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Signature Simplicity

Homey desserts get high-end treatment, as with this maple-custard-filled sugar pie at The Boarding House in Chicago. Photo courtesy of the boarding house. The trend toward simplified sweets offers vast opportunities for desserts with distinction

By Amelia Levin

Cheesecake. Crème brûlée. Bread pudding. The classic desserts of our time never seem to fail, but in the interest of dessert-menu differentiation and leaving diners with a lasting memory, taking an inspirational approach to the classics is a worthwhile strategy. Whether your basic “base” is housemade or outsourced, and whether you have a pastry chef or not, creative builds and finishing touches won’t tack on too much time or effort, yet they’ll leave your dessert with a signature stamp.

Research shows we’re going back to basics when it comes to desserts. Buzzwords like “housemade” and “authentic” have taken hold at upscale operations while casual/family-dining restaurants leverage the homey feel with comfort items like bread pudding and pies, according to Mintel’s most recent “Dessert Trends” report. Bread pudding has seen a 43 percent increase in popularity from 2009 to 2012. And cheesecake, particularly the classic New York-style version, has steadily risen in popularity over the last few years, according to the report. It’s also profitable — prices for cheesecake have gone up 30 percent since 2009, according to Mintel.

Dessert menus are embracing simple, basic sweets, but with a modern mindset to appeal to the growing culinary consciousness of today’s consumers. Featuring a timeless lineup that includes warm chocolate cake, carrot cake, cherry cobbler, and cookies and milk, Executive Pastry Chef Kady Yon builds from the basics at Pump Room in Chicago’s Public Hotel. “You’re taking things that people are already comfortable with as a way to introduce new flavors and tastes,” she says. “At the same time, you don’t want to go too far off track as to take away the novelty of the dessert.”

Her doughnuts might feature a chipotle chocolate sauce or a blackstrap molasses sauce with cranberries. Her sundae is layers of salted-caramel ice cream, candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. As with many nostalgia-inspired dishes on the savory side of the menu, diners appreciate desserts that toe the line between classic and cutting-edge.

“Simple is better and profitable,” says Rick Perez, corporate chef, R&D Culinary Consulting. “The best strategy for high-volume operations is to choose items that can be prepped ahead of time. Then, keep it simple, but good.”

But simple doesn’t have to be boring. Perez suggests topping a classic banana pudding or bread pudding with a warm bananas Foster sauce. Or offer a unique upgrade to a simple chocolate dessert — he likes the idea of a classic chocolate pavé, but rolled in quinoa for a signature spin, and served with a classic orange sabayon or vanilla sauce.

To dress up the basic cake, chef/partner Dean James Max of Asador in Dallas wraps his cheesecakes in individual phyllo pastry shells for an easy, pre-prepped embellishment that can be stored in the cooler until just before service, when they’re crisped up. Depending on the season, cinnamon ice cream and roasted pears might accompany the dish. “We don’t have pastry chefs, but we try to create something special at the end of the meal,” says Max.

At Piccolo Sogno in Chicago, Chef/Owner Tony Priolo goes for a ricotta-based cheesecake with a chunkier texture, finishing the delicacy with a blood orange-vanilla sauce, which could be swapped out for a mixed berry coulis or other fruit pairing.

“I like to keep desserts true to their roots,” says Priolo. “This is the basis of Italian cooking.” A Sicilian, Priolo often looks to his native country to incorporate natural extensions of a simple dessert, like a dried fig compote with Marsala and pine nuts as a topper for cannoli. He’s also a fan of a simple, no-bake mascarpone chocolate tart, in tart shells with vanilla and cinnamon. “This is an easy option because you can make them ahead of time, and they don’t have to be cooked.”

Chef Alain Roby of All Chocolate Kitchen, a high-volume catering company in Geneva, Ill., makes a New England-style bread pudding layered with fresh berries and sugar, then pressed into a mold, individually portioned and refrigerated. Before service, a touch of sour cream and extra berries adds a little zing.

At Loveless Café in Nashville, Pastry Chef Alisa Huntsman makes simple switches to showcase the homemade appeal of her creations. She uses a biscotti cookie-crumb bottom to differentiate cheesecakes, and for a banana pudding: “Instead of reaching for a box of Nilla Wafers, I’ll make my own little vanilla cookies,” she says. “That’s enough to be a conversation starter by itself, and it sells the dessert.” Plus, the cookies can be made ahead of time in large batches.

Amanda Rockman, pastry chef at Balena in Chicago, also goes for signaturized retro classics. Doughnuts get gussied up with toppings like butterscotch and candied bacon, walnuts and cinnamon sugar, or salted apple butter. She’s also used oats and granola on top of pies instead of traditional crisp toppings. “You could even buy good quality granola and add your own cinnamon, nuts and dried fruits to spruce it up,” she says.

A “composed sundae” at Balena might include pistachio gelato, burnt orange, pistachio nougat, and confit orange. Photo courtesy of jeff kauck for balena. SAVORY SEASONALITY
Basic desserts like cakes, custards, ice cream and puddings also serve as perfect platforms for showcasing seasonal and/or local fresh herbs and fruits. And seasonality sells:

Mintel research shows the word “seasonal” on the dessert menu has increased 61 percent since 2009.

