Narrowing down which desserts to bake from Yotam Ottolenghi’s and pastry chef Helen Goh’s new cookbook, “Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi” seemed like a Herculean task.
While I managed to whittle my recipe selections down to six — there are more than 110 in the book — it wasn’t easy.
Ottolenghi is author of two of my all-time favorite cookbooks — “Plenty” and “Plenty More.” A London-based food writer, restaurateur and chef, Ottolenghi and his “Jerusalem” cookbook won a James Beard award in 2013. His eponymous London bakery is the inspiration for this new masterpiece of desserts and sweet treats.
As I started my shopping list, I noted a few of the ingredients were new to my pantry, but I readily welcomed them. Items such as fresh bay, jars of tahini, halva (a sort of tahini fudge) along with scads of butter and heavy whipping cream found their way to my fridge.
First, I baked a seemingly simple lemon and poppy seed cake that Goh promises will brighten any rainy day or disastrous family outing. She’s a mother who knows that a trip to the park or day out can quickly go awry, especially should the youngest members of the family decide to pitch a fit. Goh gives this cake the nickname: National Trust cake. The National Trust being London’s keeper of historical homes, gardens and parks; keeper of the sorts of places you try to take the family on a day out, but end up with a squabble instead.
The National Trust cake wasn’t as quick to whip up as many of my go-to tea cakes or muffins, but it sure lived up to the name. For some reason, the extra step of steeping the lemon and poppy seeds in melted butter before adding to the other creamed and sifted ingredients took more time than I thought it would. Perhaps it was just the long wait to for the loaf to cool. Any perceived additional effort was worth it. This cake was so good I made it twice; and it disappeared, twice.
A rustic recipe of chocolate, banana and pecan cookies came next. These also took a few extra steps in the making, like chilling the dough two separate times for a total of 3 hours during the process. The results were also worth the extra attention, and came out like fudgy brownie bites inside a crisp cookie exterior.
I kept on with the simpler of my recipe selections with Belinda’s flourless coconut and chocolate cake. The name doesn’t offer much of a description, but if an Almond Joy candy bar were reincarnated as a loaf cake, this would be it.
For a weekend treat, I usually bake oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, a one-pan chocolate cake or maybe pop some kettle corn. While almost any recipe could be more complicated than my own quick treats, I found that many of the desserts in “Sweet” often took a bit more time than I had to spare.
I’d put most of the recipes on par with the difficulty level of a holiday treat. The sort of sweet that isn’t hard to make, but still takes a bit more attention or special ingredients. The other recipes aren’t necessarily “professional baker only” types, but “Sweet” is definitely going to up the caliber of your dessert baking.
With treats like sticky fig pudding with salted caramel and coconut topping, Neopolitan pound cake and Victorian sponge cake with strawberries and white chocolate cream, “Sweet” can provide that “wow” factor, even if it’s only for a tea time cure to a bad day out.
With every recipe it felt like I was going the extra mile to make something just a bit more special. The book was by no means overwhelming (unless you count trying to narrow down my recipe selections), but Ottolenghi and Goh don’t shy away from the fact that they trust the reader is a at least a moderately skilled home-baker. I found that several of the recipes were better the second time through. I knew where I was headed and I knew I’d have a quality result.
The recipe intros are short and personal, giving the perfect touch to encourage readers to make the recipe and feel confident doing so. The instructions are detailed, but don’t drag on with long descriptions of precise methods. “Sweet” is exactly the sort of cookbook you start baking from only to find halfway in that you’ve crossed over into an entirely other level of baking and confectionery without really stressing over it.
I made caramel without thinking much of it, churned up an amazing lemon yogurt and juniper berry ice cream and whipped so many egg whites I felt ready to go for a job on America’s Test Kitchen. My baked ricotta and hazelnut cheesecake was such a perfection it surprised me, and as a result, I didn’t think twice as I moved on to the Middle Eastern Millionaire’s Bars.
As long as I had all the necessary ingredients prepped and measured, eggs and butter at room temperature and my pans coated and lined as needed, each “Sweet” treat went together seamlessly and tasted like I’d worked five times harder than I had. The results were neither hit-or-miss nor so refined and hyper-specific that I felt like I was baking from a high-end restaurant cookbook.
While I doubt I’ll be up for using “Sweet” every time I want to bake a weekend treat, it will certainly serve me well as a go-to for every birthday, holiday and get-together when someone tasks me with bringing dessert.
Who should buy this book? Home bakers and dessert lovers wanting to add to their repertoire.
Chocolate, Banana and Pecan Cookies
Ottolenghi and Goh say the secret to these cookies is to underbake them slightly, keeping them soft and fudgy in the center. The recipe makes about 24 cookies.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
½ cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
3½ tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup dark chocolate chips or 3½ ounces dark chocolate, cut into ¼-inch pieces
2 ounces mashed bananas (about ½ banana)
1⅓ cups pecan halves, finely chopped
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
Place the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, then gradually add the egg and continue to beat until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt into a bowl, then add to the butter and sugar. Mix on low speed for about 15 seconds, then add the chocolate chips and banana. Beat until combined, then transfer to the fridge for 2 hours to firm up.
