Cake Time

This is the moistest, most olive oiliest olive oil cake I’ve ever had. You don’t need anything more than a couple of mixing bowls, a whisk, spatula and cake pans to make it, and you can add bits of cut up fruit like grapes, pears and plums if you want (they’ll sink but who cares, olive oil cakes are allowed to be ugly). It has a lot of sugar, which tends to want to sink to the bottom of the bowl if you let the batter sit for more than a few seconds before baking, so take care to keep stirring as you portion into pans. The upside is this cake always has a nice caramelized crust on it.

It should go without saying that you really need to use a nice olive oil for this cake. If you can, go to a nice bulk oil and vinegar store, they’ll usually let you sample until you find one you really like. My general advice is to buy Greek olive oil as it has a pronounced fruitiness, and avoid Spanish olive oil for baking since it tends to have a spicy quality.

The Best Olive Oil Cake

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

3 eggs

Zest of 1 orange OR lemon

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups olive oil

1 1/2 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350 and prepare two small round or one large rectangular cake pan with nonstick spray and a light dusting of flour, tapping out any excess into the trash. In a small mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine and set aside (you can skip sifting unless your baking soda is like a solid clump). In a medium mixing bowl, gently whisk together the eggs, sugar and citrus zest, making sure not to incorporate too much air. Add half the oil and gently whisk to fully combine, then repeat with the rest. Repeat with the milk in two additions. Add one third of the flour and gently whisk in, going in small circles around the edge of the bowl until almost fully incorporated. Repeat twice with the other two thirds until completely homogenous. Pour into prepared pan(s) and bake for 20 minutes, then rotate pans and bake another 10 before checking. The cake will puff considerably in the middle, so it’s important to use a long skewer to test for doneness. At this point keep rotating and checking every five minutes until the skewer comes out clean. Let the cake cool considerably before turning out onto a rack to finish cooling. Let cool completely before slicing.


The transition from summer to fall is a weird time. Peaches and corn have just peaked but are quickly waning in quality, tomatoes and melons are hanging on for dear life and plums are just starting to hit their stride. It’s not quite time to crank up the oven for apple and pumpkin pies, but my stovetop is bubbling with pots of pure purple Concord grape goo and inky blackberry mush for jams and sorbet. And then the figs come in.

The late summer fig crop is outstandingly sweet and sticky (as opposed to the first fruiting, in late spring, which is lower in sugar and lacks the jammy, X-rated quality of a good September fig). It is also incredibly fleeting, often lasting less than a month. And it’s hard to improve upon a perfect raw fig, eaten straight up with salty cheese and charcuterie. But you’re always going to have a few in each little basket that aren’t literally oozing with figgy nectar, and if you have access to large quantities, you’re going to need to use them up fast.

So I came up with an easy, versatile way to use any underripe/extra figs you may end up with: Caramel Whiskey-Poached Figs. Stick to black mission or brown turkey figs and use a cheap but drinkable whiskey – you don’t want to waste good Scotch or rare batches of bourbon – but don’t use high octane rotgut, either. I used Medley Brothers, which is the rail whiskey at work.

I served the figs on top of a marmalade poppyseed cake with black tea gelato, but they’d be fantastic just as a topping to vanilla or coffee ice cream, on toasted country bread spread with fresh ricotta, spooned over cheesecake, on top of waffles, soaking into a simple chocolate bundt cake or as the sweet component to an old fashioned.

  1. 1 cup sugar
  2. 1 tsp kosher salt
  3. 3/4 cup hot water, divided
  4. 1/4 cup whiskey
  5. 1 lb figs, stemmed and quartered

Place sugar, salt and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until lightly caramelized, about the color of honey. Gently swirl off the heat until the caramel is almost the color of maple syrup, then slowly and carefully add the rest of the water. Add the whiskey and place over medium-low heat, then add the figs and bring to a simmer. Stir occasionally until figs are cooked through. Allow to cool slightly before using or storing. The figs are best slightly warm or at room temperature.

