Is it me, or is pastryland slowly coming back down to earth? After years of frenetic experimentation and exploration, it seems like pastry chefs are finally getting back in touch with reality. There are still plenty of exciting and unexpected (and, yes, sometimes bizarre) ideas coming out of pastry kitchens. And sadly, one of the worst side effects of all of it – over-plating – is definitely still alive and well. I counted no fewer than 15 different components in one terribly overwrought dessert I had last year (I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence). But, I’ve noticed simpler, and often, quite classic desserts appearing with more frequency, if not actually roaring back in a renaissance. This pleases me immensely.
Then again, maybe it’s just me. Selection bias is definitely a thing, and admittedly, I have been less and less willing to subject myself to culinary adventure the older I get. It’s hardly a secret that I gravitate towards the traditional in food and drink.
High tea at The Goring, for example, is the kind of reliable safe harbor that I increasingly seek. Giant strawberries drowned in heavy cream are all the excitement I could ever desire on a Wednesday afternoon. It was perfect.
Or somewhere like Le Gavroche, which offers the perfect level of outrageousness for me in the “Omelette Rothschild” – a mattress of egg white soufflé smothered with warm crème anglaise and apricot sauce.
In fact, London proved to be an exceptionally reliable trove of sweet treasures in 2019: baba au rhum with flambé of pineapple and a dollop of crème Chantilly at The Savoy; a slice of blackout aptly named the “chocolate nemesis” at The River Café, and beautiful fragola grape and ricotta danishes at Flor, James Lowe’s new café at Borough Market.
But London was just one of many destinations where I found terrific desserts last year. The Basque coast was littered with memorable ones, like the curl of sweet cream ice cream with fig syrup we had at Asador Etxebarri, or the chocolate soufflé served in a copper pot that followed it. At Ganbara, my friends and I were strangely transfixed by strawberries, simmered with an astonishing amount of whole, black peppercorns, served warm with vanilla ice cream. It was an unlikely grouping. The crunch and heat of whole peppercorns was certainly unorthodox. And the strawberries were definitely not of high quality. But a better version of it would be magical. Someone should try making it.
And of course, the American South, where I have been spending an increasing amount of time, excels at the sort of simple desserts I love.
At Music to Your Mouth, the annual culinary and music extravaganza at Palmetto Bluff (for which I photograph), I had a reunion with Bill Smith’s magnificent “Atlantic Beach Pie.” If you want to try it, the recipe for his version of North Carolina lemon pie – Smith pours the lemon curd in a shell made from crushed Saltine crackers – is widely available online.
At Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee (for which I also photograph), Sarah Steffen, chef at Dogwood, offers a tidy collection of Americana, including a tall, dark chocolate layer cake, and a beautiful ice cream sundae with a billowing skirt of whipped cream and a cherry on top. I almost always order it.
And in New Orleans, Patrick Brennan trotted out a flambé cart and made us his family’s famous bananas Foster (flamed with dark rum and banana liqueur), as well as its lesser-known cousin, strawberries Fitzgerald (also known as “crêpes Fitzgerald,” this is cooked with Grand Marnier).
In the San Francisco Bay Area, I found an incredibly high concentration of notable desserts last year (including seven of my ten favorite), like the swirling tower of soft serve at Angler, sprinkled with smoked cocoa nibs and finished with a glossy coat of smoked caramel.
And in Los Angeles, where I spent a considerable amount of time in 2019, I was pleasantly surprised to find pastry chefs really knocking it out of the park: Brad Ray’s excellent gelati at newcomer Antico; a heady slice of banana cream pie at Gjusta in Venice; and the alarmingly (but not surprisingly) overpriced soufflé at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel – if you’ve got $26 to spare, it really is quite good.
My favorite desserts from 2019 represent exceptional versions of what might otherwise be considered an ordinary and mundane collection. You’ll find no lightning rod of creativity among them, no dark horses either. Except, a few of them represent categories of confections that I generally avoid. And, I suppose, that is a testament to the fact that, when made well, almost anything can be lovable. I’m not partial to butterscotch or pudding, for example, and yet you’ll find the two together in one of my favorite desserts below. I rarely order from the mousse family of desserts, but a version of it managed to impress its way on to this list. And, far from a French toast enthusiast, I found one, in particular, that was so good I’ve returned for it quite a few times since.
As in past years, I’ve kept this year’s list short. Of the countless desserts I had in 2019, the following were my ten favorite.
10. ESPRESSO GRANITA
(Zuni Café; San Francisco, California)
This espresso granita, layered with whipped cream in a Gibraltar glass, is a simple pleasure that has enticed me to return to Zuni Café countless times over the years. It has become a faithful fixture among my favorite desserts: 2014, 2017, and 2018.
8. COCONUT SORBET
(Angler; Los Angeles, California)
As I said of this dessert last year: “How do you make something taste more like itself? This is the point upon which Joshua Skenes’s cooking pivots. Having eaten quite a bit of his food over the years, I would say that he has mastered this point. And as a result, his flavors are as confident as they are pure. This simple sorbet is a good example of this: you cannot imagine coconut tasting any better, or any other way.
7. WARM CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
Cruze Farm milk ice cream, candied pecans,
and flourless chocolate cake.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)
6. “NEW ORLEANS“
Coffee ice cream, whipped cream, chicory granita.
(Angler; San Francisco, California)
Marrying two San Francisco icons – the chicory coffee-inspired “New Orleans” drink at Blue Bottle Coffee, and the espresso granita at Zuni Café (no. 10 above) – Joshua Skenes created an astounding union.
5. PAIN PERDU
Vanilla ice cream.
(verjus; San Francisco, California)
Butter and sugar suspended in a cloud made of butter, flour, and sugar – there is no other way to describe this astonishingly light, yet indulgent dessert. Every time I’ve ordered it, I’ve enlisted the help of friends – not because I couldn’t dispatch it on my own, but because I know I shouldn’t. [Sadly, Verjus closed in 2020.]
4. BUTTERSCOTCH PUDDING
(La Petite Grocery; New Orleans, Louisiana)
It’s rare that I give butterscotch a second look. It gets cloying quickly, and requires a good head of whipped cream to mellow things out. This pudding, at Justin Devillier’s restaurant La Petite Grocery, struck great balance – not too sweet, not too rich. It managed to be the kind of uncomplicated pleasure that untangles life for a moment of simple pleasure.
I had a version of this popular Malay sweet at Malcolm Lee’s restaurant Candlenut in Singapore in 2016, where it was served with young coconut sorbet. For the longer set menu at the Twelve Days of Christmas, Lee pared it down to just a simple block of this wonderful combination of glutinous rice drunk with coconut milk and pandan custard.
2. CORN TAMALE
Walnut and date paste, corn ice cream, and pecan oil.
(The Restaurant at Meadowood; St. Helena, California)
I had a few iterations of this dessert, created by sous chef Tyler Franson, over the course of the Twelve Days of Christmas. But even during a trial run the night before the dinner series began, it was already a show stopper: a creamy tamale rolled with walnut and date paste, drizzled with pecan oil, and served with corn ice cream.
1. FROZEN YOGURT
Blackberry Farm fruits: backberries, strawberries,
mulberries, and sour cherries; with mint and olive oil.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)
The maharajas of India had their rainbow of gems, which inspired the house of Cartier’s iconic Tutti Frutti. This collection of ripe fruits and herbs from Blackberry Farm, served with frozen yogurt and a drizzle of olive oil, was pastry chef Laurence Faber’s Tennessee tutti frutti.
Featured photo: the magnificent dessert trolley at Kong Hans Kælder in Copenhagen, Denmark.