best desserts of 2013…

10th Course: Sorbet

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Three years ago, I created a separate year-end list for desserts because I wanted to recognize and record the exciting strides that I noticed pastry chefs taking. In the short time since, the borders of dessert-making and dessert-eating have continued to expand.

Speaking specifically as an American, our understanding of desserts has taken on a more global perspective.  Most notably, we seem to have become less-dependent on sweetness for satisfaction (sadly, I think America is having the opposite effect on the rest of the world).

As a result, we’ve also begun to embrace a wider range of ingredients and flavors at the end of our meal.  You’ll find among my twenty-five favorite desserts this year, for example, ingredients that, just a few years ago, would never have appeared in a dessert. Now, pine, fennel, sunchokes, celery, and beets aren’t so foreign to the pastry kitchen.  And, in other parts of the world to which I’ve traveled this year, neither are ingredients like espino, a pod-bearing member of the acacia family native to South America that produces coffee-like seeds, or cabbage, or celeriac.

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Chocolates

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While I applaud this current period of creative energy in the pastry kitchen, I note: there are moments of freneticism.  In its search for new ground, the creative pastry spirit, I’ve noticed, has been, at times, a little too unbridled.  That’s to say: I’ve had some pretty strange desserts this year.

Some of them were provocative, like a mind-bending cube of aged Wagyu “pâté de fruit” that I had at elements in Princeton, New Jersey.  The texture of the meat (which had been aged in kasu for a month) was nearly indistinguishable from the traditional, French jelly-like confection (actually, to be more precise, the texture was nearly indistinguishable from the texture of the pâté de fruit’s delightful, Turkish counterpart).  But, even though the flavor was not unfamiliar to me – Chinese sweet jerky can be awfully sweet too – and, even though my mouth said “yes,” my mind said, “wait a minute.” Beef isn’t supposed to have this texture.  Months later, I’m still thinking about it.

Others – like an austere rye porridge with preserved fruit – seemed to have departed the pastry genre altogether. These desserts were so cerebral, or so challenging, or so healthful, that they betrayed their species’ most handsome genetic trait: the ability to appear indulgent, whether or not it’s actually true. That porridge ran dangerously close to a rather stiff, overpriced multi-grain “oatmeal” I once had for breakfast at a dated café catering to the fiber-needy clientele of the Upper East Side.

And a few of them, like the odd diorama, composed of donuts, a chocolate tree, and sweet rice “sushi” (draped with a gelatinous blanket of unidentifiable flavor), that I had at Michelin-starred Sergi Arola’s eponymous restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Santiago, Chile were just plain bad.

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Aftermath.

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Thankfully, most of what I saw coming out of the pastry kitchen this year was pretty great.  Modern or classical, fancy or not, overall, desserts seemed to be created with more thought and crafted with more care.  That’s a good thing.

Since I’ve done such a poor job of writing about the desserts, pastries, and related confections that I’ve had throughout 2013, I’ll use this post to give you a thorough review of where and what I’ve eaten.

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When pastry chefs – and here, I’m pointing in the direction of American pastry chefs – aren’t going into the woods for tree limbs and herbs, or reaching into outer space for liquid nitrogen and freeze-dried fruit, I’ve noticed them joining a growing revivalist movement that’s resurrecting old-timey favorites to fanfare anew.  As a red-blooded Midwesterner who has a particularly soft spot for Americana, this pleases me immensely.

I’m talking sky-high milkshakes, like this one made with chocolate malt at Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat diner in Chicago’s West Loop.

I’m talking good-old sundaes, like these pretty little ones (note the dentelles) that my friend and I demolished at Epicerie Boulud on the Upper West Side after a photo shoot I did for the shop [disclosure], or this upmarket one at Andrea Reusing’s Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that put bruléed muscadines together with spiced wine caramel and pistachios.

I’m talking summertime popsicles, like the ones they make at Steel City Pops in Birmingham, Alabama.  I particularly liked the tangy and surprisingly creamy buttermilk one that I had there.

