favorite desserts of 2021…

Alexandra Motz’s spumoni with chocolate sauce at Spoon and Stable; a fluffy wedge of panettone in the afternoon sun at Lo Pichotôme; plump prunes soaked in armagnac, crowned with a giant curl of vanilla ice cream at Salon. There was a swirl of strawberry soft serve wearing a mantle of whipped cream at Esmée. It […]


Alexandra Motz’s spumoni with chocolate sauce at Spoon and Stable; a fluffy wedge of panettone in the afternoon sun at Lo Pichotôme; plump prunes soaked in armagnac, crowned with a giant curl of vanilla ice cream at Salon.

There was a swirl of strawberry soft serve wearing a mantle of whipped cream at Esmée. It was the dessert of Copenhagen that summer.

And there was an enormous quince tarte, à partager, at le Meurice, the handiwork of Cedric Grolet.

At le Central in Roanne, I ordered Japonaise à la framboise. It turned out to be similar to île flottante – raspberries drowned in warm crème anglaise with a baked meringue floating on top. I have no idea what’s Japanese about it, but it was delicious.

My friend Nadia Mathiasen, a talented recipe developer, journalist, and cookbook author in Copenhagen, made a giant berry pavlova for dinner one night. It was fantastic.

Does the raspberry clafoutis served at Maison Troisgros for breakfast count as dessert? Beside it was a mound of warm madeleines sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, and cups of half-baked dark chocolate cake.

Coconut Sorbet with Caviar
Kong Hans Kælder
Copenhagen, Denmark

I had a lot of terrific desserts in 2021.

Most of them, like the vanilla soufflé at la Mère Brazier (served with Sauternes ice cream), or the Black Forest cake at Conditori la Glace in Copenhagen (twice as much whipped cream as cake) were dependable classics. Gavin Kaysen even closed out dinner at demi with a spoonful of warm Rice Krispies treat. I loved that.

Is it because oldies-but-goodies are appearing more on menus these days? Or is it simply because I’m increasingly gravitating towards restaurants that value tradition and simplicity?

The latter is clearly true, but so is, I think, the former.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed pastryland retreating from the wilderness, and returning to the familiar. There has been a renaissance of baking, for example – high-quality breads, viennoiserie, and cakes are now blessedly common (but perhaps canelés, macarons, and kouign amann are too common, and worse, rarely good). Ice cream flavors are falling back to earth. And even restaurants that once communicated desserts in colorful dots and dashes with bizarre ingredients are now rediscovering things like fruit and flambé. Amen.

Of the many wonderful desserts I had in 2021, here are the 10 most exceptional.

Pappy van Winkle barrel ice cream.
(The Barn at Blackberry Farm; Walland, Tennessee)

In 2020, pastry chef Laurence Faber served me a wonderful baked Alaska of apple caramel and ice cream infused with Pappy van Winkle barrel staves. I happened to return to The Barn at Blackberry Farm in 2021 during Faber’s last week as head pastry chef (he has since opened Potchke Deli in Knoxville). He introduced me to his successor Ben Yusko, and in passing the pastry baton, together, they presented this dark chocolate soufflé, served with that boozy, fragrant Pappy van Winkle ice cream.

Vanilla soft serve, honey, olive oil, sea salt, white truffle.
(Missy Robbins for Synergy Series;
Spoon & Stable; Minneapolis, Minnesota)

(Kato; Santa Monica, California)

At the end of Jonathan Yao’s nostalgic, multi-course journey through Chinese-American cooking was this light, refreshing, and jewel-like coupe of tangy citrus and yogurt. It evoked the highest compliment my immigrant Chinese parents give to desserts: “Mm, very good; not too sweet.”

Baba de Bois
le Bois sans Feuilles
Ouches, France

Sorbet à la mandarine.
(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)

So popular is the tarte fine sablée au cacao amer (see no. 4) at l’Ambroisie that it’s rare to see the other desserts on offer (in fact, the servers recommend the tarte fine sablée so enthusiastically, you’d be forgiven for believing that they earn commission on every one they sell). Ever curious, I ordered this soufflé and was rewarded with meaty chunks of candied chestnuts suspended in a marvelous cloud of eggy custard.

Fraises de bois, pomme.
(le Bois sans Feuilles; Ouches, France)

(The Anchovy Bar; San Francisco, California)

I was quite taken with Nicole Krasinski’s desserts at her and her husband Stuart Brioza’s newest restaurant The Anchovy Bar in San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood. Her arlettes – glossy and crispy – served with lemon curd are fantastic. But her semifreddo really knocked my socks off. What an unexpectedly alluring swirl of flavors – the tartness of rhubarb rounded out beautifully with fragrant shiso, and sweetened with a thick cap of toasted meringue.

(l’Ambroisie; Paris, France)

The first time I had this now-iconic slice of dark chocolate was in 2008. And it has been among my favorite desserts every year I’ve had it since (2017 and 2018). So legendary is its texture – what I can only described as a warm mousse in a buttery, sablée shell, both as dark and bitter as the night is long – that renowned chefs, recipe testers, and home cooks around the world have tried to replicate it (Bernard Pacaud’s original recipe is widely available). I’ve had many of these attempts, and none has come close to what Pacaud’s kitchen, alone, seems to achieve consistently, and effortlessly.

With stewed strawberry sauce,
mint, and vanilla ice cream.
(Bistro Bohème; Copenhagen, Denmark)

The first Dane to work in Paul Bocuse’s kitchen at Pont de Collonges, chef Per Thøstesen has since embraced a wonderful marriage of Dano-French cooking at his restaurant Bistro Bohème on Esplanaden in Copenhagen. This colorful plate of berries and mint was essentially a version of strawberries and cream, a national dessert of Denmark (røde grød med fløde).

(Kong Hans Kælder; Copenhagen, Denmark)

Glace au riz.
(le Bois sans Feuilles; Ouches, France)

This plum tarte was glorious – ruby-red slices of fruit, shingled in an ultra-flaky rim of puff pastry. Served warm with rice ice cream, it was – far and away – the most memorable dessert I had in 2021.

Tarte Fine Sablée au Cacao Amer
Paris, France
Categories dessert dining

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