(Frozen Sake; elBulli)
Is pastry having a “moment?”
Judging by the desserts I’ve had this year, I’d say it is.
In the past, I’ve tacked on a dozen or so desserts to my annual “best dishes” post in a section at the bottom called “just desserts.” While their inclusion was far from an afterthought, even the best desserts could never escape second billing to those dishes listed above them.
This year was different. This year was extraordinary. Unable to limit my list of best desserts to just twelve, or even twenty, I expanded the list and now post it under its own cover.
* * *
* * *
I have a relatively low tolerance for sugary sweets, which has made it easier for me to dismiss and lament the state of confectionary in the past, especially in America, where, aside from a few visionaries, who handily led the pack with their thoughtful and creative desserts, the majority of American pastry chefs relegated us to a sea of chocolate mundanity and ersatz classics.
Don’t mistake me for a contrarian, who trolls only for the freakish and outlandish. I value the simple and the safe more often, although I value quality above all. As you’ll see on this year’s list of best desserts, there appear a few rather ordinary ones, unremarkable but for the attention with which they were made and presented. Rice pudding, chocolate mousse, and a soufflé are among them.
But, when it comes to desserts, I have always aligned more with European and Asian sensibilities, which appreciate flavors other than sweet, textures other than creamy.
So, I’m thrilled to find a new class of pastry chefs emerging in America, one that’s not just hitting more points on the spectrum, but enlarging it too. Pastry chefs are starting to color further outside the lines, questioning and pushing borders to make the end of the meal a more exciting destination. Thanks to them, we’re finally welcoming sour, bitter, salty, and umami to our dessert menus. We’re slowly learning to embrace slimy, waxy, and spongy, in addition to a collection of other textures too. Herbs are no longer a strange addition, and neither are vegetables, which have become quite á la mode: cucumbers with rhubarb, carrots with melons, corn with white chocolate – I’ve seen them all. A couple of vegetable desserts are on this year’s list.
* * *
* * *
This year’s twenty-five best desserts are all from restaurants. I’ve decided to exclude the countless patisseries, ice creameries, and other sweet shops in which I’ve stopped. To consider them all would have made the task of limiting this list to twenty-five entries infinitely more difficult.
Even still, many of them deserve to be mentioned, so I stop to highlight a few.
If you’re ever in Paris, don’t leave without dropping into Glacier Berthillon for ice cream. In January, I met my friend Sophie there for a “coupe de quadruple.” From the long list of flavors, I chose vanilla, marron glacé (candied chestnuts), agenaise (prunes), and caramel au beurre salé (salted caramel). This place is classic.
Sophie also introduced me to Jacques Genin near the Place de la République. Although Genin is known as a chocolatier, and is now famous for his caramels (The New York Times profiled him a month after I visited), Sophie took me there to show off his mille feuille, which were fantastic, and his tarts. He’s written a whole book devoted to tartes au citron; and his expertise is evident in his work – they were very good. But it was a honey-caramel walnut tart that won my heart. If you go, you must order it.
In Lyon, there are many chocolatiers worth visiting, including Weiss and the famous Bernachon, where they still make their fabulous orangettes by bringing orange peels to a simmer in simple syrup in copper trays for an hour each day for a month. We saw this on a tour of their kitchen arranged by my friend Lucy. Those orangettes are incredible. And so is Bernachon’s “Kilimandjaro” sundae, a true mountain of ice cream, candied chestnuts, whipped cream, and dark chocolate curls, which I had for breakfast one morning in their café.
Words cannot express the joy that overwhelms me when I think of the gelati at otto in New York. I never leave that city without stopping by for a few flavors, and in May, I did just that.
In June, I found a Ladurée in Zurich, and I went nuts. I returned in September with my friends Adam and Solveig so we could go nuts together. Even though we were aware of the imminent arrival of Ladurée in New York, we still sunk a small fortune into boxes of those sugary bombs, focusing particularly on the licorice ones (my favorite flavor), which we knew would not be sold in the U.S. (Boo!).
Inspired, Solveig took me to the local Swiss institution for a taste comparison. At Confiserie Sprüngli, the meringue cookie sandwiches are marketed under their Germanic name, “Luxemburgerli” (macarons are believed to have originated in Luxembourg). Even though I still prefer the ones at Ladurée, I was quite impressed with the ones at Sprüngli, which were smaller, cuter. I especially liked the ones filled with Champagne buttercream.
Macarongeddon continued in Monte-Carlo, where I found a Ladurée in the Métropole Hotel and bought macarons like there was no tomorrow. They’re just so good, even though they’re just so sweet.
* * *
* * *
In Italy, Adam and I crawled through the narrow streets of Siena for the city’s famous panforte, a dense, spice cake riddled with dried fruits and nuts. My favorite ones were from the city’s celebrated Pasticceria Nannini, despite the surly tart who sold them to us. We also had a fair amount of ricciarelli too, almond meringue cookies dusted in powdered sugar, which I found uniformly too sweet, though I loved their soft, chewy texture.
But it wasn’t until I was inside the medieval walls of of San Gimignano that I was happiest. Simply known as “Gelateria di Piazza” (because it sits right off of the town square), this small shop, with a line out the door, sells some of the best gelati and sorbetti I’ve had in Italy. Among my favorites was a sorbetto made from “Vernaccia,” a local white grape, which was incredibly fragrant, with a small hint of alcohol, and a gelato of saffron cream, with a touch of orange. A word to the wise: avoid San Gimignano during high season: it’s choked with tourists. We learned this the hard way.
Away from the crowds, at a dinner under the stars in Tuscany, Curtis Duffy showed off his pastry prowess with a stunning custard tart filled with figs that we picked earlier in the day. He showered it with thyme blossoms, dropped a cloud of whipped mascarpone on top, and drizzled it with acacia honey. It was certainly one of the best desserts I’ve had this year.
In San Francisco, I indulged in canelés, those caramelized thimbles that have all but become the heir apparent to the macaron throne (whose dynasty is in rapid, over-commercialized decline). Where? Where else? At Boulette’s Larder. They only make twelve each day, and they’re often sold out by mid-morning. So I went running early along the bay, and hawkishly swooped by the Ferry Terminal Marketplace afterward, timing it so that I’d arrive just as they were being put out along with the other morning pastries. Like a junkie feining for a fix, I cleared out their shelf almost daily. These are the best canelés I’ve found in the U.S., and well worth the early morning rise.
And finally, no visit to San Francisco is complete without some Humphry Slocombe “Secret Breakfast” ice cream (one of last year’s best desserts). This year, I had it in a float with Coca-Cola and bourbon caramel. It was too sweet for me – I prefer the ice cream on its own, or even better – smothered with blue bottle espresso. Around the corner from Humphry Slocombe, in the Mission, is Bi-Rite Creamery, which makes fantastic salted caramel ice cream. I waited on line twice for it in two days. It was well worth my trouble.
* * *
(Coconut | Kaffir Lime; Corton)
* * *
The same caveats I made to my list of best dishes of 2011 apply here, namely that the following list of desserts is a result of a very unscientific method called opinion. This list is not authoritative or comprehensive. And, indeed, it is too short, as there are many other great desserts I had this year that I wish I could include, like a salted caramel and coffee duo at Jean Georges, a fantastic caramel and popcorn sundae at abc kitchen, an incredibly soft walnut, chocolate, and ameretto cake at The Spotted Pig, and a cute walk down memory lane – something that Café Boulud does incredibly well – in a foil wrapper, Noah Carroll’s passionfruit-coconut ice cream sandwich.
I had an incredible tarte tatin, with a crisp, biscuit bottom, at Paul Bocuse, and an terrific black bottom pie, tangy with buttermilk, at Husk (along with some outstanding pecan pie too). I don’t think Marc Aumont has ever served me anything at The Modern short of spectacular – you’ll find one of his desserts listed below (and many of his other desserts would follow closely on its heels). And neither will you be disappointed by the desserts at either pizzeria or osteria mozza in Los Angeles, all of which were delicious, especially an almond cornetto with stewed cherries and creme fraiche ice cream that I had at the osteria.
But my indulgence grows long as your patience grows short. So, from the many, many, many meals I had this year, I give you my very favorite endings. You’ll find a slideshow of all twenty-five desserts at the bottom of this post.
