The Studied Carelessness of Great Dessert

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When I’m cooking for myself, the question I nearly always start with is: how much effort am I willing to make today? When I’m cooking for anyone else, the question is how much effort I want to look like I’m making. This is ordinarily where things start to go wrong. Recently, this shift of mentality—the jump from cook to performer—led me to make a croquembouche for a dinner with friends, baking a hundred and thirteen (there were some casualties) small choux puffs in five batches and across two days, before getting out a sketchbook, pencil, and calculator to plan the assembly. By the end of construction, I had made a conical tower of cream- and chocolate-hazelnut-custard-filled profiteroles ten tiers tall, cemented with nearly two pounds of hard caramel and encircled by a moat of decorative, non-structural cream puffs. I brought it to the table to a chorus of oohs, which is the only polite way of reacting to something that is a transparently huge amount of work.

But effort isn’t always quite so palpable, and when you’re making dessert—a nutritionally unnecessary course that is at least seventy per cent about impressing people—this presents a problem. Take peaches, for instance: you can go to great trouble to shock them in very hot and then iced water, slip off their skins, free the flesh from the gnarly clutch of the pit and then cut them into crescents. But once the fruit is draped with an undulating blanket of pastry, and baked until the juices begin to sputter through the crust, that effort stops being legible. In place of profiterole moats or tenderly obsequious little garnishes like crystallized angelica or Chantilly rosettes, hard work is absorbed into the dessert on an almost molecular level. These kinds of desserts are beautiful, in their way, but this isn’t the same as being impressive.

Lately, I’ve been feeling embarrassed about my need to show off, which as well as being an impractical way to cook has started to feel like a moral failing. In her book “The Last Bite,” the London-based pastry chef Anna Higham cautions cooks against their own vanity. “Your first thought when you eat a dessert should always be ‘that’s delicious’. Your second can be ‘that’s interesting’ but never the other way around.” Her recipes, which are beautiful and arranged by season, are to my croquembouche what a Jil Sander collection is to Zoolander: think fig-leaf ice cream, rhubarb rice pudding, prune purée and blood-orange sorbet. “I am of the belief that once you taste a perfectly ripe berry, you no longer think that you can improve it through manipulation,” she writes. “The skill is in making it taste the most of itself it possibly can.”

Despite being professionally trained, Higham seems uneasy with the effortful formality of old-school French pâtisserie and joins a long line of authors who prefer a looser—even loucher—approach to dessert. In 1982, there was Jane Grigson’s classic “Fruit Book,” joined in the early nineteen-nineties by Nigel Slater’s “Real Fast Puddings,” and later “Tender: Volume II.” Claudia Fleming’s “The Last Course,” which is divided not by technique but into stone fruits, citrus, berries, and more, has become a cult classic. In books like these, dessert means fruit, and fruit means the kind of unbuttoned seasonality and sensuality that threatens to topple the pâtissier’s toque.

Alison Roman’s newest cookbook, “Sweet Enough,” adopts—at least on the surface of things—a similar anti-grandiosity stance. (Her previous book is called “Nothing Fancy.”) In the Roman culinary empire, you don’t make a galette, you galette (verb). A raspberry ricotta cake is a celebration of “the near impossibility and radical joy of an almost one-bowl cake.” There’s an idea that baking should be difficult, exacting work, she explains. “But as someone who would never be described as tidy or precise, who is not prim or proper, who is not a scientist, I reject those sentiments.”

Reading “Sweet Enough,” I’m forcibly reminded that pies can leak. Tarts can be open and rustic. Cheesecakes will crack, and this is fine—even charming. In the “Frozen Things” chapter, Roman starts by reassuring me, as though she has just poked her head around the kitchen door and seen the state I’m in, that often making ice cream at home just isn’t worth it. She’ll buy me a couple of pints at the store, and when she’s back she’ll show me how to put together a make-your-own sundae bar. “I’ll level with you,” she confides. “Most of the recipes here are ‘mixed’ or ‘assembled’ more than ‘made,’ which will either bore you or thrill you, but I hope you’re thrilled.”

