Brown Butter Pound Cake with Banana Coconut Mousse, Beet Poached Pears and Fennel Pear Sorbet
I am leaving the restaurant. I’ve been here a year. This has been a great year in which I have been given an extraordinary amount of opportunities to learn and grow as a person and as pastry cook. Looking through the desserts I have written about here, I think there are some clear lessons to be gleaned. The first being that I have progressed so much in my ability to put desserts together that make sense structurally, in the way the flavors work together and in the way they are plated. These are not things that can be taught but must be learned through experience. Most chefs will talk with great gusto about the people who influence and inspire them. This is because chefs don’t just start as blank slates, they are influenced by what they have seen, what they have tasted and especially what they grew up with. I personally use a lot of Asian flavors and it’s not just because the restaurant happens to have Asian slant, it has more to do with the fact that the people I admire like Asian flavors and I have seen how successfully Asian flavors can be incorporated into desserts. The fact that I know this about myself is an extraordinary gift and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to begin to find my personal style because it is not an opportunity that most people get this early in their career.
Another lesson that is obvious is that procrastination hurts the final outcome. The dishes I am most proud of are the ones that I took the time to think, plan and research before I broke the first egg. The fact that I can throw something together at the last minute and have it be acceptable, doesn’t mean I should. The best desserts are also the ones for which I left myself enough time to edit, rethink and possibly try again. There are days when I can execute the dishes in my head exactly as I intended, but there are many more times when it just doesn’t taste or look quite like I thought it was going to. I have never served anything that I knew tasted bad or was in anyway unsanitary, but I have served dishes that I wasn’t proud of because the prevailing wisdom is that good enough is good enough, and it‘s ok to just go with an inferior product to avoid wasting time or product by making it again. I am learning (slowly) that I am not happy with the result if it is merely acceptable and that working harder earlier is the only way to achieve the results I want. I know there will always be times when you just have to go with what you have, but I want to be pushing myself so that these times only occur because of circumstances outside my control and not because I was too lazy, or tired, or overwhelmed to do it right the first time.
It is also very clear that I still have so much to learn and I am excited by this. Culinary school gave me the basic skills to make this past year possible and the restaurant has given me the opportunity to hone these skills; however, I am ready to learn more, to try new things and take on new challenges. I am excited to see what happens next.
The dish above is my last dish at the restaurant, so I took the time and really thought about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to put it together. I am proud of the flavors that I got out the ingredients and the variety of textures and temperatures. I’m still not sure about the plating, but it is modern and, if not stunning, at least interesting to look at. The cake is a brown butter pound cake to which I added a banana to keep it moist and soft. The brown butter made the cake nutty and earthy; the brown sugar gave the sweetness a complexity. The white strip of mousse is made of heavily roasted banana, white chocolate and coconut powder. This was the sweetest of the components, but it was also the component with the most clear flavors. The banana and coconut worked especially well together, sort of a tropical harmony. I added to this my favorite fennel pear sorbet which is green and juicy with just a hint of refreshing licorice. The red squares are pears poached in roasted beet juice. This lets the natural sweetness of the pears come out, but also infused them with the taste of sun-drenched, summer soil. There is a crumb on the bottom made of oatmeal, panko, and graham cracker crumbs that have been toasted together and tossed in browned butter. This was added to give the dish one more texture and reinforce the flavors of the cake. The sauce on the cake was added at the end of the process. After tasting the dish up to this point all together, I decided it needed a little more acid, and I wanted to repeat the pear flavor through one more time. So, the sauce is powdered sugar mixed with pear liquor, pear juice, and lemon juice. I wanted this dish to reflect what I like to eat the best, so there are a lot of elements that weren’t that sweet combined with a few that were sweet to push the dish into dessert territory.
This dish has a lot of different elements and, at first, it seems unlikely that they could all come together; but, because some flavor elements of each piece intertwine with those of another, the overall effect is to mutually complement one another rather than to be confusing or distract. In the end I was pretty proud of this dish. It hit the flavor notes I was looking for, looked decent, and had unexpected textures. It’s not a perfect dish, but I was satisfied with it, and I felt that my planning and execution had both been rewarded.
