Claudia Fleming’s seminal cookbook, “The Last Course,” has recently been republished as it nears its 20th anniversary. Since its initial publication in 2001, the book — long out of print — has amassed a cult following. I snagged mine in 2014 from Fleming herself while visiting the North Fork Table & Inn that she ran with her husband, chef Gerry Hayden, who died of complications from ALS in 2015.
I talked to Fleming about the book’s rerelease, her advice to home bakers and what she hopes her legacy will be. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:
Q: The book is approaching 20 years old, and yet it feels fresh. When you were writing it, did you feel like those desserts were ahead of their time? So many desserts were so architectural back then.
A: I knew that wasn’t me. I often feel like the word “pastry chef” is not really appropriate. It feels more like “dessert chef.” I was making desserts; I wasn’t making architecture. I was also part of an incredible team. And I wanted the desserts to be reflective of what was happening at Gramercy Tavern at the time. Ultimately, it’s hospitality. I’m not cooking for me — I’m cooking for other people. And I’m cooking to have the dessert just be a continuation of the meal. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, let me do something different than what everybody else is doing.”
Q: Do you feel like today’s dessert world, in the age of social media, has a lot of hyped-up stuff that peaks and then becomes over?
A: Absolutely. But it just happens faster. It always happened.
Q: In what other ways has the world of dessert changed from when the book first came out?
A: The proliferation of cooking shows and social media and people sharing all kinds of experiments with the world. I think that people are just more fearless in general, whether it be baking or skiing or whatever it is they’re doing. People sharing their experiences gives confidence to [other] people — like, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
Q: When you and I first met, your husband was quite ill. Is the book’s rerelease a new, better chapter?
A: It was a very tough, a very dark time. It [the book] feels like the best thing that’s happened to me in so many years. I’m so grateful. The first time around [when the book initially came out], it was the month after 9/11; it didn’t feel very successful. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, wow, I wrote this book, and it’s being so well received.” Nobody cared. Everywhere I went while on book tour, I was being bumped, because they were finding anthrax everywhere. And the book didn’t get the reception everyone had hoped for, so it wasn’t like I was dying to do another one. And now, all these years later ... since the book went out of print, it’s been more well received than it was initially. Now I’m feeling like maybe I should think about doing another one.
Q: When it was published originally, nobody baked with grams at home, and nobody looked at weights and nobody really owned a scale unless you were a professional chef. And now more and more baking books feature weights.
A: You know it’s funny, because originally in 2001, I had requested that we do both. And the editor was like, “Oh, nobody will do this.” It’s so much easier to get people to buy a small scale that costs $10. It’s so much faster and makes things easier. But I lost that one. ... The next one will have weights.
Q: After you sell the inn, what are you hoping to do next?
A: I’d like to take some time to just explore and get inspired again. The responsibilities of running a business really take over. There are no days off. And your brain is occupied with problems like what’s going wrong and what needs to be done and promotional stuff, and you’re not thinking about the reason that got you here. The artist becomes the businessperson, which is always a disaster. And I’m not a businessperson. I hope not to be doing pastry in a restaurant. I’m tapped out of plated desserts. I would like to explore the savory side a little bit more. The food truck was kind of my baby. And I enjoy sandwich-making and want to delve more into bread.
Q: Do you have any advice about holiday baking at home?
A: Prepare as much in advance as you can. Make your pie dough ... and put them in the freezer. You can’t make fillings, but you can toast nuts and put them in a bag. Just measure out other ingredients, put them in a Ziploc and label it. Make yourself a cake mix. Making a cake mix is as easy as buying one. Put your recipes on cards and stick them on your Ziploc bags with the dry [ingredients] in there. And then you can just add your wet and, you know, days before you can mix your butter, milk and eggs in a container and keep them in the fridge.
Q: Name three tips for home cooks to step up their home baking.
A: Besides getting a kitchen scale, I would say seek out the best ingredients you possibly can. Don’t just go to the grocery store — buy the best chocolate you can, the best butter. Toast and grind your own spices.
Q: What do you think your legacy might be, or what do you want your legacy to be?
A: I hope people will think of me as generous. Generous with my knowledge. People ask me all the time, “Oh, you probably don’t share recipes.” Are you kidding? That’s what it’s all about — sharing. And more specifically, I don’t want people to think of dessert-making as being uptight.
Butterscotch Custards With Coconut Cream
Active: 30 minutes | Total: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus chilling time
For the custard
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1½ cups whole milk
½ teaspoon kosher salt
8 large egg yolks
For the coconut cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes
Make the custard: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted and smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in 1 cup of the heavy cream and the vanilla and remove from the heat.
Into the same saucepan, whisk in the remaining 1½ cups heavy cream, the milk and salt. Set the pan over medium-low heat, stirring to prevent scorching on the bottom, and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks until smooth. Remove the simmering cream mixture from the heat and drizzle a little bit of it into the egg yolks to temper but not cook them, whisking constantly to keep the yolks from curdling. Gradually, ladle by ladle, drizzle about half the dairy mixture into the yolks, whisking all the while. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the pan with the remaining dairy mixture, whisking as you pour.
Strain the custard through a fine sieve and chill for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight) and up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 325 F with the rack in the middle.
Pour the custard into six 4-ounce ramekins. Arrange them in a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan and carefully pour enough boiling water into the pan to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil and prick all over with a fork. Bake the custards for 25 minutes, then lift up a corner of the foil to vent the steam. Re-cover the pan and continue to bake, 15 to 20 minutes more, until the custards are set around the edges (you will see a slightly darker ring around the perimeter and an opaque top) but still slightly jiggly in the center. Transfer the custards to a wire rack and let them cool to room temperature, then cover them and refrigerate overnight.
Make the coconut cream: While the cooked custards chill, in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, bring the cream and sugar to a simmer, whisking all the while to dissolve the sugar and prevent scorching on the bottom. Turn off the heat and add the coconut. Let the mixture infuse for 1 hour. Strain the coconut cream, pressing on the solids and chill until thoroughly cold, at least 2 hours and up to overnight. (Discard the solids, or toast them in a 300 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until deep brown and crispy, and use as an optional topping.)
Just before serving, using a handheld mixer or a whisk, whip the coconut cream until it holds soft peaks. Serve the custards topped with the coconut whipped cream and toasted coconut chips, if using.
Storage: The baked custards can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Make ahead: The custard base can be made and refrigerated for up to 2 days before baking.
Nutrition information: Calories: 550; Total Fat: 42 g; Saturated Fat: 31 g; Cholesterol: 305 mg; Sodium: 120 mg; Carbohydrates: 33 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 30 g; Protein: 4 g