Marcel Desaulniers, Celebrate With Chocolate (HarperCollins, 2002)
Nick Malgieri, Perfect Cakes (HarperCollins, 2002)
Bruce Weinstein, The Ultimate Brownie Book (HarperCollins, 2002)

Psssst...you there. Yes, you. C'mere. Don't be shy. C'mon...let me snuggle up and whisper a few sweet nothings into your ear...don't worry. I'll be gentle. Ready?

Marshmallow Brownies. Peanut Butter Blondies. Mint Brownies. How's that? Are you feeling good yet? Hmmm. Let's go a little further, shall we? Bourbon Pecan Pound Cake. Walnut Cream Roll. Orange Hazelnut Meringues. Yes? Are you there yet? Can you...taste it? Oh, yes! Let's go all the way! Mocha Sambuca Shooters! Chocolate Brandy Swirl Eggnog Ice Cream! White Chocolate Pumpkin Cheesecakes with Blackberry Pixilation! Chocolate-Banana-Rum-Raisin Ice Cream Cakes with Rum and Almond Twinkle!!

Oh my. I've got to sit down and have a cool drink. Why don't you take a look at these cookbooks for a few minutes? You should start with Marcel Desaulniers' Celebrate With Chocolate. This is one of the most sensually exciting cookbooks that I've ever had the pleasure of adding to my collection. Aside from being an accomplished chef and restauranteur, Desaulniers is a very fine writer. Celebrate With Chocolate is not just a collection of recipes, it's a good read.

As a cookbook, this has all of the necessary and relevant sections: a comprehensive and very instructive discussion of equipment, common ingredients, and useful techniques; separate chapters entitled "Cakes", "Cookies", "Frozen Desserts", and "Mousses, Candies, and Other Chocolate Treats", and even a page of online resources for recipes, ingredients, and kitchenware. The book is laid out logically, cooking instructions within each recipe are incredibly detailed, and the hardcover with good sturdy heavy grade paper is just made for heavy use in the kitchen (though admittedly glossy stock would make wiping off the inevitable spills a bit easier). Full color high gloss pages in the center of the book capture twenty recipes in luscious photographs that will have you salivating in no time at all.

As I said, though, Desaulniers' writing is a joy to read. "Heavy cream," he says, "a.k.a. whipping cream, is luscious and luxurious on the palate, somewhat like a butterfly alighting on a stamen." Oh, my, yes. How about a wedding cake described as "...a magical reprise of lips smeared with buttercream, whispering promises soon to be requited?" Of his Black Mamba cookies, he opines "proffering these profoundly chocolate cookies leads to dangerous liaisons." The man is an artist with words as well as with pastry. A word of caution, though -- while Celebrate With Chocolate is brilliantly designed and written, many of the recipes, such as Caramel Orange-Chocolate Orange Masquerade Ice Cream Terrine or the exotic sounding Champagne Fritters with Chocolate Grape Surprise and Sparkling Cream, are indeed as complicated as their names suggest. This is not a cookbook that I would recommend for a beginner.

Perfect Cakes, by Nick Malgieri, might be marginally better for an untutored pastry cook, but many of the recipes are still fairly complicated, and if one is not adept at cake-making there is quite a lot of potential for disaster here. Like Desaulniers, Malgieri provides good, detailed instruction on baking methods, quality ingredients, and proper cooking equipment. Malgieri also includes a superior section discussing the basics of creating icings, glazes, and fillings which I would have found distinctly helpful many years ago when I was beginning to learn pastry. His preface to each recipe tends to be quite brief, but also quite interesting and even entertaining.

