By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
You might know this already, but it bears repeating: What dinner guests remember first is the last dish you served them. A stunning third act can make up for an otherwise mediocre performance.
So choose your dessert wisely. As the holiday season approaches, don't blow your opportunity to dazzle by taking unnecessary risks.
When baking for an audience, forget restaurant-style complexities. Pastry chefs have the wherewithal to achieve them; home cooks have more limited resources and need to work within them. But home cooks can turn to the pros for the sort of help that can transform a dessert that ho-hums into one that sings.
Nine of the area's gifted pastry chefs agreed to share their expertise by providing recipes for traditional desserts. The collection comprises a solid repertoire of proven crowd-pleasers that run the gamut of tastes, textures and sensations: creamy, fruity, crumbly, chocolaty, nutty, feathery light and densely rich.
We asked them for doable, tailored renditions of restaurant desserts that still have a touch of professional zing. And they came through. These pros understand that what guests expect at a dinner party is nothing like what they will demand in a restaurant when forking over $10 for dessert. At that price, diners look for multiple components and twee flourishes, and pastry chefs deliver. Home cooks, however, should keep it simpler.
These chefs were chosen because they reflect a post-fusion return to honoring the basics and eschew the kind of trendy gimmickry, architectural construction and just plain weirdness that home cooks should avoid. The elegance of their creations relies on honest technique and the use of the finest raw ingredients and seasonal fruits they can get their hands on. They put things together for glorious effect rather than brazen affectation.
That should come as a welcome relief to puritanical guests and finicky relatives who might object to thyme in chocolate cake or ice cream made with olive oil. At family gatherings in particular, experimentation leads to trouble; familiarity breeds contentment.
"You may try to shift directions, but then you find yourself returning to what is traditional," says Peter Brett, former pastry chef of the Blue Duck Tavern. "And there is a good reason for that. It's what people like and want." Every culture, he points out, has a pancake, a custard, something akin to a bread pudding. (Indeed, among the chefs' 12 recipes, three use the word "pudding.") Brett includes a deep-chocolate cake that floats in a pool of pudding; he also shares the recipe for his buttermilk cheesecake.
Heather Chittum is known for putting twists on classic dishes and pop-culture foods. "A mini lemon poppy seed cake stuffed with lemon curd is my version of a Twinkie," she says. "But serving it with wild blueberry sorbet and a poppy seed tuile takes it the extra mile." For her at-home dessert, Chittum came up with a torte-like hazelnut cake and jazzed it up with pears poached in port. At Dish she serves it with gorgonzola ice cream, but she says vanilla ice cream is a fine substitute for home cooks who aren't looking to churn their own.
At Johnny's Half Shell, Valerie Hill sometimes offers individual phyllo tarts of warm banana pudding topped with Swiss meringue, but she suggests a more manageable version for home preparation. "I always go back to my roots," she says proudly. "I'm a Southern girl who learned to cook at her grandmother's knee in Chatham, Virginia."
Huw Griffiths, a self-taught pastry chef, finds inspiration in his Welsh roots and builds upon them. At the Tabard Inn, he starts with "sticky pudding" but arrives at "Chocolate Pecan Sticky Toffee Pudding with Milk Chocolate Malt Ice Cream." At home, he'd make Pumpkin Pecan Pudding Cake, an all-in-one, brandy-touched confection about which Dickens might have rhapsodized.
Willow's Kate Jansen did not submit recipes for her delightful but laborious Chocolate Toffee Ice Cream Sandwich or Key Lime Custard Tart With Blueberry Ginger Compote. Instead, she offers a delicious but time-friendly Pear Cranberry Hazelnut Crumble and dresses it up with vanilla ice cream or a dollop of Greek-style yogurt or creme fraiche.
Jansen understands time constraints all too well. At Willow, she oversees production of the restaurant's breads, pizza dough, puff pastry for chicken pot pies, and savory tart shells, and she makes specialty cakes for catering. Chittum performs similar tasks, but at two restaurants. Dish and Notti Bianche are several blocks apart, and Chittum spends much of her day running back and forth between them, one reason she remains fit, as do all of these pastry chefs.
No one understands the toll the metier can take better than Ann Amernick, who at 63 deserves the title of Washington's pastry chef emeritus, even though she is not retired. She started in the business in 1971 and then worked at the Big Cheese, the District's answer to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Amernick's list of accomplishments can be equaled by few others; she has worked for hotels restaurants and caterers; owned a bakery; taught pastry classes; and written two cookbooks. A third book, "Bakery Desserts," is planned for spring.
"I'm still going, but I'm not sure how strong," Amernick says wistfully. If her 12-item dessert menu at Palena is any indication (most restaurants offer five or six choices), she's going plenty strong.
Amernick is known for her strict adherence to classic pastry-making techniques, her dazzling wedding cakes, and the butter-rich caramels for which people come far and wide to toss down like peanuts. But fear not; she isn't suggesting that home bakers undertake the turning-folding-rolling-and-chilling dance that it takes to make puff pastry. In fact, the recipe she offers for Fruit Slump is the easiest to prepare of this entire collection. At Palena, she tops it with a cookie "roof," but at home the dessert's quaint nobility allows it to shine with the simple addition of a sprig of mint.
With or without a roof, it's the kind of dinner-party finish, no matter what preceded it, that might just bring the house down.
David Hagedorn, a professional chef and former restaurateur, is a frequent contributor to Food.