(This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
“The past is a jumping off point,” says Heston Blumenthal, the virtuoso British chef whose culinary creations range from molecular sleight of hand to inspired re-creations of historic recipes. Today, many innovative pastry chefs are balancing a zest for novelty with the lure of nostalgia, reclaiming the classics for modern menus.
James Beard Award finalist Pichet Ong, whose distinguished career includes stints at Jean George Vongerichten restaurants in New York, is currently focusing on cakes at Brothers and Sisters in Washington, D.C. With a small staff, he designed the restaurant’s dessert menu for simplicity, minimum waste, and easy preparation. “There are four rotating selections,” Ong explains, “but they are really like components of plated desserts that the waiters can slice as needed.” Dome-shaped devil’s food ‘Brooklyn’, for example, is embellished with banana pudding, espresso, salted caramel and vanilla cream, while ‘Malta’ combines almond dacquoise, caramel ganache, nougat mousse, satsuma, and mandarin jelly.
Cake is also featured at the Jean-Georges Restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria, Beverly Hills, where Vongerichten’s iconic chocolate lava cake “is the single most popular dessert among our guests,” according to the restaurant’s executive pastry chef Deden Putra. Putra, who left New York’s Peninsula Hotel for California, predicts that “homey, comfort desserts will be coming back, because I think people are getting tired of having a dessert with many flavor components; guests prefer something old-fashioned with a twist of health consciousness, such as gluten-free fruit shortcake.” Other establishments in the Vongerichten galaxy also nod to the past with desserts like butterscotch pudding, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and candied lemon, and a salted caramel sundae with candied popcorn, peanuts, and fudge sauce. For Jean-Georges at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, New York, JG corporate pastry chef Abby Naguit created a dramatic Baked Alaska with an American coconut macaroon base, passion fruit sorbet, coconut ice cream, and a boozy liquid center of passion fruit caramel with Myers rum, topped by a free-form peak of Italian meringue.
Baked Alaska also stars on the menus at two recently opened restaurants with very different concepts, where the chefs have had the luxury of time to research and develop a pastry program that recalls a particular era or place: Veronika, in the soaring space of an 1894 Beaux Arts former church mission house in mid-Manhattan, evokes the grand cafes of Middle Europe, while storied Gage & Tollner in downtown Brooklyn began feeding locals and celebrities in 1879. “I like having a theme to work from,” notes Veronika Executive Pastry Chef, Becca Punch. “It gets your creative juices flowing, and that’s what makes it fun. You have to take the knowledge you already have and say ‘how can I apply this and make the dish my way?’” Punch, a graduate of Johnson and Wales, with a decade of experience in fine dining, including Eleven Madison Park and MoMA’s The Modern, came on board four months before Veronika opened in December. Punch scoured books about traditional pastries in Moscow, Paris, and Vienna, visited venues like the Viennese Café Sabarsky, and enlisted the help of a former colleague with a Russian background who provided the recipe for that country’s quintessential Medovik, a multilayered cake with burnt honey cream and bee pollen.
Given only a minimal pastry station for a staff of eight, Punch cut back on plated desserts in favor of a wheeled trolley. “It really helps people looking at the possibilities,” she says, “and is totally in keeping with the concept.” The Medovik has proved the most popular, but close behind is a Viennese chocolate cake similar to, but not as dry as a Sacher Torte, and Charlotte Russe with vanilla sponge, raspberry bavarois, and creme chantilly. Plated desserts include Omelette Norvegienne, a spice cake and salsify ice cream Baked Alaska flambeed with rum tableside, and spiral-ringed Baumkuchen with citrus Bavarian cream and mandarin sorbet. Poire Belle Helene has morphed into a beguiling pear-shaped dacquoise filled with pear mousse and diced poached pears and napped with chocolate sauce. One classic Punch had to pass on is a soufflé, because “there are two savory cooks between me and the oven.”
But there is no soufflé restriction at the completely renovated Gage & Tollner, which had fallen on hard times before it folded in 2004. While the elegant dining room was landmarked, the kitchen, once presided over by the fabled southern chef, Edna Lewis, was not, so for Pastry Chef Caroline Schiff, “getting to weigh in on the design of the pastry station was an absolute dream.” Brooklyn-based Schiff, who heads her own menu and recipe development company, Paradigm Schiff, has been featured on Beat Bobby Flay, and co-stars in the upcoming documentary TV series “Her Name is Chef.”
Schiff, whose distinctive upswept Gibson Girl hairstyle recalls a bygone era, flipped through a treasure trove of Gage and Tollner menus and memorabilia stashed at the Brooklyn Historical Society, read Edna Lewis’ books, and researched dessert trends over the decades. “Seasonality is very important to me,” she adds, “as it was to Edna, so highlighting ingredients at their peak allows me to create a flavor story rooted in a true time and place.” The eight options on her debut menu include Baked Alaska for Two with fresh mint, dark chocolate, and Amarena cherry ice cream, chocolate cookie crunch, and toasted Swiss meringue; Baba au Rhum accompanied by candied kumquats; and Coconut Layer Cake with coconut cream, lime curd, macadamia brittle, ginger-lime sorbet, and pink peppercorn. However, Schiff concludes, “the biggest criteria is making delicious and irresistible desserts…I asked myself, what’s my dream menu? The flavor combinations really come from my heart and reflect what I truly love to eat.”
Photo credits: Lizzie Munro, Charlie Benett