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Fruit Desserts Plain and Fancy

Just about any combo of fruit and ice cream will yield happy results such as this “Ultimate California Sundae,” composed of figs, strawberries, candied ginger and almonds. Photo courtesy of California Milk Advisory Board.
Fruits’ bountiful versatility and beloved flavors take desserts to new heights

By Joan Lang

Some believe there are two categories of dessert in the world:  chocolate-based and everything else. For that second category, fruit is often the hook. Lucky for dessert lovers, there is tremendous versatility in the types of fruit and the ways in which they can be used. There are the classics, of course, from cherry pie to apple crisp; seasonal faves like strawberry shortcake; endless ice creams and sorbets; and simple fresh fruit stars like raspberries or melon. But fruit is also highly adaptable to some of the latest trends from the sweet side of the kitchen, as shown by these dozen dessert-menu strategies.

Don’t pity the poor lemon. This workhorse fruit and its Ph.D.-level kin (Meyer lemons, blood oranges, kalamansi and Key lime) have earned their rightful place on the dessert menu, offering a light, sophisticated alternative to chocolate. Citrus fruits refresh in the summer or perk up palates in the winter.

In fact, citrus fruits bring remarkable versatility to the dessert menu, as demonstrated by the Taste of Citrus on offer at Tag in Denver, which chronicles the culinary journey taken by chef-owner Troy Guard, from his Hawaiian upbringing to his travels in Asia and Latin America. The item touts Orange Chiffon Cake, Meyer Lemon Cream, Grapefruit-Orange Salad and Mandarin Sorbet — a little bit of citrus wonderland in such familiar forms as cake and ice cream.

Citrus can go plain or fancy. An iconic Southern-style lemon pie with a crème meringue topping, garnished with vanilla wafers, bolsters the dessert selection at the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Krystal burger chain. Delicate Lemon Panna Cotta, perfect after a meal at Chicago’s Purple Pig, gains textural interest with pleasantly bitter lemon marmellata and candied pistachios. And the upscale Patina in Los Angeles does the lemon-pie thing with its Citrus Tart, enhanced by lemon custard, blood-orange mousse and frozen meringue.

> Meyer Lemon Tart: Artisan dark chocolate, macerated blackberries in green tea syrup — Orange Squirrel, Montclair, N.J.
> Torta Carotina: Cured lemon and parsley gelato — Del Posto, New York City

Familiar, ever-popular cheesecake has always been a great vehicle for fruit, as any restaurateur who drops a spoonful of blueberry topping on a slice of this creamy dessert will tell you. Where there’s a sophisticated menu-maker at work, cheesecake and fruit can reach new heights. Take the amazing Smoked Coconut Cheesecake served at New York City’s Spot Dessert Bar. Chef Ian Chalermkittichai uses a technique from his native Thailand to infuse the cake’s cream cheese base with a heady mix of musty, flowery aromas and flavor notes of caramel and smoke — from an aromatic Thai incense candle. He gilds the lily with rich coconut ice cream, basil seeds and a toasted coconut and tropical fruit garnish.

Fruits can be incorporated into the cheesecake base, or as a topping or garnish — or both. The Cheesecake Triptych at Restaurant R’evolution, a new partnership by chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto in New Orleans, showcases three different types of cheesecake with fruit: Mascarpone Cheesecake with Peaches, Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Plums, and Creole Cream Cheese Cheesecake with Strawberries.

> Chèvre Cheesecake: Huckleberries, candied almonds — Foreign Cinema, San Francisco
> Incognito: Lemon mousse, cheesecake, ginger streusel, raspberries and candied lemon — Pix Patisserie, Portland, Ore.

Frozen treats like ice cream, sorbet and granita, represent a perfect vehicle for fresh fruit, which can be challenging to work with — it can be overripe, bruised, misshapen and more. For ice cream, you can juice the fruit, trim the bad parts, make a big batch to “preserve” a seasonal abundance.

Sorbet is second only to fruit for those who want a simple, refreshing and light conclusion to a meal. But there’s more. Birch & Barley, in Washington, D.C., offers an entire tasting of house-spun sorbet, a sampler that might include such varieties as buttermilk, green apple, cranberry-orange, huckleberry-pomegranate and exotic spice.

Balena in Chicago features many distinctive “Composed Sundaes,” featuring ice cream-laden fruit and/or garnishes, such as Grapefruit Sorbetto (with dry meringue, cinnamon, and Aperol granita); Apple Pie Gelato (salted caramel, pecans, brown-butter crumble); and Pistachio Gelato (burnt orange, pistachio nougat and confit orange).

