Guest Author - Deborah Markus
On Mother's Day, I woke up to the breakfast of my choice, a beautiful homemade card from my son, and a book: Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey: Desserts for the Serious Sweet Tooth, by Jill O'Connor. It's such a physically beautiful book that at first I thought it was simply the kind of rather generic gift one would give, with pleasure and without much thought, to the home-baker one loves.
Then I opened it up and took a gander at the recipes.
"Whenever you order ice cream, you always say 'Give me the kind with chocolate chips, brownies, and candy bars,'" my husband said. "So I thought this would be perfect for you."
It's true: I don't like just plain sweets of any kind. I want something busy. Give me texture and crunch and chew, and then throw a little goo on top. That's why I actually prefer a piece of cake or pie to even my own three-chocolate brownies -- there's more going on.
This cookbook was written by a like-minded dessert fiend. She had me at the first recipe -- Heart of Darkness Brownies. My poor son was asking if I really, really liked the card he'd made me, and I was busy screeching, "Mother of Pearl, she has chopped-up Snickers bars in here! Full-sized ones! And chocolate chips!"
Sticky, Chewy doesn't have only chocolate recipes. There are desserts of all kinds here. But I feel morally obligated to recommend it to chocolate devotees for two reasons.
First, Jill O'Connor obviously has her priorities straight. That brownie recipe is first because chocolate comes first in her book, in a section called "Sticky, Chewy Chocolate." She makes her loyalties clear in the brief introduction to this chapter: "Have you ever noticed," she asks rhetorically, "that there are no 'vanillaholics'? That no one prescribes eating strawberry ice cream to mend a broken heart, or sends lemon drops to woo a new lover on Valentine's Day?"
O'Connor gets chocolate, is what I'm saying. She loves it. She admires it. And, boy, does she know how to work with it.
That's the other reason serious chocolate lovers simply must buy this book. O'Connor tells us how to prepare chocolate in ways that we didn't know were possible -- but that, once we've been introduced to them, we can only wonder how we've lived this long without them.
The page after Heart of Darkness brownies is given over to an incredible dessert called Dark Chocolate Soup. Don't plan on serving this for lunch unless it's somebody's birthday and you've given up on healthy food for the afternoon. It's basically a very, very thick pudding on which you float ice cream and cinnamon-toasted pound cake croutons. Yes, there is a recipe included for these.
And here's another wonderful thing. Plenty of chocolate lovers don't consider ourselves particularly accomplished cooks or bakers. I am more of a home cook than a pastry chef. And the best part of thumbing through this book was the constant recurrence of that delightful feeling you get when you realize, "Hey! I can make that!"
Sure, there are plenty of truly accomplished, gorgeous desserts included in here. But my friend Colleen got it right when I showed her Sticky, Chewy. "You know, most cookbooks are either down-home cooking or fancy-schmancy," she said, marveling over recipe after recipe. "This is the first time I've ever seen someone do both at once. This is home cooking with flair."
She's right. The recipes are straightforward and simple. I made the brownies and the recipe for Deep, Dark Chocolate Pudding that very Mother's Day afternoon. I had most of the ingredients already, and the ones I needed, my husband picked up at the grocery store down the street. Jill O'Connor mentions that she tried to create recipes with foods the ordinary shopper can find easily.
O'Connor does favor good ingredients. "There is no substitute for butter," she says; and, later the same page, "Always use extracts labeled 'pure.'" But she also adds that "there is no need to purchase fancy imported or extra-fat butters -- ordinary unsalted butter is just fine." (I'd never even heard of extra-fat butter.)
In terms of the ordinary home cook, O'Connor also has information of solid value scattered at healthy intervals throughout Sticky, Chewy. One page gives us a good summary of the definition of and differences between natural and Dutch-processed cocoa. Another offers basic useful facts about the various sorts of sugar -- demerara, superfine, turbinado, and so on, as well as just plain granulated. And she gives a whole page to the subject of when (and whether) to use baking soda or baking powder. These are things that the self-taught home cook might wonder about but be embarrassed to ask.
O'Connor has a great attitude. Food should be fun. Food should be yummy. Food should make you happy. As she writes in the introduction to the chapter on cookies, cakes, and pies, "I have traveled far and wide, but I have never tasted anything as perfect as a fat, warm chocolate chip cookie."