Because it’s Delicious


I’ve figured out how to make these much bigger than previously with a few tweaks. If you tried these and they melted, see if the recipe works better for you now.

I’ve been an icky depressed grump the past couple of months (The Spring That Isn’t/Wasn’t is only partially to blame). And much to my dismay, every time I try to hide under my own personal little black rain cloud, something tries to pull me out. Friends get back in touch. People I respect compliment my work. Stuff like that.

So, fine. Here’s a post for you. I can’t promise I’m out of the ennui forest, and I am still desperately in need of a vacation I can’t afford, and I might just decide to up and vanish with a passport and a backpack sometime next year, but I’m tough. And I still like cookies.

I cut down my cookie plate from five varieties to just one, which have become my signature chocolate chippy dudes over the past year or so. Now I make them a little bigger and serve them warmed. The other day, in the middle of a bout of sulking to Joy Division over a batch of cheesecakes, I was summoned to a table that loved them so much they insisted on meeting me. I’ve never been interrogated about cookies before, but there are worse ways to spend a few minutes out of your day.

Then on my way out of the restaurant that night, I was asked the question: Why do the cookies contain chickpea flour?

The answer I gave, without thinking, was the truth: Because it’s delicious and that’s the only reason I do anything.

Chickpea flour, chickpeas & chocolate. They’re allegedly what’s up this year.

As I told the customers yesterday, these cookies are dumb easy. And if you care, they’re also GLUTEN FREE for the celiacs and basic bitches in your life.

Here’s the recipe:

  1. 4 oz unsalted butter (NOT European style)*
  2. 7 oz white sugar
  3. 7 oz dark brown sugar**
  4. 1 egg plus 1 egg white
  5. 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  6. 7 1/4 oz chickpea flour ***
  7. 1/2 tsp baking powder
  8. 1/2 tsp baking soda
  9. 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  10. 4 1/2 oz mixed milk & dark chocolate, unevenly chopped****
  11. Coarse or flaky sea salt*****

Cream butter with sugars, add eggs and vanilla and mix to combine, scraping bowl thoroughly. Should be really fluffy. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, leavenings and kosher salt, then stir in the chocolate. Add all at once to creamed mixture, then mix on low until fully combined (no fear of over mixing since there’s no gluten to develop). Wrap and chill overnight.******

Preheat oven to 350. These bake up best on a super flat sheet tray lined with a Silpat, but parchment works ok, too. (Seriously, buy a Silpat.)

I actually weigh each cookie out. Originally they were 5 grams. The tweaks I’ve made in the recipe allows you to bake them up to 1 1/2 ounces each. Whatever you do, flatten them slightly on top and space them out pretty well, with at least an inch in between.

Bake for 5 minutes, then turn and bake for 3 more minutes, sprinkle lightly with salt and bake another 1-2 minutes. You want a slightly toasty color on the edges but not more than that. Unless you like chocolate chip cookies crunchy instead of chewy. Because you’re terrible, probably.

Let the cookies cool for a couple minutes before attempting to remove them from the sheet, preferably with a baby offset spatula. They’ll be fine if they cool on the sheet, but they’re definitely best when they’re warm and extra chewy with melty chocolate.

If you want to get crazy, let them cool completely and then sandwich with fior di latte gelato for a milk & cookies kinda thing. Yeah, that’s going on the menu once it finally warms up for real.

*If you use butter with a really high fat content, your dough will be eternally sticky. WOE!

**Molasses is love. Molasses is life.

***You can use either toasted or untoasted flour. If it’s toasted, the dough will be mad tasty but the cookies will spread more. Untoasted, that shit will taste like beans before you bake it, but you’ll get slightly less puddley cookies.

****I’ve used all dark chocolate, these are infinitely better with a mix. Diversity! Get on it!

*****The salt is not optional. It’s what makes chocolate chip cookies go from pretty good to life changing.

******I know it sucks. But it’s crazy sticky and a seriously thorough chill out is the only way to combat it. Plus we all know chocolate chip cookies taste best after the dough’s been in the fridge for a day or three.


I was sitting on a post for the better part of a year, finally was ready to post it, then thoughtlessly updated something and it was gone forever.

