This book's two authors are probably most famous for Mastering the Art of French Pastry, their out-of-print first book, which often sells for ridiculous prices on eBay. This volume and their other title, The French Cookie Book, are also out of print, but copies sell for much more reasonable prices.
The preface reveals that Bruce Healy isn't actually a pastry chef, nor is he French. He's an American theoretical physicist who fell in love with French cuisine while he and his wife were graduate students at The Rockefeller University, in New York. This interest developed when the couple travelled to Europe to attend academic conferences, taking the opportunity to dine at Michelin three-star restaurants.
He writes, "As a junior faculty member at The Institute [for Advanced Study, at Princeton University] and later at Yale, my burning interest in physics gradually began yielding to my growing passion for French food. When I became J Willard Gibbs Instructor in Physics at Yale in 1975 … formal dinners became a regular occurrence at our apartment. Reality also began to take hold. You can't become a first-class physicist if your passion lies elsewhere."
Healy met Paul Bugat, a French pastry chef whose grandfather, father, brother and cousin were in the same trade, while researching an article on pastry shops in Paris.
"We set about redesigning the domain of the Parisian pastry chef to suit the logistics of the American home kitchen. I would use my teaching and science background to explain how and why everything in pastry worked; Paul would use his artistic skills to illustrate the pastry chef's technique … In The Art of the Cake, we have used modern techniques to make French cakes easier and manageable for anyone interested in preparing delicious and beautiful desserts. Not only are the modern techniques easier to learn than their classical counterparts, but many of them are really fun to use and produce startling results that elevate them beyond their simple mechanics."
French cakes are beautiful, but they look as if they would be difficult to make. The authors advise approaching them methodically. As a whole, making a gateau might seem hard, but each component that goes into the cake isn't difficult. Once you've made the different parts, it's just a matter of assembling them to achieve the finished product.
As you'd expect from a physicist, the recipes are precise; before you start, most of the equipment you'll need is listed (barring the oven, stovetop, pots and mixing bowls, probably because it's assumed you already have them). Even for a simple pound cake, they write that you'll need a 1.5-litre loaf pan, to be brushed with melted butter, then lined with brown wrapping paper "to extend about 12mm above [the] top of [the] mold", as well as an electric mixer and a heavy baking sheet - I'm surprised they didn't specify the weight and dimensions.
The recipes start with the simple (lemon pound cake, Savoy sponge cake, clafoutis) and move on to the more complicated. Stanislas, for example, requires dijonnaise, a crisp almond meringue, ganache, coffee buttercream, chocolate glaze and chocolate decoration. For Trianon Montmorency, you need buttercream flavoured with kirsch and kirsch-soaked dried sour cherries, almond genoise, kirsch-flavoured syrup and almond paste. The reference section - on ingredients, baking equipment and techniques - is detailed and interesting.
The Art of the Cake - Modern French Baking and Decorating by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat