Yotam Ottolenghi’s New Cookbook Is Basically Heaven For Bakers And Dessert Lovers

Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh create show stopping dessert recipes that truly work for the home baker.

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Chatelaine reviews the new Ottolenghi cookbook Sweet

The Book: Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, $45

The Promise:

The arrival of a new swoon-worthy Ottolenghi cookbook is more exciting to me than my birthday and vacation combined. If you’ve read Ottolenghi’s previous cookbooks — like Plenty and Jerusalem — you’ll be familiar with his colourful, eye-popping recipes and charming anecdotes that beckon you to keep exploring the rose petal, saffron, pistachio and star anise wonderland where he lives. Take all that, add sugar and the skills of his co-author, pastry master Helen Goh (a longtime recipe developer for the Ottolenghi shops), and you get one of the prettiest and most anticipated baking books around and one that should still be pretty accessible to home cooks, if his past recipes are anything to go by.

Blackberry and Star Anise Friands

Blackberry and Star Anise Friands

First Impression:

My first contact was tactile, as I may have hugged the book before opening it (sharp corners!). If you’re already an Ottolenghi groupie, you’ll understand. Here’s a guy who can seduce with side dishes — imagine the potential for dessert! The book is divided into seven sections (cookies, mini-cakes, cakes, cheesecakes, tarts & pies, desserts and confectionary) and even the recipe titles sound magical (Woodland Meringues, page 319). The book delivers Ottolenghi’s usual twists on classic recipes (Tahini and Halva Brownies, page 87) and the bright, bold flavours we’ve come to expect (Pineapple and Star Anise Chiffon Cake, page 179).  The layout is familiar, with tips and tools added to help readers navigate each recipe. And there’s a charming little intro about each dessert before you dive into detailed but easy-to-follow instructions.

Lemon and blackcurrent stripe cake

Lemon and blackcurrent stripe cake

Sample Recipes:   

I changed my mind a million times about what to try because I’d fall in love with one recipe and then crave another with the flip of a page. In the end, I tackled this book without much of a strategy and just followed my whims (which is how I think everyone should do it — dessert is all about whims).  I didn’t make any of the more show-stopping cakes (though Lemon and Black Currant Stripe Cake is next on my #cakegoals list), but I did make recipes that Ottolenghi and Goh consider “customer favourites” to see if I could recreate the greatness.

These were:

Chocolate “O” Cookies, page 55

Vinyard Cake a.k.a. Cleopatra Cake, page 134

Beet, Ginger and Sour Cream Cake, page 130

Flourless Coconut and Chocolate Cake from Ottolenghi SWEET

Bellinda’s Flourless Coconut and Chocolate Cake

Do the Recipes Actually Work?:   

I started with the Chocolate O Cookies (like Oreos but with a chocolate ganache centre). They’re salty, sweet and spicy, and have become a signature at the Ottolenghi shops. The dough was straightforward, and can be made two days in advance. I do recommend getting a kitchen scale if you are going to cook from this book. Yes, the measurements are also given in cups but, unless you weigh everything, you’ll use too much flour by simply relying on scooping (even using the dip and sweep method, I couldn’t match the quantities exactly). The trickiest part of these cookies is caramelizing the sugar for the ganache. I stepped away while the sugar heated and had to jump to pull it off the stove just before it burned. Otherwise, the cookies looked just like the picture and tasted decadent but not too sweet.  They lasted a week. I’d fill a few cookies a day with the chocolate ganache cream and put them in lunches as a treat (ok, sometimes the cookies were lunch).

Chocolate O Cookies from the SWEET cookbook

The “O” Cookie: My version, the cookbook version … who can tell the difference?

Next I chose the make the Beet, Ginger and Sour Cream Cake. Actually, I think the recipe chose me — kind of like the Harry Potter sorting-hat chooses wizards — because the photo of the thick cream cheese topping and vibrant beet cake wouldn’t let me turn another page. Grating beets is never my favourite task (so much staining), but it is worth it the moment you see the batter come together — it’s a vibrant deep pink (Instagram gold). The colour does mellow a bit after baking, but by then you’re mesmerized by the moist, tender cake, which has a nice gingery bite and fresh, earthy flavour. It’s also less sweet than you’d expect which I appreciated since I was about to load on the icing.  For me, almost anything is overshadowed by cream cheese icing, and this one was pretty killer with its additional hint of ginger. The recipe came together quite quickly (and I suspect  it would make pretty awesome muffins).

Beet ginger and sour cream cake

Surprise! The Beet, Ginger and Sour Cream Cake shows off pretty red beet streaks when you slice into it.

The Vineyard (aka Cleopatra Cake) was my crowning glory. Not only because the result “with its intensity of flavour — is rather special,” as the book says (100 percent true) but because my mom, after trying it, allowed me to add it to our family recipes collection. The cake is made with olive oil, seedless red grapes and almost a whole bottle of dessert wine. The grapes may sound a bit weird but the flavours concentrate (not like raisins, they’re still juicy and recognizable) and are refreshing combined with the extremely moist and slightly boozy interior.

As with the other recipes, putting everything together took a bit of time but nothing too daunting. I did have to substitute the wine that was called for and instead used Torres Floralis Moscatel from the LCBO (the staff helped me make the right switch). FYI, if you make this on a Sunday, you’ll have the best breakfast ever all week.

(A quick note about the Lemon Blackcurrant stripe cake — though I didn’t make it, associate food editor Heather MacMullin tackled it for a birthday and it turned out as promised on the first try.)

Do I actually work at Ottolenghi? This cake might make you think so.

Do I actually work at Ottolenghi? This cake might make you think so.

The Verdict:   

Everything was worth the bit of extra effort it took because, dammit, you feel like a rock star when you can serve something insanely delicious to your friends and family (and know they’re a tiny bit blown away by how awesome it looks).

These recipes are like a puzzle — just maybe more like a 1,000-piece puzzle than your middle-of-the-road 500-piece box.  Anyone can make them, all the pieces fit and each step isn’t extremely complex; it just takes some patience and time. Make sure you read through the whole recipe before starting so you don’t wind up having to make a mad dash to Walmart for an angel food cake pan (yep, I did that).

These aren’t your simple no-cook squares, but like the beet cake, there are plenty of options that could be made on a weeknight. If you’re looking to make a show-stopping, special-occasion dessert, look no further. These are well-tested, proven recipes that will not let you down, from first whisk to last bite.

Who to buy it for: 

People who cook from any Ottolenghi book  (i.e. rosewater is a pantry staple)

The bakers in your life — there is something for all skill levels

Anyone you want to cheer up, flipping through this book is instant joy

Where it will live:

On the bookshelf to be called into action for parties and serious cookie cravings.

UPDATE: If you purchased the North American version of Sweet there have been several corrections to the recipes based around incorrect conversions from the UK convection oven settings to North American conventional temperatures.  Affected recipes and updates can be found on the publisher’s site.  The book will be reprinted in the spring of 2018, anyone who already purchased one can get a replacement by emailing sweet@tenspeed.com.

Watch: Cooking the Book: Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh