best desserts of 2014…

14th Course: Yeast Ice Cream

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My parents, who immigrated to the United States over forty years ago, said that, when they first arrived on these shores, they had no concept of “dessert.”  In Taiwan, where they had spent most of their lives until that point, there were bakeries that sold sweet pastries, and confectioners who made candy. But most of those products were regarded as a luxury goods, and the result of the importation of foreign culture rather than a part of daily life.

Now that they have both spent the majority of their lives in America, they have, of course, acquired a higher tolerance for sugary things.  Even still, neither embraces sweets, or has much appetite for them. (My father described his first encounter with American fudge as “horrifying;” he still doesn’t like it.)  Finding themselves in a country that surrounds them with sugar – my fellow first-generation Asian-Americans might find this familiar – my parents signal their approval when they put down the spoon and say, with a smile, “Mmmm. Very good. Not too sweet.”

So, sweets weren’t really a part of my upbringing either.  We rarely had “dessert” at home.

But that didn’t prevent me from growing into a well-adjusted American who eats enough “dessert” to justify writing an entire review of my annual consumption of sugar.  I gave you my 25 favorite dishes from 2014.  Now, for the fourth year, I give you my 25 favorite desserts.*  But before I do, I want to share a few thoughts about pastryland that have collected in my mind over this past year.

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Coupe Triple!!

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Have you noticed that it has suddenly become cool to not like sweets?

What remains a hallmark of the American diet (I say that half jokingly) has now suddenly become a pariah among self-proclaimed food enthusiasts.  It’s almost as if, by declaring at the table that you don’t like desserts, you are somehow morally superior. Don’t use that righteous tone with me.  Rarely are such protests believable – especially since many of these same people don’t seem protest too loudly when I offer them a bite of my dessert.  Is this a knee-jerk reaction to America’s loosing battle with obesity?  (If so, can we have this same kind of knee-jerk reaction among the dining elite to the alcoholism that is rampant within the restaurant community?) Or is this an insincere way of exerting self-control over a personal weakness?

If you’re trying to cut out unneeded calories or carbohydrates, I totally respect that. But that’s a very different thing from insisting – methinks, too much sometimes – that you don’t like sweets at all, and attaching some judge of character to it.  I believe there are people who are genuinely and generally disinterested in sweet things – my parents are examples.  What I don’t understand is this sudden wave of objections to ending meals with something sweet, or this blanket ban on dessert that seems to have become popular principle.

Am I being too sensitive?  Is it just me?  Maybe it’s just me.

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Fortune Cookie

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But far be it from me to be an apologist on the subject of sugar.  I don’t like it when sweet things are too sweet either.  And I can empathize with those whose main objection to desserts lie herein.

It’s true. Americans like sugar. We consume a lot of it.  And sometimes, we abuse it. [By “we,” I include all of the Americas.  It seems that the further south I go, the sweeter the sweets get. The desserts that I have had in Latin America are unbelievably sweet – much of it surpassed my tolerance level (I wrote about some of them in last year’s round-up of desserts).]

But surely there is acceptable middle ground. Who says dessert has to be sweet? Just like food that comes off the hot line, there is good pastry and bad pastry. There can be balance and a sophistication of flavor in desserts too (you’ll find exemplars among my favorites below).

As I’ve noted over the past few years, there has been a growing trend away from sweetness in restaurant desserts.  As I observed in last year’s post on this subject, more pastry chefs are offsetting sweetness by incorporating non-traditional ingredients into desserts (and, as I also noted, such enthusiasm is sometimes overshot, as I’m seeing stranger and stranger dishes being passed off as “dessert”).  That trend continues.

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Plating

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But the thing I want to focus on this year is the gradual elimination of pastry chef positions at higher-end restaurants.  Here, I’m specifically referring to head pastry chefs, and not pastry cooks in general (someone still has to make them, even if no single mastermind is creating them).  I’ve noticed it happening.  And so have others.

In September of last year, chef Marco Canora of Hearth in New York City penned an insightful and thoughtful analysis of the realities – financial and otherwise – and weighed the worth of having a pastry chef. He considered a few alternatives, but concluded: “… necessity isn’t a benchmark for quality, and not every decision revolves around profit. I don’t need to go to the green market four days a week. And I don’t need to change the menu as much as I do. And I don’t need to buy $20/gallon cream from the Finger Lakes. I do these things because I want to create a culture in my restaurant where we act according to a belief system rather than fulfilling the basic demands of a demographic. I want to deliver a product that is consistently great and evolving, and in order to do that, my restaurant demands and requires a pastry chef.” [You can read all of what Canora had to say in his article, entitled “In Defense of Dessert.”]

To be clear, I am not advocating for or against pastry chefs here. But I am noticing that – especially as you near the top of the restaurant kingdom – there is a trend towards the “collective pastry chef:” that is, the lead chef, together with all of the cooks, collectively create the desserts, and one or two cooks, who may or may not be pastry cooks, are responsible for producing them.  So, instead of having a dedicated pastry chef, there is a rotating roster of cooks who help create and maintain the desserts.

