When I lived in New York, I had several of the best desserts I've ever eaten in my life at Gramercy Tavern. So when the pastry chef at the time, Claudia Fleming, put out a cookbook, I was eager to get it — but was warned away from it by those with more experience in the cookbook world. Restaurant cookbooks are great for reliving meals past, I was told, but not for actually cooking out of. So I put it off.
But then for my birthday Jen got me an ice cream maker, and I remembered that the ice cream at Gramercy Tavern had been worlds better (and worlds more expensive, at $9 for three small scoops) than your standard ice cream... so I hatched a plan. I would find a copy of the book and memorize one of the ice cream recipes. If it turned out to be really good, I'd buy the book. That I'm writing this should indicate whether the ice cream passed the test.
There is something to the slam on restaurant cookbooks: at the same place I found a copy of The Last Course I also found a copy of Charlie Trotter's Desserts, and it did indeed strike me as useless for anything but nostalgia. The recipes all seemed to say, "Take this fruit that only grows on five trees on the south-facing slope of a mountain in Madagascar, add a healthy sprinkling of this spice that costs $850,000 per ounce, and then miffloué it for twenty minutes, and I'm not going to tell you what mifflouéing is." But The Last Course is different. Though light-years away from online recipes like, "Cut open tube of cookie dough. Dip in Cool Whip. Serve." — thank goodness — the recipes are all designed to actually be made, not just dreamed about. So far, I've made:
Some of these have just been okay, but others have left me absolutely agog that something this delicious could come out of my own kitchen. I'd thought the desserts at the Tavern verged on miraculous, but this... I mean, it's one thing to pop Led Zeppelin IV into your CD player, but it's another thing entirely to watch a short instructional video and then bust out the guitar solo from "Stairway to Heaven" on your Squier Strat. I mean, Dan Shiovitz's Speed-IF magnum opus notwithstanding, I am not a chef. I did not think myself capable of even approaching an actual GT dessert; I just hoped my attempts would taste okay. But, yeah, I'm pretty sure that if you'd taken one of my blueberry tarts or strawberry shortcakes to Gramercy Tavern and done a Folger's-Crystals-style swap, the customers wouldn't know the difference. And that is awesome.
Working out of The Last Course has also taught me some stuff. For instance: milk explodes. More than once I put milk on the stove to bring it to a simmer to find that it went like this: no bubbles no bubbles no bubbles no bubbles no bubbles a couple of bubbles MILK QUINTUPLES IN VOLUME, SPILLS ALL OVER STOVE. I've also learned that I have little to no tolerance for bitterness; much as I like milk chocolate, the one item on the above list that I found inedible was the chocolate sorbet. I wasn't a big fan of the chocolate soufflé tarts either. I've heard foodies trying to one-up each other with their "Oh, you're eating that wussy 70% chocolate? I have no time for anything under 85%, myself." Me, I'll take something in the mid-teens. And that goes for chocolate too. (Joke! Please don't arrest me.)
I'd never used zest before, but wow, those tiny slivers of peel make a huge difference. A pinch of orange zest made a big thingie of shortbread taste like an orange. Same for the cookies and rice pudding. I've learned that pastry flour is not the same as cake flour (my first pound cake turned out to be more like kilogram cake due to this mix-up). I've learned about when things come into season, at least in Massachusetts — I was here in farm country last summer too but didn't bother to really track what items the roadside stands were selling week to week, but the wait for berries made me keep careful tabs on them.
And, to be honest, I've learned that while these desserts are indeed spectacular, one round of them is generally enough to hold me for a while. It's not that they're all that labor-intensive, really, just that sometimes you're willing to put in the two hours or however long for something transcendent, and sometimes a chocolate pretzel from the bulk bin will do the trick.