Too Much Heaven

And now if I might speak out of the other side of my mouth for a moment, I’d like to devote a little time to a book that several readers have asked me to comment on, but which I only just received for Christmas: Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes. Rose Levy Beranbaum worshipper that I am, I’ve spent the last several days trying to figure out how to parse my opinions about this book. But it’s only me and you here, right? So I might as well tell you right from the start: this book is a letdown.

Not because the recipes aren’t technically perfect. They are. And not because the recipes aren’t clear or well presented. They’re that too. I mean, this is Rose Levy Beranbaum we’re talking about. She’s a legend. She wrote The Cake Bible (not to mention The Pastry Bible and the Bread Bible). There is no greater master of the art of American layer cake baking, nor any more skilled or technically proficient teacher of the subject. So what’s my problem? The problem is with the aesthetic of this book. It’s just too much.

Everywhere you look in Rose’s Heavenly Cakes you find overkill. From the syrup spooned over her Apple Upside-Down Cake to the oozing passion fruit curd in her White Gold Passion Génoise to the near two inches of whipped cream plopped on top of her Heavenly Coconut Seduction Cake, excess abounds. Combine the 1/4-inch lemon curd and buttercream filling layers in Woody’s Lemon Luxury Cake and you have nearly as much icing as you have cake. Even the photography is verging on lurid. Everywhere molten chocolate, liquidy curds and sticky sauces all but drip from the pages.

What gives? Was this not the woman who many years ago championed the judicious use of real buttercream versus heaping piles of out-of-the-can fakes? That encouraged her readers to see filling and icings as condiments as opposed to ends in themselves? That message inspired me. Yet here Berenbaum seems to have chucked all that aside and thrown herself headlong into pointless decadence. Why? I’ve often lampooned authors like Ann Byrn for authoring layer cake books that seem to regard the cake as a necessary evil. I’m sad to say that with Rose’s Heavenly Cakes Beranbaum comes dangerously close to that very territory.

It’s possible that I’m being too harsh. An argument can be made that Rose’s Heavenly Cakes is a compendium of special occasion cakes and desserts which, when presented in series as they are, are bound to overwhelm a reader. My problem is that I read cookbooks as though they were literature, not sets of instructions. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine a context where I’d find a syrupy Carmel Pineapple Pudding Cake or uber-gooey Bostini appetizing. Certainly not at the end of a rich meal, and I dare say not as a sinker with a cup of coffee on a weekend afternoon. Maybe I’m getting old, or the Europeans are finally getting to me, but I just couldn’t take it.

Will I learn from this book? Absolutely. There are plenty of excellent ideas and formulas here, which in the right context and in their proper proportion would be wonderful. So on that level I recommend it, for there’s no such thing as a Rose Levy Beranbaum formula that doesn’t work. However as a layer cake recipe book Rose’s Heavenly Cakes fails, sinking under its own weight.

I know from other food bloggers that Rose’s publicist is currently calling around offering review copies and interviews with Rose as part of the promotional campaign. Having written this, it’s farewell to all that I’m sure. However I care too much about the Rose I know and love not to tell the truth about this book, which is simply not worthy of the woman who taught a generation of bakers to cherish the classic American layer cake.

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