Looking at dessert menus these days, you might think your grandma was running the kitchen. Chefs are bringing back nostalgic treats that favor simplicity over sophistication. Why the enduring love for these tasty throwbacks? “People want something that’s comforting and classic,” says Caitlin Dysart, pastry chef at 2941. “They don’t want something super esoteric.” Here are five finales that recall the golden age of cooking.
Pineapple upside-down cake
$10; Chez Billy, 3815 Georgia Ave. NW; 202-506-2080, chezbilly.com
Chef Lawrence DiJoseph’s mother has been making pineapple upside-down cake since the 1950s. “It’s been a lifelong obsession to get the recipe from her,” he says. “So far, she’s only given me a bastardized version.” He starts by cooking pineapple rings in Tahitian vanilla-spiked caramel and then bakes them onto the bottom of a classic yellow cake. He goes beyond his mom’s original presentation by coronating it with a dollop of creme fraiche and edible flowers.
Old-fashioned chocolate cake
$8; The Riggsby, 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW; 202-787-1500, theriggsby.com
“We’re focused on nostalgic home cooking, so it’s things you would eat growing up but with a twist on it,” pastry chef Jillian Fitch says of The Riggsby’s cuisine. A prime example is the personal chocolate cake — just like Mom used to make for your birthday. It’s made with rich devil’s food cake and creamy chocolate icing enhanced with mascarpone cheese. A drizzle of caramel sauce, a scoop of vanilla gelato and candied almonds fill out the Instagram-worthy presentation.
$5.95; Stella Barra, 11825 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda, Md.; 301-770-8609, stellabarra.com
Remember those Brach’s butterscotch hard candies twisted up in see-through yellow plastic? So does chef-proprietor Jeff Mahin, who re-creates the nostalgic flavor in custard form. The dessert is topped off with a layer of light caramel sprinkled with Maldon sea salt to cut the sweetness, and served in an old-school Weck jar. “I like desserts you can hold in your hand and eat,” Mahin says. “Though people start grabbing it away from each other because it’s so good.”
$9; Jackson 20, 480 King St., Alexandria; 703-842-2790, jackson20.com
Five years ago, executive chef Brian McPherson’s girlfriend made him a batch of banana pudding. He liked it so much that he put it on the menu the next day. He serves a faithful rendition of the Southern sweet featuring house-made Nilla wafers, banana pastry cream and whipped cream. “I’m not allowed to take it off the menu,” McPherson says. “People come in just for banana pudding. It’s our No. 1 seller by far.”
Peanut butter baked Alaska
$13; 2941, 2941 Fairview Park Drive, Falls Church; 703-270-1500, 2941.com
You’ve never had baked Alaska quite like this. That’s because it’s not set on fire when it’s served. Instead, the finishing layer of cinnamon-y meringue is lightly torched before it comes to the table. The flame-kissed peaks hide layers of chocolate biscuit cake, crunchy chocolate feuilletine and peanut butter ice cream. “It’s like a giant ice cream sandwich,” says Dysart, who completes the dessert with caramel ganache, pretzel streusel, orange segments and banana slices.
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