THE appeal of desserts has always been strong; just the threat of “no dessert” is enough to make even the most lima bean-loathing child clean his plate. And it's not only children who find these tempting treats irresistible. Three talented hotel pastry chefs discuss the divine desserts they're serving at special events — even if guests don't finish their vegetables first.
“Most people who are dieting cut back on carbs and calories in other areas, but when it comes to dessert they are willing to splurge — very few desserts come back to the kitchen untouched after a big gala,” notes Glenna Artripe, pastry chef at the Hilton Americas-Houston. She adds, “I don't believe in compromising the flavor by trying to go low-fat; after all, it wouldn't be dessert without butter, sugar and cream.”
While sugary treats remain favorites, many of today's desserts are getting a hint of spice to balance the sweetness. “More and more, I'm [adding] fresh herbs and other savory flavors into desserts,” Artripe says. “Customers are more willing to try different flavor combinations that are unique; this in turn has enabled pastry chefs to break out of the norm and become more creative.” Artripe mixes rosemary into vanilla pastry cream, lavender into lemon pound cake, and Earl Grey tea with ice cream; she has also prepared chocolate-chipotle creme brulée.
Michelle Antonishek, the new executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, also notes the appeal of savory desserts. One of her specialties is fresh pasta cannelloni filled with brown butter, thyme and sautéed pears folded into light ricotta cheese. She caramelizes the top of the dessert, then serves it with brown butter, caramel and thyme ice cream. “It's a great fall item, and the savory flavors are very unexpected,” she explains.
Savory desserts have their fans, but that doesn't mean sweet treats are no longer in demand. Bill Lipscomb, executive pastry chef and “dessert sommelier” at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, says that chocolate-flavored desserts such as rich fudge cake remain top sellers, and for a recent event, he created a “Phantom of the Opera” chocolate mask.
While diners are excited by new flavors, sometimes it's the familiar that tickles their taste buds.
Antonishek has created a grown-up version of the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The dessert is made of peanut butter-chocolate mousse with a salty caramel peanut center, served with Concord grape sorbet and topped with a peanut florentine.
Another playful creation is a doughnut-like “sugar puff” that Antonishek served this summer with lemon curd, peanut-caramel, chocolate and honey dipping sauces. “They're so much fun, and definitely something I plan on doing again — maybe with different sauce flavors for the winter season,” she says.
The holiday season is another time when old favorites make a big impression.
“I tend to do classic desserts for the holidays — to me it's the one time of year you make certain [desserts], such as gingerbread, sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie,” Lipscomb says. “Keep them classic and simple, but most important, make them good.” Artripe likes to update traditional desserts with new twists such as adding white chocolate to eggnog and brandy to pecan pie, or mixing spices into crusts for her pecan and pumpkin pies.
No matter how delicious the flavors, some desserts are better options for larger events than others.
Lipscomb notes that desserts such as creme brulée and mousses work for large groups because they hold up better than delicate items such as soufflés and pack more presentation punch than slices cut from larger tarts or cakes. While plating desserts continues to be his favorite presentation style, serving desserts in glasses currently is a big trend, he says.
Atonishek also touts the appeal of individual desserts. “I don't like to serve slices of cake or pie — all the desserts I make are individual portions,” she says. “These desserts are so dramatic, and you can do a lot with their presentation.”
At the Hilton Americas, dessert presentation is split 50-50 between buffets and plated service, depending on how formal the event is, Artripe says. In either case, “The one thing I discourage is trying to serve a dessert that is a combination of warm and cold if there are several hundred people in attendance. Warm spice cake with a scoop of Earl Grey ice cream is a great combination, but not when trying to serve 500 people,” she explains. “You'll end up with lukewarm cake and a melted pool of what was once ice cream.”
As for plated dessert presentation, “The trend used to be the higher the better — dramatically high desserts were the thing to do. But now we're getting back to the basics,” Artripe notes. “The focus is now on flavor and simple elegance.”
Four Seasons Chicago, 312/280-8800; Hilton Americas-Houston, 713/739-8000; Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, 404/659-0400