The Monday after this dessert debuted there was a yelp review of the dish. They hated it. It was their least favorite of all the dishes they had that night, but they did say that they were impressed by complexity of the flavors and textures. I guess you can not win them all.
Chicory Cheesecake with Macerated Figs, Poached Pears, Chocolate Raisin Sauce and Creme Fraiche Ice Cream
My boss has recently started to think about putting a wintery cheesecake on the menu to replace one of the dishes that seems more connected to the fall. I got excited by this and started making trials for Sunday supper. I made two that were almost exactly the same except I changed the peripheral flavors, keeping main concepts – a rich and creamy, cream-cheese based cheesecake, pears, a thick sauce and the plating.
The cheesecake pictured above is heavily infused with chicory and sits on a chocolate-espresso, graham-cracker crust. Chicory used in this manner comes from a tuber in the endive family. It is dried and ground, and is frequently used as a coffee additive. When ground it looks like coffee but has a higher acidity with earthy, chocolate notes. To accent this I made a thick chocolate raisin sauce with rich, deep, dark 72% chocolate and fruity, sweet red raisins. (This is an example of when the concepts in my head don’t come to fruition. I expected this would taste – earthy, acidic, sweet, fruity and it did have all of those components; what I hadn’t anticipated was that it also tasted exactly like a raisinette. However, I like raisinettes, and the sauce did work with the other components so I used it.) I then poached dried figs in armangnac, cinnamon, vanilla and sugar until they were soft and pliant. When I drained the figs, I used the poaching liquid with the addition of a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice to poach the pear cubes. The addition of the lemon juice did two things, it kept the pears from browning too quickly and it changed the poaching liquid enough so that while the two poached items went well together, they didn’t taste the same. I added to this a creme fraiche ice cream because it’s creaminess and light tanginess pulled the whole plate together. I could try to convince you that the addition of the micro greens and pomegranate seeds were for their complex earthiness and subtle tart sweetness or I could just admit that they are there for color.
This turned out to be a delicious dish, but it couldn’t go on the menu. We currently have a chocolate espresso cake on the menu, and this dish, with the chocolate in the crust and the chicory, was deemed too similar. So the next week I tried again.
Chai Cheesecake with Jasmine Poached Pears, Coconut-Ginger Sauce, Lychee and Kaffir Lime Sorbet
For my second shot at cheesecake, I wanted to play with Asian flavors but I continued with the infused drink concept and used a house-made, spicy chai powder to infuse the cheesecake. This was baked on crumbly gingersnap crust. This time I poached the pears in jasmine tea with a little honey. Jasmine can be an overly aggressive flavor and, when pushed, can quickly begin to taste like soap. So I only poached the pears in the tea for a few minutes, just until the jasmine had seeped into the pears enough to be noticeable but not enough to be overwhelming, then I drained them, and finished poaching them in water. The cheesecake sits upon a toasted coconut and ginger spread. To make this I took a can of coconut milk and boiled it in a low oven with a little sugar and a fair amount of fresh ginger until the proteins in the coconut milk began to toast, the sugar cooks like in jam, and enough water has evaporated to make the mixture thick and viscous. We also use this jam at brunch and I have to admit it is delicious. This is topped off with a lychee and kaffir lime sorbet. The first time I made this I just tried to infuse lychee juice with kaffir lime and, while it was good, I found it a little lack luster. For this batch I got whole lychees and roasted them and then pureed them with kaffir lime.
This really wasn’t a bad dish but it just wasn’t as good as the chicory cheesecake and so it too will not be going on the menu.
Blood Orange Crostata with Passionfruit Curd, Grapefruit Gelee and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
When the restaurant accidentally received a case of blood oranges instead of the navel oranges that had been ordered, it became the pastry department’s job to use them up. I made a batch of blood orange sorbet, but I also made this blood orange crostata for sunday supper. This is a recipe I have been lusting to make for almost a year, ever since I saw pictures on a food blog called smitten kitchen; but I kept forgetting about it until the after the events for which it would have been appropriate. I didn’t even remember it for this project until I was trawling the internet on Saturday night trying to think of something to do with an entire case of citrus. However, as soon as I saw the pictures I was hooked all over again. I made the recipe almost exactly as she suggests but with probably a little more butter and less sugar on the fruit. I also added a little cinnamon to the crust.
