D.C. pastry chefs’ desserts: Their recipes, your sweet reward

December 24, 2013

Now that the thumbprint cookies and royally iced gingerbread men are behind you, it’s time to dazzle your friends with desserts for New Year’s.

In 2006, the Food section asked nine local pastry chefs for holiday renditions of restaurant creations that home cooks could re-create. This year, with the same goal in mind, we tapped a new sampling of talent: Agnes Chin at Palena Restaurant in Cleveland Park; Ryan Westover at 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown; Jason Gehring at Menu in Penn Quarter; Beverly Bates at Ris in the West End; Brittany Frick at Doi Moi on 14th Street NW; Padua Player of Susan Gage Catering in Oxon Hill and the Suga Chef, his own business in Fort Washington; and Alex Levin at Osteria Morini in Navy Yard.

Some of the standout trends seven years ago remain popular today, most notably two: the tweaking of home-style American desserts, and dishes that reference pop-culture foods, breakfast cereals, candy and popcorn. What was then a dabbling into sweet-savory combinations has become a commitment — especially when it comes to salt with caramel or chocolate. Olive oil and fresh herbs as dessert ingredients are now commonplace.

On some dessert menus, almost every item includes something frozen. (Pricey batch freezers and Pacojets can produce multiple flavors with relative ease.) Prime examples: 1789’s carrot cake with purple carrot sherbet; Palena’s pumpkin custard brulee with cream cheese ice cream; Ris’s fig and almond tarts with foie gras ice cream; and Susan Gage’s black plum croustade with almond gelato.

One thing this crop of pastry chefs have in common is credentials. All have graduated from a culinary school, so it makes sense that they are inclined to display their chops with multiple-component textures on a single plate: a crumble, a sauce, a compote and crunch.

Take Alex Levin’s pistachio savarin, a nut-rich cake he serves at Osteria Morini with lemon cream and macerated supremes of ruby red grapefruit and Cara Cara, satsuma and blood oranges. But wait! There’s more: blood orange sauce, meringue kisses, Medjool dates, a buttery crumble, crème fraîche sorbetto and a confit of Buddha’s hand. His pared-down version for the rest of us retains the nutty richness and citrus brightness of the original; a scoop of store-bought frozen yogurt completes the presentation.

Adhering to seasonality is de rigueur for these chefs; don’t look for strawberry shortcake on their menus in December and January. Home cooks, of course, don’t have that constraint, which is why we keep flash-frozen and/or preserved fruit on hand. In early fall, Levin served his savarin with fresh figs marinated in red wine, fig jam and candied ginger instead of the citrus. For the cherry compote that accompanies Beverly Bates’s egg nog panna cotta, frozen tart cherries stand in for fresh. At Ris, the custard will become a brown sugar panna cotta in January.

The recipes Player and Westover submitted feature year-round bananasand apples, respectively. Westover’s restaurant dish gilds monkey bread, starting with a rich brioche dough that he refrigerates for two days to impart a subtle sourdough tang. He then rolls little balls of the dough in cinnamon sugar; they are proofed and baked with diced apple in a muffin tin. He serves them warm, with butterscotch sauce, butterscotch ice cream and a boozy, fruity ambrosia. The chef’s take on that classic Southern salad comes together with Greek yogurt, a nice counterpoint to the butterscotch’s sweetness.

Player’s show-stopping Bananas Foster Cake echoes the New Orleans dessert of rum-flambéed bananas draped over vanilla ice cream. He uses the caramelized fruit as a filling, along with pecan brittle chopped into crunch and luscious caramel buttercream, between three layers of banana cake. The chef’s recipe looks involved, but when you spread the steps over two days — the cake, crunch and bananas can be made a day in advance — it’s well within the reach of a home cook. Collective gasps of delight are your reward.

Sometimes, though, simplicity is the order of the day. Jason Gehring, the original chef behind Astro Doughnuts, provides a recipe for chocolate pie that is a snap to prepare. Oreos and Cocoa Puffs go into his chocolate crust, which he fills with a rich, milk chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream. A garnish of chopped Heath Bars adds the right amounts of crunch and fun.

Brittany Frick understands that the bold, in-your-face flavor profile of Doi Moi’s menu needs to be balanced with restrained desserts. In the summer, she often features che bap, a barely sweet coconut-and-tapioca soup cooked with fresh corn. At this time of year, she serves che chuoi, folding caramelized bananas instead of corn into the soup. Both dishes manage to soothe the zing left on the palate from dinner and leave a lasting, harmonious impression.

Could a host ask for a better outcome than that?

Hagedorn is a former chef and frequent Food section contributor. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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