favorite desserts of 2017…

– Plums, ashen from the hearth, bleeding into gauzy muslin. Figs, syrupy and charred, nestled in a flakey frame. Saffron suspended in a milky cloud glinting with gold. And apricots, fleshy and warm, hugged in a doughy crust, with ice cream beside; a slice of the great American songbook. These are just a few of […]


Plums, ashen from the hearth, bleeding into gauzy muslin.

Figs, syrupy and charred, nestled in a flakey frame.

Saffron suspended in a milky cloud glinting with gold.

And apricots, fleshy and warm, hugged in a doughy crust, with ice cream beside; a slice of the great American songbook.

These are just a few of my sweetest moments in 2017.

Churros y Chocolate

In past years, I’ve used this post as an opportunity to record my observations about pastryland at large.  This year, I find very little to add to what I’ve already written in the past. By and large, the desserts I saw in 2017 still seem to fall into one of three camps that I described last year.

Much of what I find in restaurants remains overwrought.  I favor simplicity – a running theme here.  And sadly for me, simplicity is not the focus of many pastry kitchens right now.  As a result, in 2016, I found fewer desserts that merited mention and trimmed my annual list of favorites down to ten.

A more targeted approach to eating in 2017, however, yielded better results.  This year, I include 15 of my favorite desserts. But before I get to them, there are a few other notes from the sweeter part of my year in eating that I’d like to record first.

In 2017, I continued to spend an increasing amount of my time in coffee shops.  Not only do I rely on them as a workplace when traveling, but I also use them for a quick pulse of a neighborhood or city – a subject my friends and I explore in Drift Magazine.  And I like that.

I need to devote an entire blog post to coffee shops.  But, in keeping with the subject of this one, for now, I will focus on the pastries that I found in them. As in 2016, most of what I saw in 2017 was pretty mediocre.  For better or worse, food in coffee shops – especially in America – remain an afterthought.  But, I’ve found a few exceptions and exemplars that deserve to be mentioned.

In 2017,  I returned to many of the places where I’ve had great experiences before – like Fuglen in Oslo, where I had kanelboller, a giant knot of sweet bread laced with cinnamon; or Boot Café in Paris, for its dark scones; and the café at 108 in Copenhagen, where its tidy selection of viennoiserie included a beautifully burnished fist of sheeted dough stained deep-purple with a tart glaze of aronia berries. It was terrific.

In 2016, I shared my excitement for Taylor Petrehn’s baked goods at 1900 Barker in Lawrence, Kansas.  I do so again this year.  Everything in his case – croissants, danishes, cookies – continues to be consistently excellent.  Monarch, a new coffee shop in Kansas City, where I spend a lot of my time, has started to carry some of Petrehn’s goods as well.

I found new places worth noting as well.

I don’t know if it’s the best new bakery in America (this, according to one magazine), but I found the croissants at Arsicault in San Francisco’s Richmond district to be very good.  The kouign amann, in particular, was great.  If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth a visit (although, given how long the lines have been, perhaps not).

Kansas Citians rejoiced at the opening of the new Messenger Coffee shop downtown late in the year.  The capacious, three-story production facility houses the roastery for Messenger Coffee and its sister business Ibis Bakery (formerly headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas – I mentioned it last year), with plenty of customer seating throughout.  Setting aside the impressive, industrial space and design for a moment (the interior was designed by the same firm that created Sightglass Coffee’s flagship on 7th Street in San Francisco), the bread and viennoiserie – everything from croissants and pain au chocolat to goat cheese bear claws, fruit danishes, and impossibly flakey turnovers – that Ibis Bakery makes and sells here is excellent.

I returned again, and again to The Bachelor Farmer Café in Minneapolis, which I have written about before.  But, in 2017, I was particularly excited to see the opening of Gavin Kaysen’s brasserie Bellecour in the suburb of Wayzata, where pastry chef Diane Yang is producing a stunning array of French goodies for the beautiful bakery and café up front: shortbreads, madeleines, frangipane, crêpe cakes, macarons, and a variety of sheeted dough and pâte á choux pastries, like éclairs and paris-brest.

David Beuhrer grew up in a predominantly Veitnamese neighborhood in Houston. He worked in the doughnut shops there, which were mostly owned and operated by immigrants. Having learned the craft, he now serves excellent doughnuts – along with a surprisingly robust menu of food – at his coffee shop Morningstar.  I’m not usually keen on doughnuts, but his dark chocolate-glazed old fashioned had me smiling.  If you’re in Houston, you’ve got to go.

And, in Paris, I finally made it to du Pain et des Idées.  I wrote about it in this, earlier post.