Of course, this kind of model is friendlier to kitchens that only offer one tasting menu (or maybe two, with one being a shorter version of the other), and therefore is only required to produce two, maybe three different desserts at any one time, and possibly some petits fours. This also helps explain, in part, why this trend seems isolated to the higher-end of fine dining.  A restaurant like The Modern in New York City, for example, would have a much harder time maintaining its à la carte dessert menus for its bar room and its dining room, plus the dining room’s tasting menu, the private dining room menus, and all of the catered events it hosts, without a dedicated pastry chef who is given his/her own team of cooks.  Actually, it’d be impossible.

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22nd Course: Angel Food

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I can name quite a few pastry chefs who consistently produce such amazing desserts, ones that also represent a unique voice, that I can’t help but believe that they are indispensable to whichever restaurant is lucky enough to have them.  Many of them have appeared on this list in past years; and you’ll find a couple of them included this year.

At the same time, it is not beyond my imagination that a restaurant – even a very, very good one – can get along just fine without a dedicated pastry chef.  In fact, if my information is correct, nearly half of the restaurants that produced the 25 desserts on my list of favorites this year did so with no head pastry chef.  In many of these cases, the desserts were created by the head chef, or were the product of the kitchen’s hive mind.

I think there can be a lot of benefits to the “collective pastry chef.”  Cooks who work on the “hot” side of food – who don’t have formal training in pastry – are unhindered by the parameters within which pastry traditionally fits.  Therefore, they may approach pastry making from less-expected angles, and often times, have a different understanding of flavor, and consider a wider range of them.  I venture that some, if not many of the desserts you’ll find below have benefited greatly from this kind of cross-kitchen thinking.  In fact – if I may be so bold – quite a few renowned chefs have impressed me far more with their work in the pastry department than on the hot side of the line, for which they are more well-known.

Of course, this untraditional, open-ended approach to pastry-making can also produce disastrous results.  Too many creative monkeys in the cage make for a circus.  I’ve had some of those kinds of desserts – verging on the clownish – as well, or have encountered menus where the desserts swing wildly from one to another, making for a schizophrenic ending to what would otherwise have been a sensible progression of plates.

Ultimately, whether or not a restaurant needs a head pastry chef, I think, is a highly situational matter (in Canora’s case, he realized that he does).  Some may, as a matter of practicality, want one.  Some may not, a decision warranted by a particularly high level of talent among the kitchen pool.  Regardless, I hope the rest of this post conveys my excitement for the tremendous amount of thought and care with which kitchens – of all stripes – are putting into desserts now.

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Pralulines Roses

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While restaurant desserts comprise the majority of the sweets I eat every year, restaurants aren’t the only places I indulge.

Throughout my extensive travels in 2014, I encountered a lot of great pastries outside of restaurants. And since, like last year, I did such a poor job of writing about them throughout the year, I’ll take a moment to tell you about some of them here.

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The subject of Parisian pastries is a well-marked map. So, I don’t want to re-tread what is already well-covered ground (both on this blog, and on the world-wide web).

But there are three places I visited this year that I’d like to mention.  Blé Sucre was recommended to me by many for its croissants (it’s in the 12eme, located a block from the Ledru-Rollin stop on Metro line 8). I now pass that recommendation on to you.  I found the bakeshop’s croissant and kouign amann both to be on the darker side (which I prefer), and very good. (n.b. You will be asked when you order whether you’d like to eat your pastries at the shop – this requires a surcharge; limited seating – or packaged to go.)

Pralus, a famous Parisian confectioner, is primarily known for chocolates.  However, the two Pralus boutiques in Paris also sell what I think is its best product: the “Pralulines Roses.”  This is a sweet briôche loaf studded with cracked pralines – a mix of hazelnuts and almonds coated in rose sugar. I don’t know what’s better – the intense butteriness of the bread, or the incredible flavor of the toasted nuts inside their hard, sugary shells.  The loaves are sold in two sizes (the one pictured above is the “petite,” which I purchased for €6 at the location on rue Rambuteau in the 4eme, about a block from the Rambuteau stop on Metro line 11). [Thanks to my friend Stéphanie at Cookcooning for this recommendation.]

And, if you’re anywhere near the Île St-Louis, the legendary ice creamery Maison Berthillon is a must. As you get closer to it, you’ll see many cafés and restaurants advertising “les glaces Berthillon.” Ignore these siren signs and head straight to the source. The interior is a page-turn to an earlier time. The flavors are seasonal and the texture is always right.  In winter, I’ve had prune and Armagnac ice cream. This past summer, I enjoyed fig sorbet, cocoa sorbet, and coconut ice cream (all under a tall turban of whipped cream).

[On the recommendation of others, I also swung by l’Éclairs de Génie – multiple locations. Although the selection of éclairs was plentiful and colorful, the overall operation seemed a bit commercial. The éclair I tried – a salted caramel one – wasn’t bad. But I’ve had better.]

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Échiré pastries.

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Japanese obsession with French confectionary and viennoiserie makes the subject of pastries in Tokyo as well-canvassed as it is in Paris, if not more so (if you’ll allow me to make a lighthearted, racist observation: the inborn inability of Asians to resist taking photos of food – I exhibit this racial, genetic trait strongly – means that the visual documentation is unparalleled).  On top of all the unique and wonderful things that Tokyo has to offer, you’ll also find a duplicate (and some argue better versions) of the pinnacle of Parisian offerings (both edible and otherwise).

