Appetite for Books
Dessert University

by Roland Mesnier
Simon & Schuster, 2004
$40.00, 528 pages



French food is the world's default for elegant and stylish cuisine, so one would expect that the White House would serve its guests in the French style. Roland Mesnier has been the White House pastry chef since the Carter administration, where he served sorbet in spun sugar baskets to international dignitaries.

But he also made gingerbread houses every Christmas and Bill Clinton's favorite Chocolate Cherry Cake. Now that he's retired, Mesnier has assembled all his knowledge into what truly is a university between book covers with definitive recipes for everything from pate sucree to pastry cream, and techniques for pastillage to praline.

In thirteen chapters, Mesnier marshals all the patissier's tools and treats-cakes, tarts, sorbets, mousses, crepes, meringues, and more-an arsenal that he combines to layer flavors, textures, and temperatures. Accordingly, some of the recipes refer to others in the book. For example, Chocolate Floating Islands with Praline Sauce calls on recipes for the sauce and for nougat.

But it's not all diplomats and dignitaries at the White House. For simpler receptions and family meals Mesnier developed a full array of muffins, breakfast pastries, no-fail cookies and homestyle desserts. Carrot muffins are made not with butter or shortening, but with oil whipped with eggs and sugar into a foamy batter "the consistency of a runny mayonnaise," -Mesnier offers plenty of hands-on tips-and bakes into a moist, tender little cake, studded with chewy pecans and faintly pink with shredded carrots. Mesnier suggests frosting the muffins with a cream cheese frosting that adds a pleasant tang. I would suggest not eating more than one, they are addictive.

Not only his expertise, but his versatility will make Mesnier's book one of the most useful in your collection. But more than a recitation of a classical canon, pastry is a means of expression. As Antoine Careme pointed out, pastry must be considered one of the fine arts, along with painting and architecture. Certainly a good patissier needs an eye for color and structure as well as flavor. Mesnier's style is evident in charming recipes like a Sunflower Tart of mango slices centered with chocolate sprinkles, or a savory Summer Tomato Pie, inspired by the produce of his own garden. In fact, the more you flip through this book, the more you'll find to bake, from those elegant French meringues you've always meant to try, to a sensible and not soggy Blackberry Peach Cobbler in which the filling and topping are baked separately, for just the right engagement between juicy fruit and crumbly biscuit.

I am a sucker for apricots and wait all year for them to ripen, ready for tarts, pies, cobblers, for tucking into lunch bags, roasting with crumbled macaroons, or napping in yogurt and honey. So I've made a few apricot tarts, but I decided to put myself through Mesnier's paces, starting with a cookie-like Pate Sucree, made crumbly and delicate with sugar and an egg yolk. His Pastry Cream makes a pillowy sweet bed for the slightly tart fruit. None of this was difficult and now I've got two more tools and one more dessert recipe at my disposal.

Mesnier doesn't claim to offer shortcuts, and accordingly, the book is an excellent guide whether  you are looking for a good cookie or want a special brunch treat, or when you are ready to master a genoise or mousseline. The graduation will be a sweet treat and confidence in your baking skills.

© 2005 Claudia Kousoulas
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