I’m talking banana boat splits, like this colorful one at Eleven City Diner in the South Loop, or this one eaten by candlelight at two a.m. at Blue Ribbon in SoHo.

And I’m talking wonderful, glorious, American pie.

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À La Mode

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Pie is enjoying a renaissance right now.  It’s popping up everywhere.

I’m not talking about places like Niki’s West, an old, Southern meat-and-three in Birmingham, Alabama, where the woman behind the hotline looked at me sideways when I ordered “coconut pie.”  “Honey, you want coconut
cream pie, or coconut custard pie?” The attitude was a little unnecessary, but she was right. There is a very important distinction.   

And I’m not talking about the fact that Southern Living Magazine featured pie in their November issue either. That’s to be expected. (Dear editors and test kitchen gods, helping you taste-test for this issue was one of the highlights of my year.  Your “15 Ways with Pecan Pie” feature was epic. And the “Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie” in a cast-iron skillet is high on my to-bake list. Thank you.)

I’m talking about pie in the less-homey, and more trendy corners of our culinary world.  Pie is appearing on restaurant menus, and in glossy bake shops across the country, many of which are now dedicated to pie-making, like À La Mode Pies in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle.  There, I had something called the “Blue Hawaiian,” an unexpectedly delicious, quasi-tropical mix of crushed pineapple and blueberries coated with toasted coconut.

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Pie.

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Last year, the pecan pie at Winslow’s Home in St. Louis made my list of best desserts.  This year, I went back and found both rhubarb and blueberry crumble on the menu.

In Chicago, my friends and I went on a pie expedition one hot, July day. First, we had lunch at Pleasant House Bakery, which specializes in making “Royal Pies” filled with various meats and vegetables (the cold country pork pâté pie was especially good).  They serve sweet pies too. Sadly, the day we went, they didn’t have any.  So, our quest for pie took us to the wonderfully named Hoosier Mama Pie Co. where I found a sturdy, tan crust on a lattice-top cherry pie.  (Dear fellow alumni, they just opened a shop on the corner of Chicago and Kedzie in Evanston.)

In Durham, North Carolina, I raided the case at Scratch (how great is their domain name – piefantasy.com?).  I particularly liked the buttermilk chess pie.

Diane’s Bakery in Roslyn on Long Island had a nicely glazed plum pie this summer.

At the Fremont Diner on Highway 12 (also known as Highway 121, not to be confusing) in Sonoma, California, I had, among a couple of slices, a rosemary-peanut pie.  It was like pecan pie, except the crusty top layer was riddled with peanuts instead of pecans, and the soft, gooey filling was infused with rosemary.  It was as oddly delicious as it sounds.

At Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had dark chocolate chess pie, with strawberry ice cream.   At Qui in Austin, Texas, I had “Avocado Qui Lime Pie,” a quirky and cheeky twist on the classic version that you’ll find in its more traditional form (and as an order for two) at the Michelin-starred Gotham Bar & Grill in New York City.

That’s right, even high-end restaurants have started serving “pie.”  For the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California, presented a slightly deconstructed version of a pecan pie one night. (Incidentally, for Thanksgiving – which I consider to be the Super Bowl of Pie – the cooks at The Restaurant at Meadowood had a pie-baking bonanza. There were so many pies that they overflowed onto Christopher Kostow’s living room tee vee console and counter).   And at Next in Chicago, Dave Beran sent apple pie colliding with an ice cream bombe at the end of the Bocuse d’Or-themed menu.

Yes, I LOVE PIE.

But, my enthusiasm for it is tempered by the fact that not all pie is created equal.

There is a lot of good pie out there. Even I can make a good pie at home. [Actually, with Alex Talbot’s and Aki Kamozawa’s pie crust recipe in their new book “Maximum Flavor,” we can all make really great pie at home. I previewed this ultra-flakey, unusually dark pie crust in my list of best desserts from last year.]

But, outside of making it yourself, really great pie is hard to find.

And you know who makes really great pie?  Megan Garrelts makes really great pie.