Boutiques and counters selling the sweets of celebrated Parisian confectioners Pierre Hermé, Pierre Marcolini, and la Maison du Chocolat dot the city. [You’ll find a brief discussion of the confectionaries found in the underground food halls of Japanese department stores in this summary post about my trip to Japan.]

The Ladurée franchise is strong in Tokyo as well.  I’m not sure how many locations the city has, but I visited two of them with my friends Dr. TomoStyle and Jonathan Alphandery, who is the owner of the Australian Ladurée franchise (from whom I learned a tremendous amount about the company; currently, he owns two Ladurée shops in Sydney – one in the Central Business District, another in the suburb of Woollahra). You’ll find all the standard Ladurée favorites in the shops in Tokyo, with a larger menu at the flagship in Ginza, where the queue for one of its few, parlor tables can run hours long.

In the posh shopping district of Marunouchi, Joël Robuchon has a “Boutique,” where you can sit and enjoy a selection of pastries and sandwiches, or take them to go (a smaller, more pastry-focused counter is attached to the l’Atelier Joël Robuchon across town in Roppongi Hills). Nearby is a small retail space where the French butter-maker, Échiré, Maison du Beurre, sells a variety of golden-brown wonders made with its prized product. In one week, I visited thrice and sampled through the case stacked with flakey puff pastry: chausson au pomme, pain aux raisins et pistaches, and a number of different croissants (with varying percentages of butter, both salted and unsalted).  If you don’t want to wake up early to stand online for the assurance of getting a croissant (the viennoiserie sells out quickly and early), trays shingled with madeleines, financiers, and shortbread, as well as a small cold case of brown butter ice cream, are restocked throughout the day. If not for any of this, the amazing smell of butter alone – which nearly overwhelms upon first entering the store – is worth a visit.

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Golden Sesame

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In my two and a half weeks traveling through Japan, my friend Tomo exposed me to a number of local confectioners and confections.

What the French made famous, the Japanese have perfected.  In the French-inspired quarter of Kagurazaka of Tokyo (public speakers strung up along the main thoroughfares serenade passersby with romantic, French tunes), she took me to a little café named Un Gâteau.  It specializes in chiffon. The light, spongey cake can be bought whole, or by the slice.  We tried one flecked with black olives and one with sakura (cherry blossoms).  Both were terrific.

In the same neighborhood, a tiny shop, curiously named Woodman’s Cake, sells financiers infused with tea.  They were moist and buttery, and the flavor of the tea was surprisingly strong. I loved them.

On our way to Kyoto, we picked up some snacks inside Tokyo’s main train station (there’s an entire section dedicated to sweets), including dorayaki – those miniature pancake-like pastries filled with red bean paste.  (Although entirely a different type of pancake, the American-style pancake was very much the rage when I was in Japan. We passed by restaurants – modeled cartoonishly after American pancake houses – that had lines stretching for blocks.  If they only knew that Aunt Jemima could offer them the same pleasures at a fraction of the price and the time.)

Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market offered much to see and taste. Along that long, orderly row of purveyors that specializes in everything from rice to pickles, cutlery to pottery, we found one stall dedicated to the “golden sesame,” a particularly fragrant variety. We couldn’t resist ordering the sesame soft serve that came coated in toasted sesame seeds.  It showed off the seed’s rich aroma and flavor beautifully.

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Jams and sour cream.

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Scandinavians have a strong baking tradition, one of which I have only a cursory understanding.

On one of my three trips to Bergen, Norway in 2014, I happened to catch the city’s annual food festival.  Along the city’s ancient Bryggen – the centuries-old Hanseatic wharf designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the “Bergen Mat Festival” set up a small market, where artisan food purveyors from the region were invited to show off their goods. There were pancakes – just like the big, fluffy, griddled discs familiar to this American – served with jars of jams, apple sauce, and sour cream.  My liberal application of a sampling of condiments earned me some confused looks; most Norwegians seemed monogamously wedded to one or another.  I discovered skillingsbollen, a type of sweet dough roll, dusted with more sugar than cinnamon.  And I was also introduced to a pastry called Hardanger kling, named after the city of Hardanger, from which the pastry is supposed to have originated.  Hardanger kling is made by layering large, thin, round sheets of sweet pastry dough generously with sweetened butter (if you’re imagining a mille-crêpe, you’re thinking in the wrong direction; the doughy discs looked and felt much more like giant, flour tortillas, and the layer of buttercream filling in between each sheet was about a quarter-inch thick).  If I recall correctly, they were stacked maybe four or five layers tall before they were sliced, either in wedges, or into small, finger sandwich-sized bites.  Mostly comprised of butter, they are pretty rich; a little goes a long way.  I’ll be returning to Bergen next week to learn more about the hardanger kling, and other Norwegian pastries, during the third installment of the Friends of Lysverket dinner series hosted by Christopher Haatuft at his restaurant Lysverket.  This time, we will focus on Norwegian baking. (I shall write about this dinner series as soon as I wrap up my year-end “best of” posts).  I hope to report back with a more in-depth understanding of this Norwegian pastry, and hopefully others, after my trip.

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Lakrids by Johan Bülow

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Among the sweets I sampled at Xoko in Stockholm, Sweden was a wonderfully light prinsesstårta (“princess torte”).  Traditionally, this Swedish sponge cake is layered with pastry cream, topped with a whipped cream dome. All of it is encased in a thin layer of green marzipan, sometimes trimmed in pink.  Xoko took the liberty of adding a thin layer of raspberry jam to the filling, introducing a bright-red stain to this torte’s traditional pastel palette of colors.