I’ve been thinking about how I can work a little of this easiness into my own desserts. I’ve come to the conclusion that a fruit cobbler is the way forward: it’s a dessert that requires quiet attentiveness if it’s to be made well, but it never requires a cook to be a martyr for its cause. The topping is a one-bowl job—nearly impossible to ruin—so I can hardly use this as an opportunity to showboat. In the oven, it undergoes a tectonic shift over which I have little to no control: rising, spreading, bubbling, and cracking according to its own expressive logic.

And yet I can feel the method-actor cook in me limbering up and doing a few cascading vocal runs. I am entering an Alison Roman frame of mind, which means embodying a kind of studied carelessness that, despite being an aesthetic of rustic and occasionally rambunctious charm, is an aesthetic all the same. I can picture bringing my cobbler to the table with an “Oh? This old thing?” in a big roasting dish from which everyone can help themselves. Water will be in tastefully mismatched glassware. Maybe there will be table flowers (nothing too gauche) and, as Roman recommends, “a few bottles of juicy wine.” If I’m lucky, my guests will marvel at the effortlessness that I’ve gone to great effort to convey.

An Interseasonal Blueberry Cobbler

Serves 6

Obviously, a fruit cobbler will be a delight if you make it in season when the fruit is at the height of its powers, but that is a luxury a cook doesn’t always have. This cobbler isn’t a poetic expression of midsummer bounty but a cobbled-together dessert for that awkward little gap between the winter citrus glut and the summer fruit season. It uses frozen blueberries—the trick for balancing their insipidity is to add a handful of pitted prunes, which lend a rounded, resonant fruitiness. The cornmeal cobbler topping is, by the way, the best I’ve ever had.


For the cobbler topping:

  • 1 cup (120g) all-purpose flour

  • ¾ cup plus 1 Tbsp. (120g) fine cornmeal

  • 2 tsp. baking powder

  • 3 Tbsp. (40g) Demerara sugar

  • Zest of 1 orange

  • Pinch of ground nutmeg

  • Generous pinch of sea-salt flakes

  • 7 Tbsp. (100g) unsalted butter, cold

  • 1 ¼ cups (300 ml) heavy cream

For the blueberries:

  • 4 cups (roughly 750g) frozen blueberries

  • ½ cup (125g) pitted prunes, roughly chopped

  • Juice from 1 orange

  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. (85g) Demerara sugar

  • 3–4 Tbsp. (20–30g) all-purpose flour

To finish:

  • 2 Tbsp. (20g) Demerara sugar


  • 2-qt. glass or ceramic oven dish


1. Preheat the oven to 360 degrees.

2. Start by preparing the cobbler topping. In a large bowl, combine all-purpose flour, fine cornmeal, baking powder, Demerara sugar, orange zest, nutmeg, and salt.

3. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the dry mix, then rub together until the mixture is sandy, with no chunks of butter remaining.

4. Slowly pour in the heavy cream, mixing as you go. You may not need all of the cream: stop when you have a dense and slightly sticky dough. It should be similar in texture to a soft biscuit dough.

5. Now for the blueberry mixture: in your oven dish, combine frozen blueberries, chopped prunes, orange juice, Demerara sugar, and flour. (If you prefer to make this with an equal amount of fresh blueberries, add a little less than the full 4 Tbsp. flour, as they tend to release less juice in the oven.)

6. Using your hands, pinch off chunks of the cobbler dough the size of a table-tennis ball, and then pat into a fat disk shape, roughly ½-inch thick. Arrange these disks over the top of the blueberries, leaving small gaps in between for the juices to bubble through.

7. Sprinkle the remaining 2 Tbsp. Demerara sugar over the top of the cobbler, then transfer the dish to the oven on a middle shelf. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the juices are staining the cobbler and the top is risen, crisp, and gold. This is best served warm, rather than piping hot, and is very good with crème fraîche or pouring cream. ♦


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