Buxom Cakes and Homemade Sin: A Review of Death By Chocolate Cakes by Marcel Desaulniers

Reviewed by Nancy Allison

Death By Chocolate Cakes: An Astonishing Array of Chocolate Enchantments
by Marcel Desaulniers

Got a mocha jones? With this seductive cake-book for chocophiles, Marcel Desaulniers, executive chef, restaurateur and award-winning cookbook author, supplies all the knowledge you’ll need to halt the craving–at least for a while. Don’t know your spatula from your Sachertorte? Don’t worry. Desaulniers makes baking your own gâteaux look as easy as pie in this beautifully photographed book of buxom cakes and homemade sin.

He’s known as the Guru of Ganache. Some call him Dr. Chocolate–and wish he made house calls. As serious as he is about chocolate, (and he is serious: this is cookbook number three in his Death by Chocolate and Desserts to Die For series) Desaulniers is certainly the funniest chef in print. Every recipe comes with a “Chef’s Touch,” a few paragraphs of wit and wisdom about how best to make the cake, what to snort along with it (Marcel favors a chocolate-flavored Russian vodka), a bit of the history behind the recipe, and how best to handle its delicate parts.

Desaulniers’ prose is nearly as seductive as his way with chocolate. No pedantic, chef-on-high stuff here: Desaulniers writes about baking with a wayward grin, assuring us that cake is not only food for the gods, but that it is, after all, just cake. Made in kitchens just like ours, with chocolate bought in the local grocery, using “conventional” bake ware and regular (not restaurant) ovens, Desaulniers’ cakes are ones we really can bake ourselves.

Winner of James Beard’s Outstanding Pastry Chef Award, Desaulniers nonetheless claims that he is not a pastry chef. Maybe there’s hope for you and me, then. Especially if we, too, can have the help of bona fide pastry chefs Brett and Kelly Bailey, co-conspirators with Desaulniers in creating the perfect love triangle: chocolate, chocolate and chocolate.

The man is thoroughly smitten, and doesn’t mind admitting it, with ganache. Read this book and you will soon be, too. You might not name your kitchen-cum-studio after it, print it on your license plates or make it your e-mail address, but given half a chance and Marcel’s easy instructions, you’ll be making deep dark chocolate truffles in no time flat. Even if you’re only semi dab-handed, the Guru of Ganache will gently take it, and lead you through the whole decadent process step by sinful step.

Desaulniers is a flirt, no question. Even if his “”My Little Kumquat” cake (ginger-macadamia topped with chocolate kumquat mousse) WAS concocted for his wife, you might find yourself wondering what it would be like to wake in the wee hours to find him in the kitchen assembling the “Midnight Truffle Cake” just for you…Especially when Desaulniers cheekily advises that those who feel the need to don gloves (when it comes time to roll the ganache into delightful fudge-y balls) must go right ahead, making it quite clear that he prefers the bare-handed approach, himself.

But sex is only part of the equation when it comes to chocolate, and Desaulniers twigs to this. Much of the book harks back to childhood and the cakes that his mother (“Mrs. D.”) made when Desaulniers was a boy. But the section called “Mom’s Cakes” isn’t rich in childhood memory only for the chef: he tells the tales behind his colleagues’ recipes (handed down from grandmothers, aunts, mothers-in-law, and just plain mums) too. And what a fine raconteur he is, giving every cake a story, opening a tiny window into other lives that makes the recipes all the sweeter.

Unlike so many chef-written cookbooks, Death by Chocolate Cakes is personal. Not only does Desaulniers share with us the tools and tips gained through nearly 40 years of experience and training, he gives something much more interesting and rich: a peek into his world and the humor that pervades it.

Such open-hearted writing makes even reluctant bakers want to try their luck. In Desaulniers’ hands, the sky-high, celebration, mini, maxi, sexy, chocolate cake, that product of skill, generosity and dare I say it, love, is more than just a good thing to eat.

Desaulniers’ recipe for “quintessential chocolate ganache” the glorious, gooey stuff which he uses in so many tempting ways throughout the book, is reprinted here for all you chocolate-loving compulsive readers. Indulge!

Ganache Ingredients
8 ounces semisweet baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
3/4-cup heavy cream

Go Ganache!
Place 8 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate in a small bowl. Heat 3/4-cup heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Pour the boiling cream over the chopped chocolate. Set aside for 5 minutes and then stir with a whisk until smooth. [At this point, you can use the ganache to ice your already prepared and cooled cake layers. Or, to make truffles, continue as follows:]

Pour the mixture onto a non-stick baking sheet and use a rubber spatula to spread the ganache in a smooth, even layer to within about 1 inch of the inside edges. Place the ganache in the freezer for 15 minutes, or in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, until very firm to the touch.

Line a 10- to 12-inch dinner plate with parchment paper or wax paper. Remove the firm ganache from the freezer or the refrigerator. Portion 12 heaping tablespoons (a bit more than 1 ounce each) of ganache onto the paper. Individually roll each portion of ganache in your palms in a circular motion, using just enough gentle pressure to form a smooth orb.

About the Reviewer: Native Marylander Nancy Allison lives in New York, where she hunts up stories on food, books, people and plants for Bon Appetit, Writer’s Digest, Herb Companion, Chesapeake Bay, Sandlapper, Lake Murray, Skirt, and Herbs for Health magazines.