Let that be a lesson to us all:

Save yo’ shit, boys n girls.


I decided this year I’d start doing things that weren’t just working and aimless wandering (though I’ll never give up on my two great loves).

Obviously, posting here more is one of those things.

I don’t feel like I need to tell you the others. Goals are supposed to be more attainable if you don’t share them.

Unless that’s just something someone made up. Ought to look up the statistical evidence for that. But I figure it’s got to be like that thing where you know what you’re going to say in reply to a text or email, and next thing you know it’s two days later and you haven’t replied, you only convinced yourself you did.


There’s no real content here today, but there will be more soon. It may not necessarily be straight recipes, or even about food at all (but food will probably get mentioned).

I’ll sum this up with a particularly pithy line I came up with in the aforementioned deleted post, which I think sums up my personal work style very neatly, without going into exhaustive detail regarding Girl Scout Cookies and the like:

I am not your manic pastry dream girl, America.

Artichoke Gelato

This is one of the nicest flavors of gelato I’ve made, naturally a beautiful shade of green, very subtle and elegant. And it sells very well. Unimaginative vegetable doubters, STFU!!!

1 1/2 cup milk
1 cup cream
1 pint baby artichoke petals
1 swipe of lemon zest*
1/2 vanilla pod**
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
1 Tbsp Cynar***
Salt to taste

Combine milk, cream, artichoke petals, lemon zest and vanilla in a medium saucepan and bring to a bare simmer. Remove from heat and cover with something airtight (I use plastic which seals itself to the edges of the hot pan), set aside for 20-30 minutes. Uncover and purée everything but the vanilla in a blender.

Return contents of blender to saucepan and heat to steaming. Meanwhile, scramble the eggs in a medium mixing bowl. Whisk together sugar and cornstarch in a separate bowl, then gradually whisk mixture into eggs. Temper hot liquid into egg mixture, then return all to saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly. It’s done when it’s as thick as a loose pudding with no starchy smell, taste or mouthfeel.

Pass through a fine mesh strainer, being sure to get all the custard out of the artichoke fibers. Chill and salt to taste, then add Cynar. Churn in ice cream**** or gelato machine.

*That is, the resulting zest from running a microplane zester the entire length of a medium lemon once.
** I have a bag of pre-scraped vanilla pods leftover from a recipe that required only the seeds. I already have more vanilla sugar than I could possibly use, so I keep them on hand for infusing vanilla flavor without the visible seeds. You could just add a teaspoon of vanilla extract with the Cynar, if you like.
***Cynar is a bitter liqueur containing, among many other things, artichoke. There is an artichoke on the label. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the vegetable in question and adds a nice depth.
****This is my standard base when creating an infused flavor. I inverted the amounts of milk and cream since ultra-rich bases don’t fare well in a gelato machine. If you have a machine that adds a substantial amount of air to the final product, I recommend using more cream than milk.


Step Into the Light

Following the nasty “Dark Ages of Dessert” fallout, I asked Twitter followers for their ideal desserts and menus, and, though they may be a biased cross section of the population, I gathered that people really just want thoughtful, well-made, delicious desserts. Some prefer chocolate and others citrus, some want to be comforted by nostalgia, while others just want a small nibble, like a scoop of ice cream or a few cookies. These answers didn’t really do much to help me, personally, because I already offer rotating gelato and sorbet flavors by the scoop, I make an ever-changing variety of cookies and candies for my cookie plate and I’m never without a range of desserts from light and creamy to dark and fudgy. I understand and enjoy the variety that a good dessert menu requires.

One of the most emphasized things in people’s responses, though, was that a dessert had to be satisfying. It had to eat like a dessert. People don’t want to take a chance on parsnip gelato, sunchoke panna cotta or beet cake because they assume it will taste like it does when used on a savory plate. This assumption is ridiculous, about as silly and unfortunately common as assuming sweet potato and pumpkin desserts on the same menu will be repetitive because inept bakers use the same musty spice blend for everything orange in the fall. The mark of a good cook is the ability to transform ingredients into something uniquely delicious, and just because you can’t fathom how something could possibly work doesn’t mean someone else didn’t take the time to figure it out.


