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R&IEditorial Archives2003November 15 — Food

Reigning Sweets
Assisted by top-notch ingredients, seasonal offerings and a dollop of whimsy, classics rule the dessert menu

Enticing diners to request dessert instead of the check at the end of a meal can be a tall order. But the challenge is lessened when guests are presented with delectable, head-turning sweets.

Todays desserts work harder than ever to attract customers. Presentation remains important, but more attention is paid to impressing with the promise of familiar flavors. Descriptions such as honest, simple, seasonal and straightforwardcharacteristics of classic American dishesdefine many current top-selling desserts.

With renewed interest in traditional favorites, standbys such as chocolate cake and crme brlée are starting points for spinning irresistible desserts. Playful interpretations of childhood favorites also are popular, from ice cream sandwiches and milkshakes to puddings and pies.

There is less show on the plate and more substance, says Emily Luchetti, pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco. In the past, flavor often was sacrificed for the visual, but that has really slowed down.

The view from the East Coast is similar. We are past the architectural-presentation stage, says Jennifer Giblin, pastry chef at Blue Smoke in New York City. Americana-type desserts are in fashion.

For proof, look no further than New Yorks WD-50, where carrot cake gets a makeover. Pastry Chef Sam Masons version combines parsnips with carrots in the cake, which is paired with coconut cream-cheese sorbet and carrot coulis.

At Darden Restaurants Seasons 52 in Orlando, Fla., diners create their own sampler from an assortment of diminutive desserts. Priced at $1.95 each, all nine options are classics or twists on tradition, such as pecan pie with vanilla-bean mousse, raspberry-chocolate devils food cake, bananas Foster and carrot cake with rum-raisin sauce.

Flavor First
Many pastry chefs tempt their audience with flavor and familiarity instead of flash. The result is a return to the classics where creative energy is poured into optimizing flavors.

When taste speaks for itself, you dont need all the fancy words, says Giblin. People dont want to overthink dessert.

For example, her best seller is Key lime pie with honey-graham crust crowned with whipped cream, a straightforward description that could just as easily be found on many dessert menus. Its a recipe from my aunt in Florida and it just has good ingredients: lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, lime zest and heavy cream. We also make our own graham-cracker crust.

When you have simple desserts, you are automatically going for the best. When we put a chocolate cake on the menu, our goal is to have the best chocolate cake in the city, says Giblin, who serves her rendition with a glass of cold milk.

Many operators opt for superior chocolate, whole vanilla beans, quality butter and seasonal fruits. For operations that purchase desserts or make their own from fast scratch, the trend also is toward premium-quality products.

A dessert either delivers or it doesnt, says Luchetti. Theres nowhere to hide in a bad dessert. You have to use the best ingredients and get the most out of them.

Operators also maximize flavor by ensuring that every component is a major contributor with a clearly defined role.

Martin Rios, executive chef of The Old House in Santa Fe, N.M., approaches desserts as he does first courses and entrées. I dont waste time with decorations and silly things on the plate. Everything in the dessert has a job, says Rios. Maybe it adds texture or acid or bitterness, so that with each bite, customers have balance and an explosion of flavor.

Keenly aware of the popularity of crme brlée, a French classic that has become an American staple, Rios uses it to fill a braised pear. The chilled pear is sliced, revealing the custard, which accompanies warm pine-nut-topped cornmeal pudding cake. The dessert is finished with port wine sweetened with the simple syrup in which pears have been poached.

At The Old House, the cooks also work with pastry. Rios says cross-training helps them understand the importance of achieving balance. Desserts cannot be one dimensional in flavor, he says.

Seasonal Demand
Brown University in Providence, R.I., offers a wide range of perennial favorites, from chocolate-mousse torte to lemon chiffon pie. But as seasonal fruits change, the catering menu adjusts accordingly. It might mean creation of peach pie with layers of peach-liqueur-laced custard and streusel or pound cake topped with strawberries and whipped cream.

At North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton, Colo., where foodservice is managed by Sodexho USA, peaches flavor all-American cobbler during warmer months while apples are used during fall.

In the healthcare realm, its natural to include seasonal fruit in desserts, says Raymond Cenname, a certified master chef who is general manager for fod and nutrition services.