A crostada is a rustic, free-form tart which generally has a fairly thick crust that is just folded over to make an outer edge. I think one reason that slices of pies, tarts, and cakes, are generally served with just a scoop of ice cream or maybe a sauce is because there aren’t that many garnishes that can enhance a well made slice. This was how I felt about my crostada. I clearly had my work cut out for me, as my inclination was to say that the tart by itself was perfect but the powers that be did not agree. So, I went in the opposite direction, pulled out all the scraps and extras, looking for delicious bits that I could put together with this tart on a plate. This included a bunch of citrus pieces that we had left over from experiments planning for a grapefruit dinner and for Valentine’s day. I ended up only including the smooth, rich passionfruit mousse, a tangy blood orange sauce, and jello-like grapefruit gelee squares. I also made a very quick, creamy vanilla bean ice cream to balance all of that acidity.
This dish wasn’t bad (besides the fact that I made the tarts so big that they didn’t fit on any of the plates we have in house) but it wasn’t great. It was a tasty dessert, but I don’t think the other elements of the plate improved on the tart. I thought the tarts were beautiful, but their beauty was in their rustic nature, and they really were best alone.
Gingerbread Cheesecake Flan with Blood Orange Sauce, Gingered Apples, Candied Kumquats and Pomegranate Seeds
For New Year’s Eve the restaurant planned a special five course tasting menu but unlike some of our other specialized tasting menus, the New Years Eve menu had choices for each course. For the dessert course we offered three options: a chocolate dessert, a fruit dessert, and a cheese plate. For the fruit option my boss picked a recipe, of which she had done a variation for the menu a few years ago, called a cheesecake flan. She asked me to play with it a bit, changing the flavors and the plating. The dish pictured above is one example of the possibilities we threw around.
Before we go deeply into the components of the dish above, it would probably be useful to consider the cheesecake flan itself. What is a cheesecake flan? I admit to being quite baffled myself when she first handed me the recipe until I made it and tasted it. The texture is exactly what you would expect if you mashed a creamy dense cheesecake with a slick eggy flan. The result is actually quite nice, dense but also light, cheesy but not cloying especially when served with an acidic element to cut the fat and sweetness.
I chose gingerbread as the main flavor for the cheesecake flan because it seemed festive and the spices were well balanced by the creaminess of the cheesecake element. The apples added a fruity juiciness and some texture. I soaked them in a water infused with fresh ginger to keep them from discoloring and to add dimension to the gingerbread spices in the cheesecake. The pomegrante seeds and candied kumquat added some much needed acid and color. There is also a lightly sweetened guava sauce to act as a bridge between all of the other components.
Because I was thinking about gingerbread houses all day and I had a little bit of extra time I also piped some quick sugar icicles. I hope the people who ate this dish found them whimsical and not trite, though I suppose confusing is also an option. Overall, I was satisfied with this dish, I thought once I got past the “what is this” stage that the plate came together in a well balanced and fun sort of way.
Moist, Spicy Gingerbread Cake with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream, and Apple Cider Sorbet
Lately, I have been throwing these dishes together at the last minute because the weekends are so busy that Sunday evening sneaks up on me. I haven’t been happy with many of these last minute efforts because while not necessarily bad, they just weren’t fully thought out and therefore, not completely successful. This was an exception; although I came up with this dish at about 2 pm Sunday afternoon, I was actually pretty happy with it. This may have something to do with the fact it’s not very original. I used three elements from other dishes of mine and stole the plating from my fig dessert, but that’s an aspect of learning: figuring out what you liked of what you have done before and recreating it in a different context.