> Roasted Pineapple: Coconut ice cream, peanuts — Embeya, Chicago
> Seville Orange Granita: Lime curd, Asian pear — State Bird Provisions, San Francisco

Fresh fruit loves to mix it up for dessert, from the Fruit and Yogurt Parfait at McDonald’s to the Archetta di Frutta at Culina in Beverly Hills, Calif., which consists of macerated stone fruit served with ginger-honey yogurt cream and Bellini granita.

A serving of fresh fruit makes an easy and welcome addition to the dessert menu for customers with healthy leanings, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be boring or lacking in technique and sophistication. For example, Foreign Cinema in San Francisco serves a colorful Tropical Pavlova — that traditional meringue dessert with a light, crisp crust that cries out for a spangly garnish of fresh fruit — in this case, with kiwi and pineapple, as well as mango sorbet and lime curd.

Fresh berries are particularly beautiful together in or as a dessert: The Capital Grille, a steakhouse chain with locations around the country, uses fresh seasonal berries to enliven its cheesecake, and also serves them simply with vanilla crème anglaise.

> Cranberry with poached apples, Glühwein and cinnamon ice cream — Nomad Hotel, New York City
> Vanilla-Poached Strawberries with yuzu cream, crunchy streusel — Le Cirque, Las Vegas

Cheesecake and fruit are longtime friends, but new pairings can include such playful touches as this strawberry salsa atop vanilla cheesecake. Photo courtesy of the Cheesecake Factory Bakery.

There’s much to be said for exotic tropical fruit imports, especially in the dead of winter, when strawberries and stone fruits are a seldom sight.

The Pineapple Upside Down Cake served this winter at MET Bar & Grill in Dedham, Mass., struck up a complementary coconut two-fer: coconut-rum buttercream, roasted pineapple and coconut ice cream. At Family Meal, “Top Chef” Bryan Voltaggio’s casual spot in Frederick, Md., comfort-food-with-an-edge makes its way into dessert: Coconut Rice Pudding with pineapple, ginger, peanuts, dark chocolate and cilantro.

At Ambar in Washington, D.C., the tropical fruit is treated to even more of an edge in the dessert called Forest Gnocchi, which includes chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelée, tarragon gnocchi and passion fruit espuma with black tea sauce, served in a stone bowl and looking like so many leaves, stones and mushrooms from the forest floor.

> Nitro Coconut Floating Island: Passion fruit and vanilla — Patisserie, Beverly Hills, Calif.
> Halo-Halo: A mixture of preserved sweets, soft coconut, jackfruit, sugar palm fruit, served in a tall glass with crushed ice topped with ice cream and purple yam — Manila Bistro, Kirkwood, Mo.

Luscious yet homey pies are experiencing a renaissance, and the popularity of comfort-food menus, particularly regional American and Southern examples, is part of the picture. Chicago’s Big Jones restaurant, where chef-owner Paul Fehribach specializes in well-researched “Southern heirloom cooking,” is a case in point. “Appalachia Cider Pie, circa 1954” means local cider in flaky lard pastry, with sorghum, hickory nuts, whipped cream and cranberries. Then there’s the amazing Sour Cherry Bavarian Cream Tart, with cherry conserves, chocolate-rye crumbles and homemade marshmallows.

In addition to being in the pie, fruit can be on or around the pie. The menu at the appropriately named Früute, in Los Angeles, offers Black Pepper Chocolate Tart — pepper-infused bittersweet chocolate with a forest-berry center, layered with frangipane in a chocolate crust, topped with candied black-pepper crisp and blueberries.

> Pear Tart: Caramel pears, crisp pastry, blue-cheese ice cream, sea salt/caramel sauce — Woodward Table, Washington, D.C.
> Caramel Apple Empanada: A crispy golden pastry pocket filled with chunks of warm apples in a creamy caramel sauce — Taco Bell, all locations

The more the merrier, especially when it comes to sweets. Dessert samplers continue to be popular, and fruit is the go-to variant. A well-rounded, enticing sampler can be built upon a single fruit, with themes and variations, such as the Parfait de Coco at Chicago’s Topolobampo. The menu describes it as five favorite faces of coconut: coconut-rum mousse, creamy coconut sorbet coconut water crystals, tender young pieces of coconut, rich sticky coconut pudding. There is also a cracked chocolate shell, Beck Grove lime and kaffir lime pearls, just for good measure.

A less exotic but no less appealing sampler is on the menu at Woodward Table, Jeff Buben’s newest Washington, D.C., concept, with the Apple Sampler, comprised of four different apple-based favorites: apple cupcake, apple upside-down tart, cider sorbet, and white chocolate-apple mousse. Similarly, Bin 555 in San Antonio offers A Tasting of Citrus that includes lemon pound cake, citrus coulis, zesty Chantilly and lemon meringue. The relatively simple ingredients and familiar forms are elevated by the very fact that they appear in multiples.

And the trendsetting Yard House chain has gotten on the sampler train with its Mini Trio Sampler, which includes all three of its popular mini-desserts: lemon soufflé, peach-apple cobbler and chocolate soufflé.

Meanwhile, macaron lovers at Pix Patisserie in Portland, Ore., can mix and match their own sweet samplers from a selection that includes such fruit flavors as kalamansi lime, passion fruit, raspberry, strawberry balsamic, apple pie, Bananas Foster, blueberry, cassis violet and coconut curry.

Berries are perhaps the quintessential dessert fruit, bringing ripe bursts of color, flavor and texture to a variety of different forms. Many berries are available all year round from somewhere, making them a standby garnish at the dessert station.

Gorgeous local and seasonal berries are worthy of star treatment, as in the Local Fruit Panna Cotta, a soft custard made with local berries and Moscato gelée, at Inovasi in Lake Bluff, Ill., or the Mixed Berry Cobbler Skillet Cake, served warm with crème fraîche ice cream at the new Agricola, a farm-to-table restaurant in Princeton, N.J. Both of these applications are great utilizations for berries that might be too squishy or imperfectly colored to serve as specimen ingredients.

The Blackberry Lemon Polenta Cake on the menu at The Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles deploys a similar strategy for delicate berries, part of a selection of baked goods at the bakery-café. Other fruit-based products include a Blueberry Financier Muffin, Sour Cherry Buttermilk Scones, Granola Banana Bread and Chocolate Banana Strudel.

> Honey Almond Panna Cotta: Raspberries, blueberries, soft caramel powder, chocolate powder — Candy Bar, San Francisco
> Blueberry-Dark Chocolate Lollipop — Patisserie, Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Mixed Berry Cobbler Skillet Cake conveys the rustic farm-to-table flavors at newly opened Agricola in Princeton, N.J. Photo courtesy of Liz Steger.
Bananas are another fruit that can go anywhere, do anything — in part because of their familiarity, and also because of their year-round, affordable availability.

Two restaurants in Washington, D.C., prove how versatile the banana can be, in everything from edgy Banana Tempura, with cashew butter, whipped allspice tea and banana crème fraîche sorbet (CityZen) to classic Banana Pudding Trifle (Farmers Fishers Bakers).

At Spot Dessert Bar in New York City — not surprisingly known for its innovative desserts — bananas star in an affogato-like Banoffee, a creative version of the classic “drowned” gelato that also features toffee, Oreo crumbs and a vanilla tuille, with a shot of hot chocolate standing in for the traditional espresso.

Banana cream pie has been getting a lot of playful reinterpretation lately, in versions ranging from the Banana Cream Pie à la Mode (made with butterscotch pudding, lemon buttermilk sherbet and burnt caramel Foster sauce) at R’evolution in New Orleans (which also offers a Bananas Foster Soufflé), and the Salted Caramel & Banana Tart, with milk jam and white chocolate mascarpone served at The Bristol in Chicago.

And Trio in Austin, Texas, one-ups the traditional sundae with its “Banana Split,” with frozen banana-almond mascarpone, chocolate cream and strawberry espuma.

> Banana Ice Cream: Fresh banana ice cream mixed a handmade caramel sauce spiced with Hot Monkey Vodka and a healthy dose of hand-cracked Oregon walnuts  — Salt & Straw, Portland, Ore.
> Banana Pudding with toasted marshmallow — King’s Kitchen, Charlotte, N.C.

When all is said and done, fruit is still one of the most seasonal ingredient categories there is. Sure, fruits are pretty much available year-round, but nothing says summer like peaches, or winter like quince. And certain fruits, like citrus and berries, are always at their best during the height of the season. Coupled with the restaurant industry’s current, almost compulsive focus on the fresh, the seasonal and the local, it’s not surprising that fruit is finding its time again.

Take the Rooibos Poached Quince served this winter at Clio, in Boston. Quince is one of those forgotten, nearly heirloom products once rarely seen in restaurants, but its apple-into-pear flavor and texture can be quite an inspiration. At Clio, it’s poached in flavorful (and colorfully red) rooibos tea and served with caramelized white chocolate, chicory, and horchata ice cream.

And nothing says spring like rhubarb crisp, served with brown sugar-oatmeal crumble at Buss Bakery in Alexandria, Va. It could only be summer if there are Peaches and Cream Cannoli available at Stuffed Artisan Cannoli in New York City. And Grapefruit Custard Pie is an unusual wintertime treat at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Many operators create desserts that will accommodate a rotating array of fruit in season, such as the Fruit Crumble, showcasing the fresh seasonal fruit of the day, baked with a crispy crumble topping, at The Noodle Café in Wilmette, Ill. Similarly, at Henry’s Louisiana Grill in Acworth, Ga., the Fresh Fruit Cobbler Du Jour is the platform to highlight seasonality, offered with the “chef’s choice of seasonal fruit creations” and topped with vanilla ice cream.

And Corey Heyer of The Bernard’s Inn, in Bernardsville, N.J., knows that the classic apple tart tatin can easily go seasonal, for example in a height-of-summer Peach Tart Tatin served with honey-lavender ice cream.

> Roasted Black Plum Teff Cake with orange-cardamom ice cream — Agricola, Princeton, N.J.
> Cranberry Brown Butter Tart with pumpkin ice cream — Markethouse, Chicago

Simple poached pears have long had a place on sophisticated dessert menus, but now this luscious but somewhat temperamental fruit is getting game. In fact, dessert is the perfect vehicle for pears, with their subtle but distinctive flavor, and the increasing availability of different varieties.

Poached pears can be used as a garnish or adjunct to other desserts, including compositions like Milk and Honey, combining creamy panna cotta with honeyed poached pears, served at the new DCS Delicatessen, which touts “modern Jewish” cooking in Washington, D.C.

Pear pies in all their different guises have also been getting considerable play, from the Pear Crostata with caramel whip and almond croquant at DOCG, Scott Conant’s new wine bar in Las Vegas, to the Pear Rosemary Tart (cashew cream and roasted pears baked into a pâté sucrée crust and covered with a milk chocolate-rosemary ganache) at Pix Patisserie in Portland, Ore.

> Pear Bread Pudding: Fresh pears, raisins, bourbon caramel sauce — Pescatore, San Francisco
> French Butter Pear: Malt, walnut crème, labne ice cream — Clio, Boston

Some of the most beloved comfort-food desserts feature apples, from apple crisps to turnovers. Here, it’s perfection that counts, from the right apple selection to the technique used in producing it.

These classics are also the starting point for many ambitious bakers and pastry chefs as well, who are wont to turn up the skill level to create their own signature. Take, for example, the Apple Tatin Crêpe, with roasted apples, vanilla bean ice cream and salted caramel served at Sugar and Plumm in New York City, where famed pastry chef Pichet Ong and master French chocolatier Thierry Atlan created the sweet side of the menu to complement chef Ben Dodaro’s riffs on classic flavor combinations and ingredient-driven comfort foods. In fact, there are many crêpes on the menu, enrobing everything from Nutella and banana to mixed berries with vanilla ice cream. (The real claim to fame at Sugar and Plumm, however, is the Earthquake in a Fishbowl super-sundae: Heaven/Hell cake, cheesecake, Key lime pie, Brooklyn Blackout cake, butterscotch pudding, and vanilla chocolate and salted caramel ice cream; the whipped cream is simply lily-gilding.)

Salted caramel, this year’s flavor darling, goes great with apples, as demonstrated by items ranging from the Caramel Apple Frosty Parfait at Wendy’s to the Crispy Pain d’Espice, with caramel braised apple, spiced donuts, miso butterscotch and cider sorbet at Wolfgang Puck’s WP24 in Los Angeles.

Some apple desserts have thematic progenitors, like the Brown Betty Apple Crêpe, with sage-apple ice cream and sugared pecans on the menu at The Oval Room, in Washington, D.C., or the Apple Punk Tarts, Fred Eric’s version of an apple pie Pop-Tart, at Fred 62, a punk-rock contempo-diner in Silver Lake, Calif.

Others come from the world’s recipe book of apple classics. Tufahija is a traditional poached stuffed apple from Bosnia, and it’s served at Café Pita in Houston, invitingly filled with walnuts and honey and topped with whipped cream. And at The Bristol in Chicago, there’s a comforting Basque Cake for dessert, adapted with apple confit, candied cinnamon walnuts and cider sabayon.

But what to make of the Fried Apple and Cinnamon Ice Cream Bun served at Noodlecat in Cleveland, except to say that it’s an American classic, turned on its ear to fit a pan-Asian new-wave noodle shop menu?

> Honey Crisp Apple-Almond Wafer “Stack”: Dulce de leche ice cream, apple crema — Province, Phoenix
> Tennessee Whiskey Cake: Fresh-baked apple caramel cake soaked with Jack Daniel’s glaze — Bar Louie, all locations

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About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.