“Desserts are a good way to advertise the use of local products, especially when using herbs and fruits,” says chef Roby, who has made compound butter with rosemary for an herbaceous hit to a simple chocolate mousse. “I also like to use Thai basil for desserts, incorporating it into a rice pudding, for example,” he says.

Balena’s Rockman takes a savory herb approach, frying up fresh sage and rosemary for a pine nut tart, pecan pie or brown butter streusel.

“You can really switch things up season to season,” Pump Room’s Yon says. “During the citrus season in the winter, I’ve paired a crème fraîche cheesecake with a kumquat marmalade and candied kumquats, blood orange sorbet and fennel-almond tuile. The season prior, I used the same base but with candied walnuts, a compote of poached black Mission figs, port wine, orange and a cinnamon stick with a scoop of Concord grape sorbet.”

Huntsman of Loveless Café looks to her own backyard as a source of inspiration.

“I’m a gardener and spend a lot of time planting flowers, vegetables and herbs, so I know the similarities among plant families,” she says. For instance, roses come from the same family as blackberries, strawberries and raspberries, so a few splashes of rose water to a berry compote or sauce can add depth of flavor. Basil has a slight anise flavor and therefore pairs well with peaches. And chiles pair beautifully with both caramel and chocolate. “I’ll add habanero to a caramel sauce and serve that with a simple pecan pie and a buttermilk ice cream to tame the heat,” she says.

Zack Bruell, chef/partner of five Cleveland restaurants including Chinato, Parallax Restaurant & Lounge, Table 45, L’Albatros and Cowell & Hubbard, looks to the candies he enjoyed as a kid for inspiration.

“I loved Almond Joys, so I’ll often pair coconut with chocolate,” he says, describing how he has spiked mousse with coconut, layered it into a tart and topped it off with chocolate ganache and almonds. “You can take any basic dessert like a cheesecake or crème brûlée and add new flavor profiles in this way.”

Sauces offer simple flavor finishes. A well-made caramel sauce can do wonders for any dessert, says Huntsman. “We do high-volume desserts at Loveless, which is a challenge, and there is a lot of prep that needs to be done before service,” she says. “But making sauces is foolproof and adds a great finishing touch.” She swears by a simple butter-and-sugar caramel sauce or dulce de leche, often spiking it with cinnamon stick, vanilla bean or liquors like Jack Daniels or rum.

“A fruit coulis is also easy to make and can be done with any fruit flavor like raspberry, strawberry or peach,” adds Huntsman. To play up the sauce, she adds pure vanilla bean, grated orange zest, a few cardamom pods, star anise and her secret: dried lavender.

At the Hotel Palomar’s Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco, Pastry Chef Francis Ang goes more exotic when dreaming up new flavors for basic desserts. His bread pudding might feature persimmon, and he recently paired a simple custard with pommelo, candied pommelo rings, jasmine tea and licorice-flavored fennel seed. “Cherry and thyme also work together,” he adds, “and I’ve paired Madras curry with guava and white chocolate for a little sweet heat.”

At Loveless Café, chocolate raspberry short stacks feature homemade chocolate wafers alongside berries complemented with rose water. Photo courtesy of loveless cafe LASTING IMPRESSIONS
During plating, signature subtleties like chocolate shavings or a tuile can dress up a basic dessert. Rockman is a fan of easy-to-make meringues for a finishing “crunch,” and she created a homemade version of the kid-friendly “magic shell” to replace the cracked sugar atop a crème brûlée or cheesecake. “I just melt a little chocolate with coconut oil or grapeseed oil, keep it warm and it firms up when it hits the cheesecake,” she says. “It really creates that ‘Wow!’ factor.”

Even a simple spin on a shape can add interest to a basic dessert. In Cleveland, Bruell bakes his cheesecakes into individual circular molds for a signature approach and to save labor during service, but one could also easily cut shapes from a sheet cake, using leftovers for a shake or other concoction.

Many chefs and pastry chefs use dehydrators to dry out fruits and other ingredients to add interest to a plate. “Texture is as important as flavor and ingredients,” says Pastry Chef Dominique Perez of Story in Kansas City, Mo. She uses a dehydrator to create items like strawberry “chips.”

Fifth Floor’s Ang uses a microwave to “crisp” fresh cilantro in 10-second increments, changing the paper towels to soak up the moisture. He then dehydrates the leaves and grinds them with a mortar and pestle, sprinkling the powder on the plate as a presentation kick. “You can use the same technique for citrus peel,” he says.

For a simple tuile, Pastry Chef Julie Fitting of The Boarding House melts butter with flour, sugar, lemon zest and juice to make a paste, then cools it overnight. She then pipes the batter into dollops on sheet trays, spreads it with a spatula, then bakes for a few minutes until thin and crisp. “It’s easy to crank them out ahead of time, and they add height and interest when serving.”

While modern desserts’ flavor pairings and finishing flairs needn’t be complicated, they do require an inherent attention to detail, even on a high-volume scale. “All of my finishing touches are as important as the ingredients themselves,” says Story’s Perez. “To me, they aren’t just something to ‘pretty up’ a dessert — they’re another way to add depth of flavor.”


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About The Author

Amelia Levin

Amelia Levin, a Chicago-based freelance writer and food writer, has contributed to a variety of local and national newspapers, magazines, and trade journals.