In full disclosure, Megan, her husband Colby, and I have been good friends now for nearly a decade. The three of us wrote a cookbook together, which I also photographed (I’ve photographed for their restaurants (for pay) too).  And, I helped Megan when she was developing recipes for her pie crust. (Sadly, I really can’t take any credit for the greatness of her pie crust. I was more of a taste-tester than an actual recipe tester.)

But none of that should distract you from the fact that Megan’s pies at Rye in Leawood, Kansas are really great.  Her crust is what sets her pies apart and above most of the pie I’ve had in the United States.  Made from both butter and lard, it’s flakey and crisp without being dense or hard.  It’s structured, but gives easily without resistance.  Although her fruit pies are very good, she excels at cream pies, in part because I think they best showcase her type of crust (Personally, I prefer a blonder, softer crust with dense, sweet fillings – like the common pecan, or coconut custard fillings – and tart, fruit fillings, whereas I prefer a drier, flakier crust for creamy, lighter fillings – like coconut cream, banana cream, and even Boston cream fillings.).  You’ll find one of Megan’s pies on my list of twenty-five favorite desserts from 2013 below.

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Bien Cuit - Roogla Mash-up.

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No, I did not manage to eat a cronut in 2013.  But, I did have a lot of pastries in New York City, including a wonderful, salted caramel eclair at Dominique Ansel’s self-named patisserie of cronut fame. (And I didn’t have to wait on line like a crazy person to get it.)

The mille-crêpe cake at Lady M Confections on the Upper East Side was as good as everyone said it would be.  I preferred the vanilla cream-filled version over the matcha cream-filled one though. The crêpe layers in the vanilla cream-filled one were softer, more integrated with the filling in between.  The woman who sold us the slices told us that the texture of the cakes doesn’t depend on the filling, but rather, the amount of time they’ve been allowed to “set.”  The longer the cakes “set,” the softer the crêpes become, moistened by the filling in between them.  That makes sense.

On the Lower East Side, I swung by Big Gay Ice Cream’s tiny storefront after lunch one rainy afternoon.  There wasn’t enough room inside to stand and eat, so my friend and I, and a dozen other customers, huddled under the eves outside. I had a Southern-inspired praline and pecan cookie sandwich named after Golden Girl “Rue McClanahan.”  It was filled with bourbon ice cream.  I’d go back for it.

And, on the Upper West Side, I had a terrific wedge of gâteau Basque at Epicerie Boulud.  The cakey crust was buttery and beautifully bronzed.  The pastry cream filling was smooth and fragrant with vanilla. I highly recommend it.

Who makes cheese danishes any more?  Bien Cuit, in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, makes a very good one with Muenster cheese.  In nearby Gowanus, I had really good bread at Runner & Stone.  And in Greenpoint, yet another neighborhood of Brooklyn, my friend Adam and I found some decent donuts at Peter Pan Bakery (According to a regular, the whole wheat ones, which were sold out when we arrived that afternoon, are the sleeper hit.  I’ll have to go back.).  I wrote about all of these Brooklyn finds, and more, earlier this year.

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Straus Dairy Chocolate Softserve

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What else?

I really liked the “Tiger Claw” at Easy Tiger in Austin, Texas.  It’s a bear claw (for the unfamiliar, a bear claw is a breakfast pastry usually filled with almond paste) that’s filled with a sweet mixture of spiced pecans, slightly musky with cumin.  Next time, I want to try their bread.  The selection looked great.

Friends urged me to get the “pomme d’amore” at Knead in the Mission District of San Francisco.  It was basically a pastry cream-filled vol-au-vent with a bruléed top.  The filling was smooth and silky, and the bruléed crust was crisp and thin.  It was good. But what really caught my attention there were the thick, housemade graham crackers that came with the jarred “s’mores.”  They were great.

And soft serve: is it just a restaurant’s easy (or lazy) answer to dessert?  I suppose, like everything else: if it’s good, it’s good.