While tracing the rim of the Danish island of Bornholm, my guide for the day, Pelle Magnus Berg Petersen, and I passed through the sleepy town of Svaneke. He mentioned that the town was known for producing well-known artisans, including a young confectioner named Johan Bülow, who had created a successful line of licorice-based candies. A couple of days later, as I was leaving Copenhagen, I noticed a beautiful, sleek kiosk (I suppose that is a thoroughly unhelpful description, as everything in Copenhagen’s airport is sleek and beautiful) selling Johan Bülow’s Lakrids.  I didn’t have time to linger, but I tasted a few of his candies – there’s quite a variety.  My favorite were the ones with almonds enrobed in milk chocolate and coated in black licorice dust.  For those who are shy on licorice, this may not be the candy for you. But if you like high-quality black licorice, I highly recommend them.  I’ll surely be picking up a few more canisters of these candies on my next trip to Denmark.

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 Pies

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Last year I devoted quite a few inches on this blog to talking about good-old American pie.  My enthusiasm for it has not diminished in the dozen months intervening.

In Austin, Texas I found Tiny Pies, a bakeshop that, as its name suggests, sells tiny pies.  They’re so tiny that I thought the crust – which I often like more than filling – was overrepresented.  But, Tiny Pies offers some creative fillings – strawberry-lemon chess, for example.  And, if portion control is a problem, they’ve got you covered.

Also in Austin is Cake and Spoon, which doesn’t have a retail space.  Rather, you’ll find its baked goods at the Austin Texas Farmer’s Market and in various restaurants about town.  Barbecue restaurants rarely offer dessert, and when they do, it’s usually not very good. So God bless Franklin Barbecue for selling Cake and Spoon pies. These mini pies (does Austin have a thing for small-format pies?) are sold in paper pouches.  I particularly liked the key lime and banana bourbon pies, both with graham cracker crusts.

Last year, I mentioned the peanut and rosemary pie I had at the Fremont Diner in Sonoma.  This year, I found a fairly good wedge of sweet potato-pecan pie there.  It’s exactly how you might imagine it – a creamy, mellow-sweet layer of sweet potato filling paved with a sticky-sweet crust of pecans.

And pie in ice cream form?  What could be better?  I’ve always loved the desserts at Mozza Pizzeria in Los Angeles (I think the pastry chef is still Dahlia Narvaez). On a recent visit: banana gelato pie (with hot fudge and candied hazelnuts).

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 Ain't no party like a pie party.

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There are a few tables and a generous porch lined with stools at Emporium Pie. There are also a couple of picnic tables in the yard, if the weather’s nice, as it was on both of my visits to this bakeshop in late October.  It’s located on the ground floor of an adorable house in the burgeoning Bishop Arts District of Dallas, Texas.  I love the names that Emporium Pie give to its pies. My two favorites, from the half-dozen or so I tried, were the “Nannerz,” which was essentially a banana cream pie with maple caramel, and the “Smooth Operator,” which the shop girls likened to French silk, but with a pretzel crust.

Stephanie Prida, pastry chef of Manresa, said that I must, must, must, must have the pie at Duarte’s Tavern (that’s pronounced DOO-arts), just off a forlorn stretch of Highway 1 in Pescadero, California.  So, I swung by Santa Cruz, picked Prida up, and headed up the coast for dinner.  True to her word, the pies were great, although they had sold out of of Prida’s favorite – the pecan pie.  We tried four fruit pies, all of them double-crusted with the restaurant’s moist, but flakey pie dough that fell on the blonder to side of the spectrum. My first slice of ollalieberry pie ever was pretty amazing (I hope it will not be my last). But we agreed that the apricot pie was the dark horse; a pleasant surprise.  I’ll be back for the pecan.

I know I’ve mentioned Megan Garrelts’s pies at Rye on this blog before (they’re still some of the best pies I’ve had).  But have I ever talked about the icebox pies at Town Topic?  Town Topic is a greasy spoon institution that has been serving griddled goods in the heart of downtown Kansas City for seven decades.  It’s a small, counter diner that’s open 24-7. The pies they serve here are from Golden Boy Pies, a local, Kansas City commercial bakery.  Some of the fruit fillings – especially of the berry varieties – can be a bit too starched up and glossy. (Despite the fact that Golden Boy Pies proudly states on its website that its pies are made with “top quality all natural ingredients,” a quick survey of the ingredient list – disclosed on its website’s nutritional content section – will show otherwise. You’ll find everything from high fructose corn syrup to stabilizers and a myriad of hydrogenated fats.) But not the pineapple pie. I think owing to the fact that pineapple is meatier, with less water content, it holds up better without the aid of thickening agents.  I especially like the pineapple pie here heated up, served à la mode.  I must warn, however, that Town Topic has a pretty bare-boned operation.  The diner doesn’t have any ovens; not even a microwave. The only source of cooking heat comes from the well-seasoned griddle.  So, if you ask for your pie warmed (as I usually like it, when served with ice cream), the slice is put in an empty pie tin, set on the griddle, and covered with an upturned pie tin. A bit of water is poured around the tin to hasten the heating with steam (and to keep the pie moist). Resourceful and effective as this method may be, depending on what else is being cooked on the griddle at the time, your pie may or may not be infused with stray aromas from nearby patties and rashers. I actually didn’t realize that this is how Town Topic was heating my pies until, on a particularly busy day, when the griddle was crowded with sizzling meat, I noticed a particularly porcine flavor to my pie. When I expressed my surprised to my friend that these pies used lard in its crust – and shockingly flavorful lard at that – the waitress exclaimed, “Oh honey, that ain’t lard, that’s the sausage.”  She pointed to the griddle, where a row of links was browning next to another customer’s pie.  Regardless, I have to say, The Golden Boy pie crust is terrific, especially the ultra-flakey, crisp crust that is paired with its cream pies, like the coconut cream pie, which I also highly recommend.