For Luchetti and many other pastry chefs, all desserts tie to a time of year. In her recent cookbook, A Passion for Desserts, (Chronicle Books, 2003), restaurant inspirations are organized by season. Pumpkin upside-down cake with cranberry-pecan topping, and cinnamon-apple crpes are symbolic of the crisp cool days of fall. Luchetti also believes chocolate and nuts speak most directly to winter appetites. Likewise with citrus fruits, which come into season in California and Florida when much of the rest of the country is trying to stay warm.

Frozen maple-cream pecan pie and citrus cake appear on the Farallon menu during winter. Luchetti recently added German-chocolate parfait, an enticing fall option that takes its cue from the dense layered cake. Luchetti creates the parfait by swirling layers of dark-chocolate mousse and coconut mousse with pecan bars.

Playful Romps
Architectural desserts braced by spun sugar and spiky garnishes that look better than they taste are fading from menus as endearing and playful sweets emerge.

Pastry Chef Mindy Segal of mk in Chicago is a master of dessert whimsy. Her Cake and Shake consists of chocolate buttermilk cake layered with mousse made with high-grade chocolate, and iced with gianduja (hazelnut-flavored chocolate) buttercream. It partners with a milk-chocolate malted milkshake.

For an unexpected play on carrot cake, Segal sandwiches cinnamon cream-cheese ice cream between layers of spiced organic carrot cake. The ice cream sandwiches are served with a warm strawberry-pinot noir broth.

During warmer months, Michael Meehan, chef of The Seafood Barge in Southold, N.Y., also interprets the childhood favorite using lemon-blueberry ice cream. He toasts slices of pound cake and uses them to hold wedges of house-made ice cream molded in a loaf pan. The sandwich is topped with mixed berry coulis and crme anglaise.

There are so many things you can do with an ice cream sandwich, so many ways to plate it, says Luchetti. Everyone remembers them as a kid so their appeal is widespread.

Her incarnations have included a trio of ice cream sandwiches (gingersnaps with lemon ice cream, a brownie with vanilla-bean ice cream and espresso meringue with orange ice cream). Candied-ginger ice cream between oat wafers finished with caramel sauce currently is on the menu.

Hot on Chocolate
No matter how fresh the fruit or exotic the flavors, chocolate is still the dessert king (or at the very least, second in command). Chicago-based Flat Top Grill serves classics such as apple crisp and lemon-ginger cheesecake but its top seller is Chocolate Storm, which tops a house-made triple-chocolate brownie with French vanilla ice cream, bittersweet-chocolate sauce, whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

If people are tempted to have dessert, they want something unrestrained, says Marcel Desaulniers, chef-owner of The Trellis in Williamsburg, Va. They arent going to throw it away on angel food cake.

At The Trellis, a restaurant known for chocolate thanks to the collection of dessert cookbooks that Desaulniers has written, the signature dessert continues to be Death by Chocolate. Its seven layers unite chocolate cake, coconut meringue, chocolate mousse and mocha mousse.

Chocolate cake is iconic. When you pair it with ice cream, which you see all the time now, it just sells, he says.

At Dallas-based Chilis Grill & Bar, three of four regular desserts are chocolate-based. Chocolate-Chip Paradise Pie combines a warm, chewy chocolate bar layered with chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut with a topping of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and caramel. The chain also serves a version of molten-lava cake, which is well on its way to menu-classic status. The dessert, chefs say, has such a loyal following that it cannot be taken off the menu. It appears as frequently in casual restaurants as it does in fine-dining (Atelier in New York City) and noncommercial foodservice (Yale University in New Haven, Conn.)

At the core, the lava cake is a flourless chocolate cake baked just enough so the center remains liquid (sometimes, a chunk of chocolate is plopped into the center of individual cakes before they are baked). At the Old House, Rios uses eggs, butter, high-grade chocolate and a small amount of flour. The dessert is paired with bourbon-vanilla ice cream and mango-caramel sauce.

He says he could never take the best seller off the menu but keeps the dessert fresh by pairing it with different sauces and complementary accompaniments throughout the year.

Theres no other way to explain it, he says. People just love chocolate.

  • Chocolate Trio: Molten-Chocolate Cake with Gianduja Bavarian and Warm Milk-Chocolate Coconut Shake

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