New York might have better appetizers and San Francisco better main courses, but no city beats Los Angeles for dessert. Nowhere else has the raw fixings, the right kind of hedonists or the critical mass of cooking talent.
On the face of it, being a pastry chef could scarcely be a more frivolous calling. While chefs nourish, pastry chefs seduce the fed into taking one last bite. Their sole intent is to delight.
But it’s hard to see how we would do without them. Dessert provides a reason to linger in a restaurant, perhaps one dish between two, two spoons, sharing casually at first, then eyeing and scooping the diminishing pastry ever more keenly, savoring the last licks of a great meal. Dessert is the course when friendships are cemented, love blossoms, birthday songs sung and anniversaries toasted.
And in L.A., the season for pleasure is almost year-round. This is the only city in America whose markets receive a seven-month run of berries and stone fruit, followed by an autumn rush of apples and pears, and then winter run of citrus. And Los Angeles selects for playfulness. Puritans don’t like it here. Too sunny.
It seems odd that L.A. wasn’t always a dessert town, but it didn’t become one until the 1980s, after Spago happened. Wolfgang Puck hired Nancy Silverton as his pastry chef. In a progression from Spago to Chinois on Main and, latterly, as co-proprietor of Campanile, Silverton defined the L.A. style.
While Bay Area chefs were busy being more French than the French, Silverton took a French education, then let rip with sunny Western flair. She made puff pastry with the best of them, covered sauces A to V (apricot to vanilla) and made prune and Armagnac ice cream an addictive substance. But she also gleefully served chocolate and Jack Daniels ice cream and was as at home with Fudge Ripple as with Linzer tortes. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, then at City restaurant, countered with a jokey approximation of a Hostess Twinkie. Unfazed, Silverton took the cookie to new heights. Chewy ginger balls. Sesame seed tuilles. Prune pucks. Animal crackers.
Today, several generations have followed and the badinage between L.A. pastry kitchens is ever more silvery and joyous. At Spago Beverly Hills, as pastry chef Sherry Yard awaits the pick of this season’s cherries, she might combine a preserved Blenheim apricot with creme brulee.
At Campanile this spring, pastry chef Kimberly Boyce saw out winter with a Meyer lemon and licorice parfait.
At the new Beverly Boulevard restaurant Grace, Campanile-trained chef Elizabeth Belkind is sending out jelly doughnuts with vanilla custard dipping sauce.
At another squeaky-new place, Sona on La Cienega Boulevard, a full-on gastronomic experience might produce a haute version of brownies and milk, except the milk will be laced with grappa and brownies made with Valrhona ganache.
If you want a really fun petit four, you can hope that the peanut butter cookies are on the menu at the Water Grill.
The hallmarks of the L.A. style: seasonality, technique, intense flavors, wit. But oddly, in a town obsessed with fashion and appearances, there are no hard and fast rules about food styling. Pretty is optional.
At Spago Beverly Hills, Yard loves playing with color, say pairing a Meyer lemon souffle with a Persian mulberry granita.
To Sona’s Michelle Meyers, a former art student, dessert is an art form, the plate a canvas and sauce paint.
By contrast, Campanile’s Boyce, who trained with Yard before joining Silverton, has produced pastries so plain that she blushes when she remembers entering a competition in which all the other confections could have been Easter bonnets. “My baked Alaska looked like a blob on the plate,” she says, laughing. “But then I was proud to say, ‘Here, taste it.’ ”
Taste is not optional. And in Silverton’s rule No. 1, sugar is not a flavor. After two decades, the rule holds. At Spago, Yard says, “sugar is my friend, not my love.” She calls it a spice rather than a main ingredient. “I use it as a seasoning just as I would with salt, pepper,” she says.
The discretion with sugar requires an exceptional palate and instinct in designing dishes. Yard describes the series of associations that led to a passion fruit sorbet recipe this way: “I was at a farm and realized that the passion fruit flowers have a jasmine smell, so I put jasmine into the base of the syrup for the sorbet. It does not scream out, ‘Flowers!’ -- but it helps pick up the flavor. Because of that, you don’t sugar for flavor, just a touch for pitch.”
Devising desserts may sound easy, but it isn’t. Boyce recalls Silverton’s guiding her through the creation of the licorice and Meyer lemon parfait. “Black licorice is so harsh. Some people hate it. I hate it,” she says. But she decided to try muting harshness by using it in ice cream. It was then too bland and needed acid, so she added Meyer lemon, which has not just acidity but also floral notes. The final dish was so startlingly good, the process so satisfying, that Boyce describes it as a coming of age. “It was the first moment when I truly felt Nancy’s equal.”
While using intense flavors, the trick for L.A. pastry chefs became how to shade them. Yard makes her chocolate puff pastry with three types of chocolate: cocoa, dark chocolate and Madagascar chocolate.
Over at Grace, Belkind makes a rhubarb cobbler that doesn’t just have rhubarb, it has rhubarb cooked to three states: stewed and pureed, cooked just to softness and the finishing stalk heated only while the two cooked components set.
Boyce, who trained Belkind at Campanile, fondly calls her the most exciting new pastry chef at work in L.A. She is certainly among the most playful. No dessert menu is complete without a fried item, she thinks. When it became too hot to keep Spanish churros and hot chocolate on the menu, she replaced them with jelly doughnuts.
“Why not?” she asks. “Doughnuts can be elegant.” But not too elegant. Belkind serves them with a creme anglaise dipping sauce, which means diners must eat with their hands. “I like interactive desserts,” she says.