I recently gradually rolled out my spring vegetable dessert menu, and so far it’s going great. I started with the kabocha doughnuts, which were an easy sell. Nobody cares what kind of doughnuts are on offer, as long as they’re hot. I season the sticky, silky dough with nutmeg, mace and grains of paradise (no cinnamon, it’s spring, not fall), dust the freshly fried rings with funky-but-sweet carob powder I grind myself and pile them up in a little pool of thick vanilla-bay anglaise, to keep the flavors light and springy instead of heavy and autumnal. They’re almost drab-looking on the outside, but neon orange-yellow on the inside. Very hopeful.


A few days later I managed to nail my second vegetable-based sweet. Roughly equal parts Anjou pear and fennel bulb are shaved thickly and caramelized in a pan with sugar, cream, butter and vanilla bean, then loaded into ramekins and blanketed with whole wheat and walnut streusel. Baked until bubbling and toasted, then warmed to order, they get a generous drizzle of a vaguely spiced and totally addictive red wine caramel sauce and a little scoop of Gorgonzola gelato in a bowl alongside. It’s a classic flavor combination that rarely ends up on the dessert menu, and really sounds much stranger than it tastes. The fennel melts into the pears and the whole crisp with the sauce has a cohesive depth of flavor, so deep that it needs the sharp salty funk of the cheese to brighten it up. Is it cheating to use pears, too? Maybe, but I doubt the effect would be anywhere near as delicious with the fennel alone, and I have a lot of pears to get through. Besides, the point of the vegetable dessert menu and in fact many things I make is to use what’s available, whether it’s a specialty item with a fleeting window of seasonality or just something that otherwise would gather dust and ultimately be tossed.


My final two vegetable desserts were giving me considerable trouble, all because I was having a hard time getting the garnishes I’d planned on. But I’m learning to be flexible.

One of them, the most outwardly traditional dessert on the menu, is a fairly simple carrot cake. I chose to make this my gluten free option, and adapted a Persian style recipe that relies on almond and coconut flours. I grate the carrots into wide flakes and pack the cake with chopped pistachios and sunflower seeds, which is very different from carrot cakes I’ve made in the past. Usually I leave the cake alone and make a nutty filling. To complement both the carrot and the pistachio, I spice the cake with allspice and cardamom, and serve it in slabs filled with a bright and slightly citrusy carrot jam (also known as carrot halwa or spoon sweet). A clean and milky white ricotta gelato stands in for the traditionally heavier cream cheese frosting element, which I perch on a bed of pistachios, though a schmear of pistachio butter might be even nicer. The final element to tie it all together was meant to be a violet coulis, made by grinding violets or similar purple edible flowers into a paste with sugar and diluting with water. However it’s a bit early for cute little purple flowers, so fine dice Turkish delight that I make myself is standing in, adding a light and certainly middle eastern floral scent and chewy textured nubs that would normally be raisins. Adaptability = super important. I also recently changed the chopped pistachios on the plate to a schmear of neon green pistachio butter.


My final vegetable-based dessert, the chocolate beet cake, is probably the richest chocolate dessert I’ve made at this job (or any) to date. So much for lightening up for spring. The cake itself is actually fairly light, though it seems dense and rich due to both its water bath baking process and the moisture from the puréed beets within. Served warm and drizzled with a chocolate honey syrup, it’s almost like an inside out molten cake. I went with a clean and refreshing yogurt gelato splintered with dark chocolate stracciatella to serve alongside, and the cake is sprinkled with crushed cocoa nib meringues and micro amaranth for texture, color and flavor. Without the amaranth it looks a little sloppy and drab. I originally planned on bulls blood, but that’s another thing that has been delayed due to still chilly temperatures, and the amaranth works just as well. I’m lucky to have access to micros at all.


