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Desert Companion

Sweetness and light: Pastry chef Megan Romano

Start that New Year's diet already? Fortunately, Megan Romano proves that good desserts don't have to make you feel bad.

Sweetness and lightSucculent blood oranges picked at peak flavor, churned into mouth-puckering sorbet. Stunning color and complementary flavor of late summer's fleeting Concord grapes. Invigorating wake-up call to the senses sparked by a sprig of fresh spearmint.

Is this a cookbook or a poem?

A little of both. With a fine arts and communications degree from Northwestern University, Megan Romano was all set to climb the corporate media ladder on the East Coast. Instead, she followed her dreams and became an established (yet sensible) chocolatier in one of the most renowned restaurants in one of the world's most decadent cities. How did that happen?

After graduation, Romano cut her teeth apprenticing in the Chicago kitchen of Chef Charlie Trotter. Once she entered a world of musky asparagus, floral tomatoes and summer basil, Romano was hooked. She absorbed the basics and never looked back. A decade later, at 42, she's now executive pastry chef at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in Mandalay Bay. Not too shabby for someone with absolutely no formal culinary training.

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Such consuming passion marks every page of her recently published book, It's a Sweet Life: A Collection of Desserts. The idea was to make dessert creation accessible. Romano says many of her friends and family members were curious about cooking, but were often discouraged by complex tomes detailing 40 or more steps per recipe. For Romano, it was crucial to offer a book emphasizing fresh ingredients (rather than butter- and sugar-loaded diet-killers) and straightforward methods with plenty of gorgeous visuals.

"I don't think great food should be hidden away in professional kitchens," she says. "I have three kids myself and believe food is meant to be communal, to bring people together at the table, in the kitchen."

And, of course, dessert caps everything off nicely. Still, don't feel pressured to grab a cookbook and immediately gear up to treat dozens of guests to Blueberry Linzer Tarts for the "grand finale" in your mind. According to Romano, all you need are a sprinkling of tools and a pinch of knowledge before preparing, for example, a pineapple lime sorbet for the kids (see sidebar).

"I want readers to feel confident in preparing dessert," she says. "That's why I include easy techniques in the first few pages, like simply placing a damp towel around a bowl so you don't splatter stuff everywhere and spend half the afternoon cleaning up after yourself."

Better yet, she's patient with "no-duh" questions from a complete novice (like this writer) who, for example, asks: Why does the book begin with sorbets and end with chocolate?

"Sorbets are a natural place to start for the beginner," she explains. "It's a pure, clean process. Chocolate is the most advanced. I love chocolate, but it takes patience."

Pure and clean are the hallmarks of It's a Sweet Life - in other words, creating flavor without loading up on sugar and butter. Though she confesses to having a sweet tooth "hard-wired" into her genetics, Romano loathes the trend in American dessert-making that, as she writes in her book, "leaves the home cook with few options other than the overly rich, overindulgent and over-the-top dessert." She's got good reason to criticize the trend: Romano is also an avid runner who often appears in the pages of Runner's World magazine.

Ultimately, Romano has simple advice for anyone wishing to try dessert preparation: Be assertive.

"Just don't be intimidated," she says. "Trust your instincts. With desserts, there's plenty of room to improvise as you do with savory food. ...Delicious results are not out of reach. I crafted these recipes with the home chef in mind, and they're designed for ease of preparation in any standard kitchen, no matter your skill level. The idea is to just make it taste great."
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