Pure Dessert
Alice Medrich’s desserts are pure in their simplicity.


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BROOKE HERMAN is a Food Editor and recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education.



February 2008

Product Reviews / Best Reads / Cooking

Pure Dessert

By Alice Medrich


There’s an undeniable gentleness about Pure Dessert. Maybe it’s in the opening pages, when you come to understand the recipe-by-ingredient concept, or the images that follow, unapologetically homey, displaying crumbs on serving plates and drip-down-the-sides berry sauces in a time when many other cookbooks reveal stark and styled crumb-free cake wedges. But for sure, you get it with the cover: one gorgeous sunset-colored cherry, still on the stem, slightly glistening and resting at the inside edge of a galvanized dish.

That lone fruit is a clue to the heart of this cookbook and its author, Alice Medrich. Somewhat different in style to other popular reads, this one separates itself within, and from among its peers, by ingredients. In sync with the author’s desire for you to appreciate each element, the chapters are divided into categories by food, including grains, milk and spices.

These chapters are the perfect way to reacquaint yourself with the new and expanding worlds of longtime favorites (yes, sharp Cheddar will always be delicious, but have you played yet with lebni [labne], paneer or quark?). One might argue that it’s nearly impossible to read this book and resist the temptation to stock up on items like kamut flour (the sweet grain will give your shortbread a golden hue), jasmine tea leaves (to infuse whipped cream meant to top a chocolate-grapefruit tart) and coconut sugar (which adds the ultimate backdrop for a sweet tropical cake). It’s true that this layout can border on confusing if you’re simply in the market for a cookie or cake recipe, but the back of the book glossary provides a more direct breakdown.

A Celebration Of Simplicity

However, Pure Dessert truly is a celebration of simplicity. The majority of recipes—pure desserts like Ginger Florentines, Chilled Oranges in Rum-Caramel Syrup or a slice of the Italian Chocolate-Almond Torte—can be prepared using ingredients found on your local supermarket shelves. Occasionally, you’ll need to hunt for items like ground vanilla to complete Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels—or fresh kaffir lime leaves or skinned pistachios. But there’s a comprehensive resources section in the back, so no one should be deterred from trying any of the recipes.

In every cookbook—if we’re lucky—there’s a recipe that jumps off the pages, practically demanding that we immediately start measuring and mixing. And while it may be cliché to say that this happens several times with this book, it’s true.

Medrich’s Whole Wheat Sables are true examples of simplicity at its best. At the very least, they provide a way for those who are secretly afraid of using whole wheat in their baking, to experiment and discover delectable results. At best, these mix-and-roll make-aheads, are crumbly, yet sturdy, buttery bites that don’t suffer from sugar overload. Medrich provides addition variations like hempseed, hazelnut and cocoa nibs, which I’m sure would be delicious, but I’m smitten with the toasted sesame seeds I sprinkled into the buttery dough. As promised, several weeks later, these cookies still retain their flavor and texture.

Sure, there are chocolate desserts and others made with loads of cream, but there’s something about the slices of Dried Fruit and Nut Cake on page 109 that jump out at you, hoping for you to take a chance on this humble loaf. The description in which Medrich suggests it as a great burst-of-energy snack* or a scrumptious addition to a cheese platter may help. Same goes for later, when she encourages you to use your favorite fruits and add homemade candied citrus peel. Or, it’s just the picture of gorgeously colorful dried fruit and walnuts bound together by only the smallest amount of cooked batter, producing solid, easy-to-slice loaves of bread. And whether enjoyed for the first time for breakfast, or later in the day as a snack with tea, its uncomplicated deliciousness will continue to surprise you.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dried fruit is energy food, but energy claims here are relative to other types of snacks. Cake has added sugar and butter, ingredients which do not fall into the “good for you” category of ingredients. Those seeking an true energy snack should consider plain dried fruit or energy bars, which have a concentration of energy ingredients.

But, for me, despite my unexplainable pound cake boredom, the one dessert I knew immediately that I needed to try was the Olive Oil and Sherry Pound Cake. The recipe is obviously simple, the only real surprise the threads of orange zest. The results, however, are anything but. The confection bakes up beautifully golden brown, boasting a crunchy top and an incredibly tender cake, which on the first day is faintly flavored by citrus, fruity olive oil and fortified wine. Come days later, this cake sings boldly from its ingredients.

Baking 101

The allure of these desserts may tempt you to skip the first 30 pages and gloss over the introduction, tips and ingredient guide, but try to resist. You would be cheating yourself, and your recipes, by glossing over this information. You would miss Medrich walking you through her how-my-mind works narrative, helpful when it comes time to measure, stir and bake, as well as an 18-page guide of necessary ingredients from spices to flours to a three-paragraph explanation of sesame seeds.

It cannot be denied that this cookbook echos a now well-versed sentiment from back-to-the-table chefs: Use few ingredients and only the best available at that. Sometimes, on television shows, magazine articles and in other reads the preaching rings hollow, but this book is the real deal. Medrich does not push for the most expensive and hard-to-find ingredients or odd items for the sake of standing out. Once you read page after page of Medrich all but begging you to purchase unsprayed citrus to protect your desserts from bitterness when using the zest, flip to several recipes that celebrate vanilla as a main ingredient or set your eyes on shortcakes made extra tender and speckled blue thanks to the addition of buckwheat flour, you know how important each item is to every recipe.

Pure Dessert is a cookbook that hits every note: It’s a bit playful, completely modern with old-fashioned undertones, sweet with savory notes and without a doubt, lovely. Whether trying to fill a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday or seeking a sophisticated finale for an evening celebration, you will never regret turning to a page inside this baking treasure.  

  • Artisan Books, 2007
  • 262 Pages
  • Number of Recipes: 147
  • Images: Color—throughout the book

  • Not to miss recipe: Olive Oil and Sherry Pound Cake

  • Extras: Comprehensive ingredient and equipment list tips and baking anecdotes

Pure Desserts

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