Aside from the semi-gimmicky inclusion of vegetables, all of these desserts share a common characteristic: they are all extremely satisfying, and, as a result, are selling like crazy and getting rave reviews. This is possibly my favorite menu I’ve done anywhere to date, because it’s slightly challenging, largely creative yet everything on it is so very “dessert-like.” I plan to keep using vegetables in my dishes throughout the spring and summer, while of course still taking advantage of the gorgeous fruit that appears as the weather warms.

Dark What Now

I thought we’d all agreed that pastry was back. I thought Ansel was educating fools on why they should support pastry chefs. Apparently, while I was busy testing recipes for my spring veggie dessert menu (more on that and my feelings on “savory” desserts in a bit), the internet ass-fucking-sploded over this article by Adam Platt.

Almost immediately, a follow up article was posted, with different chefs’ opinions.

Before I really get into it, I’m a little annoyed that they lament well-known pastry chefs who have left the sweet side of the restaurant or moved into teaching roles. There are many of us who are coming up behind them, learn some new names. Or do we need it printed on a dust jacket before you’ll give a shit?


First off: Who the fuck is making $50-60k a year?! I’m currently making the most I ever have and it’s still not even close! Granted I don’t work in fine dining, and have no real interest in moving beyond upscale casual, but really.

Second: Why do people need a million petit fours? It’s silly. Especially to include such expensive goodies as chocolates and macarons (almond flour ain’t cheap even wholesale). This is why I offer a cookie plate (FOR SALE and no it CANNOT be comped to ANYONE): you can sample a range of little nibbles that range from crunchy biscotti to indulgent truffles to twee animal crackers. I think it’s outdated to expect a parade of free shit (bread isn’t always free anymore, either, although it is more commonly being made in house and with love). Tough economic times, bitches.

I take offense and feel fighty about Chef Mattos’s statement about savory cooks being better at handling sugar. I so disagree. And if I wanted to make fucking showpieces I’d work in a hotel. I don’t give a shit about architectural chocolate or pulled sugar. Heck I don’t even like those spiky caramel covered hazelnuts (great way to slice up your gums as far as I’m concerned). I have a great palate and so do most other pastry professionals I know. I pride myself in never making a dessert that’s too sweet (except that one time). I have actually recently referred to my current style of desserts as “shit a savory chef would conceptualize but with the pastry skills to make it not suck.”

And? I only ever make a cheap shot like panna cotta for parties or prix fixe menus. Get with it. Try a fucking posset, man.

With that, we arrive at vegetable desserts and my current odd offerings.

This is my pear terrine. Based on Dana Cree’s apple cake (technically Scott Carsberg’s), it’s baked in a terrine mold, chilled, sliced thinly and brûléed to order with toasty vanilla sugar. It comes with a scoop of badass parsnip gelato and something I like to call birdseed brittle. And parsnip chips, cut and gently prodded into shape with tweezers (sweet blessed tweezers, tongs feel like mitten-hands in comparison) in a fryer so that they resemble dried flowers, then dusted in mace sugar. It’s a little weird but it sells.

I’m debuting a pretty much all-vegetable dessert menu next week for spring, encouraged by the sales of the terrine. Also I heard people like vegetable desserts? Anyway. I’m bored to death by my options this time of year. No one wants a heavy nut-based dessert in early March. It’s not like I won’t jump on berries and stone fruit with rabid ferocity the second they appear. But I’m so over the early spring “is there rhubarb yet is there rhubarb yet is there rhubarb yet?” mantra that everyone in pastry knows by heart. There are other vegetables to be had and I’ll be exploiting them.

I needed a place holder until then in the form of a chocolate dessert, and was so fucking uninspired trying to make things like pot de creme and rice pudding (complete failure of a chocolate risotto experiment). I don’t remember how I came up with it but decided I wanted to make a really salty, umami-esque gelato to go with whatever I ended up doing. I was strongly considering Parmesan but figured I’d ask about scraps of charcuterie lingering in the lowboy and ended up with a few ounces of jamon Serrano. So I made gelato with it, fully expecting it to be awful, but it wasn’t. It actually tastes a lot like Parm, but with a distinct chicharron aftertaste. It’s a total umami bomb, and it goes perfectly with chocolate-chocolate chip polenta cake, sitting on a schmear of caramel infused with toasted curing spices. A little dusting of finely ground fennel seed and some cocoa nib meringues finish the plate.

