We ask a lot of our desserts. It’s not easy to create something that wraps up the meal leaving diners happy and satisfied—not overloaded, disappointed or guilty. How does a dessert deliver the perfect balance? We asked a handful of industry experts to describe dessert experiences that hit the sweet spot—and translate into opportunities for a memorable, craveable and literally irresistible finish.
Taking stock of the many wonderful desserts that our experts listed, we found that the ones that made them swoon had something in common: Each built upon familiar formats with just the right amount of innovation.
Cake, for example, is a dessert menu standard, but sometimes the cake transcends the same old thing. One standout that caught the eye of Cristi Shipley, a pastry chef and corporate R&D chef at Food IQ, a culinary innovation firm in Springfield, Mo.: the Cube Cakes at Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco. “These small, square edible sculptures are layered with soft cake, crunchy elements and creamy mousse that come in seasonal flavors,” says Shipley. “I was amazed with the beauty of them, and with how fresh they looked and tasted.” Presented in a modern cube shape, the cake features flavor combinations such as chocolate, caramel and Vietnamese cinnamon, or strawberry, yogurt and wildflower honey. Even more enticing are the mini-sized cube cakes that invite diners to sample without commitment. “Chef William Werner is doing everything right—crafting elegant and delicious pastries with an artistic and precise approach that favors seasonality, creativity, and respect for classic French pastry,” she adds.
Familiarity also anchors the dessert that ranks as a recent top favorite of Benjamin Pote, R&D chef at San Francisco culinary consultancy The Culinary Edge: the mango-glazed bread pudding at Sol Food in San Rafael, Calif. Bread pudding equals comfort, but the well-executed addition of mango elevates the dessert. “The bread itself is warmed perfectly through, and the mango glaze has great sweetness and tang that cut right through the rich creaminess of the pudding,” says Pote. “It’s surprisingly light, not dense or overly wet as some bread puddings can be.” He emphasizes that what sets this dessert apart is the technique behind it. “Technique can bring as much to the table as innovation.”
Another deceivingly down-to-earth dessert with upscale attributes: Graham-Cracker Griddle Cakes with roasted pear, maple walnuts and lemon curd served at Lula Café in Chicago. Connecticut-based bakery consultant and food writer Priscilla Martel was impressed by how this brunch dessert managed to be neither too heavy nor too cloying. “The distinctive flavor profile of graham crackers was captured perfectly in fluffy pancakes,” she says. “Roasting the pears brought out their flavor and balanced the sweetness, as did the lemon curd.”
Cold is Hot
Good old ice cream appears on just about every dessert menu, but now this basic dairy treat is reintroducing itself through innovative presentation and flavor boosts. That childhood favorite and summer staple—soft-serve ice cream—gets special treatment at Chicago’s Belly Shack, where chef-owner Bill Kim is known for elevating the simplest of foods, such as hot dogs loaded with Asian fusion toppings. For dessert, he serves vanilla soft-serve ice cream with creative additions. “He’s taking a classic item that everyone loves and spicing it up with interesting flavor profiles and specialty gourmet toppings, collaborating with Chicago’s own pastry chef Mindy Segal,” says Rachel Tracy, managing director at Culinary Visions Panel, a consumer insights firm in Chicago. Custom toppings and flavors include: huckleberry lime, Vietnamese cinnamon-caramel, bacon-chocolate chip cookie crumbles and mint brownie bits.
Another restaurant that Tracy mentions for its frozen desserts is Nico Osteria in Chicago. The dessert menu features several creative flavors of gelato and sorbet, such as grapefruit sorbet, and Nutella oat. But it’s the variations on affogato—which traditionally combines vanilla gelato and a shot of hot espresso—that are “out-of-this-world fantastic,” says Tracy. “Pastry chef Amanda Rockman has really taken dessert to a new level. She’s put her own spin on traditional Italian affogato.” At Nico Osteria, affogato comes in the form of apricot sorbet and burnt honey gelato topped with Prosecco; Chinotto poured over fior di latte gelato; and the classic espresso with cardamom sweet cream gelato.
At Quenelle, an artisan creamery in Burbank, Calif., the frozen dessert offerings are both playful and unusual. Blueberry pie ice cream is a crowd-pleaser. “They also make Popsicle treats out of interesting flavors and fruits,” says Priscilla Martel. Quenelle’s offerings include a Yuzu Lemongrass Pop and an Apple Pie Ice Cream on a stick, coated with white chocolate. “They are divine and might serve as inspiration to other interesting ways to present lighter frozen desserts.”
