Five Dessert Cookbook Classics

August 23, 2012

Meredith Erickson is the author of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef and project editor of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria. She...

| | David Lanthan Reamer

It’s T-minus three months to go before the first manuscript is due for the Le Pigeon Cookbook. What does that mean exactly? It means I’m starting to sweat it. Starting to head into the whole living in leggings, ignoring boyfriend, staring at screen hours on end, book constantly on my mind, scale always out, living in GMT but working in PST-phase.

Sound bad? It’s not. In a way, it’s relaxing. The moments before jumping in the pool are always worse than when you’re actually in it. And I’m in it.

The last couple of weeks have been a slight change of pace as we’re now working on the dessert chapter and trying to weed out what works (zucchini donuts!) and what doesn’t (chocolate fags!). For anyone who has been to Le Pigeon (a jewel of a restaurant on Portland, Oregon’s East Burnside street) or to the downtown sister restaurant Little Bird you know that the desserts, like the rest of the menu, bring the pain.

So in this phase of the process, moving from cooking to baking means moving from constant pow-wow’s with chef/owner Gabriel Rucker to more of the same with LP/LB pastry chef Lauren Fortgang.

A quick background on Lauren: Born in Louisiana, raised in Alaska, Lauren settled in Portland with her husband Andrew Fortgang, the co-owner and wine ninja of Le Pigeon. In her 13 years, she has worked at Craft, Marco Canora’s Hearth, the venerable Paley’s Place and for the last five years at Le Pigeon, where she is just known as “Mrs. Pickles.”

Though the vibe of the dessert section is Le Pigeon through and through, it’s also slightly more feminine, precise and decorative — i.e. less elk, more tuile.

To figure which recipes were yay or nay, Lauren (when she wasn’t nursing pastries or her newborn), Gabriel and I sifted through the endless possibilities, and chose fifteen that worked in the book sense.

From there we started jamming on the what, when and why for the recipe headnotes. It’s here where Lauren’s started name-dropping her favorite books: the ones she goes to for inspiration, reference or just to get a feeling of home. They’re even inspired reworked re-creations with an LP twist.

In the dead-tree forest of bad books out there, I wanted to know a bit more about each of her favorites and how they’re inspired the dishes she puts on the menu.

I’ll hand it over to Lauren:

I keep all the books that I really love at home. Everything that lives at work ends up sticky and beat up. Here are five I wouldn’t trade for the world.

1. Celebrating Italy by Carol Field
I bought this book when I was working at Hearth. We often did special dinners and I wanted to be as well informed as possible on the traditional foods of the seasons in Italy. This book did that and so much more. Carol Fields is an incredible writer and her descriptions of the holidays and festivals of Italy make you feel like you are right there experiencing it. Each holiday or festival has a chapter so it’s easy to look ahead to the coming seasons. In the chapter for Saint Joseph’s Day, there is a recipe for Cassateddi or Sweet Ricotta Filled Turnovers. The dough recipe is like a sweet pasta dough. I had never seen anything like it before and have used it for all kinds of turnovers and fried pies. One of the best ones was Ricotta and Rhubarb Fried Pies that we served with Rhubarb Compote and Ginger-Orange Ice Cream. 

2. River Road Recipes by Junior League of Baton Rouge
This book breathes my grandma’s spirit. This is actually her copy that she passed on to me. It’s probably the cookbook I treasure the most. I was born in Louisiana and although I didn’t spend much of my life there, I have always been attracted to the people and the food. I’ve been a Junior League cookbook addict for years and it all started with this one. I first made the Lemon Mardi Gras Squares when I was in high school. My adaptation of that has become my go-to cake recipe for layered cakes (other than chocolate ones, that is).

3. Southern Sideboards by Mississippi Junior League of Jackson
If I’m ever stumped on a cookie or confection to put on a menu, this is my go to book for inspiration. Grandmother’s Coconut Cake inspired one of the most popular desserts at Little Bird — the coconut cake with passion fruit sorbet and pineapple. I used the butter pecan ice cream recipe as a basis for my own which also morphed into a super tasty butterscotch ice cream.

4. Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan
I converted to Judaism several years ago and I bought this book to do some catch up on a cuisine that I really had no clue about. Now Andy and I make the latke recipe every year when we have our annual “Latke Vodka Party.” A friend of ours, Eric Gorrell gave us the idea for a Latke Vodka party about five years ago. As soon as he mentioned it I thought of the gorgeous Faberge vodka shot glasses that my aunt and uncle had given us, and so a tradition began.

We have since had one every year at Hanukkah except for the December that Little Bird opened. We somehow manage to cram about 18 to 20 of our closest friends into our dining room and we serve up mountains of latkes, along with a spread of smoked fish, applesauce and, of course, pickles galore. It's every guest’s duty, or I should say every couple that comes, to bring a bottle of vodka. Each couple is actually assigned a region or country and we all try to decide which one is the best. The vodka is all served chilled and straight. We’ve leaned who can have the bucket near them and who can’t, and luckily there's been no shortage of designated drivers because there's been at least one pregnant woman at the table each year. I wonder who it will be this year! I serve sufganiyot (a jelly filled doughnut that is traditional for Hanukah and also in the cookbook) at the end to soak up all the vodka in peoples’ bellies. I’ve adapted the Heavenly Hamentashen recipe and I use it every year in the restaurants as petit fours during Purim.

5. Growing up on a Chocolate Diet by Lora Brody
My Aunt Judi loves desserts more than anyone I know and her favorites are chocolates. She bought me this book after I got my first job in NYC. Part memoir and part cookbook, it’s a great read. Carol Pollack’s chocolate truffles were the basis for the first truffles that I made. It’s so simple and such an adaptable recipe. Cooking recipes from it, such as  Straight ‘A’ Chocolate Layer Cake have so much more meaning when you know the story behind the recipe. 

Meredith Erickson is the author of The Art of Living According to Joe Beef and project editor of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria. She has contributed to Lucky Peach, the New York Times and Elle, among others. Meredith splits her time between Montreal and London.