Weird? Hell yeah. Delicious? Double hell yeah. Did I think it would sell? Fuck no! But we 86ed that shit by 9 pm the first night it was on the menu.

Since I’m home with a comfy kitty in my lap and a little whisky in my belly, I’m going to start the incendiary shoutouts.

Hey Fraser. “Craveable”???? Are you fucking serious? I don’t crave “carrots wellington.” Seriously are you being paid by, like, NaBisCo?

And Freitag? I think banana splits land squarely in the realm of  nostalgic/outdated but cool in a hipster way/lol let’s relive our childhoods because our adult lives are so fucking empty.

DeMasco? You’re cool. The only one I completely agree with in this article. Pastry chefs, take heed: If you’re not willing to create some overlap between your department and the rest of the kitchen, if you’re not willing to observe their plating styles and adapt your style to fit that of your chef’s, if you’re not willing to ask yourself or others where you can help to elevate other parts of the restaurant, then get the fuck out and never show your face again, you selfish flouncing princess.

The Cookie Plate’s the Thing

Cookies are supposed to be simple. They’re among the first things covered in pastry school and are usually one of the first tasks any aspiring baker tackles (slice and bake doesn’t count, Doughboy). Unfortunately, within simplicity lies a lot of room for complacency and mediocrity.

Until recently I loathed the idea of a cookie plate. I worked for a restaurant that had one once and it was an uninspired, overpriced thing with such crumbly little offerings as plain, dry shortbread, thumbprints with cornstarch-based “jam,” unremarkable oatmeal raisin and undersalted chocolate chip cookies that were too small and quick-baking to develop the range of textures and flavors that make that simple cookie amazing. But, for some reason, I decided to make little gift boxes of treats to send to friends that Christmas, and got to thinking about how I would reinvent the cookie plate to make it my own.

First off, who says cookie plates have to be comprised of just cookies? Add the word “confection” into the mix and suddenly a whole other world opens up, one that includes marshmallows, caramels, pate de fruits and other gummies, chocolate bonbons and truffles, even bite-sized cakes or whoopie pies. You’d be surprised how many people still haven’t had a really great handmade marshmallow, or how adorable anything can be when made in a one inch scale.

Second, there are a lot of different wonderful cookies out there, at least a few for every cuisine. No reason to keep things strictly American, French or Italian; draw on anything that strikes you. There are as many ways to make biscotti as there are bakers (I almost never repeat a biscotti flavor unless it’s going on a specific dish). I recently noticed some chickpea flour next to the golden raisins at work and have been making mysteriously nutty oatmeal raisin cookies for the past couple of weeks. Meringues are fast, easy blank canvases for any flavor you like. Shortbread can be made with a variety of flours, sugars, spices and even using things like olive oil in place of the butter. Crunchy all-American options like graham or animal crackers (that reminds me, must remember my cutters tomorrow!) bring novelty and are impressively delicious but deceptively simple. Bar or thumbprint cookies are great venues to show off any preserve or curd you can dream up.

For some reason, the cookie plate has caught on recently as a venue for a little extra creativity, just as it should be. (With some credit due towards Gramercy’s new pastry chef, Miroslav Uskokovic. The aforementioned sad cookie plate was clearly modeled on Gramercy’s former cookie plate presentation, in two-by-two rows of blah little discs. I love Chef Miro’s aesthetic of including many shapes and colors, and the bottle of milk seals the deal.) Since having it on my menu, I’ve twice seriously debated taking it off and only offering biscotti to accompany coffee and tea, but every time I say it aloud I come back the next day to a vastly depleted supply. One table of eleven shared four of them for dessert. Cookie plates appeal to the trickiest demographic for pastry chefs: those who claim they don’t care for or are too full for dessert. I consider this a serious yet quiet victory.

