When you have layers of buttery flavor, no embellishment is needed to make croissants an all-time favorite among pastry-loving patrons. Photo courtesy of the absinthe group/arlequin cafe. Pastry-based desserts move into new territory without losing their traditional appeal
By Cindy Han
First off, there is pastry and there is pastry. The term “pastry chef” can refer to someone who makes desserts or baked goods in general. But “pastry” is really the term for that light, flaky, layered kind of dough that we find in turnovers, cream puffs, pie crusts and other such well-loved treats.
Culinary author Rose Levy Beranbaum opens The Pie and Pastry Bible with an Oxford dictionary definition for pastry: “Dough made of flour, fat and water, used for covering pies or holding filling.” She reacts to this dry definition with her own commentary: “The writer couldn’t have known the pleasure of a fresh tart cherry pie or of a flaky, buttery croissant, or his definition would never have remained so dispassionately matter-of-fact.”
Truly, good pastry is never boring. It is the foundation of desserts that range from comforting to thrilling. A dessert menu without a pastry-style item feels as if it’s missing something. Today’s menu developers are wise to not only offer the traditional pastry desserts that people have come to expect, but to explore new takes on the classics.
TWISTS ON TRADITION
Everyone loves tried-and-true pastry-based desserts. Grandma’s apple pie is synonymous with comfort, chocolate croissants are guaranteed to please. But sometimes change is good. Subtle alterations can elevate a pastry and make diners look at it anew.
“People have a connection to the retro, old-school desserts, but I try to find a way to modernize them,” says Annie Ghobrial, pastry chef for Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee, Wisc. She often explores creative new uses for herbs, spices and vegetables in her pastry-focused desserts.
For example, she takes a turnover-style dessert and kicks it up a notch with a touch of spice or pepper. “It’s still really sweet, but it adds something unexpected. It’s a way to play along the line of savory and sweet.” Similarly, she often accompanies pastries with sea salt on caramel or saffron in crème anglaise.
Ghobrial also makes a goat cheese tartlet with candied tomato on top — out of the ordinary for a dessert, but still quite sweet from the caramelized natural sugars of the tomato.
“People are getting more adventurous in desserts,” she says. “They may not be willing to try something crazy with their entrée, but might be more willing to try a dessert out of their comfort zone.”
Floral notes are turning up as intriguing pastry accents as well. At Lake Park Bistro, the Tarte au Citron features a lemon tart served with mixed berries topped with honey-lavender meringue. The hint of lavender sets the otherwise traditional dessert apart.
The use of cheese in pastries — as desserts, not as savory snacks — is also on the rise. Bill Corbett, executive pastry chef with The Absinthe Group, was named 2011 Best Pastry Chef by San Francisco magazine thanks to his ability to push into new terrain with his desserts. He’s known for using uncommon ingredients from the “other side” of the kitchen, such as his Beet Cake with fromage blanc and roasted walnut ice cream.
“I’m seeing a return to traditional type pastries — croissants, macarons, gougères — but with more modern flavor profiles,” says Corbett. He cites his personal favorite at the moment: the smoked cheddar gougère at Craftsman & Wolves in San Francisco — a baked pastry puff made of choux dough mixed with smoked cheddar and chile flakes.
An irresistible combo with Latin flair, Border Grill’s bite-sized churro “tots” can be dipped in chocolate or caramel sauce or served with iced Mexican coffee. Photo courtesy of BORDER GRILL. PORTION AND PRESENTATION
Tweaking the ingredients is one route to updating a pastry. Another is making simple changes to portion size or presentation.
Desserts in smaller sizes are commonplace now, lending themselves to shareable, customizable and just-for-me portions. For pastries, that might mean offering a mini pie or a plate of petite turnovers. At Huntington Beach, Calif.-based BJ’s Restaurants, a newer item on the dessert menu is a baked beignet — bakery crust dough that is baked, then tossed in cinnamon and sugar and topped with vanilla bean ice cream, fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Beignets are not a common offering on mainstream chain menus, but accompanying the pastry dough with familiar flavors makes it an easy choice for diners.
A similar approach works for a new dessert on Red Lobster’s menu: the Warm Apple Crostada, composed of heirloom Northern Spy apples stuffed inside a light and flaky crust and baked, then finished with caramel drizzle and served with vanilla ice cream. In this crowd-pleasing dessert, beloved apple-pie flavors are served in an altered form — the crust bundled around the filling rather than underneath as a pie crust — offering just enough of a change to pique diners’ interest.
Yet another playful version of a childhood favorite is the handcrafted “pop tart,” showing up on creative menus across the country. The toaster-friendly breakfast treat is upgraded with lighter, tastier crust filled with fruity jams or other sweets. San Francisco’s Corbett makes a Strawberry Pop Tart using local fresh strawberries, calling it a “grab-and-go tart” that suits the clientele at his Arlequin Café & Food-To-Go outlet. The portability of tart and turnover forms lends itself to today’s sped-up culture.
Puff pastry dough also has a role accessorizing other desserts, according to Priscilla Martel, a chef, food writer, instructor and dessert expert.
“Modern pastry chefs are definitely using pastry in new ways,” she says. “You might see puff pastry such as palmier — or elephant ear — appear as a garnish on sorbet, for example.”
