BRING ON THE BUFFET
Highly stylized, decidedly personal and meticulously detailed, themed dessert buffets are taking the sweet table to whole new heights.
“We saw a void in the market for high-end custom dessert buffets, specifically on the West Coast,” says Ashley Capra, vice president of sales and marketing for Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, Emeryville, Calif. “We knew that something so stylized would sell to the client who wants something truly extraordinary.”
On the corporate side, Chicago’s Blue Plate Catering has seen a growing interest in the high-end dessert buffet. For an upcoming holiday event for retailer Nordstrom, the company is set to create several different dessert buffets, each themed around a current food trend—bacon, herbal, retro and doughnuts among them.
CHILDHOOD REVISITED--AND REDEFINED
Mini versions of childhood treats with a decidedly grownup twist (read: booze-infused) continue to top dessert menus, according to Blue Plate’s executive pastry chef Louella Ann Caringal. Equal parts dessert and cocktail, Blue Plate’s “PB&J Jell-o shot,” a gelee made with vodka and dusted with peanut butter, packs a punch, as do its tiny liqueur-spiked cupcake “tops” and mini bourbon-bacon crumb cakes with apple-cheddar streusel.
On cooler side, Jon Wool, head of Chicago's Finesse Cuisine, favors house-made ices combining fresh fruits, flavored whipped creams and wine. “Consider a lavender blossom and rosé sorbet with blueberry essence,” he suggests.
Sometimes, however, the original treat you remember from childhood is best left dry.
“The most popular dessert in my catalogue would probably be the ‘Take Five,’ which is an ode to my favorite candy bar,” says Caringal, who combines chocolate cheesecake, pretzel crust, peanut butter ganache, peanuts, salted caramel and a dark chocolate shell in her re-creation. Another twist on an old favorite: “push-cakes,” in which push-pop vessels hold mini layer cakes in grownup flavors such as lemon-lavender and chocolate-cappuccino.
House-made ice cream, she says, is another big seller. “When it comes to flavors, the sky is the limit,” she says, noting that Cracker Jacks and buttered popcorn are just as tasty—if not more so—frozen.
As far as “it” ingredients go, good old-fashioned cotton candy has given bacon a run for its money, appearing atop everything from foie gras to Cosmopolitans. Finesse Cuisine brings it closer to its confectionary roots with a sweet-savory dessert bite of bubblegum-flavored cotton candy wrapped around a blue cheese-filled cherry.
SAVORY SURPRISES AND HERBAL ESSENCES
As guests' palettes grow more sophisticated, herbs, spices and savory condiments become commonplace in the pastry chef’s kitchen.
Pastry chef Marilyne Mitani of Paula LeDuc finds that desserts enhanced with savory and/or bitter additions pair especially well with wine. “Kalamata olives, candied and stuffed with orange zest, are a welcome surprise when you find them in the middle of a traditional walnut cookie,” she says.
Another favorite for wine tasting: rosemary-pine nut chocolate dipped twigs sprinkled with Himalayan sea salt. On the spicy side, Mitani blends chiles, Indian curries and Middle Eastern spices into house-made caramel corn, while miso, bacon and duck prosciutto usurp salt in recipes for caramel and toffee. “It’s the little touches that elevate the ordinary,” she says.
Fresh herbs—and even vegetables—are a big part of Caringal’s dessert repertoire as well. Blue Plate’s basil peach shortcake pairs a sweet basil-flecked scone with vanilla-infused stewed peaches and pastry cream, while the “Farmer’s Market Cake” combines a green tomato cake with avocado mousse, lime-cucumber sorbet and cilantro.
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