Karen Shields wrote the book on creating a sense of place and time with this dessert. You’re unlikely to find all of its ingredients together in nature. And yet it whisked me to the forest effortlessly, woodsy with pine, spicy with pepper, and fresh with dill and the tartness of quince. Maybe it was more of a magical forest than the wooded Appalachia that rise around TownHouse, but by the time I finished this dessert, I knew it well. Without question, this was the best dessert I had in 2011.
2. Coconut | Kaffir Lime (Corton; New York, New York)
(Basil Seed, Golden Pineapple, Macadamia Nut Crumble.)
Who is this young pastry chef with an eye for color and a nose for flavor, who created a tropical breeze so strong that it rippled the china upon which it arrived? Shawn Gawle is his name, and he is one to watch. He impressed me with many desserts that night at Corton, but this one – with the milky sweetness of coconut and the sunny sweetness of pineapple pierced by the sharp scent of kaffir and the crunch of macadamias – was by far my favorite.
4. Date (la Bigarrade; Paris, France)
(Caramelized almond, rum gelée, tobacco-spiked cream.)
This was only a spoonful, one of eight or nine mini desserts that flooded my counter perch at la Bigarrade in January. Yet it punctuated the end of my dinner with a boozy exclamation I’ll not soon forget. There was half of a Medjool date, sweet and meaty. There was a crisp little almond, shatterific with a dark caramel shell. There was a touch of crème anglaise, spiked with the numbing bite of tabacco. And the best part – rum gelée, hot with alcohol, yet slippery and cool. This was an edible cocktail with lots of texture.
* * *
(Mascarpone Glacé; Louis XV)
* * *
I was skeptical when Emma Read, my friend and lovely hostess at The Sportsman, nudged me to order this dessert. Really? I should choose chocolate mousse over gypsy tart or that fabulous lemon pie of theirs, whose legendary reputation I only know by ear and not by mouth? But when it arrived, a scoop of milk ice cream hugged by a frothy mantle of dark chocolate mousse, I nearly melted into the ramekin with joy. Like everything else at The Sportsman, it was deceptively simple, unexpectedly great. The chocolate mousse was fluffy and light, like a whipped marshmallow fluff. Beneath it was a syrupy, warm caramel, as dark as the night is long. Where the bitterness of the burnt caramel ended and the dark chocolate began, I could not tell. One disappeared into the other, and reappeared with each bite. The slight wateriness of the milk ice cream intensified the flavors even more.
An impossible meeting of ingredients, this dessert embodied the whimsical artistry of Carme Ruscalleda, who has an incredible way of gathering flavors from the four corners on one plate and making them work together, often brilliantly. Here was a kidney-shaped pool of very dark chocolate, more pudding than ganache, dressed with nuts, dried fruit, coconut, tomato heart, mint syrup, peppers, and a sandy feather of candied dill. Sensual and exotic, this was an extraordinary dessert (and, I note, the second of two on this list that included dill, my favorite herb).
I guess if you freeze sake, it has a good chance of making it on this list. Last year, Alex Stupak’s sake sorbet with licorice custard was my favorite dessert of 2010. Of all of the sweets I had at elBulli – even more than that grand chocolate box that showboats you to the very end – this one impressed me the most with its sophistication and subtlety. On top of the sheet of frozen sake skated mimetic nuggets of raspberries and crunchy clusters of black sesame. Sweetness hung low on its horizon, perfumed instead with the winey fragrance of sake and the toasty flavor of black sesame. It suited me perfectly.
* * *
(“Green Colourology;” el Cellar de Can Roca)
* * *
Jordi Roca’s “Green Colourology,” a study in green, with avocados, limes, and green apples, was a fragrant and bright reminder of summer in winter – this was a limeade, but better. It was creamy. It was light. It was crisp. It was a big smile at the end of a heavy meal.
13. “Fairytale“ (Jöel Robuchon; Monte-Carlo, Monaco)
(Pêche avec granita de Champagne.)
I don’t know how “vanilla” became synonymous with “boring,” but this dessert proved that vanilla is anything but boring. If Jordi Roca’s intention was to evoke and etch vanilla into my mind, he succeeded. This was its very essence, as expressed through olives, caramel, and licorice. So amped with vanilla beans were its many parts that I could taste the almost banana-like flavor of its leathery pod. This dessert was vanilla in all-caps.
