"Charlie Trotter’s Desserts"

Pros: Beautiful photos; great flavors
Cons: Mistakes; too many very exotic ingredients; too much time and effort; did I mention the mistakes?
Rating: 2 out of 5

First posted 9/18/2000

“Charlie Trotter’s Desserts” looks like a very impressive book. It’s big, with an elegant white cover, and two ribbon bookmarks: one white, one black. There are lots of photographs. There are black and white photos of kitchen work, and of chef Charlie Trotter. Each recipe comes with a gorgeous, full-page, color photo of the end result.

The recipes have long names and multiple pieces, and are very elegant and often complex: “Horned Melon and Persimmon Granites with Shaved Persimmon, Cactus Pear, and Sapote,” or “Napoleon of White Fraises des Bois and Golden Raspberries with Pink Peppercorn Meringues and Thyme”.

Ingredients

Many (if not most) of these recipes call for exotic ingredients. For example, the “Lemongrass-Infused Indian Red Peach ‘Consomme’ with Peach Sherbet.” It calls for 7 Indian red peaches, 1 stalk of lemongrass, 1/4 cup green gooseberries, 1/4 cup golden gooseberries, 1/4 cup red currants, 1/4 cup Rainier Cherries, and 5 white peaches (among other more normal ingredients).

I live in Boston – not a small city, and not short on good stores – and I’d have a real problem putting this list of ingredients together. Now, I can use normal peaches, and play with different kinds of berries, but there comes a point where it just isn’t even remotely the same recipe any more. It would help if these recipes at least offered suggestions for alternatives to exotic ingredients. For example, “7 peaches, preferably Indian red.” Or “1/4 cup golden gooseberries, or raspberries.”

I’m used to using exotic ingredients; I make frequent orders on the web so I can get things like cellophane noodles or lemongrass and so forth. I’m also used to substituting. But there really is a limit to how much you can substitute and still claim to be using the cookbook.

This cookbook is obviously meant primarily for show. We’re meant to look at it, and to ooh and ahh over the production value and the pretty pictures. Apparently we’re not meant to get much use out of the recipes.

Kitchen-tested? Maybe not…

This impression is borne out by the fact that the recipes have some problems.

First of all is presentation. The pictures look lovely, but you quickly find out that it really takes a professional hand to do them justice. My fiancee and I have a lot of experience in the kitchen and consider ourselves to be very good cooks, but these recipes come out looking very little like the pictures.

And then, some of the recipes just plain have mistakes in them, ones that are obvious enough that any kitchen-testing should have caught them. For example, if you’re making the “Elephant Heart Plum Roulade with Plum Compote and Pistachio Emulsion,” whatever you do, don’t add “water to cover” when cooking the plums at the beginning. There’s just no way that enough water to cover 13 peeled and pitted plums will boil down to almost nothing in 15 minutes, as claimed.

All of this aside, when the recipes do work out, they work out deliciously. The “Key Lime ‘Pies’ with Carambola” taste deliciously tart. The “Blood Orange Souffle with Chocolate Sorbet” is absolutely delectable. That elephant heart plum recipe I mentioned earlier is sweet and wonderful (after you drain the plums with a slotted spoon).

Caveats

If you want to buy and use this cookbook, be sure of the following first:

  • That you really know what you’re doing. You need to be able to catch Charlie’s mistakes.
  • That you have a very good grocery store that carries almost everything. Or you need to be willing to substitute to the point of the recipes being nearly unrecognizable.
  • That you have all day to work on a single recipe. These take a long time to make, even if you have multiple people in the kitchen and a lot of experience.

When it comes down to it, why bother? Yes, “Whole Roasted Figs with Goat Cheese Ice Cream, Spicy Fig Sauce, and Oatmeal Tuiles” sounds fantastic. But I can find something just as good in any of the scores of other cookbooks in our collection, and it won’t be nearly as frustrating. I can get a lot of ideas out of this cookbook, but it’s huge (too large for most book shelves, in fact) and expensive, so why not buy something cheaper for that purpose?

The pictures of the recipes are gorgeous. Every now and then, mostly because of those pictures, we’ll decide it’s worth trying another recipe. But afterward we always swear off of this book again—because it’s clearly meant to be a coffee table book, not a real cookbook.

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