I had excellent churros in 2017.

In Houston, I had Jalisco-style “churros gordos” at The Big Event, an annual fundraiser for the Big Brothers & Sisters of Texas (the couple who made these churros serve and sell them out of their food truck called “Churros Gordos“).  These giant, dough-based churros had a considerably gruffer appearance and texture than the ones I’m used to seeing. Akin to Chineseyoutiao, they were snipped into shorter strips and slathered with cajeta.

In Mexico City, my friends Adam Goldberg and Daniela Velasco and I visited El Morro Churrería for Drift Magazine (vol. 6). These long, thin strips of extruded dough, dusted with cinnamon sugar, were the kind of street churros with which I am more familiar. Delicate and light, they disintegrate if you look at them the wrong way.  We ordered them with hot chocolate.  El Morro Churrería also makes ice cream sandwiches, sold as “Conseulos,” using small rounds of tightly coiled churros that are fried stiffer. Even still, they’re not the easiest things to eat.

For an impromptu lunch at Pujol, Enrique Olvera asked for churros to be made for us. Like the churros at El Morro, his version was golden-brown on the outside, and hot and melty within; perfect with a cup of coffee.

I never fail to mention pie in this annual post.  It’s one of my favorite food groups.

In 2017, I hit all my favorite spots.  Rye (which has since opened a second location in Kansas City on the Country Club Plaza) remains my go-to spot at home.  Megan Garrelts’s crusts are terrific.  If I could only convince her to keep the coconut cream pie on the menu year-round…

I also made it back to Duarte’s Tavern in sleepy Pescadero, California.  My friends and I hit the sweet spot: both apricot and ollalieberry were in season.  They are my two favorite pies I’ve had there.

In Kansas City, I love the icebox pies at Town Topic, which I’ve mentioned before.  Diner pie, like the ones served there, is its own, beloved creature.  At its best, it’s sloppy and good – and often oversized.  That’s the kind of dreamboat slices they serve at Dot Coffee in Houston, a 24-hour diner and ground zero of the Pappas empire of restaurants. Whether filled with ginormous, ruby-red strawberries or key lime custard, the enormous wedges arrive suffocating under a thick cloud of whipped cream.

I never fail to mention ice cream here either.

In Southeast Asia, I delighted in coconut ice cream, a personal favorite, on a daily basis. I found it at stands and stalls, and in restaurants.

On a sunny day in Oslo, I stopped at Gutten På Haugen for a cone of softis, or soft serve.  The vanilla twirl was rolled in lakris (licorice) powder, a Scandinavian favorite.

And on a stormy night in the San Juan Islands, Blaine Wetzel served me homemade black walnut ice cream. I loved it. I grew up eating black walnut ice cream in the Midwest, and it remains a nostalgic trigger for me as an adult.

Dessert: Durian with Sticky Rice

My favorite desserts from 2017 range from the exotic to the ordinary.  Most of them are extremely simple – rice pudding with granola, for example, or ice cream with caramel.  But for the excellent ingredients and craftsmanship employed, they would have been unremarkable.

You’ll find a lot of fruit on this year’s list. In fact, four of my five favorite desserts showcase fruit.

And you’ll find a lot of repetition (or, consistency?). Four of this year’s desserts have been among my favorites in previous years. A solid third of this year’s 15 desserts came out of the same kitchen – although by five different chefs.  And three entries in the top six are by one chef.  As I said in my post about my favorite dishes from 2017, if you know what and where I like to eat, you won’t be surprised by these recurrences.  They represent the sentiments and standards to which I gravitate.

But that is not to say I didn’t consider a wide field of desserts.  As in previous years, I still visited hundreds of restaurants around the world, both high and low.  And after years of eating at this rate, I’ve figured out what I like and will seek it unapologetically.  You’ll find 15 excellent examples of it below.

[The title of each dish below is hyperlinked to a photo of that dish.  In some cases, I’ve written about the dish in a previous blog post, which is hyperlinked from either the chef or restaurant name that appears below the title.]

13th Course: Sunchoke

“Confiture de lait” and housemade brittle
(Chez l’Ami Jean; Paris, France)

Stephane Jégo’s celebrated rice pudding returns to this list again this year.  It has been described and mentioned on this blog before.

(Nahm; Bangkok, Thailand)

You have to like durian to like this dessert. The pungent, creamy fruit was served with sticky rice and a sweetened cream infused with durian.  All of it was served warm, which only magnified the strong flavor and aroma.

Pear ice cream, cardamaro caramel.
(The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Christopher Kostow credits cook Ali Matteis with this smart dessert that played with the texture of pear and sunchoke, blurring the line between them.