15. Strawberries (Hisop; Barcelona, Spain)
(Orange ice cream and Yziguirre.)
I still haven’t figured out exactly what yziguirre is (or its correct pronunciation). We were told that it’s beef broth. And, indeed, the strawberries in this dessert were gently stewed and served in a warm, meaty broth, which rendered the berries soft and sweet. Sounds strange? It was. But it was delicious. A flash of cold citrus ice cream helped offset its otherwise austere mood.
* * *
(“Chocolate Slates” 2009; Quique Dacosta)
* * *
16. Gravensteiner Apple (la vie; Osnabrück, Germany)
(Warm – cold – ice cold. Hazelnut cookies, yogurt & powder.)
I love the smell of apples, especially Gravenstein apples, which have a particularly floral scent (see no. 7 on last year’s list of best desserts). And this dessert captured its fragrance brilliantly in a magnificent trompe-l’oeil so convincing that I had to actually break through the gossamer, sugar shell of the orb with my fork to be sure it wasn’t really an apple. This dessert presented the apple in all different textures and temperatures, accompanied by a few of its best friends: nuts, yogurt, and caramel.
18. Riz au Lait (Chez l’Ami Jean; Paris, France)
(Rice pudding with whipped caramel au beurre salé and candied granola.)
Hide your children, hide your wives! This rice pudding is dangerous. It’s big enough for a ten, and rich enough for the most discriminating golddigger. Its texture takes creaminess to a whole new level – it isn’t just thick, it’s unbelievably smooth too, studded with swollen grains of rice that have turned tender and soft (I would too, if I were cooked in as much fat). As if it needs anything else, candied granola and whipped salted caramel – light as air – stand by in separate bowls, begging to jump in. The food at Chez l’Ami Jean is far from light, so do your best to save room for this at the end; it’s worth it.
19. Caramel Parfait (The Modern; New York, New York)
(Mango ravioli, coconut-lemongrass tapioca and ten flavor sorbet.)
20. Parsnips (Viajanté; London, United Kingdom)
(Black olive, sour beer tapioca, and coffee.)
The presentation seemed a bit derivative – where else have I seen vegetable ribbons curled and upended like a stout city of pipes? But the flavor was extraordinary. The parsnips had been poached with vanilla, intensifying and smoothing out the root’s earthy sweetness. This was contrasted by the yeasty pop of sour beer and the earthy bitterness of coffee and black olives, which filled in the shadows, adding dimension.
* * *
(Pistachio Soufflé; Koffman’s)
* * *
Chef Trey Foshee came out of the kitchen to talk to us when this dessert arrived at our table. And, try as I did to pay attention to what he was saying, all I could think about was how delicious this dessert was. Japanese cheesecake is like a finely woven spongecake, just as light (if not lighter), with a creamy, mellow sweetness. Pastry chef Lori Huffman’s version, with the sweet-tart tug-of-war between the yuzu curd and beet syrup, was great.
There are soufflés and there’s this one, green with envy and ambitious enough to outdo the rest with its finely milled pistachio crust and concentrated pistachio flavor, intensified with a creamy torpedo of pistachio ice cream dropped into its core.
23. Melanzane e Cioccolato alla Napoletana (Del Posto; New York, New York)
(Eggplant and chocolate stracciatella ice cream.)
24. Bombe Ceylan (4826) (next; Chicago, Illinois)
(Rum and coffee ice cream with a chocolate dome, brandied cherries.)
Chicago 2011, and Escoffier’s spirit was alive and well at David Beran’s next, where, among the gold-rimmed porcelain and silver platters, came a simple white plate bearing a chocolate dome layered with rum and coffee ice creams. This was the great master’s Bombe Ceylan, accompanied by three drunken cherries. It was splendid.
I love strawberry shortcake, and this high-octane take on the Southern classic was not only gorgeous, but incredibly delicious. Instead a clod of fluffy whipped cream, a drizzle of buttermilk, creamy and bright, and a splash of passion fruit, tart and light.
* * *