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Classics Reimagined

Bistro Niko’s updated Baba au Rhum is made with rum-syrup-soaked brioche instead of the traditional savarin cake and is molded in little timbales rather than a ring. Photo courtesy of bistro niko/buckhead life restaurant group. Favorite desserts never leave the menu; they just reappear in fresh, new forms

By Monica Kass Rogers

Chefs may get creative with vegetables, crafty with small plates and serious with meat, but for all-out, no-holds-barred play, it’s dessert all the way. Desserts are supposed to be fun, whimsical, wonderful and memorable. They are recess in an increasingly stressful work-a-day world. And just as truly great games never leave the playground, classic desserts never leave the menu. They just get revamped, reimagined, deconstructed and recreated to keep things fresh and fun.

Take strawberry shortcake, for example. An iconic American dessert for decades, this tower of fruity, creamy and sweet tastes and textures has been popping up all around the country in freshly tweaked ways. At restaurant chains, made-to-order is the mantra.

Outback Steakhouse’s new Strawberry Waffle Shortcake features crisp, hot waffles, cool cream-cheese filling, strawberries in syrup and toasted almonds. The multi-textured and -temperatured dessert, says Dave Ellis, vice president of research and development, merges best results from two different tests.

“We did a very classic strawberry shortcake with pound cake during strawberry season in Florida two years ago, which was popular, but difficult to execute,” says Ellis. “And then we were also doing a separate project testing a seasonal waffle bread that could be made fast and fresh and fill the air with aroma.”

While Tampa-based Outback didn’t go forward with the waffle-bread or the pound cake versions, “we didn’t want to lose the ideas.” When one of Outback’s consulting chefs proposed stacking waffles with strawberries in a dessert application, a one-store test of the result was so strong, Outback brought the dessert back this year as a February-through-May LTO.

Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Huddle House has one-upped its own popular sponge-cake strawberry shortcake with a to-order version using its breakfast biscuit dough, strawberries and whipped cream. The biscuit version is doing well in test at various of Huddle House’s 400-units, reports Director of Research and Development Don Turley.

Dallas-based T.G.I. Friday’s has a new biscuit-built strawberry shortcake, too, as part of its “Better with Brew” LTO this summer. And there’s been no turning back for Atlanta-based Ted’s Montana Grill since it switched from a pound-cake version of strawberry shortcake several years ago to a better-selling made-to-order biscuit version topped with multiple scoops of ice cream, fresh-strawberry sauce and whipped cream.

On the independent restaurant front, strawberry shortcake re-creations go further afield. At the Dining Room at Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, Pa., chef Andrew Little does one with an elderflower liqueur-soaked tres leches cake, strawberry sorbet and rhubarb gelee. And Lori Baker, co-owner and pastry chef with husband Jeff Banker of San Francisco’s Baker & Banker, has created her own version of the classic strawberry shortcake ice-cream bar, using strawberry and vanilla ice cream coated in pink-peppercorn-shortbread crumbs and crushed dehydrated strawberries and served with strawberry caramel and fresh-whipped crème fraîche.

Strawberry shortcake has moved beyond sponge cake and is now built with pound cake, waffles or biscuits, like this version in T.G.I. Friday’s summer LTO. Photo courtesy of t.g.i. friday’s. COBBLER & PUDDING RE-CREATIONS
Likewise, bread puddings and fruit cobblers invite revisits. This year, Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill worked with both desserts. Vice President of Food and Beverage Christopher Gatto tweaked a longstanding Uno favorite, the All-American apple crisp, adding better texture, flavor and “a little cachet” by homing in on one kind of apple and renaming the dessert the “Granny Smith All-American.”

Uno also launched its version of bread pudding, using brioche, cream, eggs, vanilla and sugar, with a salty caramel sauce on top. “We wanted this to be classic and comforting, but with our own twist, via the brioche and the salty caramel,” says Gatto.

Seeking a way to familiarize guests with Italian limoncello liqueur and give bread pudding a unique flavor with year-round appeal, Tampa-based Carrabba’s Italian Grill developed a limoncello bread pudding that is now part of a new calendar of seasonal LTO offerings. Joel Barker, vice president of research and development at the 233-unit chain, says Carrabba’s went with a brioche base for the pudding, soaked in heavy cream, egg, vanilla, sugar and limoncello, baked in a water bath, and served with limoncello syrup over the top for added lemony tang. Carrabba’s plans seasonal variations on the bread pudding theme; a winter Triple-Chocolate is in the works.