This month I even went so far as to put together a special cookie plate for Valentine’s Day. It was a great opportunity to test out some ideas I’d had.


Clockwise From Left: Chocolate Anise Biscotti, Honey Lavender Shortbread, Turkish Delight, Sesame Halva Truffles, Harissa Meringues

With the exception of the Turkish Delight (which was a cheat anyway as I was short on time and had to use gelatin along with the cornstarch) everything I’d made for the day was both unique and delicious enough to carry over onto the regular cookie plate, at least for the week.


Though I do have a particular soft spot for the truffles. They’re wonderful, especially thoroughly chilled so the halva inside the bitter chocolate shell is delightfully chewy. I have a feeling they’ll be sticking around for a while, and only in part because of the time I spent filling four pints of them the other day.

The Trouble with Chocolate

For all the encyclopedic knowledge, intuition, palate training and intricate skills I possess within my field, the biggest challenge for me on a regular basis is chocolate.

Not necessarily tempering (although I need more practice in that area and do plan on exploring the world of bonbons this year), just the oddly necessary inclusion if it on every restaurant dessert menu everywhere. When building and structuring a menu, woe is the pastry chef who doesn’t include an over-the-top chocolate finisher.

My very first menu did not really have a chocolate option. I was concerned about the glaring omission, but the executive chef and I agreed that a bowl of supple malted milk panna cotta dotted with crunchy cocoa meringues (yes, a bowl of Cocoa Puffs dessert, and no I didn’t get the idea from Christina Tosi) was close enough, temporarily. And if people felt they needed something insanely rich to end their dining experience, I also offered peanut butter layer cake (although, if you’ve read my Serious Eats column, you know I would come to regret it).

But soon enough there was a clamoring for something more overtly chocolatey, and I answered the call with a succession of sundaes, ice cream sandwiches and cakes, finally striking gold with a stupidly simple chocolate pretzel tart that induced swooning, sharing, arguing (mostly about sharing) and ultimately a mention in the Michelin guide (hilariously just after I was fired, taking my recipes with me).

I’ve always found it kind of funny how chocolate is treated as a staple, an anchor item on the bottom of every dessert menu. People say they “need” chocolate. They “require” it. It strikes me as a little spoiled, a little too first-world-problem, considering what a luxury ingredient it really is. And yet. You can’t have a restaurant without a chocolate dessert.

Chocolate desserts are generally easy sells. Easy sells for easy tastes. Chocolate and caramel (and salt). Chocolate and coffee (though chocolate and tea, especially green tea, is gaining traction). Chocolate and chocolate. Once you get much more complicated than that, there is divisiveness. Not everyone likes chocolate and mint. Some people loathe chocolate and orange, or they love it but can’t wrap their brains around a dessert where the orange is swapped for another citrus like grapefruit or lime. A lot more people dislike chocolate with red berries than you’d think (I like it with cherries but not raspberries, and am pretty neutral about chocolate and strawberries). These pairings are generally about as challenging as anyone outside of über fine dining will go.

So of course I, in my semi-fine-dining-but-still-casual work setting, had to upset things a bit. With a broad Mediterranean scope allowing the use of things from all over that region, I went North African with my first chocolate dessert. Inspired by za’atar, I created a dense chocolate date torte accented with black cardamom, crusted in toasted sesame seeds and accompanied by a scoop of creamy tahini semifreddo (before the gelato machine came in) and a tart sumac caramel sauce. It was slightly challenging for the average chocolate lover, but ultimately satisfied and sold very well.

But I recently changed much of the menu, and the chefs thought we needed a new chocolate creation, so I pulled the torte (deciding that between two other warm desserts and a gianduja hot chocolate that no one would miss it for a brief while) and set to work on a dessert based around a chocolate cake I’d made for a tasting menu dinner that the chefs had adored (Nigella’s recipe, thanks Ms. Lawson).

It was challenging and we threw around a lot of ideas, many involving caramelized white chocolate (finally a kitchen that doesn’t hate the white stuff!), but since I knew I wanted to use a gelato made with the preserved Meyer lemons I found in the walk in, I went from there.

