In recent years, a growing number of cookbooks have featured food photography so luscious it's practically pornographic. The Hermé book falls into that category, with tight shots of truffles, pavés, candies and tarts that are clearly intended to make readers swoon.
The multilayer "Plaisir Sucré" is the most seductive of the bunch, and yet few people will make it through the five pages of instructions that follow -- for dacquoise, praline, ganache, chocolate sauce and more. The same goes for the time-consuming gâteau St.-Honoré, which involves poached pears, cream puffs, caramel and chocolate whipped cream, and the chocolate-filled mille-feuille, which calls for caramelized puff pastry, preferably homemade.
For the less ambitious cook, there are plenty of easier recipes to help satisfy burning chocolate cravings. Hermé's ice cream, rice pudding, mousse, sablées and madeleines are very amateur-friendly. There are five recipes for hot chocolate, plus a useful core collection of base recipes for crucial elements such as crème anglaise, pastry cream and ladyfingers.
Presilla's book is also a looker, with enough colorful shots of plantations and chocolate production to quell the curiosity of even the most intellectual of chocolate fans. The archival images -- woodblock prints, Aztec paintings, century-old photographs and more -- are even more interesting, ample support for the fascinating text on the social and botanical history of chocolate.
There's a great deal to know, and of course the story isn't always a happy one, as the early cultivation of cocoa for commercial mass-production involved the exploitation of Native Americans and African slaves. And many traditional recipes pioneered by indigenous people -- including a spicy, corn-and-nut enriched cocoa drink that Spanish aristocrats also relished -- seem lost to us forever.
But this is an upbeat read overall, dense with information without ever feeling ponderous. Readers interested in learning more about the best modern chocolate and the now-fashionable single-origin varieties won't be disappointed.
Nor will cooks, for the last third of the book is all recipes -- Presilla's own, plus many she collected from some of the best pastry chefs and confectioners in the United States. There's even one from Pierre Hermé: chocolate croquettes with coconut, pistachio and pearl tapioca sauce. There's no picture, alas. To fantasize, turn to the photos of Flo Braker's "Tropical Night" brownies or Elizabeth Falkner's Scharffen Berger roulade, which are guaranteed to drive readers wild with desire.