Dessert Done Light 

A new book stresses that amazing desserts can still be fairly low-cal.

You really love big, splashy desserts, don't you? And you're a little scared of them too, right? Scared to try to make one; scared of what it will do to your waistline?

We all are. And Nick Malgieri has a couple of messages for us. "A lot of good desserts are naturally low in calories," he says -- and, yes, you read that right. "Not everything has to be as rich as an 800-calorie slice of cheesecake."

And then there's this: "Baking isn't science. You don't need to put on your lab coat and sterilize everything. Sometimes, when people are writing about food, they think that describing a complicated process adds a veneer of credibility or scientific accuracy. I don't know where that came from."

To tackle these two myths, Malgieri has teamed up with healthy-cooking author David Joachim to write Perfect Light Desserts (Morrow, $29.95). The subtitle suggests the book's twofold mission: "Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs, All Under 300 Calories Per Generous Serving."

On Wednesday, January 24th, Malgieri will do a baking workshop at the Viking Cooking School.

To create the book, Malgieri drew on his personal collection of some 8,000 cookbooks and 60,000 recipes, one dating back to when he was 6 years old: his Sicilian grandmother's recipe for arancini di riso, or rice balls. He speaks Italian, French, and German, so he draws information from several cultures.

Perfect Light Desserts pretty much takes you by the hand and shows you how to bake; in fact, How To Bake is the title of an earlier Malgieri book, which won the James Beard Award. With this one, he starts with a discussion of equipment and ingredients, all of them "familiar to the home cook and easy to find in the average supermarket." Malgieri says he's "big on plain old ingredients. People have to be able to get what I used so the recipes have credibility."

click to enlarge p._42_food_feature_2.jpg

He also gives basic instructions on things like how to measure flour. (You should spoon it into the measuring cup, to avoid compacting it.) He also discusses how long to beat egg batter, choosing the right pan, and even specific brands to look for and why.

He insists that the low-cal angle isn't a gimmick.

"There are no artificial ingredients in the book," he says. "The most 'far-out' thing is reduced-fat dairy products. Sometimes it worked out that it wasn't necessary to omit more than a small percentage of the fat to make our 300-calorie goal. One of the custards is even made with whole milk and whole eggs!"

If that surprises you, Malgieri had a few "a-ha!" moments of his own working on the book.

"You can really achieve excellent flavor and texture with reduced fat," he says. "We have a Viennese caramel custard, for example. It has caramel inside and out, and a four-ounce portion is only 250 calories and five grams of fat. And you only have to make minimal alterations in the pastry-dough recipes to lower the amount of fat enough."

The 125 recipes are divided into chocolate, cakes, pies and tarts, puddings/custards/soufflés, fruit, frozen, cookies, and sauces. And each one comes with amazingly detailed directions as well as serving instructions, storage suggestions, possible variations, and complete nutritional information.

The overall message of the book is "get this stuff, do it this way, and you will get this amazing dessert with this amount of stuff in it." Sprinkled throughout are mini-essays on topics such as "Get the most from spices and herbs," "Egg alternatives," and "Lower the carbs -- keep the flavor."

Neither the book nor the dishes lack style. It's a beautiful volume, with an eye-popping cover shot of the Old-Fashioned Raspberry Tart (236 calories per serving). Another stunner is Mary's Cappuccino Brûlé, a coffee-flavored custard baked in a coffee cup and topped with a fluffy meringue that's browned so the whole thing looks like a cappuccino.

There are also more grounded offerings: a Ginger-Lover's Pound Cake, Vanilla Bean Chiffon Cake, Old-Fashioned Chocolate Pudding, and Lemon Yogurt Mousse.

At Viking, Malgieri says he will bake three low-cal cakes (fat-free devil's food cake, raspberry mousse cake, and a blueberry crumb cake) as well as three non-light cakes: a "pull-out-all-the-stops chocolate cake that's so chocolatey it's like an enormous brownie," plus a Dutch apple cake and an Italian buttery hazelnut cake.

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