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Desserts!

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What else?

I found some pretty good donuts at Holtman’s Donuts in Cincinnati’s curiously named “Over the Rhine” neighborhood (or OTR, as locals call it). The apple fritter, in particular, was the stand-out. It was pocketed with large, meaty chunks of apples that provided a high, bright tartness that is so often missing from this otherwise too-sweet American pastime.

Lincoln Carson – formerly corporate pastry chef of the (Michael) Mina Group – is now at Superba Food + Bread in Venice Beach, California.  His pastry case there is filled with some ambitious-looking sweets.  Of the few I tried, my favorite was a really rich Valhrona chocolate delice, set on crisp walnut shortbread, that oozed a core of salted caramel. I also want to mention the “Everything Croissant” at Superba Food + Bread.  I don’t know whether this is a Carson creation (if it is, please speak up), but it’s fantastic. These buttery croissants are encrusted with that familiar grab-bag of bagel seasonings, and tunneled through – quite generously – with cream cheese.

On a steamy, rainy afternoon in Hong Kong, my friends and I huddled under the eaves outside of the famous Tai Cheong Bakery stuffing ourselves with the bakery’s famous Cantonese egg tartlets (dan ta).  The small, crowded shop (which has been there since the 1950s) only has a take-away counter. The business there is so brisk that the egg tartlets never have a chance to cool in the case – ours were served quite warm. [I’ll also borrow this opportunity to mention the fantastically decadent egg tartlets we had at Yan Toh Heen at the Inter-Continental in Tsim Sha Tsui, which were topped with glistening heaps of bird’s nest – that odd and rare delicacy of Cantonese cookery, which is the salivary cement that a certain species of swifts uses to construct their nests. They were perfect.]

And finally, I can’t leave this year’s round-up of sweets without mentioning my friends Dave and Jamie Beran’s amazing wedding “cake.”  Dave is the chef of Next in Chicago (where, by the way, I was served a giant “fortune cookie” last year during the restaurant’s “Modern Chinese” run).  For their matrimonial pleasure, he and Jamie asked the crew at Aviary (where they hosted their reception) to make foie gras “Snickers.”  This was an entire lobe of foie gras layered with caramel and nougat, and encased in a thin, chocolate shell.  It was glorious.

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9th Course: Passionfruit Sorbet

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This year’s list of my favorite desserts is a particularly good one, if I may say so.

Out of a sizable stack of candidates, it took little effort to choose the 25 you find below. With the exception of the top five, which broke away from the pack and almost lined themselves up, deciding where each dessert landed on the list proved to be the far more challenging task.  They were all very good.

That so many of them share specific flavors – even specific ingredients, as you will see – might seem uncanny. But, taken as a continuation of a trail of crumbs I’ve left through past years’ lists of my favorite desserts, they help form a pattern that reveals a lot about the way I like to end my meals.

The desserts I like most tend to be light, and lean on a good deal of acidity.  Over half of this year’s entries, for example, focused on fruit.  In many cases, the fruit was barely touched, served simply with a bit of sauce, as Nicolai Nørregaard did at no. 23, or some jelly, as Norio Yamamoto did at no. 13. In a few of the desserts, the fruit was gently cooked, and spooned, with little more than its own juices, over some ice cream, as I found it at Fabio Trabocci’s restaurant, listed at no. 18.

I like fragrant desserts, and am especially seduced by the expressiveness of yeast in this regard (I am amazed by how often yeast appears on this list, and thereby noticing that chefs are incorporating more of it into their cooking).  Sometimes it carries a bright, floral note, as it did in a shockingly simple but spectacular dessert by Shawn Gawle at no. 15, or in the Janus-faced wonder that Seiji Yamamoto presents at no. 8.  At other times, it can be dark and stormy, dropping octaves to carry the baritone part in a more dramatic role. Both Rasmus Kofoed’s dessert at no. 4, and Björn Frantzén’s dessert at no. 5 cast yeast in this moodier, more bitter part.

And then there are the more predictable favorites: coffee, dark chocolate, brown butter, honey. You’ll find all of these on this list as well.

Because pastry is such a highly technical field, I can understand why chefs showcase technique at the center of their desserts.  Technique is important, but I’m much more impressed when it works quietly in the background, letting imagination and emotion take the stage.  That’s what you’ll find at the top of this year’s list: two desserts that are the product of highly technical thinking and execution, yet wooed me with their imagination and beauty.

