David Lebovitz spent thirteen years in the Chez Panisse kitchen learning and teaching the craft of using local and seasonal ingredients in pastry. He is mostly field trained with some academic background, but has worked in a handful of San Francisco kitchens making a name for himself and his employers.
The reviews of this latest book have been largely favorable. Condé Nast Traveler called the book the "dessert genius David Lebovitz's opus." The Washington Post claimed "Lebovitz is solidly among the pantheon of modern bakers."
At just shy of 300 pages with 170 recipes covering cakes, pies, custards, frozen desserts, cookies and basics, this could serve as a base reference book. Again I compare it to Baking with Julia as a potential standard for any home baker. In my recipe testing I focused in on the three recipes held out as Lebovitz's favorites: Fresh Ginger Cake, Champagne Gelée with Citrus, and Chocolate Chip Cookies. Each turned out just as expected with fresh, bold, but not flashy flavors. Each was easily doable for bakers of any level. And each was thoroughly enjoyed by my guests. I appreciated Lebovitz's inclusion of metric measures, in addition to the clunky cups and teaspoons. This little perk elevates the function of the book to one that allows professional chefs to use it as well. Yet this book is not without flaws.
The photography is from the award winning Maren Caruso. The photos are bright, vibrant and truly capture the texture of each dessert. The cover photo alone is enough to make me want to lick the page with the luscious chocolate cascading over the moist cake layers. But I want more. I confess, I always want more photos. And I recognize that photos are more expensive for the printers to produce, but it seems that the more complicated recipes are also the ones lacking pictures in this book. I also wanted more pictures of Lebovitz and his life in Paris since his life is as much of an interest to his fans as is his cooking.
And that critique carries forward into my second criticism, which is the lack of personality in the book. I was baffled by the number of reviews who talk about Lebovitz and his personality and character, as I saw so little of this in Ready for Dessert that I was disappointed. It is difficult to write a review in a vacuum and, with Lebovitz, his fans follow his blog and have read his memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris, so they may feel like they know Lebovitz fairly well. As someone who certainly knows Lebovitz, but wouldn't count himself as an ardent fan, I knew enough about his personality to say that it is only modestly included in the book. I felt at times as if he didn't want to take the time to give us an anecdote because you could find it in his other books. That paucity means that this is a cookbook, nothing more, nothing less. Don't expect the fun, wit, and adventure of his memoir. Simply expect a recipe with a brief introduction and a tip or two.
My final criticism is the lack of freshness. Here's a man who has defined his career by fresh ingredients, and his recipes feel... well, stale. The recipes are diverse in their breadth, and solid in their performance, but nothing that will prove to be exciting or unique. Having followed his blog from a distance I know that he has some innovative and exciting recipes and techniques, but for some reason they didn't make it into this book. The omitted recipe that is part of my regular repertoire is his super fast French Pastry Dough which (with my adaptation of his adaptation) allows me to have a pastry shell made and baked in less than 15 minutes. Ready for Dessert sticks to the safe classics, and with those the reader won't be disappointed.
Beyond those criticisms, Ready for Dessert is a solid book. Home bakers of all levels will appreciate the simple and sure recipes, while advanced bakers will take the foundations and whisk in their own personality. And just as many great musicians continue their careers after a Greatest Hits album, so too will David Lebovitz. His age too young, and his talents too great to stop now. I'll be waiting to see what greatness is yet to come, and in this meantime, Ready for Dessert will get nestled into an already crowded bookshelf.