And for Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants, chef Ric Rosser spent nine months revamping apple cobbler, which will be launched soon at Landry’s Claim Jumper restaurants and is now in test in five Saltgrass Steak Houses.

“The big question wasn’t the filling — the fruits can change,” says Rosser. “But ultimately? People take sides on the topping: Should it be a streusel/crumb topping or a pie dough? Everybody has an opinion on that.”

Ultimately, Rosser designed the new cobbler with a walnut streusel topping, used on both the bottom and top of the apple filling.

The thought behind each of these makeovers differs. But chefs say that it’s important to include classics — or at least use them as a reference point — on dessert menus. “Guests equate classics with comfort,” says Uno’s Gatto. “There’s a familiarity there that builds trust.”

When reintroducing classics, chefs sometimes choose to stick pretty closely to the dessert’s origins, altering the recipe only slightly to use the best possible regional ingredients or give the dessert regional flair. At Pican in Oakland, Calif., for example, chef Dean Dupuis’ pecan pie uses toasted Georgia pecans in a filling that blends Steen’s cane syrup, maple syrup, molasses, Kentucky sorghum and brown sugar for a more-balanced Southern sweetness.

Likewise, Dupuis includes stone-ground grits and a peach bourbon sauce in a Southern-slanted crème caramel. “Classic crème caramel can be a little boring,” he says, “but the grits add body and texture, and the peach bourbon sauce, flavor and interest.”

“It’s very important to have something recognizable on the dessert menu,” says Jeff Pfeiffer, chef de cuisine at Bistro Niko in Atlanta, part of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. “We like to keep the classic names for dishes to maintain integrity but give the actual desserts a twist to bring them up to modern times.”

Baba au rhum, for example, is a very traditional French dessert of rum-soaked pastry and cream. Changing that up a little, Niko’s baba is built with rum-syrup-soaked brioche — less dense than the traditional savarin cake — and he uses little timbales for the dessert rather than a savarin ring mold.

Sometimes, dessert classics are referenced by name but largely deconstructed on the plate. The recognizable name gives guests something to grab on to as they jump off into new territory with whimsical chef interpretations.

Take the “shoofly pie” at Sheppard Mansion. “This is not your grandma’s shoofly,” laughs chef Little. The name, crumb topping and intensely rich molasses filling of the old-fashioned Pennsylvania-Dutch pie are there but converted into fried ice cream. Little rolls balls of sorghum-molasses ice cream in several layers of oats/flour/brown-sugar crumb coating (repeatedly frozen between coatings) before deep frying and plating. “The contrasting temperatures and textures are unexpected — as is the format,” says Little.

“When we recreate a classic dessert here, we’re not trying to give it a new shape so much as we are trying to reconnect it to native logic,” says Isaiah Billington, head pastry chef at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. “Take our Peanut Butter Cup. The germ of that idea was Reese’s peanut butter cup candy,” explains Spike Gjerde, chef.

Because Woodberry Kitchen is able to source fresh, raw, locally grown peanuts, the restaurant decided to roast and mill them to preserve the truest, freshest peanut flavor. To create a “Fluffernutter experience” with the peanuts, Billington folds the nut butter into a fresh meringue. He fills chocolate shells (made by coating and then popping balloons) with the peanut fluff and tops with ladyfinger-popcorn caramel corn, pretzel sticks and roasted peanuts. The result is a dessert that “tastes like a state fair,” says Gjerde.

Since certain guests will gravitate to classics they “know” on dessert menus, is there a danger that tweaking such desserts will disgruntle those who love them the most?

“I don’t think so,” says Kate Neumann, pastry chef of Chicago’s Lula Cafe. “There’s a reason classics have stood the test of time, but people are still looking for that new twist. You want to give them a classic in a new way they wouldn’t have thought of. Otherwise there is the danger of having the guest say, ‘Oh, I can do that at home.’”

Baker, of Baker & Banker, agrees: “I’d say about 90 percent of guests appreciated seeing classics done with a new twist.”