For this dish I made a gingerbread cake with fresh ginger as well as extra large amounts of dried spices and molasses. This cake was cut it into cubes which were stacked on top of a lavender-caramel swoosh and had apple cider sauce spooned over the top. This is complemented by quennelles of apple cider sorbet and creme fraiche ice cream. The combination is not innovative but it was delicious, and I really like gingerbread spice around the holidays.
Spiced Apple Cobbler with Candied Popcorn and Cranberry-Rosemary Sorbet
This is my third menu item dessert. On our summer menu we had a rhubarb cobbler dessert which sold well and was easy to plate. As fig season was coming to a close necessitating the removal of my last dessert, the pastry chef asked me to start working on an apple cobbler dish to replace it. Simple but delicious desserts are very important during this season because the high volume and large quantity of parties require us to plate much more quickly to keep tables from waiting on dessert. Unfortunately, I’m not that good at simplicity. I tried, really I did. My first attempt (the picture above) was actually quite easy to plate but as it got adjusted for the menu, it became more complicated (the picture below).
What is a cobbler? What makes a dessert a cobbler and not a crumble or a crisp? Which one did I want to make? First, let’s break it down: it all comes down to the toppings. A cobbler has a cookie like topping. It usually has lots of flour, butter, cream and a leavener to make it puffy. It can be rolled out and placed on top or tossed in clumps. A crumble doesn’t have a leavener and frequently has oatmeal, brown sugar and sometimes nuts. Therefore, it makes a crunchier and nuttier topping. A crisp is very similar to a crumble except that it usually has the addition of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger depending on what will enhance the fruit that it is going with. So, which one did I pick? Pick? Simplicity? Why have one when you can have all three?
The flavors in this dish did not change between the Sunday supper version and the menu version. The apples are heavily spiced and steamed briefly to make them slightly tender but still toothsome. In the original version the apples were cubed but it was determined that the texture was a little strange, and cubing the apples is very time intensive. Underneath the apples is a crumb topping made up of toasted oatmeal, graham cracker crumbs, panko, and polenta. This is mixed with brown sugar and browned butter. This isn’t a true crumb because without the addition of flour and more butter it doesn’t actually hold together in clumps, but it is still very textural and nutty in flavor. On both versions there is also puffy, cobbler topping, carmelized popcorn and a reduced apple cider sauce. The sorbet is made from fresh cranberries roasted with rosemary and then pureed, with enough liquid and sugar added to make a smooth sorbet but not so much that it loses the tart, tanginess of the cranberries. On the menu version there is also the addition of dehydrated apple chips which add a lovely height and a little more apple flavor.
This dish is on the menu as an apple cobbler though it could have just as easily been called a crumble or a crisp because it also has aspects of those desserts in the crumble on the bottom and the heavy spicing of the apples. I also think the caramel corn can be considered an additional topping but it doesn’t fit into any of the categories. However, I choose cobbler because I felt it best encapsulated what I wanted the feel of the dish to be but occasionally, I will hear from a server that the diner was expecting a classic apple cobbler in a ramekin with more cobbler topping. I agree, my version is very deconstructed especially because of the size of the apples and the variety of topping like components, however, I am also not sure why a diner would expect a generic dessert when the rest of the menu is far from standard. I would actually think that this dish would please those who like a classic cobbler because I didn’t mess with the flavor, just the presentation and some additional fun flourishes. So, instead of being hung up on the occational critique, I think I will instead find pleasure in the fact that the plates frequently appear licked clean.
Mascarpone Cheesecake with Housemade Nutella, Sweet Tea Sorbet and Whiskey Whipped Cream
On a beautiful, hot day in August I had a strong craving for sweet tea and so on a whim I made some sweet tea sorbet. It then sat in the freezer for over a month because I just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. The problem I realized was that I mostly drink sweet tea with my savory of the meal, and so the sweetness is balanced by the salt in the food, but I never drink it with dessert because by that time its usually time to switch to water. My initial thoughts for this dessert were of citrus but I had already put lemon juice in the sorbet because that’s how I like my sweet tea. Chocolate seemed like it worked, but it also overpowered the sorbet. I tried mint with some vague thoughts of a mint julep. However, eventually I decided to go a different direction with the Southern roots of the sorbet by pairing it with a basic, but luscious cheesecake, and a little bit of chocolate from the quenelle of nutella. I made the nutella by grinding chocolate and roasted almonds and then pushing the mix through a fine mesh. The dish still needed one more flavor or texture. So I added some whiskey whipped cream under the sorbet and a little mint on top.
