Stocking a pastry kitchen pantry used to be a simple exercise. You were good to go with brown and granulated sugars, chocolate, cocoa powder and vanilla. Add cake and all-purpose flours and some spices.
Today, the same pantry no longer flies. You’re more likely to include stone-ground flours, several kinds of sugar, single-origin chocolates and vanillas from around the world. And you’ll need room for even more ingredients as the lines continue to blur between the sweet and savory sides of the kitchen. Toning down the sweetness and incorporating greater use of fruit also makes for a burgeoning pantry.
And when packaged products aren’t exactly what you want, you’ll make your own staples. This renewed focus on ingredients comes at a time when an increased interest in food quality and global cuisines has made diners more willing to try new flavors. All of which means that finding effective ways to feature premium ingredients is becoming a primary driver of dessert menu creativity.
“We’re drilling down everything. It’s no longer just butter, sugar, flour, eggs,” says Meg Galus, pastry chef at Boka in Chicago. “It’s about all the specifics. What are the best apples for apple pie? What is the best crust?”
"It's no longer just butter, sugar, flour, eggs. It's about all the specifics."
-Meg Galus, pastry chef at Boka in Chicago
Sometimes the best way to call attention to ingredients is to take the usual suspects out of the equation. When Niche restaurant in St. Louis decided to limit 90 percent of its pantry to ingredients produced within a 150-mile radius, Pastry Chef Sarah Osborn faced the challenge of creating a pastry menu without chocolate, vanilla or baking spices.
To replace spices, she turned to plants with naturally spicy flavors, like sassafras, dandelion root and shiso. Beets, sweet potato and even miso replaced the richness of chocolate and vanilla. When a housemade batch of miso turned out sweeter than usual, she folded the ingredient into ice cream and used it with a sweet potato cake and sweet potato caramel in place of a chocolate dessert.
“One guest said, ‘I was wanting chocolate, but I am completely satisfied.’ They didn’t miss it,” she says.
Back to Basics
Better pantry staples can also impact how pastry chefs develop new desserts. Galus started rethinking her pantry more than a year ago during her stint as the pastry chef at NoMi Kitchen at Chicago’s Park Hyatt hotel. There, she switched all flour and sugar to organic, tweaking recipes to accommodate the nuanced textures of the new ingredients.
At Boka, Galus has turned her focus to local dairy products. To highlight the natural flavor and texture of milk and cream, she pushed vanilla aside for her plain, whole-milk ice cream. It’s paired with coffee-infused hazelnut cream, hazelnut crumble, whipped praline foam and a toasted milk sauce. Once servers got behind the local milk story, the dessert became a top seller.
“It’s, for lack of a better word, plain, but the milk and the cream are so delicious,” she says. “The dairy has a flavor all on its own.”
I Can Make That
When certain products don’t meet high standards, pastry chefs are taking the do-it-yourself approach. Zoe Nathan strives to bake all goods and desserts with organic ingredients at her Los Angeles-based Rustic Canyon family of restaurants, which she co-owns with her husband, Josh Loeb. But the organic counterparts of some products, like sweetened coconut and condensed milk, are not always available.
So when Nathan wanted to create Vietnamese coffee pudding with coconut shortbread cookies for Cassia, a Southeast Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, she and Director of Bakery Operations Laurel Almerinda took the DIY route.
To get the best consistency, Almerinda makes sweetened condensed milk by cooking the milk down with sugar for four hours. She then steeps the milk overnight with cracked espresso beans and adds espresso and vanilla before finishing the custard-style pudding. For sweetened coconut in the shortbread cookies, she poaches unsweetened, shredded coconut in simple syrup, dries it out and toasts it.
The benefit isn’t limited to the coconut being organic. “I can control the sweetness [and] how it dries and toasts,” Almerinda says. Plus, the extra poaching syrup gets put to work in cocktails.
Novelty ingredients from around the world can pique diners’ interest and curb sweetness. After his pastry assistant brought him a sample of pandan kaya, a coconut custard jam made with the grassy Asian herb, Nick Muncy, executive pastry chef at Coi in San Francisco, discovered the funk of the pandan leaf also paired well with dark chocolate. So Muncy created a Mounds bar-inspired dessert encasing layers of coconut cookie, coconut cake, pandan coconut custard and chocolate-coconut mousse in a chocolate dome.
“It was also about finding the balance of showing this new flavor, but keeping it tame within people’s comfort zone,” he says.
Brainstorming with Chef Louis Maldonado has given Pastry Chef Annemarie Catrambone ideas on incorporating Asian and Latin American ingredients that balance sweetness in desserts at Spoonbarin Healdsburg, California.
A light, Japanese-style cheesecake has become her most versatile platform for showcasing global flavors, with egg whites beaten and folded into the cream cheese base. She pairs it with everything from rye cornbread and cajeta (Mexican milk caramel) to white chocolate cheesecake with matcha crumbles, which are made from a mix of butter, flour, sugar and powdered green tea. “The cheesecake was sweet, and the matcha toned it down,” she says.
Fresh fruit is resurging as the must-have ingredient for pastry chefs, thanks to its natural sweetness and dynamic texture.
At Japanese-influenced Kuro at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida, Pastry Chef Ross Evans often looks for ways to make fruit the star ingredient.
With pineapple, for instance, he sears the fruit in a dry caramel and then cooks it sous vide for an hour in vanilla syrup to give it a rich, velvety texture. He then pairs it with an olive oil cake and shiso meringue. Dry sake transforms a simple bowl of seasonal, local fruit to make a zabaione with a cleaner flavor than sweet Italian wine, allowing the fruit’s natural sweetness to stand out.
“Instead of thinking about an orange and what we can pair with it, we’re thinking about an ingredient,” says Evans. “It’s not, ‘We have an orange, let’s make orange sorbet.’ It’s ‘Can we fry it? Can we pan-sear it? Can we turn it into a jelly?’ That’s where our brains are heading.”