Step Into the Light

March 30th, 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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