This was a tasty but very last minute dessert, and I am sorry that the picture quality is so poor. We had a large guest list for the night and so instead of our usual 25 portions of Sunday Supper, the sous chef asked me to make 30. This was fine because I had cut the cheese cake into 5 x 6 pieces; however, with all the pieces being served, I had to assemble the piece for this picture and the servers tasting out of scraps off the side. Also, my indecision about the flavors of this dish meant that I was working on it until the very last minute and the picture was hurried. Oh well, at least it tasted good.
Hibiscus Sherbet with Roasted Fennel, Candied Pistachios, and Rosewater
Watermelon Snow with Fresh Watermelon and Lemon Basil Whipped Cream
Strawberry Ice Cream Sandwich with Chocolate Brownie Cookie
This dessert is the first one that I have created where I wanted it to be eaten in a certain order. Normally, I get really annoyed when people tell me how to eat something, but I do understand that there are some circumstances when a certain order is necessary, especially when, as in this case, a dessert consists of separate bites that should not be eaten together. The first bite, the one that sits on the far left, is almost savory and should be eaten first. It is to be followed by the bite in the top right that is more of a palate cleanser than a dessert. The final bite is a true dessert. Because parts of this dish were designed to function likes courses of a meal, I felt some direction was necessary.
In a dish like this there needs to be some element that ties all of the bites together. Normally it would be one ingredient, and each section would show off a different preparation or aspect of that item. This dish was a little different because the cohesion was provided by a frozen, pink element in each part.
I didn’t initially start out trying to produce a dish with a semi-savory course, but the pink hibiscus that I piped into small tubes was so tangy that it needed some earthy flavors to balance it out. I chose fennel bulb, which I pan roasted until it was fairly soft. Although this was probably not the most successful way of preparing the fennel, it was all I had time for, and cooking it this way deepens the licorice flavor. I tossed the fennel in rose water and simple syrup like a salad and added in candied pistachio nuts. This was then topped with the cylinder of hibiscus sherbet that looked lovely on top of the grayed-green bed of fennel. I thought that the flavors came together really well and that the combination was still sweet enough to be considered dessert.
The mid course on this plate serves to cleanse the palate between the savory and the dessert. It is two pieces of thinly cut fresh watermelon topped with a lightly sweetened lemon-basil whipped cream and watermelon snow. To make the watermelon snow, I pureed a watermelon and then strained it. I froze the juice in a container, as it froze the impurities and sugar drifted to the bottom and to the center. It was these sweeter more watermelon-y sections that I scraped with a fork to make the snow. Normally, I wouldn’t add anything as heavy as whipped cream to a palate cleanser; however, the lemon and the basil offset the fat, making the combination light and refreshing.
The final, dessert, section is perhaps one of the greatest things I have made so far. The cookie part of the sandwich is basically a triple chocolate brownie batter with just enough additional flour to provide structure. This was baked until it just set but still a little gooey and soft. These were stuffed with house-made strawberry ice cream containing chunks of real strawberry. I was so excited about these when I made them that I fed them to many of the kitchen staff as a treat.
I was very happy with the way that the elements of this plate came together. It has a semi-cohesive theme, good flavors, and a clear sense of progression. However, I did learn one valuable lesson: a great way to annoy your coworkers is to leave them on a busy Sunday night with a difficult and annoying new dessert to plate. Sorry L!!!
Orange Fig Bar with Lavender Caramel and Orange Thyme Ice Cream
photo courtesy of Monique Fiso
I think it says something about how far I have come that, when it came time to think about changing all of our desserts for the fall, my boss asked me when I was going to have mine ready to taste. This is kind of a big deal because we only have three rotating dessert spots on our menu because the sticky toffee pudding and the hokey pokey ice cream are such fan favorites that they have both been on the menu pretty much since the restaurant opened.
