The Cookbook Taster - Valerie Gordon's "Sweet"

sweetcover1There are a lot of elements to writing a cookbook. There are the obvious ones, like creating over 200 recipes, getting beautiful photos of your food and writing the text. There are the really hard ones, like finding a first-class publisher to actually publish and market your book. There are the ones that you might not have known about, like finding a friend to test all of your recipes in a home kitchen as required by your first-class publisher. And finally there are the ones that are completely unnecessary, like being married to the home tester, and thereby getting to sample all of the goods. That's where I come in.

Valerie Gordon, a dear family friend, has written a cookbook, entitled Sweet, which will be in book stores in early October and available on the Valerie Confections' website. Valerie is the co-owner of Valerie Confections, one of the top artisanal candy makers in the country and she has been expanding into baked goods, teas and jams. Since 2004, when she first opened Valerie Confections, Valerie's toffees and candies consistently have won wide critical acclaim. More recently her baked goods, in particular, her petit fours, have been featured by major food media, including the Food Networks' Best Thing I Ever Ate.

(My high personal journalistic ethics do not allow me to actually review the cookbook or even let you know that it is a truly gorgeous book filled with amazing sweets; nor will they let me tell you that the book is a must have for anyone who has ever wanted to learn baking or jam making or candy making or ice cream and sorbet making or anything at all about the wonderful world of sugar. I cannot and will not shamelessly plug THIS MUST BUY COOKBOOK.)

When Valerie first told us about her cookbook, she explained that she needed a home cook to test her recipes as her publisher, Artisan, would not publish until she confirmed that everything had been reproduced successfully in a home kitchen. My wife, Peggy, mostly because she really had no idea what she was getting into, agreed to take the job – though her payment, and by extension mine, came in the form of calories.

Peggy would be sent a chapter at a time and then would get to baking. Now Peggy is an exceptional home cook, but other than some traditional Christmas cookies, she was not really a baker before this project started. Baking is a very precise science and Peggy, who is extremely detailed (and some, like our daughter, Sammi, might even say obsessive), being a great cook, should have naturally gravitated to baking long ago, and yet she hadn't, so she had to learn on the job. Her success is no doubt due to the excellent instructions in Valerie's book. (My ethics, not being perfect, do allow for a disguised shameless plug.)

Durango-Cookie-JarThe first chapter Peggy received was entitled "Hand" which featured scones, muffins, chocolate granola to snack on and just about any sweet thing you might want to eat with your hands - other than cookies and brownies which deservedly get there own chapter, "Jar". It was from "Hand" that we learned our first cookbook lesson: "If it is in a cookbook from someone you admire, try lots of the recipes even if some are for things you think you might not like." We had heard that most people who buy cookbooks make very few recipes. Peggy has always claimed that if she got three great recipes from a cookbook then the book is a huge success, but she had never tried to make even a dozen from a single book.

What we learned from Sweet was everything is worthy of trying. Peggy, who doesn't like raspberries, loved the Raspberry Vanilla Bean Crumble Muffin as the tartness of the raspberries was perfectly balanced against the sweetness of the sugary crumble topping. My revelation was the Multi Grain Muffin, truly one of the last things I would intentionally eat, but it was dense and moist and chewy and the use of just a touch of mullet created a nutty crunchy element that I never had before. Shockingly good!

Unlike some of the muffins, we knew we would adore all the cookies, having been lucky enough to have tried many of Valerie Confections' cookies fresh from the oven at its store in Los Angeles. Peggy's all-time favorite cookie is the Durango Chocolate Chip Cookie, which is made with milk chocolate chips, cocao nibs and smoked Durango salt. For me it is the Gingersnaps with pieces of chewy tangy candied ginger throughout. She made both. We ate both. She made more. We ate more. And so it went through the entire "Jar" chapter.

During cookie baking we stared to be totally overrun by sweets. Fortunately, Sammi had returned from college for the summer and started taking cookies and later candies, then tea cakes and petit fours to her friends. At one point, Sammi told us that her friends were asking why her mom kept making them treats – treats from moms having ended for the most part in sixth grade. Sammi explained about Peggy's "cookbook testing job" and then all her friends voted Peggy their new favorite mom – at least for that summer.

Hazelnut-Cake-cutAlso, it was at this point that my office started to join in the tasting, at first hoping for and later demanding Peggy's wares. In fact, after a vacation in Vienna, I flew in the world famous Sacher Torte directly from the Hotel Sacher for my office, yet several of my co-workers said it wasn't nearly as good as "Peggy's Hazelnut Cake". Of course, "Peggy's Hazelnut Cake" is really Valerie's Hazelnut Cake from the "Plate" chapter, and might in fact be the single greatest cake ever created. (The Hotel Sacher really never had a chance.) This also led us to lesson two: "If you make it, it becomes yours, even when from a cookbook. You did the work. You deserve the credit."

When it came time for jam making and candy making, the house started to fill with new and wonderful things. We acquired jam jars and water tongs and candy thermometers and special sized baking sheets. The cake chapters brought us endless new shapes and sizes of pans. While Peggy loved her new toys, in my view, the best thing that we acquired was the chocolate. Pounds and pounds of chocolate. There was milk, white, cacao nibs and atomized – yes, atomized. There was 60% cacao and 71% and even 85%. The chocolate was chopped and creamed and tempered. It was spread and poured and drizzled. It was transformed into ganache and truffles and lovingly enrobed toffee. It was heaven.

Overall, it was a great assignment. Peggy tested over 220 recipes and I tasted every one. By the end of it all, Valerie got her cookbook approved, Peggy became a fantastic baker - with a now constant supply of homemade Durango cookies – and I gained 10 pounds. I can't wait for Peggy's next cookbook testing job to come along, though can any cookbook possibly be as great as Sweet? (Okay. I couldn't help myself – a straight out, yet oh so deserving, plug.)


Bob Wyman practices entertainment law as a partner in the firm of Wyman & Isaacs, LLP, but spends much of his time eating and drinking in L.A.