best desserts of 2012…
Last year, I asked: “Is pastry having a ‘moment?'”
The question was clearly rhetorical. And in the paragraphs that followed, I cited dozens of examples of why I thought it was so.
In 2012, pastry sustained its “moment” because chefs kept redefining and expanding its borders. They continued to explore uncharted territory, questioning tradition, and upending expectations.
Once an afterthought, with pastry chefs like Michael Laiskonis and Francisco Migoya spearheading events like the Killed By Dessert series, desserts have become just as important in our curent culinary dialogue as what traditionally comes before them in a meal. To acknowledge the growing appreciation for this branch of the culinary arts, last year, I gave my favorite desserts their own post and listing. This year, I do so again.
I came across many wonderful bakers, patissiers, chocolatiers, and their products in 2012. They can’t all fit on my list of twenty-five favorite desserts (besides, not all of them could be classified as desserts, in the traditional sense of that word), so I’d like to take a moment to mention some of them here.
In New York City, Dominique Ansel is making elegant, European-style pastries at his eponymous patisserie on Spring Street in SoHo. His eclairs are pretty good, as are his croissants. But what really wowed me was his “Liquid Caramel Chocolate Tart,” a swirling run of rich, bitter chocolate and caramel in a buttery, dark chocolate shell.
At Floriole Café and Bakery in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood I found a handsome almond croissant, and an even better gâteau Basque. It’s moist and chewy on the inside, threaded with cherries, and buttery and golden on the outside.
The canelés at Boulette’s Larder (located in the Ferry Terminal Marketplace in San Francisco) remain the best I’ve had in the country (although the ones that Joshua Skenes are experimenting with in the hearth at saison are pretty great too), despite the fact that they’ve now doubled their production to two dozen a day. Beyond those little, caramelized cakes, which seem to get the lion’s share of press, I’ve found all of the pastries at Boulette’s Larder to be of very high quality and caliber.
Also, if you’re in San Francisco, go to Tartine Bakery in the Mission District. I recommend everything there (pastries and sandwiches alike, and especially the bread). Afterwards, walk across the street and get a scoop of the salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery.
In Yountville, I made a daily habit of Bouchon Bakery. In the summer, I found beautiful little fig tartlets filled with almond pastry cream. I also tried all of their ice cream sandwiches (I especially liked the one that sandwiched banana-walnut ice cream between two dark chocolate shortbread cookies). But, it was the coffee eclair there that became my standard order.
Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia makes a terrific “pumpkin crunch” pie – pumpkin cheesecake filling on a shortbread crust. I loved it, and all of the other cookies I had there, so much that I bought the bakery’s cookbook (they also make a fantastic grilled bacon and pimento cheese sandwich, which, sadly, is not included in the cookbook).
Here at home in Kansas City, we are lucky to have Fervere, a small batch bread bakery that is only open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until sell-out. If you come to my city, go there and sample a loaf of their “Orchard” bread. It has a soft, caramelized crust and a moist crumb knit together with dried fruits – apricots and raisins – and walnuts. It’s terrific with cheese, or on its own. I sheepishly admit to having eaten a half a loaf in one sitting.
Lastly, over the course of four visits in 2012, I spent nearly two weeks at The Greenbrier, a resort in the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia. While there, I made numerous visits to Draper’s, a sort of café with an old-timey soda shop feel. I mention it here only as a reminder that dessert can act as a magical gateway to our childhood. Draper’s held that door wide for me, allowing me to revisit those unedited years of eating for sheer pleasure. Among other things, I indulged in the restaurant’s titanic banana split many times. And once, the resort’s executive pastry chef, Jean-François Suteau (who was on the U.S. team that competed in the Coupe du Monde world pastry competition in 2011) and Draper’s chef William Hicks let me create my own dessert, fashioned after an indulgent breakfast I used to make for myself on weekends as a college student. It’s basically a banana split on top of a Belgian waffle. Gosh, I miss college.
I realize that a lot of chefs don’t have the space – either physically or financially – for a pastry team. Or, they are able and willing on their own, welcoming the added challenge of making desserts themselves. Some of these chefs (and their team, for, more likely, it is a collaborative effort), like William Bradley at Addison at the Grand Del Mar, and Matthew Lightner at atera, are quite good at it. Each of them have a dessert on this year’s list of twenty-five.
But, for restaurants with a dedicated pastry team, the pastry chef can be a very important member of the operation, one with a voice and vision that is every bit as important to the dining experience as the chef’s. Beyond some of my favorite pastry chefs at the higher-end of American dining right now, like Marc Aumont (The Modern), Nancy Olson (Gramercy Tavern), Brooks Headley (Del Posto), and Shawn Gawle (saison) – all of whom I’ve mentioned on this blog in 2012 – here are few others I’d like to flag:
Megan Garrelts, co-owner and pastry chef at bluestem, is serving some pretty great pies at her and her husband’s newly opened restaurant, Rye in Leawood, Kansas. In particular, I love her dark molasses pie, paved with local black walnuts and pecans.