From the hundreds of desserts that I had in 2014 at restaurants all over the world, the following 25 distinguished themselves.  As with my previous posts in this series, the titles of each of the entries below is hyperlinked to a photo of that dessert.

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23rd Course: Garden Berries

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25. RHUBARB
Licorice.
(atera; New York, New York)

 

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24. ESPRESSO GRANITA
Whipped cream.
(Zuni Café; San Francisco, California)

It’s so simple. Yet, it’s so good. It’s low on sugar, high on bitter, with a light, milky middle to round it all out. And, if you need a jolt of energy, this will give you a good one.

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23. GARDEN BERRIES
Beach rose, fermented autumn honey, “koldskål.”
(Kadeau; Bornholm, Denmark)

Over this pretty patchwork of colorful berries, chef Nicolai Nørregard poured “koldskål,” a cold, buttermilk drink that Danes traditionally take in the warmer months.   It was a light and delicious way for us to celebrate the end of his restaurant’s seasonal, summer run on this beautiful Baltic island.

~

22. PASSIONFRUIT SORBET
Japanese brandy (Suntory VSOP).
(Kichisen; Kyoto, Japan)

Given the way our meal had preceded, I was skeptical when this dessert arrived.  Was this just another flashy display of serviceware? In fact, it was an elegantly presented dessert that also happened to be a sophisticated pairing.  We each scooped out a little spoonful of the passionfruit sorbet that had been packed into empty passionfruit shells, making a little divot into which we poured a generous amount of Japanese brandy from a pretty little genie flask. We let the brandy soak in before stirring it all up into a boozy, adult-rated slushy.  Fruit seems to have a special affinity to brandy, and passionfruit seems especially so inclined.  It was a great pairing.

~

21. DARK CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
Raspberry, dried plum, vanilla ice cream.
(Hedone; London; The United Kingdom)

The dark chocolate mousse part of this dessert – served warm – reminded me very much of the fluffy, almost marshmallowy dark chocolate mousse I first encountered a few years ago at Stephen Harris’s The Sportsman (which ranked 7th on my list of favorite desserts from 2011). Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson capped the mousse with a disk of dark chocolate, made velveteen with a dusting of tart, dried plums, and crowned it all with vanilla ice cream.  The bitter richness of the chocolate against the tartness of the fruit; the warmth of the mousse against the cold, creamy vanilla; the pillowy billowy lightness of it all, interrupted by the snap and crunch of the thin, chocolate shell – it was a masterfully composed set of flavors, textures, and temperatures.

~

Fragola

~

20. GRILLED RASPBERRIES
Rose hip tea, beeswax ice cream.
(Geranium; Copenhagen, Denmark)

I’m not sure how official this dessert was.  In fact, I’m not sure that this dessert, as it appears above, is actually correct.  The grilled raspberries arrived on my table, with a pour of rose hip tea.  But then Will King-Smith, Geranium’s second-in-command, arrived with a tiny bowl of beeswax ice cream, presented on a striking, honeycombed field.  He said that it was something with that the kitchen was tinkering. I gathered from his comment that I was getting a sneak peek, and that the ice cream had very little to do with the raspberries with which it arrived.  In any case, both halves of the dessert were terrific. But it is for the beeswax ice cream – how does one capture the flavor of it in ice cream? – that I recognize it here.

~

19. “ØRSKOG SVELE
Norwegian pancakes, hazelnut ice cream, toasted hazelnuts.
(Ylajali; Oslo, Norway)

Prepared at the table on a small griddle, these “Norwegian pancakes” were fluffy and light, imbued with a super-fragrant yeastiness that reminded me of sake.  Grounded in the woodsy, almost boozy aroma of toasted hazelnuts, this dessert created a great coupling of flavors.

~

18. FRAGOLA
Roasted strawberries, opal basil ice cream.
(Fiola; Washington, D.C.)

After over a decade of chasing and missing chef Fabio Trabocci up and down the eastern seaboard – I couldn’t afford to eat at Maestro when I lived in D.C.; I failed to get to Fiamma in New York City before it closed, and his brief appearance at The Four Seasons in Midtown was so short that I missed him there too – I finally caught up with him at his first self-owned restaurant, Fiola, back in D.C. where the hunt began.  On an sunny, late-spring afternoon, I finished a nice, simple lunch with this light, simple dessert: the cool, breezy scent of basil hugged by roasted strawberries in their own, ruby-red syrup.

~

17. SORBET OF PICKLED BEETS
Sweet cicely.
(Maaemo; Oslo, Norway)

~

16. PEAR IN POMACE
Acorn, rosemary.
(Christopher Kostow presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

As I described it in my recap of that dinner: “Those pears turned out beautifully too.  The ‘white coats’ (as the cooks are called) accompanied the servers to the tables to help them crack open the sugary shells, purple with pomace (grape must), and scoop out the steaming pears within. This was a particularly fragrant dessert, with the grape must infused into the sugar, and the woodsy scent of rosemary throughout.” What started as a figment of chef Christopher Kostow’s ambition just days before, turned out to be one of the best desserts I had in 2014.

~

20th Course: Krug Sorbet

~

15. KRUG SORBET

(Saison; San Francisco, California)

Even if this was just a high-class parlor trick, it was a very, very good one. I was lucky to have been served this sorbet a couple of times at Saison in 2014.  Former pastry chef Shawn Gawle (now chef at nearby Les Clos) enhanced the fragrance of the Champagne with a hint of grapefruit, using the fruit’s sweetness to also help round out the bitterness in both. The sorbet was topped up with a splash of Krug at the table.