A non-dairy alternative to ice cream is the granita—cousin to sorbet and Italian ice. Usually made with semi-frozen water sweetened with flavorings, the granita invites experimentation. Coffee chicory granita (Southern chicory, Colombian coffee, cream, sugar and chocolate) stands out for trends forecaster Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides in Portland, Ore. Made by pastry chef Anna Shovers at The Publican in Chicago, the granita is light yet loaded with flavor, and it exemplifies the regional emphasis Badaracco sees as a formidable dessert trend. She cites a noticeable rise in regional flavors, from Vermont maple to Lebanese yogurt to Pennsylvania Dutch apple.
Mixing, Mashing, Un-Making
Alternatives to the norm are becoming the new normal. Sometimes that means mixing up a variety of ingredients, other times it’s fusing two desserts, or perhaps taking them apart. One mix-in that has made a name for itself is the Compost Cookie, made famous by Christina Tosi, chef-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. Also known as a “garbage cookie,” the idea is to put whatever ingredients you have on hand into a cookie—potato chips, mini pretzels, butterscotch—creating a complex yet fun treat. “Christina Tosi changed the game when she embraced the extremes that desserts can be taken to,” says Ben Pote. “She opened the door for pastry chefs to innovate with these types of crunchy, savory ingredients in a sweet application.”
He mentions a similarly successful sweet: Sarah Jordan, award-winning pastry chef at Chicago’s Boka, created a dessert of Chocolate Crémeux with candied pretzels, potato chips and beer caramel. “It’s a beautiful plate, but at the end of the day, it’s chocolate, pretzels, potato chips and beer,” says Pote. “It’s exciting to see how talented pastry chefs are challenging and inspiring each other.”
There are also dessert hybrids that combine two desserts into one. The best known of these is the Cronut, the croissant-donut pastry made by chef Dominique Ansel at his New York bakery. Pastry chefs have been playing with hybrids for years, but the runaway success of the Cronut has spawned new variations. “I love that the hybrid trend was birthed in the bakery category,” says Suzy Badaracco. She lists other hybrids that can be found on today’s dessert menus: the wookie (waffle-cookie), the crookie (croissant-cookie), the brookie (brownie-cookie), the wonut (waffle-donut) and the donnoli (donut-cannoli). At The Iron Press in Costa Mesa, Calif., the Wookie consists of a chocolate chip cookie pressed into waffle form and served warm, topped with ice cream.
It’s easy for this trend to go too far too fast, though, inviting bad hybrid jokes (the “crapple”…). “When Dominique Ansel created the Cronut, he changed the dessert landscape, but he also opened Pandora’s box,” says Pote. “It was exciting, combining creativity with technique, but it’s a slippery slope. We may now start to see desserts that are more ‘punny’ than delicious, with chefs focusing more on making two desserts work as one rather than considering the overall flavor of the mash-up itself.”
For this very reason, dessert fusion does work when the focus is on the actual flavor of the end result. One trend that has untapped potential is the use of vegetables in desserts, says Cristi Shipley. “From black bean brownies to cauliflower and raspberry cheesecakes to radish and beet sorbet, these days pastry chefs are getting inventive with vegetables,” she says.
Another trend that seems to be holding ground is the deconstruction of desserts. Shipley cites pastry chef Cindy Schuman of Sepia in Chicago, who recently put four dessert offerings on her menu that were inspired by Little Debbie snack cakes, including deconstructed versions of Oatmeal Creme Pie, Honey Buns, the Nutty Bar and the Swiss Roll. The menu doesn’t make an overt reference to the Little Debbie inspiration; the desserts are simply listed by their components. For example, a deconstructed Nutty Bar becomes “peanut butter cream, phyllo crisps, chocolate and port syrup.” Like so many other successful desserts today, these work because they’re a fresh take on familiar, nostalgic flavors.
Celebrated pastry chef and cookbook author Eddy Van Damme emphasizes that flavor is always more important than following a trend for the sake of the trend. “I do not mind deconstructed desserts—I prepare them as well. However, I do believe that if a classic, perfect dessert is deconstructed, the new version should be equally delicious if not better than the original.”