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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — February 1 — Food

Simple Sensations
Straightforward and less fussy, desserts aim for genuine, in-depth flavors

Desserts are slaves to whim and fashion. Judged first by appearance, they must be designed to command attention and turn heads. And because it comes calling at the end of the meal when appetites are satiated or nearly so, the last course has to work harder to satisfy.

The latest look for desserts, however, doesn’t seek to make a big splash as in the heady days of towering spun sugar or the epoch of edible architecture too striking and too fussy to knock down and enjoy. Like the once irrationally exuberant economy, the dessert course has come back to earth, with leading pastry chefs relying on simplicity to make a bold statement. Diners want a sure bet, so desserts are delivering by showing off genuine flavors that arrive in a simple, straightforward way.

Simple, though, needn’t mean ho-hum. Inspired by the season, chefs are showcasing ingredients that are high quality and synergistic, creating deep, satisfying flavors that complement rather than compete with each other.

“Simplicity is something people definitely want,” says Michelle Gayer, pastry chef at Trotter’s To Go in Chicago, a takeout concept offering premium products and prepared food inspired by Charlie Trotter’s namesake restaurant. “People still want flourless chocolate cake,” she says, referring to the deep, dense offering that has held court on dessert menus for more than 25 years.

Faith Christner, newly installed as pastry chef at Paragon in Portland, Ore., describes how she will approach the meal’s end. “It should be a real dessert instead of something contrived—emphasis on ‘real’—and keep the integrity of the food. It is honest. The dessert isn’t trying to be something that it is not.”

In simplest terms, that may mean a dense chocolate truffle torte made with premium chocolate and served with mint crme anglaise and bourbon cream, Christner says. The method or ingredients accentuate the main component, whether bringing forth the varied notes in chocolate or adding less sugar to apples to maintain their true flavor.

Classic starts
More than ever, desserts are inspired by tradition and solid, classic techniques. “Nothing has never been done before,” says Patrick Smet-Chevron, executive pastry chef for Mount Sinai NYU Health, a system of six New York City hospitals. “Learn the classics and how to create them very well and then take the next step.”

One of Smet-Chevron’s most enduring desserts, chocolate pecan passion, came together in the mid-’80s, when he worked at Tavern on the Green in New York City. Made with a sweet-dough tart shell lined with a layer of caramel and pecans, the classic pastry is covered with two layers of ganache, one thick and creamy, the other almost glossy and nearly liquid. A pairing of classic flavors, it still has the power to please.

Sheira Harris, pastry chef at Twelve 12 in Chicago (who cut her teeth at two of the city’s best-known restaurants, Charlie Trotter’s and the now-closed Gordon), is another firm believer in mastering the classics.

“I am a traditionalist and a deconstructionist,” she says. “You look at traditional desserts and plug in whatever the fabulous seasonal offerings may be, then put your own thumb print on it.”

Consider Harris’ crme brlée, for instance. In a recipe that yields 28 3-ounce portions, she uses 18 vanilla beans. Why so extravagant? “After many attempts at the best crme brlée, 18 was the magic number. It’s when I reached the depth of flavor that I was after.”

The dessert is accompanied by a madeleine, which is often studded with seasonal fruit, as a garnish and a twist to the dessert. Regardless of adjustments, the integrity of the dessert is maintained, she says.

Rita Garruba, pastry chef of Butterfield 9 in Washington, D.C., follows a similar approach. “I take classic desserts that people really enjoy and try to update and modernize them by concentrating on flavors and design. One interplays with the other,” she says.

In her baked Alaska, the traditional browned meringue top and sponge-cake bottom still play their roles, but instead of conventional chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream, Garruba opts for pistachio and then tucks a dark chocolate truffle in the center.

“Customers really like classics and it seems that they sell the most,” she says. “My preference has always been to modernize a classic rather than fusing wild concepts together.”

Simple but complex
The road to simplicity often is complex. Like their savory counterparts, desserts seek balance through contrasting flavors, textures and temperatures. Inspired by traditional flavors and the foods of her childhood, Harris achieves this balance with gingerbread trifle. The layers consist of gingerbread, crme fraîche, cranberry compote, and Bartlett pears sautéed in butter, cinnamon and cloves. The dessert is placed on the plate in a ring that is finished with a rosette of crme fraîche and swirls of hot cinnamon sauce made with spicy red candies.

While striving for contrast, pastry chefs also attempt to layer flavors for a bolder, more complex sensory impact. When Gayer thinks of something as simple as an apple tart, the apples are sautéed in brown butter, deepening the caramel tones and adding richness. And when she blind bakes the tarts, the pastry is lined with black walnuts that toast during the process. Juices rendered from sautéing the apples are reduced to a thick caramel consistency, which garnishes the tart along wih honey and vanilla-infused mascarpone.

At Avenue B in Philadelphia, Executive Pastry Chef Joseph Furgiuele’s approach to layering flavors includes Caraibe Chocolate Bombe with bittersweet chocolate mousse, liquid chocolate center and chocolate fleur de sel shortbread. Hazelnut-liqueur semifreddo with frozen hazelnut mousse; and milk chocolate praline ganache and praline dust also are on the menu.

Related flavors
Some of the most successful desserts are those that join together ingredients, showcasing flavors that complement and bring out the best in each other. Bananas and chocolate, blueberries and lemon and caramel and apple are among the pairings that soar. Stellar on their own, the ingredients truly shine when they share the company of each other.

At Absinthe Brasserie and Bar in San Francisco, Pastry Chef Murielle Roux’s Opéra cake layers cake with chocolate mousse, coffee cream and ganache, while her chocolate mousse trio is accompanied by caramelized hazelnuts

“My desserts are very traditional French,” Roux says. “I like them to be simple but very satisfying. You can do that by putting together flavors that like being with each other.”

Sometimes the flavor links take on a theme. Pastry Chef Paul Connors of Radius in Boston enjoys the interplay of tropical flavors. Warm palm-sugar cakes are served with chilled pineapple soup, tres leches ice cream, sliced mango and pomegranate. Warm chocolate cake and coconut cake are paired with glazed bananas, and passion fruit-and-coconut ice cream.

A self-proclaimed “ice cream maniac,” Connors sees the frozen concoction as an essential accessory for creating an impressive dessert. “Ice cream delivers the components of flavor, texture and temperature,” he says.

Advanced adventures
While purists may shun ingredients typically connected with savory foods, daring pastry chefs contend that herbs and spices can turn simple desserts into spectacular ones. Such ingredients must be used correctly, however, with a hand erring on the conservative side and the credo of less is more.

“Herbs and spices can be a fun springboard for desserts,” Christner says. “Take things that are simple and add something new and unexpected that will give diners another dimension.”

Christner has a penchant for black pepper when she considers desserts featuring cherries and pineapple, or tarragon when she has strawberries or oranges on the mind. “I take cues from wine. Think of a fine red wine, with its peppery notes, a cherry nose and hints of chocolate.”

That kind of palette led her to create a chocolate-and-cherry bread pudding with black-pepper ice cream and dried-cherry hash (dried cherries with port and vanilla bean). The ice cream is a typical custard base infused with the spice and speckled with finely ground pepper. “It is very subtle,” Christner says. “You first taste creaminess, then the black pepper creeps up on you.”

To succeed with herbs and spices, delicate is the operative word, Smet-Chevron says. “Too much of an herb such as lavender or rose petals can give desserts a soapy taste”, he warns. “It is important for the overall dessert to be represented by familiar and approachable flavors. Then you will have success.”

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