Having grown up in with an extended family full of talented Portuguese cooks and bakers, I know all about the role that beautiful (and often elaborate) desserts can play in European family gatherings. It’s something that Grace Massa Langlois is also quite familiar with – she’s been sharing her beautiful desserts and family stories on her blog, Grace’s Sweet Life, for just a little over two years.
So when I was recently asked if I’d like to review her new cookbook, which is also titled Grace’s Sweet Life, I jumped at the chance. Like the cover promises, this cookbook is Grace’s tribute to both classic and new-school Italian desserts, with recipes for everything from cannoli, biscotti and tiramisu to torte, tartufi and struffoli.
The book begins with basic recipes for building blocks like pastry fillings and doughs, and then moves on to chapters devoted to full-sized cakes and cheesecakes, mini desserts, cookies and confections, pies and tarts, pastries and fried deserts, creams, custards, mousses and souffles, and last but not least, frozen and fruit desserts. Like Grace’s blog, the recipes in the book are accompanied by photos taken by Grace’s daughter, Liana, which show off the finished creations.
Many of the recipes in the book are quite elaborate, with multiple separate components that must be prepared individually before being assembled into the final product. In other words, exactly the type of beautiful cakes, cookies and pastries you’d find at any Italian bakery worth its salt. Definitely not for the lazy or the faint of heart, though!
The true test of a cookbook, however, isn’t about how pretty its photos are or how delicious the recipes sound. It’s about whether or not the recipes actually work. (Believe it or not, I’ve run into a few books that were real stinkers in this department.)
Bravely risking my waistline for the sake of my journalistic integrity, I decided I should take one of the recipes for a test drive by baking up the little bite-sized pastry tartlets known as Bocconotti, which Grace fills with a chocolate-almond meringue. (OK, fine, I just wanted an excuse to make a beautiful dessert… but that’s just between you and me.)
In case you’re curious, here’s what they look like in Grace’s book:
And here’s how they turned out for me (I used mini muffin tins instead, which is why they don’t have those pretty little fluted edges):
Overall, I found the recipe was well-organized and easy to follow. Like most of the desserts in this book, it is broken down into individual components, each with its own set of ingredients and directions. (And numbered in Italian, might I add, which is a rather cute touch.)
The step-by-step directions were fairly clear, though I did find myself occasionally wondering if I was on the right track, since the recipe doesn’t always provide much guidance as to what texture or consistency to expect – something that I find very useful when trying out an unfamiliar recipe.
I did run into one small hiccup when the time came to roll the pastry dough into little balls, because my dough was far too soft and sticky – since there wasn’t much information given as to the expected texture, I still don’t know if it’s actually the expected consistency, or if I made a mistake along the way. (Mind you, I may be a little spoiled from having baked almost exclusively from a Dorie Greenspan book these past few months, since she’s almost gratuitously thorough in her descriptions.)
Anyway, I simply solved my problem by chilling the dough until it firmed up to the right consistency, but I could see this being a bit of a stumbling block for a newbie baker.
And the finished pastries? Minor quibbles aside, they’re utterly irresistible… it was all I could do not to inhale the whole batch in one sitting.
Despite the fact that they look like little tartlets, the base for these one-bite pastries is rather more like a crumbly cake in texture with a not-too-sweet flavour, while the hint of lemon zest is a perfect accent to the sweet chocolate-almond meringue. Not surprisingly, they’re utterly perfect with a cup of espresso.
All in all, Grace’s Sweet Life would be a great addition to your collection if you’re a keen baker or a big fan of Italian desserts, particularly have the patience to tackle dessert recipes with multiple elements. I know I’ll be using it again!
I was provided with a complimentary copy of Grace’s Sweet Life in exchange for writing this review. All opinions are entirely my own. Recipe and photo used with permission.
- 7 tbsp (100 g) vegetable shortening, melted and cooled
- ¼ cup plus 3 tbsp (100 g) superfine sugar
- 3 large egg yolks
- 2¾ oz (85 ml) dry vermouth
- 1 cup (125 g) all-purpose flour
- ¾ tsp baking powder
- 3 large egg whites
- ⅔ cup (150 g) superfine sugar
- 1 tbsp (7 g) unsweetened cocoa, sifted
- Grated zest of ½ lemon
- ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
- 2¼ cups (300 g) almonds, toasted and finely chopped
- ½ cup (120 g) mini semisweet chocolate chips
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the shortening and sugar at medium speed for 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks and beat for 2 minutes longer. Add the vermouth and beat for 3 minutes longer.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder.
- Gradually add the flour mixture to the shortening mixture and beat to just combine. (Isabelle's Note: Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and transfer to the freezer to chill for 20 minutes, or until dough is quite firm.)
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg whites at medium speed until frothy. Add the sugar. Increase the speed to high and beat until the egg whites form stiff peaks.
- Add the cocoa, lemon zest, and vanilla. Beat to just combine.
- With a large rubber spatula, fold in the almonds and chocolate chips. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Spray mini tart tins with ½-inch bases with cooking spray and set aside. (Isabelle's Note: I swapped out the mini tart tins for a mini muffin tin instead - it worked just fine, though it did mean my tartlets didn't come out with those pretty fluted edges.)
- Scoop out 1 teaspoon of dough, roll it into a ball, and place it in a tart pan. Use your fingers to press the dough into the sides and bottom of the pan. Repeat with the remaining dough and tart pans. Arrange the pans on a full sheet pan.
- Fill each tart shell with a large dollop of chocolate-almond filling. The tart should be almost overflowing because the filling tends to shrink, but make sure the filling does not touch the edge of the pastry where it meets the top of the pan because it could make the pastry stick.
- Bake until golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
- Remove the tins from the oven, and immediately remove the cookies from the tins (use a toothpick to help with removal if the pastry sticks). Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If baking in batches, wash and dry tins between uses.
- To serve, dust with confectioner’s sugar.