Along the same lines, says Martel, the trend toward deconstructing dishes applies to pastries as well, where an apple tarte tatin might be served in separate components that imply the original dessert. “Tarte tatin is about buttery crisp crust and caramel sweet apple, so there could be a spiced apple ice cream paired with wedges of shortbread or caramelized puff pastry wands,” says Martel. “The accompaniment is in the hands of the creative chef.”
When it comes to pastries, European classics are the foundation of American desserts. French bakeries are the source of many of the best-known pastries, from croissants to profiteroles to tarte tatin. The Danish is shorthand for one of our country’s breakfast favorites — a glazed layered pastry topped with fruit jam, cheese or nuts. The British tradition of afternoon tea is accompanied by delicate pastries such as scones, cream puffs and tarts. But what other global pastry influences are on the horizon?
“We’re going to see the influences of underexplored areas,” predicts Martel. “Think of the delicious pastries that come out of Vienna, with ingredients like green plums. And we’re going to be seeing more out of the Middle East.”
Certainly the quintessential Middle Eastern dessert, baklava, is as flaky and layered as a pastry can be, and it can be augmented or updated with custom touches. Another Middle Eastern sweet — Persian cream puffs — vary from the French originals with the addition of rosewater, saffron and cardamom.
Latin-inspired influences are also informing pastries. Churros are appearing on dessert and bar menus in a variety of forms. The fried choux dough strips — normally served sprinkled with sugar or dipped in chocolate — can be dressed up in innovative ways. At the renowned Border Grill Restaurants, based in Santa Monica, Calif., bite-sized Churro Tots with dulce de leche are served with cinnamon sugar, chocolate and caramel dipping sauces and whipped cream.
“Churros are a common Mexican street food that we elevated by infusing them with homemade dulce de leche,” says chef/co-owner Mary Sue Milliken. “I think they’re spectacular.” Milliken’s background includes several years working in a bakery, and her mother used to be Border Grill’s pastry chef. Milliken and partner Susan Feniger both have French training, but researched the pastries of Mexico. “We use Mexican-inspired flavors combined with our basic foundation of French cooking.”
Comforting yet new, apples are wrapped in pastry crust in Black Angus Steakhouse’s Gold Rush Apple Tart, served with vanilla ice cream and a caramel drizzle. BLACK ANGUS STEAKHOUSE HERE’S TO YOUR HEALTH
Health-conscious pastry sounds like an oxymoron, but it is actually quite possible to serve diners delicious sweets that meet healthful standards. Portion size is, of course, the simplest method of minimizing the calories and other sins that are integral to desserts. But tiny servings aren’t the only way to achieve a more health-conscious dessert. For example, pastries can take on so many forms that help showcase fruit-based desserts that might feature a better nutritional profile. A puff pastry garnish or topping can give texture and buttery flavor to a dish, but adds minimal weightiness, especially when cut into strips or decorative pieces.
Martel sees frangipane tarts as a versatile avenue for serving healthful fruits. “Almond cream in a short dough classic could appear across the board and do well in mainstream restaurants, due to the popularity of almonds,” she says. “It goes well with apricots, cherries, figs — the whole nine yards.”
A greater variety of available ingredients gives pastry chefs the ability to produce good-for-you desserts that still taste good. Annie Ghobrial appreciates that she is able to offer more variety on her menu because she can find the ingredients to do so. “There is a huge variety of flours available now, so if you’re trying to make gluten-free pastries, you can,” she says. “Honey and sugar cane also come in hundreds of different flavors now. So if people like to eat light, we can still offer them a delicious dessert that meets their needs.”
BACK TO BASICS
In the end, no matter how creative you get, perfect pastry starts with time-honored, classic preparation. “There’s no question that classic pastry techniques are informing dessert menus,” says Martel. “And 99.9 percent of today’s top pastry chefs went to culinary school, so the bar has been raised.”
It’s this emphasis on technique that is the singular focus of Mindy Segal, chef-owner of HotChocolate in Chicago, who was chosen as the 2012 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef. She has revamped her dessert bar to keep the spotlight on the craft of baking rather than “the artifice of composing plates.” To accomplish this, she streamlined her sweets menu into categories: Cake, Pie, Frozen, Cookie, Custard, Signatures Revisited and Study (featuring seasonal specialties).
“I stopped doing composed desserts and started doing singular components,” she says. “People can identify with food that they understand. Pastry chefs often want to be so distinctive. But people just want something yummy — they want dessert for dessert.”
Craftsmanship is the key to producing the ideal pastry dough, says Segal, and when she makes a pie, she spends her energy on making the pie dough as flaky and delicious as possible. The rest requires minimal interference. For her double-crusted blueberry pie, she does very little to the berries in order to showcase their natural appeal, then she serves the individual pie with buttermilk ice cream. “It’s very, very simple,” she emphasizes.
Milliken shares the same purist philosophy. At Border Grill in Santa Monica, she has a pastry case where people can see the whole cake or pie, rather than be presented with fancy plating. “I’m not a fan of desserts made up of many intricate components,” she says. “I just love an incredibly delicious piece of pie with a good crust and fruit that is at its peak.”
Even for restaurants that don’t have the luxury of putting the time and effort into making perfect pastry dough for an individual pie, the principal holds true: Simplicity always works when it comes to pastries.