You can build your own (Straus Dairy) soft serve sundae at zero zero in the SoMa district of San Francisco.  I ordered the chocolate soft serve with Fior di Olio olive oil, sea salt, and vanilla-poached cherries.  Up Market Street at Daniel Patterson’s newly opened Alta, the dessert menu consisted of chocolate or pistachio soft serve, with various toppings.  And across the bay in Berkeley at ippuku, a Japanese izakaya, my friends and I ordered tall twirls of vanilla soft serve drizzled with Japanese-inspired condiments like soy sauce caramel (which was little too salty for me) and plum juice (this was a little too watery, and little too weak on flavor).  Surprisingly, the blancmange there – dices of sweet persimmons suspended in almond gelatin above a fluffy layer of whipped cream – was best in show.

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Inca Kola

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I’ve already written about Jacques Genin’s galette de rois.  And I’ve already told you about Ale Hurtado’s French-inspired patisserie, Canela, in Santiago, Chile.

So, I’ll end my pastry travelogue with a note on Latin America:

I’ve traveled quite frequently to Latin America in the last few years.  This year, I went to both Chile and Mexico twice.  Pastry chefs in the higher-end restaurants in those countries are producing polished desserts that show off unique, local ingredients and flavors (you’ll find one on my list of twenty-five favorites below).  But the one thing I’ve noticed about traditional Latin American desserts is that they tend to be very, very sweet; usually too sweet for me.

That said, I tasted some pretty interesting desserts there.  I’d like to tell you about a few of them.

At Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio’s festive La Mar in the tony Viticura district of Santiago, Chile, I had the pleasure of eating with the restaurant’s manager, Bogdan Piotraszewski (Polish by name, Peruvian by birth).  Piotraszewski gave me an incredibly insightful explanation of every dish we tried, including the famous Peruvian dessert, “suspiro de limeña,” so named, as the common tale goes, because the Spanish envoy for whom it was allegedly created said that it was as soft (and sweet) as the “sigh of the woman from Lima” who had stolen his heart.  This now-common Peruvian dessert consists mostly of a caramelized custard made from equal parts evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. After the mixtures is stirred over low heat for hours, the dairy caramelizes (up to this point, it’s like making dulce de leche).  When the caramel cools slightly, egg yolks are beaten in until the custard takes on a glossy coat (which, according to Piotraszewski, dulls after half a day, which is why this dessert must be made twice a day at La Mar).  It’s always topped with fluffy meringue that has been stained lavender with Port wine.

At La Mar, I also had an incredibly sweet, non-alcoholic drink called chicha morado (but it wasn’t as sweet as the neon-yellow “Inca Kola” Piotraszewski poured for me, a popular Peruvian soda that tasted like liquid bubblegum). The inky, purple color of chicha morado comes from the corn from which the drink is made.  In Peru, you’ll find chicha morado thickened into a jelly-like condiment called mazamorra morado, which is often served with arroz con leche (rice pudding). Piotraszewski told me that the colors of the arroz con leche (a brownish, creamy color) and mazamorra morado (dark purple) happen to be the colors of the two biggest rival soccer teams (respectively) in Peru. At the soccer stadiums in Peru, vendors will sell this dessert in plastic cups with plastic spoons and call it the “Classico,” because it represents the classic rivalry between these two teams.

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Cherimoya

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I visited Francisco Pacheco at her family’s restaurant, Aquí Esta Coco in Santiago, again in October (you can read about my first visit to her restaurant in April in this earlier post).  Francisca is actually the one who introduced me to suspiro de limeña.  Since the dessert is Peruvian and not Chilean, at Aquí Esta Coco, the pastry chef adapted the dessert to the local culture.  The first time I went to Aquí Esta Coco, we had a version made with lucuma, a fleshy South American fruit that looks like an orange-colored avocado on the inside (pit included). The orange flesh, which has the flavors of maple, caramel, and pumpkin, is dried and ground into a powder that is often used in Chilean confectionary (for example, lucuma powder is incorporated into cakes, which are layered with meringue).  The second time, Pacheco presented me with a suspiro made with cherimoya, one of her favorite fruits.