Perfect Cakes is printed on glossy stock, which I prefer for cookbooks, and is a hefty tome at over 300 pages. The price is a bit much, too, at $37.50 US, especially for a book that essentially boils down to one basic food -- cake. But oh, some of these cakes... yum. Malgieri includes something for every taste, from such basics as plain old Tube Pan Sponge Cake, Fresh Banana Loaf Cake, and Classic Pound Cake to such delicacies as Blanc Manger Aux Framboises (Almond Mousse Cake with Strawberries), Torta Di Nocciole Alla Veronese (Hazelnut Cake from Verona) and Farina Gargantag (Armenian Almond and Farina Cake).

And unlike Celebrate With Chocolate, Perfect Cakes does not confine visual temptation to the center of the volume. Mouthwatering photographs by Tom Eckerle are distributed throughout the book, accompanying the relevant recipe. On page 109 (Raspberry Cheescake) the ripe redness of the raspberries swimming inside the coolly creamy white of the cake made me quiver; if the rich cocoa brown and golden crust of the Chocolate Eminence (Milk Chocolate Filled Cake with Crunchy Caramelized Hazelnuts) doesn't bring you to your knees, I suggest you retire to the corner with a cup of plain gruel and don't trouble yourself over cookery in the future!

I wish I could say that Bruce Weinstein's The Ultimate Brownie Book was worthy of inclusion on my shelves with the two previous volumes, but in fact the book was a bit of a disappointment. I'm a brownie lover from way, way back...there is nothing, nothing like a rich fudgy brownie and a big glass of milk. So I was initially quite optimistic about a book devoted entirely to brownies. The introduction discussing the rumored origins of brownies was well written and fascinating, if a bit brief. The requisite ingredient/equipment/baking tips section is thorough, and this would be by far the best of the three books for a beginning baker. Unfortunately there are no photos of finished products, but then again no matter what you put in them, brownies all kind of tend to look alike.

The introductory paragraph at the beginning of each recipe tends towards the simple, bland, newspaper-food-section sort of prose: "...especially good with a cup of hot tea, or even as an on-the-run breakfast." "As a bonus, these brownies are great right out of the freezer, like frozen candy bars." "...the perfect thing for a cold winter morning or a holiday breakfast." Ho hum.

And then, too, there's the subtitle of the book. Thousands of Ways to Make America's Favorite Treat, including Blondies, Frostings, and Doctored Brownie Mixes -- wouldn't you expect to find a heck of a lot of recipes in a book like that? And how might you stuff that many recipes into a 200 page book? Well, let me explain...no, let Weinstein explain: "After each recipe, there's a list of possible additions (spices, flavorings, and mix-ins) in the amount appropriate for the given pan size and batter volume. You can choose among them at will."

OK, so that doesn't sound so bad, does it? Take 91 brownie or brownie mix recipes, add 18 frosting recipes, and then add dozens of suggested "extra ingredients". A bit of a cop-out, perhaps, but if you tried every single recipe with every single add-in, you could eventually make thousands of variations. So, what do we get when we try this method? Hmmmm. How does this sound? Pumpkin Brownies with Maple Extract and Chopped Dried Prunes. No? What about Chestnut Brownies with Ground Sage, Rum Extract, and Dried Cranberries? Ah, I have it -- Walnut Brownies with Lemon Curd and Mint Chocolate Chips. Blech, you say? Who knows... I'm not brave (or crazy) enough to try these recipes. But the point is, while adding hazelnuts to the Marshmallow Brownie recipe might be tasty, not all of these "thousands" of recipes will be palatable. Cornbread Brownies with Toasted Chickpeas? I shudder.

So, how are you feeling, after all of this? Any hot flashes? Are you finding it difficult to concentrate? Let me just leave you here with one or two more -- fantasies. Close your eyes, now, and let me give you a little bit of Brown Butter Hazelnut Financier...Strawberry Roulade...Woozy Chocolate Brioche French Toast with Oozy Chocolate Maple Syrup. Oh, yeah. That's right. Come to Mama.

[Maria Nutick]

Visit Marcel Desaulniers online here.
Nick Malgieri has a nice Web site, too.
You can find the "Ultimate" cookbooks here.