When firm, use your hands to form the dough into 1-inch round balls, about ⅔ ounce each; you might need to wash your hands once or twice when making them, if they get too sticky. Place the pecans in a medium bowl and drop the balls into the nuts as you form them, rolling them around so that they are completely coated and pressing the nuts in so that they stick.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, place the cookies onto the sheet — there is no need to space them apart — and transfer to the fridge for an hour.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place the confectioners’ sugar in a bowl and roll the cookies in the confectioners’ sugar, pressing it in as you go so that it sticks well. Place on the lined baking sheets, spaced 1 inch apart, and flatten the cookies to ⅓-inch thick.
Bake for 10 minutes. They will be soft to the touch when they come out of the oven, so allow them to cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes before gently transferring to a wire rack. These can be served warm, when they will be a little gooey in the center, or set aside until completely cool.
Also: Once the unbaked dough has been rolled into balls, they can be kept in the fridge for up to two days, or frozen for up to three months. You can also bake them from frozen; you’ll just need to add an extra minute of cooking time. These cookies are best eaten within a day of being baked.
Belinda’s Flourless Coconut and Chocolate Cake
Don’t be thrown by this cake’s gluten-free status, it’s so rich and gooey that no one will ever be able to tell. Don’t be tempted to dig into this early, let it cool as instructed and you’ll be rewarded with rich and chewy-sweet cake perfection. Serves about eight.
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
1¼ cups granulated sugar
⅔ cup finely shredded coconut
Scraped seeds of 1 vanilla pod
¼ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1⅔ cups almond meal
For the water ganache:
2 ounces dark chocolate roughly chopped into ⅓-inch pieces
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
Scraped seeds of ¼ vanilla pod
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into ¾-inch cubes
Preheat the oven to 350. Grease the base and sides of a standard 8½ x 4½-inch loaf pan or a 9-inch round springform pan and line with parchment paper, then set aside.
Place the butter, sugar, coconut, vanilla seeds and salt in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium-high speed, until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Turn the speed to low, add the almond meal and mix until just combined.
Scrape the mixture into the pan and bake for 40 minutes if using the loaf pan or 50 minutes if using the round pan, or until the cake is golden brown on top and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and set aside to cool in the pan before inverting onto a serving plate. Set aside until completely cool.
To make the water ganache: when you are ready to serve, place the chocolate in a medium bowl and set aside. Put the sugar and corn syrup in a small saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Stir to combine and, when the sugar has melted, increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil, stirring gently from time to time. Continue to boil for about 7 minutes, until the color is a pale amber. Remove from the heat and carefully pour in the water. Don’t worry if the mix seizes; just return the pan to the heat, add the vanilla seeds and stir gently and continuously until it returns to a boil and the sugar has melted again. Remove from the heat and wait for a minute before pouring the water-caramel over the chocolate. Allow to stand for about 3 minutes, then whisk to combine. Add the butter, a couple of cubes at a time, whisking after each addition. Continue until all the butter has been added, whisking to combine until the consistency is that of thick syrup.
Spread the ganache over the top of the cake, letting it run down the sides a little, and serve.
This will keep well for up to 5 days in an airtight container. It can be eaten on the day of making, but we think it tastes even better served at room temperature the following day.
Middle Eastern Millionaire’s Shortbread
The uniquely Middle Eastern bit about this cookie bar is the inclusion of tahini — sesame seed butter. If you’re new to the flavor of tahini, or your guests are, you can easily half the amount in the caramel. Halva is available online, or can sometimes be found at the grocery store. Halva has a crumbly fudge-like texture flavored by sweetened tahini with hints of lemon. If you can’t find the halva, these bars are still delicious with just the shortbread and caramel layers. Don’t skip the flaky sea salt. It makes about 16 servings.
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
3½ tablespoons cornstarch
2½ tablespoons granulated sugar
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted and set aside to cool slightly
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
⅛ teaspoon salt
7 ounces halva, roughly crumbled into small pieces
⅓ cup tahini paste
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
⅓ cup heavy cream
⅓ cup tahini paste
¼ tsp flaky sea salt
Preheat the oven to 400. Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment paper, making sure that the paper rises up over the edges of the pan.
To make the shortbread, sift the confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch into the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place, then add the granulated sugar and mix on medium speed. With the machine still running, slowly pour in the melted butter and beat until combined. Add the vanilla extract and turn the speed to low, then sift in the flour and salt and continue to beat until the dough comes together. Tip the mixture into the pan and use your hands to pat and even out the surface. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside until completely cool; this will take an hour or so, so don’t start making the caramel too soon or it will have set by the time the shortbread is cool.
To make the halva, place the halva and tahini in a small bowl and mix with a wooden spoon to combine. Spread the mix over the cooled shortbread and use the back of a spoon to smooth it into an even layer.
To make the tahini caramel, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved, then increase the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and cook — still at a boil — for about 12 minutes, until the sugar is a deep golden brown. Remove from the heat and add the butter and cream; take care here, as the mixture will splutter. Whisk to combine and, once the butter has melted, add the tahini and salt. Whisk to combine again, then pour evenly over the halva layer in the pan, so that all of the halva is covered.
Place in the fridge for four hours until set, before cutting into bars, about 1-by-4 inches. Sprinkle a pinch of sea salt over the middle of each bar and serve.
Also: The shortbread layer can be made up to 4 days in advance and stored in an airtight container. It also freezes well. These bars will keep for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge. Remove 20 minutes before serving to take off the chill.
Reprinted with permission from “Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh; 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, and imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography by Peden + Munk.
Publisher: Ten Speed Press