Cherimoya looks prehistoric. It has a thick skin that, when pared away, reveals a white, creamy flesh that tastes like a tropical mix of banana, coconut, and mango. When fully ripe, the fruit can be scooped with a spoon – the texture is like an over-ripe pear (hence its other names, “custard apple,” or “ice cream fruit”).  Francisca likes cherimoya served simply with some mandarin orange juice and fresh mint.  So that’s how she served it to me at Aquí Esta Coco.

I saw that same coupling of cherimoya and citrus at Rodolfo Guzman’s Borago, also in Santiago, Chile.  Guzman served cherimoya ice cream with a rainbow of different citrus purées and carrot chips.*  Lighter, less-sweet, and fruit-based desserts like this one (and the amazing candied grape skins, or the bowl of wheat and dried peaches rehydrated in cinnamon water that I had at the Viñedos de Alcohuaz in the Elqui Valley of Chile) were the ones I liked most in Latin America.  The variety of fruits in that region of the world is so vastly different from the variety I’m used to seeing and eating in the United States. And I relished smelling and tasting them.

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Dulce.

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There are a wide range of desserts on the following list.

Some of them showcased a particularly great ingredient, like the simple, but spectacular dessert listed at no. 2 by Stephanie Prida.

Some of them struck balance with contrasting flavors, like Blaine Wetzel did at no. 13.  Others worked magic in restraint and subtlety, like Marc Aumont did with licorice at no. 15.  And still others, like Nick Wesemann, surprised me with unexpected couplings, like banana and bubblegum.  His dessert appears at no. 22.

Many of them seduced me with wonderful fragrances (I especially love fragrant desserts), like Rasmus Kofoed‘s walk through the forest at no. 5, or Melissa Chou‘s beautiful walk through the garden at no. 9.

And, a few of them dazzled me with impeccable technique (but not too much technique, which seems to be a common temptation and pitfall in this very technique-driven field of cooking), like the dessert from Au Cheval in Chicago that you’ll find below at no. 19.  Simplicity almost always wins the day.

But, like the entries that appeared on my list of best dishes from 2013, all of the following desserts landed near the top because they were the product of craft and care.

From among hundreds of desserts that I had in 2013 at restaurants high and low, the following twenty-five were the very best.

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13th Course: Milk and Crackers

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25. MILK AND CRACKERS
Strawberry preserves.
(Matthew Lightner presenting at a guest chef dinner at saison;
San Francisco, California)

Necessity is the mother of invention. During the Great Depression, Matt Lightner‘s grandfather, a farmer in northern Missouri, would eat crushed saltine crackers mixed with milk to get by, a gruel that Matt ate as a dessert as a kid, sometimes with fruit. Now the chef of the Michelin-starred atera restaurant in New York City (and, from what I’ve observed, a very talented pastry chef), Lightner modified his grandfather’s Depression-era gruel into an elegant dessert.  He infused ice cream with saltine crackers and served it with strawberry preserves, fresh strawberries, and “saltine crackers” made of meringue.

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24. ESPINO COULANT
(Boragó; Santiago, Chile)

This was a flawlessly shaped sphere of frozen dark chocolate, teed up on a hillock of chocolate cake crumbs.  Within it, a warm run of dark chocolate ganache infused with espino.  How many “molten” chocolate desserts aspire to be so perfect in form and flavor, to draw the contrast between cold and hot with as much flare?

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23. YOAURT
Amande, réglisse.
(akrame; Paris, France)

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22. BANANALICIOUS
Vanilla bisquit, banana parfait, white chocolate powder, bubblegum gelato.
(The American Restaurant; Kansas City, Missouri)

I have to admit, I thought this dessert would be horrible.  And yet, there is a bizarre and brilliant overlap in the flavor of bananas and pink bubblegum that made this dessert a surprising success.  But it takes a certain kind of genius to think of it, try it out, and make it work. His name is Nick Wesemann, and he is one of the most talented pastry chefs the national press has never cared to notice.