Last summer’s stone fruits.
(Ben Sukle for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Pineapple guava, strawberry eucalyptus.
(Jock Zonfrillo for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

The gelatin-set buttermilk had an almost fluffy, marshmallow texture. Its milkiness helped give the alluring fragrance of pineapple guava (juice) and Australian strawberry eucalyptus (oil) some body.

(Zuni Café; San Francisco, California)

I never take sugar with espresso. And I generally don’t like desserts that mix icy things with milky things.  But here, you have all of that in one, small cup.  And it’s perfect. I order this punchy pick-me-up of chipped espresso ice layered with velvety crème Chantilly every time I go to Zuni Café.

Egg ice cream.
(The Charter Oak; St. Helena, California)

How could something so eggy, so custardy, also taste so juicy?  Not unlike Stephen Harris’s green apple soufflé, which topped my list of favorite desserts in 2014, this beautiful clafoutis, studded with giant blackberries, was bursting with crisp acidity.  Served with a soft turn of egg ice cream, it was a perfect, summer dessert.

La glace à l vanille Bourbon.
(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)

Perhaps the most expensive dessert I’ve ever had (it was the equivalent of $50 when I first had it in 2008, when the USD was particularly low), I happily paid the price of admission to have it again in 2017. There have been entire threads on the internet dedicated to figuring out how to replicate Bernard Pacaud’s famous tarte. The dark chocolate filling is impossibly light – like a warm mousse – and the shell impossibly thin. Beside the dark and moody wedge, a quenelle of ice cream nearly brown with vanilla seeds.  As our server said, it really is the only dessert you should be ordering at l’Ambroisie.

(Manish Mehrortra for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

Indian chef Manish Mehrortra served his version of a traditional dessert of his hometown of Dehli.  In the past, Dehliites would let milk cream sit outside overnight to collect the morning dew.  The cream would be whipped into a cloud light enough to “vanish as soon as you put it in your mouth.”  In Mehrotra’s version, the  cream was infused with saffron and dressed with jaggery (palm sugar) brittle and gold leaf.

Smoked caramel; smoked cocao nibs;
candied pecans, pine nuts, and peanuts.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

Making an appearance among my favorite desserts for a third year in a row, Joshua Skenes’s simple, smoked “sundae” remains a highlight.  [This dessert was among my favorite desserts in both 2015, when it topped the list, and in 2016.]

(Pujol; Mexico City, Mexico)

Rhubarb, crème Chantilly.
(Boulette’s Larder; San Francisco, California)

Strawberries and cream: What more do you need?  Of course, leave it up to Amaryll Schwertner at Boulette’s Larder to make a particularly great version of it.

(Saison; San Francisco, California)

Joshua Skenes served this fleshy fruit three ways: macerated, grilled, and fresh.

Caviar ice cream, white truffles, and olive oil.
(Yoshiaki Takazawa for The Twelve Days of Christmas;
The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)

I know. It sounds horrible.

Japanese chef Yoshiaki Takazawa swirled caviar into sweet cream ice cream, and served it with olive oil and shaved white truffles. I think everyone at this dinner was surprised by just how magical this dessert turned out to be; an unexpected crossroads of meaty, milky, sweet, and grassy.

Smoked ice cream, pineapple juice.
(Saison; San Francisco, California)

This beautifully burnished pineapple, roasted and glazed on the hearth, arrived whole.  The caramelized meat was carved off, sliced, and then served with milk ice cream and a syrupy reduction of pineapple juice.  The international symbol of hospitality, at Saison, the pineapple becomes a masterpiece of refinement.

Photos: Plums, ashen, from the hearth at Saison in San Francisco, California; churros at El Morro Churrería in Mexico City, Mexico; aronia berry-glazed pastry at 108 in Copenhagen, Denmark; a chocolate-swirl croissant at the Bakery at the Plaza Athenée in Bangkok, Thailand; a “fall turnover” and a cortado on the counter in the morning sun at Messenger Coffee in Kansas City, Missouri; dark chocolate-glazed old fashioned doughnut at Morningstar in Houston, Texas; Churros Gordos at the Big Event in Houston, Texas; a large coil of churros at Pujol in Mexico City, Mexico; black walnut ice cream on Lummi Island, Washington; slices of pie at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, California; durian with sticky rice at Nahm in Bangkok, Thailand; “Sunchoke,” a dessert at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California; the tarte fine sable at l’Ambroisie in Paris, France; espresso granita at Zuni Café in San Francisco, California; plums and pulque at Pujol in Mexico City, Mexico; pineapples roasting on the hearth at Saison in San Francisco, California.

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