For years, Claudia Fleming has been the gold standard when it comes to creating high-end desserts and pastries, and she has the accolades to prove it.
A James Beard-Award winner, she was, for years, the pastry chef at the iconic Gramercy Tavern in New York City, before moving to the North Fork in 2006 to open the acclaimed North Fork Table and Inn with her late husband, chef Gerry Hayden.
It’s why her book, “The Last Course,” was such a big hit when it was released in 2001. The intended aim was to make the delicious and exquisite creations she put together at Gramercy Tavern accessible for the home cook.
Nearly 20 years after the original release, Fleming said she was pleasantly surprised and delighted when Random House, the book’s publisher, emailed her in the spring saying they wanted to re-release the cookbook, which had been out of print for years and was demanding high prices on sites like Amazon and E-Bay.
The book will be released again in time for the holidays, and several events have been planned around the re-launch. A tasting and book signing is set for November 15 at North Fork Table and Inn, which includes a meet-and-greet with Fleming, a three-course dessert tasting, and wine tasting, while a book signing, cooking demo and Q&A is set for November 18 at Murray’s Wine and Cheese on Bleecker Street in New York. Fleming will also do a “Tavern Takeover” at Gramercy Tavern in New York on November 20 as part of the restaurant’s 25th anniversary celebration.
For Fleming, the timing is perfect. She has more time on her hands at this time of year, now that the rush of the busy summer and fall season is coming to an end, and she’s looking forward to promoting the book once again.
“I have an opportunity to get out there and reconnect with people and enjoy it,” she said in an interview last week. “The first time around, I didn’t know how it was going to be received, and now that all this time has passed and with all the enthusiasm for it, it feels really nice.”
A lot of has changed for Fleming, both personally and professionally, since the book was originally released. She moved on from the high-paced city life at Gramercy Tavern more than a decade ago, moving east to the North Fork to open North Fork Table and Inn with Hayden, who died in 2015 after battling ALS. Since then, she has assumed the responsibilities of running the popular restaurant and inn, along with several dedicated staff members and partners.
The circumstances surrounding the re-release are also markedly different than they were when it was originally published, the month after the September 11 attacks.
“The book was released a month after 9/11, and it was like, who cares about dessert?” Fleming recalled. “One could make the argument that it could be a nice escape, but it wasn’t an argument well made a month after [the attacks]. So it really became so insignificant at the time. So this, now, just feels like a whole new coming out party.”
Those who have been fans of the book since its original release will be happy to know that not much has changed. Fleming says her desserts have a timeless quality to them and she’s not too concerned with following the latest food trends of the day.
“All the recipes are exactly the same, and they remain classic desserts, I hope,” she said. “I think they still resonate with people today.”
There are 175 recipes in the book — which was lauded as “the greatest dessert book in the history of the world” by Bon Apetit — and they are organized seasonally by fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and flowers, spices, sweet essences, dairy, and chocolate. The last chapter offers suggestions on how to combine different desserts to “create the ultimate composed desserts,” and wine pairing suggestions are included as well. The re-packaged edition includes more than 80 color photographs.
There is something for everyone, but Fleming said she’s gotten consistent feedback on some favorites.
“The gingerbread cake for sure is a favorite,” she said. “It’s very simple and it’s just super delicious. People seem to gravitate toward that one very often. The chocolate caramel tarte is for people who are maybe more adventurous. It’s not difficult, but it’s time consuming, but in the end the reward is very great and people are happy to take the extra time.
The gingerbread cake is particularly popular for the holiday season, as well as the quinze thumbprint cookies, the apple tarte tatin, and chestnut soufflés. For those who may be intimidated by making a soufflé, Fleming offers a bit of encouragement.
“It’s such a fallacy that they’re hard,” she said. “And they don’t need to be done last minute. And they’re such a delight when you bring them to the table.”
The key is in following the directions precisely, and using quality ingredients.
“People have said to me, ‘The recipes work, and it’s a pleasure,’” she added. “You’re not afraid to make them even if they seem a little complicated.”
Because baking requires the kind of precision and ability to closely follow instructions that typical cooking doesn’t always, there can be an intimidation factor associated with making desserts, which Fleming acknowledged. But she pointed out another factor that can’t be discounted.
“One of the attractive things for me is that it’s not necessary; dessert is not necessary,” she said. “It’s a treat, and it just makes it that much more fun. It’s not like, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to make dinner, what am I going to make for dinner?’ Instead, it’s, ‘Oh, we’re going to have cookies and everyone will be grateful.’”
Plenty of work went into making sure that the decadent desserts created in a high functioning industrial kitchen in one of the highest-rated restaurants in New York City could be achievable for the average home cook. To create and fine-tune the recipes for the cookbook 17 years ago, Fleming worked closely with Melissa Clark, a food reporter and columnist for the New York Times who has written dozens of cookbooks and creates recipes while also reporting on food trends and talking food in her column, A Good Appetite. Clark had been assigned to do a series of articles about Fleming when she was still at Gramercy Tavern, and they became friends during the course of that work. Danny Meyer, who founded Gramercy Tavern along with Mattituck resident Tom Colicchio in 1994 and hired Fleming as the pastry chef that year, suggested they do a cookbook together. David Black, one of the many people from the publishing industry who regularly lunched at Gramercy, became her agent.
“Melissa would come into the restaurant and we would make the recipe together and then scale it back,” Fleming said, describing the process in creating the book, adding that it’s no easy task to scale back a recipe from its restaurant iteration to something that’s workable on a smaller scale at home. “She would then go back to her home kitchen and re-create it, and I would either go to her house or she would bring the finished product to me and we’d tweak it and review it and see if it was appropriate and easy enough for the home cook to re-create.”
Trying to find the right balance required plenty of trial and error, and Fleming gave a lot of credit to Clark for the fine-tuning that have made the recipes workable.
“That was really Melissa’s challenge,” she said. “I would demonstrate what it was and how it was supposed to be and she would have to come back and see if it was close enough.
“People have come back and said, ‘I’ve made this at home and it’s good, but not like it was at the restaurant,’” Fleming continued, before adding, with a laugh, “and I’m like, yeah, good, otherwise I don’t have a job!”
Clark praised Fleming for combining American flavors and a “farmer’s market mentality” with “very specific technique,” calling on her classical French training, something that is more common now but was revolutionary at the time.
“What grows together goes together, and we know that now, but people weren’t doing that back then, especially with pastry,” Clark said.
She anticipates the book will gain a new and enthusiastic following, based on what has changed over the years.
“People are much savvier bakers now, and I think this book will be right up their alley,” she said.
Fleming said she’s excited to relive all those experiences and share them with new people.
“I really am looking forward to reconnecting with so many people that are fans of the book, and connecting with a whole new generation of younger cooks that I’m able to share this with is really exciting for me,” she said. “The reception has been just so surprising and thrilling for me. You leave New York City and you kind of feel like you’ve left the center of the world, so to hear from all these people is really nice and comforting. It’s a lovely welcome back.”