Nostalgia, I have realized, narrows the dessert lane for me more than any other on a menu. After a decade of indulging (indeed, suffering through) journeys into the absurd – over-plated, over-garnished, and just, plain weird – I have been conditioned to approach the end of a meal with a skepticism that often aspires towards intolerance. I like my sweets simple, straightforward, and familiar. And – with rare exception – coloring too far outside that lane will likely earn wholesale dismissal.
However, in 2019, I noticed a turning tide that seemed to be bringing explorers back to port. In America at least, more chefs and restaurants appear to be re-embracing tradition – in all parts of the kitchen, thankfully.* Not only do I encourage this shift, but I celebrate it here in my annual review of favorite desserts.
French toast, a lattice pie, egg whites crystallized with sugar, and a boozy flambé: This year, I highlight four desserts, each of which could have been made a century or three ago, and none of which is beyond the abilities of a confident home cook today. Despite being so simple, what made them outstanding was how well they were made – and, I suppose, the wisdom of the chefs who resisted peacocking with showier versions.
Note: I have been hired to photograph for three of the restaurants represented on this list.
4. CHOCOLATE MERINGUE
(Bell’s; Los Alamos, California)
When Greg Ryan pointed to the small collection of baked goods on the counter (some of which are baked by chef Daisy Ryan’s mother), I expected desserts at Bell’s to be an afterthought (no offense, Mama Ryan). To the contrary, they’re terrific – among them was a crisp sablé cookie, and a wonderfully moist slice of gâteau Breton. But the chocolate meringue was a dark horse. It was piped with whipped cream and served wearing its top like a beret, glossy with chocolate sauce. It was definitely not an afterthought.
3. MUSCADINE PIE
Roasted peanut ice cream.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)
Earlier that day, chef Cassidee Dabney and I had plucked ripe muscadines off the vines that grew along the fences at Blackberry Farm. The skins were incredibly thick and tannic – inedible. But the fleshy fruit was full of juice, and wonderfully sweet and fragrant. That night, then-pastry chef Laurence Faber served a peanut butter and jelly-themed pie – with a beautifully burnished crust, à la mode – made with these grapes. It was as delicious as it was gorgeous.
2. PAIN PERDU
Vanilla ice cream.
(Verjus; San Francisco, California)
I’m not sure how one slice of bread – already saturated with custard – can hold so much butter. This French toast at Verjus was one of my favorite desserts of 2019, and it was easily one of my favorite desserts again in 2020.
1. PINEAPPLE FLAMBÉ
Caramel and coconut sorbet.
(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)
In this ancient cellar, chef Mark Lundgaard Nielsen offers the Rolls Royce of dessert carts, a custom-made trolley replete with a flambé deck, off of which come beloved classics like crêpes Suzette, and a flaming peach Melba. Closing out my dinner here in 2020, the pastry team set alight one of my favorite couples: pineapple and coconut. It was fantastic.
* Abroad – especially in Europe, where I have collected the most observational data outside the U.S. – pastry chefs still seem to be preoccupied with experimentation and manipulation.