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, with some people apparently paying $200 for a worn copy on eBay. I snagged mine in 2014 from Fleming herself while visiting the North Fork Table & Inn on Long Island, N.Y., 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.
QUESTION: 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 big and architectural back then.
ANSWER: 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.”
QUESTION: 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?
ANSWER: Absolutely. But it just happens faster. It always happened.
QUESTION: Was there an “it” dessert when you were working at Gramercy Tavern in New York?
ANSWER: I think it was the molten chocolate cake in those days.
QUESTION: In what other ways has the world of dessert changed from when the book first came out?
ANSWER: 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 .
QUESTION: When you and I first met, your husband was quite ill. Is the book’s rerelease a new, better chapter?
ANSWER: It was a very tough, a very dark time. [The book] feels like the best thing that’s happened to me in so many years. 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 wellreceived.” 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.
QUESTION: When it was published originally, nobody baked with grams at home, and nobody really owned a scale unless you were a professional chef. And now more and more baking books feature weights.
ANSWER: 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.
QUESTION: After you sell the inn, what are you hoping to do next?
ANSWER: I’d like to take some time to just explore and get inspired again. 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.
QUESTION: Do you have any advice about holiday baking at home?
ANSWER: Prepare as much in advance as you can. Make your pie dough this weekend 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.
QUESTION: Name three tips for home cooks to step up their home baking.
ANSWER: 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.
QUESTION: What do you think your legacy might be, or what do you want your legacy to be?
ANSWER: 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.