~

14. PICKLED STRAWBERRIES
Ume granita, ginger sorbet.
(Providence; Los Angeles)

~

13. FRUIT IN HONEY JELLY
(Ifuki; Kyoto, Japan)

~

12. BROWN BUTTER ICE CREAM
Hazelnut crumble, molasses.
(Maaemo; Oslo, Norway)

~

11. TRI-STAR STRAWBERRIES
Lavender ice cream.
(Contra; New York, New York)

A run of scarlet on a creamy field of white.  Those strawberries tasted like a million strawberries.  That lavender – a fragrance that can sometimes have me crawling back through my grandmother’s medicine cabinet – was mellowed in the cold, milkiness of the cream. Two spoonfuls was hardly enough.

~

10th Course: Sake Soft Serve and Soufflé

~

10. MILK & HONEY
Honey, beeswax, almond, orange blossom “crème anglais.”
(Mourad; San Francisco, California)

While walking by some big-picture windows in an alleyway, I looked in to discover a magnificent new kitchen. I know just about every restaurant in San Francisco that would have a kitchen like this one. But this one was unfamiliar. What restaurant is this, I mouthed through the window to the cook, who looked up when she noticed my shadow darkening her station. “It’s new.” “What’s the name?” She repeated the name a couple of times, but her response was unintelligible to me. Just then, Mourad Lahlou, chef of Aziza, walked by and caught me through the window. He waved me around to meet him at the front door.  As it turns out, this was his new, eponymous restaurant Mourad, about which he had randomly emailed me a few weeks before (Mourad should be opening by the end of this month of January, 2015). As it also turns out, my lip-reading exchange was with Melissa Chou, Lahlou’s pastry chef at Aziza, whose “Chamomile Cream” appeared on my list of favorite desserts last year. I had admired her work, but we had never met. Lahlou invited me to return the next day as a guinea pig for a trial run of his tasting menu [disclosure].  At the end of what I thought was a pretty strong run of dishes was Chou’s “Milk & Honey,” a mind-bending combination of textures and flavors that captured the warmth of the Moroccan sun.

~

9. POÊLÉES DES MIRABELLES
Glace vanille.
(Froggy’s Tavern; Montreuil-sur-Mer, France)

This dessert, I will admit, wasn’t much to look at.  It was a muddled bowl of browns and yellows, the roasted plums wrinkly and deflated, the whipped cream inelegantly banked to one side.  But, my gosh, the flavor. On that waning day of summer, this simple delight seemed to capture the timelessness of the quiet little courtyard inside the medieval gates of an ancient city where I quietly made it disappear.

~

8. SAKE SOFT SERVE & SOUFFLÉ
(Ryugin; Tokyo, Japan)

I issued a temporary reprieve for the preceding string of disappointments at Ryugin when this dessert arrived.  As I’ve mentioned, I love the fragrance of yeast. And nowhere is it more prettily painted than in sake. Here, it was infused into the creamy and cold, and the creamy and hot. In its simplicity was its cleverness.  The question that remains unanswered: why was this dessert only being served to the non-Asian faces in the dining room?  We, a table of Asians, had to specifically ask for it (although there is only “one” tasting menu at Ryugin, we noticed that Asians in the dining room were getting a different progression of plates than non-Asian guests).

~

7. STRAWBERRIES & SETOKA TANGERINE
Sherry-flavored mousse topped with genko citrus sherbet.
(Ishikawa; Tokyo, Japan)

~

6. APPLE FRITELLE
(Del Posto; New York, New York)

“I had the McDonald’s apple pie in mind when I made this dessert,” pastry chef Brooks Headley said, one foot planted in sarcasm, the other in total sincerity. But Headley was being way too modest. His apple fritelle was far better than that fast food chain’s hand pies.  His had the crispy crunch of the “frittle.”  His had that steely, thin high note, that cider-like sparkle that helped to pull this dessert away from apple pie in the direction of sophistication.  I had the pleasure of having this dessert once at Del Posto last year, and then again when Headley served it at the annual Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner that I helped co-host at The American Restaurant in Kansas City.

~

26th Course: "Naked Tree"

~

5. YEAST ICE CREAM
Whipped ale with salted meringue.
Grated, smoked, and dried egg yolks; warm raisin syrup.
(Frantzén; Stockholm, Sweden)

A wisp of smoke escaped, revealing a stack of shiny cured egg yolks.  From one corner, alighted a bowl of yeast ice cream, foamy with whipped ale, jagged with salted meringue. From another corner, a gloved hand appeared with a microplane zester, and showered the dessert with a golden blanket of shaved cured yolks.  And finally, from on high, a thin, dark line of warm raisin syrup.  The beautiful choreography of the presentation at Björn Frantzén’s Michelin-starred restaurant aside, the flavors were incredible, generating a weighty conversation among serious flavors. This was a dessert with gravitas.

~

4. “NAKED TREE
Prune and frozen dark beer.
(Geranium; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Like a lot of the dishes at Geranium, this dessert looked far too manipulated to actually be good. But, like most of the food served at Rasmus Kofoed’s 2 Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen, it actually was very good — with surprisingly fine-tuned flavors. This dessert appealed to the darker side of my tastes, coupling wintry prune with dark, toasty beer to put a powerful, punchy period at the end of my meal.