I think Nick Wesemann, pastry chef at The American Restaurant in Kansas City, is one of the most underrated, young pastry chefs in the country right now. Self-taught, his desserts tend to be technique-driven. But they can be wonderfully creative and delicious too. And his “Sugar Bombs,” which appear among the petits fours from time to time – a chocolate chip cookie that is shot through with crunchy turbinado sugar crystals – are addictive.
In St. Louis, keep your eye on Robert Zugmaier, pastry chef at Sidney Street Café. He is producing some really polished desserts, like the one with black sesame-tahini sponge, buttermilk, dill, celery, and pickled green strawberries that he served at an event I attended at the restaurant early in the year.
Having worked at noma, Shawn Ehland, whom I first met when he was the executive chef of Kaya in Pittsburgh, is bringing a fresh perspective to the menu at McCrady’s. In November, he served me two, beautifully trimmed torpedoes of apple glazed in a cider caramel, alongside a turn of green apple ice cream and a round of apple-oat cake. If I didn’t know it was autumn already, Ehland told me so in this dessert.
In St. Helena, watch for desserts from Daniel Ryan, pastry chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood. During the Twelve Days of Christmas, I tasted over a dozen of his desserts, including one that put chocolate and quince together, convincingly,with potato, and a beautiful little butternut squash “bûche de noël,” served with candied cranberries on a fluffy carpet of whipped crème fraîche. You’ll find both a cheese dish and a dessert from his pastry station on this year’s list.
As in past years, this year’s list of my favorite desserts range from the sophisticated to the simple. But, be they a creature of modernist cooking, or a familiar classic – something as simple as ice cream, or a slice of pie – each one showed a higher level of thinking and care, or set a higher standard of craftsmanship. (Aside: you might think, after reading this year’s list, that I have a fig fetish. Well, maybe I do.) Together, these twenty-five desserts represent the very best of what I ate in 2012.
Unmolded from a metal ring at the table, this flan was not like any flan I’ve had elsewhere. This flan was magical, a warm, fluffy cloud of air suffused with tangy fat, bilging slightly at the sides from the weight of its own magnificence. It sat atop a thin, soft base (like a genoise, but probably not a genoise) and was garnished with orange marmalade. A few of us finished it quickly in two or three swipes, but not before ordering another.
2. “Root Beer Float”
“Dulce de leche” and white truffle ice cream.
(The French Laundry; Yountville, California)
One expects certain things from a root beer float. But white truffles is not one of them. Milton Abel, the pastry chef of The French Laundry, showed how naturally (and, I would say, brilliantly) the beefy, earthy aroma of the fungus could be woven into the woodsy, spicy scent of sassafras and sarsaparilla. This was a sophisticated upgrade to one of my favorite childhood indulgences.
3. Warm Fig Tart
Balsamic reduction, pignoli compote and olive oil ice cream.
(The Modern; New York, New York)
There was barely a spoonful of this pre-dessert, served in a demitasse. Yet its sunny acidity was so beautifully rounded out by the creamy, salted fat of cashew that I was smitten in one bite. It was happy moment.
5. Dried Fruit
Sheep’s milk ice, tomato, parsley.
(atera; New York, New York)
Usually, mignardises and petits fours are throw-away calories at the end of the meal, more chintz than charm. But not at Asador Etxebarri, where we finished our lunch with buttery gâteaux Basque, served warm. I’ve only had gâteaux Basque with cherries, but these little cakes at Etxebarri were stuffed with dried figs so large that the almond batter figured more as a casing for the fruit than as a proper cake.
I thought that this dessert looked and sounded like a train wreck. Yet, somehow, between the extremes – the bitterness of coffee at one end and the breezy bite of mint at the other – there was the grassy green of asparagus, the nutty sweetness of pumpkin, and the creaminess of chocolate to fill and flesh out an otherwise bony structure of sensations. The effect? Well, I think “chocolate frost” describes it quite well.
Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of the blog Ideas In Food prove that homespun desserts can be just as gratifying as fancy restaurant desserts, if not more so. In the two days that I spent with them at their home in Levittown, Pennsylvania, I tasted some of the desserts that they were testing for their upcoming cookbook. Two of them are on this list of the best desserts I ate in 2012. This first one I’ve made at home – a strawberry pie – following Aki’s recipe. A botched batch left us with an extra pie shell one night. Feeling mischievous, Alex scooped some of the strawberry pie filling into a bowl, covered it with shards of the extra pie shell, and topped it with an irresponsibly large scoop of caramel ice cream, a dollop of whipped crème Chantilly, and a good drizzle of hot caramel. Slapdash and sloppy, there it was: one of the favorite desserts of the year.
11. Melanzane e Cioccolato
Alla Napoletana with sheep’s milk ricotta stracciatella.