When posing this request, my boss also mentioned that she and the executive chef had been kicking around the idea of a dessert with figs and lavender and that she would be very happy if those two were incorporated into my new dessert. Normally, I would not be inclined to consider either of these things because fresh figs, while delicious are frequently exorbitantly expensive and have a very short shelf life, and lavender is a difficult flavoring because of its tendency to become soapy. However, I decided to take it as a challenge and began to think of ways that I could incorporate both elements and find ways to work around my initial qualms about them.
Figs can be a very versatile ingredient. They are great in cookies and tarts, with frangipane and ice cream; they can be gussied up or left to shine on their own. I love their texture when they are perfectly ripe — still a little firm, with give but not mushy — and I love how a cut piece can look like a rose colored heart; what I dislike is when they are mushy or look like dirty gray colored hearts. Therefore, my first decision with this dessert was to use dried figs, which I know won’t go out of season and are more reliably consistent. It didn’t take me long to get from dried fruits to a rendition of figs’ most iconic role, the fig newton. After that the dish pretty much finished itself.
The picture above shows my initial attempt. I added the lavender flavor by infusing it into the caramel sauce that is underneath the bar. This sauce also played up the natural caramel flavors found in the fig compote. I needed to add some acid to the dish to keep it from being overly sweet, so the figs are cooked down in orange juice and bright white wine with some brown sugar. This mixture was reduced until all liquid was absorbed by the figs, making them very moist and plump. This fig mixture was then cooled and pureed until most of the lumps were gone, but it was not completely smooth. To add a little creaminess, I then folded the filling with whipped cream and crème fraîche and hit it with some orange zest. This filling sits on top of a crust that is half way between a tart dough and a cake, which makes it light and crumbly but still strong enough to hold a bite. The cake is topped with a scoop of orange and thyme ice cream. This combination reinforces the orange in the fig filling. Thyme is in the same family as lavender and so they complement each other. Finally the ice cream is topped with candied lavender.
My boss really liked the first version but there were just a few adjustments we made for the following week. The first time I made the lavender caramel, I put dried lavender in the boiling sugar. This approach got some lavender flavor into the caramel, but to get a little more, this week, after boiling the lavender in the sugar for a while, I removed it and then boiled the flowers with the cream for a while. In this way I infused the lavender flavor into both parts of the dish. However, since the lavender flowers were in neither part for long, this two-step process resulted in more overall lavender flower without a soapy off-taste. This week, I also exchanged the candied lavender for pomegrante seeds, which are there mostly for color. I also added the fresh fig half, which wasn’t available the week before. I like elegance that comes from the piece of fresh fig, but, because not much fresh fig is needed, it is easier to ensure their quality.
This dish has been on the menu for about two weeks now and is a selling really well.
Red Velvet Tart with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Mousse, Apricot Strawberry Compote, Apricot Juice and Chocolate Ancho Ice Cream
This weekend we had a wedding at the restaurant and, as part of the package, we made their cake. For reasons I will never understand, they wanted a red velvet cake because what could make wedding better then if everybody’s teeth are red and they keep making jokes about animal flesh. To get the proper sized cakes we ended up baking them in sheet trays which left a lot of excess on the sides. Instead of just throwing the scraps away I decided to save them to use in a Monday night special.
I began by drying out the leftover scraps under the oven, then I ground them up and used these crumbs as flour for a tart shell dough. Baked the tart shells still tasted like red velvet cake, but there were crispy and a little sandy. Red velvet cake is often served with a cream cheese icing and so I filled the tart shell with a cream cheese and white chocolate mousse.
The filled tart (as was the wedding cake) was served with a quenelle of chocolate ancho ice cream to enhance the chocolate flavor of the red velvet cake and a fruit compote of strawberries and apricots. The slight acidity of the compote and the apricot juice on top of the mousse helped to counterbalance the richness of the dish. I plated this dessert in a retro style because I wanted to keep with the theme of red velvet cake and the old-fashioned images associated with it.