~

3. BEETROOT
Yogurt, wild berries.
(Kobe Desramaults presenting at the Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

~

2. “BULLE DU MARAIS
Mint ice cream, sorrel pana cotta, and chamomile. Sugar glass ball.
(Le Grenouillère; La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, France)

Chef Alexandre Gauthier said that he wanted to make a dessert that conveyed the flavors and scents of the low-lying marshes that surround his restaurant near the northern coast of France. This is why the dessert appeared, translated into English, on the menu at the Twelve Days of Christmas, where I was lucky enough to have a second time last year, as “Marsh Bubble.”  I’m skeptical when I see too much sugar work on dessert plates — it’s pretty, but rarely adds anything to the experience, except maybe a cuts in my mouth.  And so, when he first presented this glassy bubble, a verdant terrarium of herbs, I was hesitant. But, with a light tap of my spoon, the sugar shattered to reveal a light, creamy cloud perfumed with the grassy, sweet scent of the meadows of northern France.

~

1. BRAMLEY APPLE SOUFFLÉ
Caramel ice cream.
(The Sportsman; Seasalter, The United Kingdom)

Before Stephen Harris explained how he made this otherwise plain-looking dessert, my mind was tied up in knots over it.  I am not a food scientist.  But I have made soufflés before.  And I simply could not figure out how a soufflé could be made to taste so crisp, so tangy, so juicy with green apple tartness, and yet maintain its otherwise airy, creamy frame.  HOW?  At my request, on a recent trip I took with Harris to Norway, he explained it to me: he replaced some of the sugar and liquid content of the batter with green apple pulp, boosted with some added malic acid, and then naturally dyed the batter a light-green tint with some neutral-tasting leaf (he uses spinach; although less-neutral in taste, parsley will also work). [I’m positive that I’ve botched up that recipe, and therefore maintain that Stephen Harris needs to write a cookbook, as I have so lobbied him for years.]  As if that wasn’t enough, he showed me — he tried to recreate this dessert at the second Friends of Lysverket dinner I helped co-host with Christopher Haatuft.  I say “tried,” because it didn’t turn out exactly like the original I had at The Sportsman.  But, allowing for the fact that he was in a foreign kitchen in a foreign land without some of the same ingredients he uses in his kitchen (like the specifically British Bramley apple), it was still a fantastic facsimile, one I would happily have again.  I have always celebrated Stephen Harris, for his incredible ability to convey flavor, which are always true and unquestionable.  That they were in his green apple soufflé made it my favorite dessert from 2014.

~

* I explained, in a footnote in my previous post, “best dishes of 2014…,” why I avoided using the word “best,” instead preferring “favorite,” to describe the dishes listed therein.  I follow the same reasoning in this post.

Photos: The smoked egg yolks for the yeast ice cream dessert at Frantzén in Stockholm, Sweden; a coupe triple of ice cream and sorbets at Maison Berthillon in Paris, France; Dave Beran presenting a giant fortune cookie at Next: Modern Chinese in Chicago, Illinois; Kobe Desramaults plating his “Beetroot” dessert at the Twelve Days of Christmas at the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California; Matthew Lightner, chef of atera, plating “strawberry cake” for my friend’s birthday, New York, New York; the “Pralulines” briôche from Pralus in Paris, France; assorted viennoiserie and croissants from Échiré, Maison du Beurre in Tokyo, Japan; coating golden sesame soft serve with toasted golden sesames at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan; a little Norwegian girl reaches for jam at a Bergen Mat Festival pancake stand in Bergen, Norway; Johan Bülow Lakrids that I purchased at the Copenhagen Airport in Denmark; Cake and Spoon pies purchased at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas; ain’t no party like a pie party, at Emporium Pie in Dallas, Texas; the egg tartlets with birds nest, among other desserts at Yan Toh Heen at the Inter-Continental in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong; passionfruit sorbet with a flask of brandy at Kichisen in Kyoto, Japan; the “Garden Berries” dessert at kadeau on the Danish island of Bornholm, Denmark; “Fragola” at Fiola in Washington, D.C.; Krug sorbet at Saison in San Francisco, California; the “Sake Soft Serve and Soufflé” at Ryugin in Tokyo, Japan; the “Naked Tree” at Geranium in Copenhagen, Denmark.

~ by ulterior epicure on January 7, 2015.

3 Responses to “best desserts of 2014…”

  1. Thank you, some very thoughtful insights and more than a few new things I’ll need to go taste in the near future.
    As to the everything croissant – it came about as a response to a craving after a long discussion on favorite bagels – mine happen to be Beauty’s Bagels in Oakland. LC

  2. I’ve done the “I don’t like dessert” thing plenty of times. As you wrote, I actually *do* like dessert and am not quite telling the truth. I just avoid dessert for health reasons. But if I say I’m avoiding dessert to be healthy that kind of rains on the parade of other people ordering dessert, so I think the lie is the best option here.

    Anyway, I always love reading the year-end posts here. I’m not really “of” the high-end food world so it’s fun to get a glimpse and see what’s happening.

  3. What a fun read. You obviously spent a lot of time and thought on it, thank you.

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