(Del Posto; New York, New York)
This dessert was one of the twenty-five best desserts I had in 2011. I suppose I set it up for a return to this year’s list when I asked pastry chef Brooks Headley to make it again for me when I dined at Del Posto in June of 2012. It was every bit as sophisticated and sensual as I remembered it, coins of eggplant shingled and melted onto a crisp, flakey wafer, topped with sheep’s milk ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. I’ve read that this dessert is based on a dish from Amalfi. I might have to go investigate.
12. Cognac Ice Cream
(Boulette’s Larder; San Francisco, California)
The ice cream was supposed to come with persimmon pudding. But, it was the day before Christmas, and our server wasn’t sure if there was any persimmon pudding left. So, we just asked for the cognac ice cream. The texture was creamy and smooth. The flavor was boozy and bold, warmed with the fragrance of vanilla. When ice cream is this good, it can stand confidently on its own (that’s what I love most about ice cream). While I’m sure chef Amaryll Schwertner’s persimmon pudding is wonderful, I didn’t miss it one bit.
Sour cherry, smoked maple, mîche ice cream.
(Corton; New York, New York)
It is a rare dish that draws unexpected associations. This was one of them. Setting aside the mîche ice cream for a moment (mîche is a large, French sourdough bread), which was all sorts of genius on its own, then-pastry chef Shawn Gawle (now at saison), demonstrated in this dish at Corton that the flavor of cherry and maple overlap somewhere in the middle.
Never mind the fact that this dessert was the product of a table-side show that I’ve seen performed at restaurants from The Fat Duck to Eleven Madison Park. By now, the billowing fog of liquid nitrogen, rolling across tables around the world, seems almost a circus act for the kids. But what came out of the metal pot at Heidi’s was delicious, a flash-frozen, creamy vanilla slush blushing with meaty strawberries bleeding its fruity juice. To add a little crunch, our server sprinkled a granola-like pistachio praline over it all. This was simple, but terrific.
Pine and white wine.
(Gwynett Street; Brooklyn, New York)
I love fragrant desserts (see “Apple & Rice Wine Baba” from Jungsik at #13 above, the “Vacherin” from niche at #19 below, Alex Stupak’s “Licorice Custard” from 2010, “Peaches & Cream” from The French Laundry in 2010, “Frozen Sake” from elBulli in 2011, “Green Colourology” from el Cellar de Can Roca in 2011, “Gravensteiner Apple” from La Vie in 2011, and “Curd of Sour Quince” from TownHouse in 2011, just to name a few). This one, at a cozy neighborhood restaurant in Brooklyn, surprised me with its subtle scent of pine, coupled with the yeastiness of wine and the perfume of pear. It was a lovely combination of flavors.
Lemon meringue, thyme sorbet,
lemon curd, hickory whip, sorrel.
(niche; St. Louis, Missouri)
22. Pecan Pie
(Winslow’s Home; St. Louis, Missouri)
Maple? Caramel? Molasses? I’m not sure what was in the filling of this pecan pie, but it was dark and smooth, more runny than jiggly. Coupled with a fantastic brisket sandwich (which was one of my twenty-five favorite dishes in 2012), this slice of pecan pie completed a simple, yet solid lunch at Winslow’s Home, a small café inside of a high-end general store in St. Louis, Missouri.
23. Tarte au Citron
(Bouchon; Yountville, California)
I love acidity, especially when there’s fat involved. Yet, strangely, lemony desserts appeal to me less than desserts made with almost any other fruit (lime, however, is a whole different story – I love its fragrance more). So the fact that the tarte au citron at Bouchon is on this list is worth noting. First, the curd is nicely balanced – not too tart, not too lemony, not too sweet – and incredibly light (it is made in the fashion of a sabayon). Second, the top is bruléed, giving it a super-thin top-crust that probably makes the tarte more fetching than anything else. Lastly, the crust is structured, yet yielding; not too blond, not too dark, not too hard, not too soft, much more sandy than flakey – perfect.
24. Sugar Shack Maple Caramel Taffy
(next: The Hunt; Chicago, Illinois)
David Beran, chef at next, gave my friend and I a preview of this dessert from “The Hunt” series. He explained: after the maple boil every year, troughs are cooled with ice. So, Beran presented us with a trough of shaved ice onto which he poured warm maple caramel. As the caramel cooled, it stiffened. But before it completely hardened, he gave each of us a twig, and asked us to roll our own maple taffy lollies. The flavor of the caramel was shockingly complex – very dark, slightly burnt (I loved that), but sweet. And the texture was like very soft taffy. It was simple and fun. I loved it.
As I indulged in this pie, a bit too wantonly I admit, the fear of getting hit with what some people’s mamas call “the sugars” loomed over me. Intended for two, there was certainly enough sugar in this pie for a ten. But, with a milky whipped cream top that seemed to cut back the sweetness considerably, it seemed almost light.