Seasonal Fruit Desserts is the title of famous-but-local author Deborah Madison's new book. The three words of the title contain many suggestions—the most blatant and mouthwatering of which are conjured by the word "desserts," written in giant typeface on the book's cover.
That emphasis probably plays well in booksellers' aisles but, in practice, it's almost a constraint: The book is actually a page-by-page insurgency against the over-sugared, unimaginative indulgences that plague the American plate.
The use of seasonal fare is one of Madison's longtime specialties. Her fluid, chummy writing style reads like a metaphorical walk down a country lane with an unimposing expert who casually remarks on the rhythms of fruit trees, berry bushes, farms and hidden markets. Seriously, it's uncomfortably idyllic.
Fruit is, obviously enough, the star of the show. Not only are there long meditations that manage to encompass both the spiritual presence and practical use of various apples, grapes, plums, melons, lychees, etc., but there are also dozens of remarkable and inspiring fruit incursions into territory previously guarded by cheese, pudding, rice and, horrifyingly, quinoa. The characteristic sweetness of fruit pushes Madison's book naturally toward its self-identified dessert domain, but the menagerie of recipes and range of fruity metamorphoses result in a ravenous selection of savory options as well. The section on fruit-based sauces alone offers a sea change in sensibilities for sophomore sauciers.
I mean, I don't want to offend Madison's largely vegetarian sensibilities (she is the author of the well-regarded Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), but I will be slathering some of her blood-orange caramel on a thick pork chop in the very near future.
Late March was not the best time to delve into the book's recipes—at least not from a local, seasonal perspective in northern New Mexico—but I felt compelled to sacrifice myself on the altar of out-of-state apples and berries. Interested in quasi-savory applications, I made a souffléed pancake with caramelized apples and aged cheddar.
Madison recommends a few apple options if her preferred "big, tart Bramleys" are unavailable, but I couldn't find any of her substitutes either. I chose Pinova apples and I'm not sorry. Presuming them to be smaller, I used three apples rather than the two the recipe calls for. After carefully caramelizing the thin-sliced apples in a cast-iron skillet with a bath of butter and brown sugar sealed with a fiery dash of bourbon, I poured Madison's simple pancake batter recipe straight over the top and tossed it in the oven for 30 minutes.
The result was as puffy and golden as a forbidden idol and the flavor—when topped with a sharpish cheddar—was appallingly perfect. The dish rides the cusp of savory and sweet. I'd have been equally happy to add a fried egg as a dollop of ice cream to the side. As it was, I simply ate it greedily out of the pan while my dog watched me from afar with a practiced blend of curiosity and disdain.
Credit lies with Madison's simple, informative and addictive book. I wasn't nearly so successful in my attempt at a straightforward berry galette, but that's because I still let pastry dough push me around like a schoolyard bully. Also, I shunned Madison's suggestion of butter over lard and used some from a jar given to me by friends who raise pastured pigs in Colorado. It didn't create the magically flaky crust I had imagined. Still, there are worse things in life than a pie dish full of hot, sugary berries nestled inside imperfect pastry. Even if it tastes a little piggy.
If you're interested in reinventing dessert or just following the seasons here in Santa Fe, Madison's impressive new book deserves to be splayed open on your counter, dusted in flour and stained with berries.
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Seasonal Fruit Desserts: from Orchard, Farm and Market
By Deborah Madison
Broadway Books, 288 pages, $32.50
6 pm Tuesday, April 6
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo St.