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21. PRUNEAUX AU VIN
Glace á la vanille.
(Le Bouchon des Filles; Lyon, France)

I love stewed prunes. But I rarely see them on menus.  So, when I found them at Le Bouchon des Filles, a cozy, family-run bouchon in Lyon, I ordered them.  Beware of the pits, our server warned, as she set down a bowl of whole prunes bathing in the sweet, inky red wine reduction in which they had been stewed.  I asked for a side of vanilla ice cream, and she happily obliged.

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Mille-Feuille

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20. DONAS DE REQUESÓN
Ricotta doughnuts, cinnamon-sugar, maple-mezcal tres leches.
(Port Fonda; Kansas City, Missouri)

Chef Patrick Ryan told me that these ricotta doughnuts are a modified version of a recipe he found in one of Gale Gand’s cookbooks. They’re incredibly fluffy and moist – in part owing to the boozy moat of maple-mezccal tres leches they’re lapping up from around them – and dusted with cinnamon sugar.

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19. MILLE-FEUILLE
Hot chocolate.
(Au Cheval; Chicago, Illinois)

Mille-feuille is usually too blond, too soft, under-baked.  At Au Cheval, it’s toasted, it’s flakey, it’s perfect.  To show off how perfect it is, our server plunged a butter knife down the center effortlessly, leaving us to marvel at the shatterific stack before us, piped generously with pastry cream.  On the side, chocolate sauce.

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18. MILK AND QUINCE
(noma; Copenhagen, Denmark)

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17. EMBER ICE CREAM
Roasted beet, elderflower.
(John Shields presenting at a guest chef dinner at saison;
San Francisco, California)

Chef John Shields scalded cream with hot embers and let the two steep together.  With the ember-infused cream, he made ice cream.  I had seen this before at TownHouse, where he and his wife Karen cooked from 2008 through 2011.  In fact, that dessert, which included chocolate and yogurt, made it to my list of best desserts of 2011.  This time, he paired the smoky ice cream with roasted beets and elderflower jelly and scattered shards of ember meringue over it all.  

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16. COURGE
Fromage blanc, epices douces.
(septime; Paris, France)

Butternut squash purée, fromage blanc sherbet, and crispy pieces of spiced cookies (think speculoos). Flavor, texture, temperature: done.

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23rd Course: Dried Leaves & Flavours of Winter

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15. LICORICE CUSTARD
Amaretto gelée.
(The Modern; New York, New York)

Licorice is a controversial flavor among Americans.  I think it’s because Americans tend to use and treat it like a bull in a china closet.  Those who have had good licorice (usually in Europe), or – more importantly – have had licorice administered in the right quantities, usually love it.  Marc Aumont used licorice to lightly perfume a delicate custard served as a pre-dessert at The Modern.  You’d hardly know it was there if its more-showy, more-bitter co-star, amaretto, didn’t lean on it for sweetness and warmth.

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14. DRIED LEAVES & FLAVOURS OF WINTER
Hazelnut cream, prune purée, fresh pear and hazelnut vinaigrette.
“Leaves” of beet root, pumpkin and prune.
(Geranium; Copenhagen, Denmark)

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13. QUINCE
Quince, yogurt, rosemary sugar glass.
(Willow’s Inn; Lummi Island, Washington)

The quince granita, by itself, was way too tart. But chef Blaine Wetzel shattered over it a tissue-thin pane of rosemary sugar glass that brought it all into balance.  Mediating the sweet-tart conversation was a creamy dollop of tangy yogurt.  Together, it was exactly the kind of refreshing reset I needed at the end of a meal rich with the flavors of earth and sea.

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12. COMICE PEAR SORBET
Licorice, yuzu, huckleberry.
(saison; San Francisco, California)

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11. JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE
Wild carrots, buttermilk, and brown butter.
(kadeau; Copenhagen, Denmark)

This dessert was crunchy and creamy.  In part, it was warm.  In part, it was cold.  Overall, it was more tangy than sweet.  Drizzled with brown butter, it was more comforting than not.  I loved this dessert.