Pecan pie fans needn’t worry; the ever-popular flavor is available in a new guise in Brennan’s Pecan Pie Sundae, where it joins Creole-cream-cheese ice cream, caramel, chocolate sauce and Bulleit-bourbon-spiked whipped cream. Photo courtesy of brennan’s. Brennan’s of Houston bridges both groups. Given the Brennan family’s long-time connection to the cooking of the Old South, the restaurant has to offer classics like pecan pie and bananas Foster (which originated with the Brennan family), says chef Danny Trace. “Some guests demand the original, but others are open to new things.”

Trace’s Pecan Pie Sundae layers chunks of the classic pecan pie with tangy Creole-cream-cheese ice cream, caramel, chocolate sauce and Bulleit-bourbon-spiked whipped cream. Southern-style caramel corn (made with Steen’s cane syrup, brown sugar, butter, vanilla and bourbon) gets sprinkled on top.

Today’s collective chef toolbox for classic-dessert reinterpretations includes several more popular ideas: deconstructing, miniaturizing and spiking with alcoholic beverages. Pies become pie cups. Layer cakes become individual-portion desserts with the frosting rethought as a semifreddo, ice cream or panna cotta. Age-old pairings like coffee and donuts reappear as fanciful sundaes. And old-fashioned ice cream drinks and other sweets now have a lot more spirit.

“I wanted to make pie the new cupcake,” says chef/owner Elizabeth Karmel, explaining her reasoning for creating the hand-held minis she’s dubbed “pie cups” at her Hill Country Chicken in New York City. Available in all of the same flavors Karmel bakes in larger sizes, the pie cups now “far outsell” regular pie slices.

Miniaturizing classic cake flavors into cookies and ice cream sandwiches is another fun strategy for chefs Kate Neumann and Mathew Rice, of sister restaurants Lula Cafe and Nightwood in Chicago. An ice-cream-sandwich-cookie plate from Neumann includes candied-lemon ice cream between waffle tuiles, blueberry buttermilk ice cream between gingersnaps and rhubarb sorbet between chamomile meringues. A cookie-trio plate from Rice features his own take on Nutter-Butter cookies, malted-milk-chocolate Oreo-style sandwich cremes and a cookie version of the St. Louis regional favorite, gooey butter cake.

Wanting to improve on the typical “hard-as-a-rock” texture of the classic baked Alaska, chef Martial Nogiuer of Bistronomic in Chicago has been making single-serve Alaskas to order. Nogiuer soaks finely sliced, house-baked brioche in simple syrup and then freezes. To serve, he fills a bowl with vanilla ice cream, drizzles with caramel butterscotch sauce, sprinkles with caramelized almonds and tops with the frozen brioche and fresh meringue: “That way, you get a multitude of textures — the crisp brioche, crunchy almonds, delicate meringue, soft ice cream —  instead of something that is so hard it is difficult to eat.”

How deeply chefs delve into the historic roots of the desserts they reimagine ranges widely. For chef Paul Fehribach, who owns Chicago’s Big Jones, the research is almost scholarly.

“I enjoy tracing things back to the 19th century for inspiration where I can,” says Fehribach, “before you saw things like Crisco or Jell-O in cookbooks — before the industrialization of food. I look at those recipes, those times and search for the commonalities, using those as a springboard for what we can do today.”

Researching red-velvet cake origins, Fehribach discovered that early methods for processing cocoa resulted in chocolate that, when combined with baking soda, turned a rusty-red color. While he chose not to go back to pre-industrial chocolate, he did revert to using beets in the cake, rather than red dyes derived from coal tar. “During the Depression, beets were used in a whole array of cocoa-beet cakes in Minnesota and the Dakotas, to add color and sweetness” he notes.

But as much as he liked the density and earthy flavor raw beets lent to his early red-velvet experiments, “people would taste the cake and say, ‘That’s not red velvet.’ They expected a very specific light and springy texture,” says Fehribach. Over time, he learned roasting beets before juicing yielded a lighter, milder result: “When we got the texture right, guests were fine with us departing from there to do more creative things with the cake.”

Stepping away from traditional layer-cake, Fehribach’s red-velvet iteration puts cocoa-nib brittle on the plate, topped with an orange-and-cream-cheese semifreddo and a 3-inch, baked-to-order chunk of the cake.

“There’s something very satisfying about building on the origins of classics,” sums Fehribach. “It gives guests a degree of familiarity and makes desserts feel timelessly American.”


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About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.