The gelato is somewhat magical in flavor, developing constantly and tasting a little different every day. Some days the honey comes through strongest, others the lemon or its accompanying spices. I added a pinch of saffron for good measure (because anytime you google chocolate and honey, many results point you towards chocolates with honey and saffron) and it became even more complex.

To add some crunch and bitterness, I decided to include honeycomb candy on the plate, and, after a period of waffling, chose to present the cake in layers sandwiched with amaretto pastry cream. Completing the dish is a small pile of candied cocoa nibs and crushed toasted almonds to act as a throne for the gelato, which also gets a spare crowning of bee pollen.

At a casual glance, it does bring to mind the all-important honeybee (remember, kids: without bees, we’re fucked), but upon more intense scrutiny, it’s clear that this is just as much an exercise in excess as it is an ode to bees. Casually throwing together such precious ingredients as honey (and expensive pollen), chocolate, saffron (from a flower, lol) and almonds is, indeed, an over the top combination, albeit an unusual one. But it works, from both a customer satisfaction standpoint and my own irrepressibly bored-with-the-status-quo view. Do I expect it to generate as much devotion as a chocolate pretzel tart? No. But it can hold its own, and I’m happy that the customers are up to the challenges I offer.

Crostata Time

A year ago, I was working my first job in pastry after my traumatic layoff. I took it because I thought I’d be mentored and have some guidance, something I felt like I really needed. I was wrong in my initial perception of the job.

If it hadn’t been for me working out of a sister restaurant before my workspace was done (side note: in the past 3 years I have opened 4 restaurants. I admit I have a problem) I might have quit pastry altogether. But I had a blast working out of the tiny kitchen in that wee little Michelin-starred restaurant, often staying late to help the chefs with their prep. They were sorry to see me go when I moved to the new restaurant.

I was miserable after the move. The executive chef, while a great guy, was hardly around, with retail projects and multiple restaurants to check in on. The chef de cuisine was all right as a person, but came off as downright bitchy professionally, with an open disdain for pastry. She and the exec had a very nebulous idea of what the dessert menu should be, and as I wasn’t really in a creative state of mind at the time, I wasn’t much help. People hated one of the opening desserts, didn’t care for the deconstructed presentation of another and were downright nasty about some of the gelato flavors. It was a fussy, snobby neighborhood. Ultimately I found something else and gave my notice.

One dessert people did lose their shit over was an apple crostata. Though I didn’t care for the treatment of the apples (smoking caramel tastes awful and I loathe lemon with apples) and the presentation the chefs wanted was a near structural impossibility (an uber flaky crostata dough, in individual sized applications, is not able to hold its shape when wrapped free form around the apples. I was screamed at over every one that unfolded in the oven), I chose to serve it with a zabaglione gelato and spiced Marsala caramel sauce that received insane amounts of praise. (I noticed a pattern: everything I did that I felt I could stand behind, people liked. If I was forced to go against my judgement, customers hated the result. Critics assumed we had no pastry chef. It was mortifying.)

So guess what I’m making at my current job. Yeah, apple crostata. Only, my way. Because they basically leave me alone to do my thing here instead of meddling. So it looks like this now.

Big enough (and priced for) two or three people to share, it’s really just a small pie. I don’t burn the damn sugar for the apples, I season with cinnamon and nutmeg (not my first choice but it works) and I top it with a scoop of salted butter caramel gelato.

It’s not really an apple dessert. It’s a sugar, salt and butter dessert. The apples just happen to have wandered into the situation. The crust has just enough flour to hold together chunks of high-fat butter and has a significant amount of sugar to make it softer and more tender than a standard brisee. Brushed with egg wash and coated in superfine and turbinado sugars, it’s pretty damn delicious. The apples, cooked in a buttery caramel until semi-soft before being added to the crostatas, taste like the perfect apple pie filling. The secret? A small handful of salt. They don’t taste salty, just appley. And I don’t even have to describe the gelato. The name says it all.

Anyway. Sorry my crostatas were kind of lame, former bosses. They’re awesome now.