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11th Course: Port Consommé

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10. COCONUT CREAM PIE
(Rye; Leawood, Kansas)

As I wrote above, I’ve had a lot of great pie at Rye.  But Megan Garrelts‘s coconut cream pie is, by far, my favorite. The coconut cream in the middle is light and airy, piped generously with whipped cream, and sprinkled with toffee crumbs.  The crust, as I’ve mentioned, is ideal: sturdy, yet super-flakey.  Unfortunately, one of Megan’s pastry assistants developed a horrible allergic reaction to coconut.  She couldn’t even be in a room with coconut. So, instead of dismissing her assistant, Megan took this pie off her menu.  While I applaud her loyalty to her employee, I do miss this pie.

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9. CHAMOMILE CREAM
Elderflower fritter, St-Germain veil, rose.
(aziza; San Francisco; California)

Desserts tend to be pretty in a way that non-dessert dishes aren’t. This dessert was, perhaps, the prettiest one I saw all year: a quenelle of chamomile ice cream wearing a stunning “veil” flavored with St-Germain and laced with elderflowers. The best part is that it tasted as pretty as it looked, a bouquet of fragrance enriched with milkfat.

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8. JUNIPER BRANCH
White chocolate cream, celery, sorrel.
(John Shields presenting at the Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine dinner;
Aubergine; Carmel-By-The-Sea, California)

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7. PORT CONSOMMÉ
Buttermilk marshmallow.
(Laurent Gras presenting at a guest dinner at saison;
San Francisco, California)

At the base, there was a colorful fruit salad. Atop that, was a tangy buttermilk ice cream that had the texture of marshmallows. And over and around it all was poured a jammy, velvety, chewy “consommé” made from reducing Concord grapes, huckleberries, and Port.  Who needs to drink wine when you can eat it?

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6. SOURDOUGH ICE CREAM
(saison; San Francisco, California)

When Shawn Gawle was pastry chef at Corton, he made an ice cream out of mîche, which is a large, French sourdough round.  That ice cream, which he served with cherry and maple, made my list of best desserts last year.  Now at saison in San Francisco, he modified the ice cream, using local sourdough bread from Tartine Bakery (he says he hopes to be making his own soon).  If you haven’t had this ice cream at saison, I can tell you: it doesn’t taste like what you’d imagine it to taste like.  It tastes more like coffee and chicory, and even soy sauce, than it does toasted sourdough. And it’s amazing.

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Hazelnut Granita

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5. “IMPRESSIONS OF THE FOREST
Woodruff, pine, chervil.
(Rasmus Kofoed presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Rasmus Kofoed, chef of the Michelin-starred Geranium in Copenhagen, only brought one ingredient with him to Napa Valley for his dinner at the Twelve Days of Christmas – woodruff powder.  This, he infused into a white chocolate cremeaux over which he poured a thin layer of gelatinized chervil juice and topped, table-side, with a spoonful of pine tea granité.  To complete the smells and sights of the forests of Napa Valley and his childhood, Kofoed served this dessert with a garland of things we found on our hike through the woods with Rahtz – pine cones, wispy tufts of Spanish moss, bits of lichen, round-lobed leaves of oak, and spiny chestnuts.  It was a beautiful and incredibly fragrant dessert, with wonderfully evolving flavor profile: almond extract gave way to flavors of matcha and coconut.  It was beautiful. It was evocative. I loved it.

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4. HAZELNUT GRANITA
Mirabelle plums.
(Bar Sajor; Seattle, Washington)

I ordered this dessert out of curiosity.  And I was rewarded with a snowy bank of sweet ice so intensely flavored with hazelnut that it was almost creamy in texture. Beautiful, ripe mirabelle plums nesting in the snow brought a welcomed splash of acidity and summertime joy.  [As a side note, Matt Dillon has a wonderful talent for creating magical spaces. In 2013, I visited three of his restaurants in Seattle. In design, Bar Sajor was, by far, my favorite. During the day, the interior is lit naturally with big, picture windows.  The eclectic mix of fixtures leave you lost in time and culture.  You’re not quite sure if you’ve stepped into Paris in a previous decade, or present-day Istanbul.]

