The breezy title certainly didn’t prepare me for the bittersweet haunting of Cakewalk, Kate Moses’ unflinching memoir of growing up with a mother better, Moses tells us, at conjuring magic realism than delivering maternal wisdom, a mother who had freezers stocked with candy, served fried chicken with honey, and believed that a chocolate bar, salted peanuts and a beer were the ingredients of a nutritionally perfect meal. Moses has been baking her way back to childhood ever since – well, before it ended. If, that is, it ever began. This terrific book, reminiscent of Mona Simpson’s novel, Anywhere But Here, is infused with yearning, with pain, with hard-won strength –- and with enough dessert to almost sweeten the past.
But while Moses has the good writerly sense to leave the sugar out of her prose, she doubles it in her recipes. This is no doubt the point, so I judge here with a guilty conscience. I dutifully added the entire one-pound box of brown sugar to her Blondie dough and the pound-and-a-half of confectioner’s sugar to her mocha frosting and tried hard to taste the spice behind the eight cups of sugar that go into her Spiced Pecan Birthday Cake (glaze and frosting included). I brought the brownies to a potluck. The kids devoured them, the grown-ups –- well, didn’t. Which, really, says it all. These are not recipes to seduce with complexity, they are recipes to save you from a troubled past –- while also taking you back to childhood’s sweeter moments. And for that I’m awfully glad she created them.
In contrast, The Perfect Finish: Special Desserts for Every Occasion is written by master baker Bill Yosses and New York Times food writer Melissa Clark. Yosses, now the executive pastry chef at the White House, is a veteran of Bouley Restaurant and Bakery and once worked under chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. His recipes are impeccable modern renditions of timeless mostly American classics. When I read cookbooks, I’ve a nasty habit of folding down the top corner of pages I want to return to and cook from -– after an evening spent devouring The Perfect Finish, I had marked off 39 recipes. My choices ran the gamut from “Airy Crème Fraiche Pancakes" to a “Lemon Tart Brulee” and included an apple tart from the Auvergne region of France that Yosses describes with contagious delight. “Imagine,” he writes, “a puffed tart with a sugared disk of brown royal icing tipped like the cap of a Parisian dandy.” Imagine, indeed.
It was clear to me in carefully reviewing Yosses’ most traditional recipes that they were flawless, so to test for the prized Piglet, I choose to make recipes that contained an unusual –- read, suspect -- ingredient. It would have been impossible not to begin with his “Candied Bacon Peach Cobbler” an addictive re-imagining of a favorite. The bacon gave the crust a smoky saltiness that played perfectly against the honeyed peaches and familiar whiff of cinnamon. Yosses adds two tablespoons of walnut oil to his crepe batter in “Crepes Suzette with Dark Rum and Oranges.” Here, I thought, I’d be sure to find fault with his recipe as I’m a firm believer in the presence of melted butter in crepe batter, but I must admit that the walnut oil gave the pancakes a complexity that stood up quite nicely to the depth of aged Venezuelan rum and the tang of caramelized oranges. His “Pepper and Spice Dark Chocolate Cookies” contain what seems at first to be an alarming abundance of pepper –- black, cayenne, and crushed pink peppercorns –- and the number of spices –- cinnamon, allspice, ginger and mace –- I was sure would overpower the cocoa. But the cookies, while decidedly grown-up, packed a lively, vibrant punch and were a welcome departure from the now ubiquitous and one-note chili-peppered chocolate that is now in so much in vogue. Come winter, I’ll make “Blood Orange Squares” a Sicilian version of lemon squares, and come June, I hope to celebrate summer’s return with “Birthday Shortcake with Fresh Strawberries and Cream.”
Comparing Cakewalk to The Perfect Finish is not entirely fair. Moses is a home baker with a marked and –- thanks to her fine, almost novelistic writing –- empathetic nostalgia for serious dosing of sugar, Yosses is a professional at the forefront of American baking. He wins this round, but Cakewalk will long linger in my mind’s eye if not on my kitchen counter.