~

3. APPLE LEES
Fennel, roasted white chocolate.
(Christopher Kostow presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Apple lees from house-made cider had been turned into a fragrant, but lean sorbet that helped thin the caramel richness of roasted white chocolate.  Sprouting from it all were feathery fronds of fennel, frosted with sugar.  It was a beautiful and delicious wintry vignette; morning in Napa Valley.

~

2. LOVE APPLE PERSIMMON
Armagnac chantilly.
(Manresa; Los Gatos, California)

In three, quick courses at the end of a recent meal at Manresa, pastry chef Stephanie Prida proved herself to be a talented and worthy counterpart to chef David Kinch.  The super-ripe, halved persimmon she presented, floating on a cloud of Armagnac chantilly, was exquisite. It demonstrated an understanding of quality and a confidence to let it shine. It was just a persimmon and some whipped cream.  But it was, by far, one of the best desserts I had in 2013.

~

1. BROWN BUTTER PANNA COTTA
End of the season plums, and pasta frolla.
(Del Posto; New York, New York)

Brooks Headley has quickly become one of my favorite culinarians.  I love his rocker-to-chef story, and the non-traditional perspective that story brings to the pastry kitchen at Del Posto.  In September, he knocked my socks off with a brown butter panna cotta, the deep toastiness of which was magnified in large crumbs of pasta frolla, and the richness of which was cut with the cheery acidity of late-harvest plums.

~

* Disclosure: Piotraszewski, Pacheco, and Guzman invited me to their restaurants as their guest. Therefore, I did not pay for my meals there.

Photos: Shawn Gawle’s comice pear sorbet with licorice, yuzu, and huckleberries at saison in San Francisco, California; a rainbow of chocolates with flavors ranging from dill to mint at Pujol in Mexico City, Mexico; the aftermath of a summer sundae ad shoot at Epicerie Boulud in New York, New York; slices of pie at À La Mode Pie in Seattle, Washington; the rhubarb and blueberry crumble pies at Winslow’s Home in St. Louis, Missouri; bread, coffee, and some Muenster cheese danish from Bien Cuit in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York; the chocolate Straus Dairy soft serve with olive oil, sea salt, and vanilla-poached cherries at zero zero in San Francisco, California; “Inca Kola” and suspiro de limeña at La Mar in Santiago, Chile; Francisca Pacheco paring a cherimoya at Aquí Esta Coco in Santiago, Chile; cones of sugared nut paste, mote con huesillo (wheat with dried peaches rehydrated in cinnamon water), a bowl of Chilean papayas in syrup, and candied grape skins at the Viñedos de Alcohuaz in Elqui Valley, Chile; “Milk and Crackers,” a dessert by Matt Lightner presented at a guest chef dinner at saison in San Francisco; the mille-feuille at Au Cheval in Chicago, Illinois; “Dried Leaves & Flavours of Winter,” a dessert at Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark; Port consommé poured over a fruit salad with buttermilk marshmallow ice cream, a dessert by Laurent Gras at a guest chef dinner at saison in San Francisco, California; and hazelnut granita with mirabelle plums at Bar Sajor in Seattle, Washington.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 6, 2014.

6 Responses to “best desserts of 2013…”

  1. I love your unique and varied perspectives on dessert. They challenge me to try things I wouldn’t normally try. Thank you!
    P.S. I also loved the Milk & Crackers at Atera!

  2. I loved what you had to say about pie! There really does seem to be some sort of a pie revolution!

  3. Beautiful photos and descriptions. As a dessert fan (and a Scratch fan) this was a delectable read. Thanks.

  4. These are simply the best part of the meal that I always crave.
    It’s the one thing that can take you to another world. All the sweetness and all it’s flavors are simply exceptional.

  5. I name this the best dessert write-up of 2013. Simply delightful!

  6. A dinner will never be the same without a desert. I never get satisfied a meal without a desert. I truly enjoyed the list of the best deserts you have in this article.

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