A dessert tour
If Belkind is taking the L.A. style to its limits, at Sona in West Hollywood, Meyers is cooking in a way that takes it around the world and sets it down in the same place again. Each dish is an architectural study of the ingredients. As a tasting menu shifts subtly from savory to sweet dishes, sorbet leads to richer offerings. In one of the richest, tiny chocolate doughnuts are set on the plate like Hershey’s Kisses and served with Port. Sweet, no. Intense? Stronger than that.
Meyers’ ideas come and go like edible one-liners, say a tiny white meringue with a pink peppercorn stuck rakishly to its side. She likes crossing over with savory spices, she explains. Something about the nuttiness of pink peppercorns begged for one to be stuck into a sweet white meringue.
While Meyers is a cutting-edge chef cooking for adventurous eaters, downtown at the Water Grill, pastry chef Wonyee Tom is the embodiment of a cook bound by tastes of lawyers and convention center crowds. “We have a clientele that demands a cheesecake, demands a creme brulee,” she says. “So you have to do something to enhance it.” For Tom, this has included devising the lightest cheesecake imaginable, then adorning it with tuille biscuit, candied ginger and berry sauce.
One look at this dessert and it’s obvious that Tom does not cook in the L.A. style, that she came out of New York and the Gotham Bar & Grill. These are very traditional, very East Coast adornments. But at the same time, California is getting to her. As she waits for the summer fruit to pick up, she’s been sending out bowls with two sorbets: blood orange and kiwifruit. At her heart, she shows a Silvertonian penchant for honest desserts, including chocolate bread pudding and vanilla and pistachio ice cream. She is a strict adherent to the “sugar is not a flavor” rule.
Watching waiters carry her desserts across a busy dining room, it becomes clear why she uses the tuille biscuits. These pastries are like billboards. They sell themselves. Even in lunch-is-for-wimps territory, almost half the guests eat dessert. Over on the West Side, particularly at Silverton’s Campanile, the percentage of dessert eaters rises to more like 60%. This proportion is high in any town.
Perhaps there is one more explanation for L.A.'s being a dessert town. It understands drama. A meal without dessert is like a story without an ending. At Spago, Yard prefers a musical analogy. “We supply the end of the song,” she says. “It’s the triangle at the end of the meal. Ding!”
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Water Grill cheesecake
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling
Servings: 10 to 12
Note: From Wonyee Tom. At the restaurant, these are served as individual-sized cakes.
Ginger cornmeal crust
3 tablespoons softened butter
3 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons instant cornmeal (polenta)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Place the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat to a creamy consistency. Once the mixture is smooth, add the flour, cornmeal and ginger, and mix to combine. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan.
3. Bake until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
Seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean (save bean for other use)
1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 1/2 ounces creme fraiche
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1. Place the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla bean seeds in the bowl of an electric mixer and cream until smooth. Beat in the eggs and egg white, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla extract, lemon juice, creme fraiche and cream and mix well.
2. Pour into the baked crust and bake until the center is set, 50 to 55 minutes.
3. Refrigerate the cheesecake 2 to 4 hours before removing it from the pan.
Ginger berry sauce
2 pints blackberries
2 pints raspberries
6 tablespoons sugar
3 ounces fresh ginger, sliced
1. Set aside half of the blackberries and half of the raspberries.
2. Combine the remaining blackberries and raspberries, the sugar and the ginger in a saucepan. Cook on low to medium heat until the berries have released all their juices, about 15 minutes.
3. Strain through a fine strainer, pressing down with a wooden spoon, and return the liquid to the saucepan, discarding the solids. Cook until the sauce is reduced by two-thirds. Drizzle the sauce over the chilled cheesecake and garnish with the reserved berries.
Each of 12 servings: 403 calories; 117 mg. sodium; 120 mg. cholesterol; 27 grams fat; 17 grams saturated fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 6 grams fiber.
Total time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, plus 2 hours, 45 minutes rising
Servings: 16 to 18 (about 50)
Note: At Grace, Elizabeth Belkind serves these with a vanilla custard dipping sauce. Fill them with the strawberry-rhubarb jam or serve it on the side for dipping.
Nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup bread flour, plus more for dusting work surface and sprinkling batter
1 tablespoon fresh yeast or 1 ( 1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
3/4 cup whole milk
2 3/4 cups pastry flour
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cubed
1/2 cup sugar, plus more for tossing doughnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
Oil, for deep frying
1. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment paper then spray with nonstick spray. Dust lightly with bread flour.
2. Crumble the fresh yeast into the bowl of an electric mixer, or sprinkle in the dry yeast. In a small saucepan, warm the milk until it is no longer chilled and is just barely lukewarm, about 105 degrees. Pour the milk over the yeast and whisk to dissolve.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups of the pastry flour to the milk and whisk 2 or 3 times to just barely incorporate. Sprinkle the rest of the pastry flour over the mixture to cover the top. Do not mix this any further.
4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap so that it is airtight, and place in a slightly warm place until the top layer of flour has cracked noticeably, about 4 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, remove the vanilla bean seeds by scraping the length of the bean with the back of a knife. Place the seeds in a saucepan with the butter and melt together over low heat. Set aside.
6. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and salt. Add the butter and quickly whisk it into the eggs. Pour the egg-butter mixture into the mixing bowl with the flour. Mix on low speed for a few seconds to incorporate the flour, then increase the speed to medium and mix 1 minute. Add the 3/4 cup of bread flour and mix on low for a few seconds, then on medium for 2 minutes. The batter will be lumpy and quite sticky. Transfer to a large greased bowl and cover completely with plastic wrap so it is airtight. Return the bowl to the warm spot and let rise until it doubles in size, 2 hours.
7. Once it has risen, sprinkle 1/4 cup of bread flour over the surface. With your hands, gently tuck the sides of the dough under itself to deflate it. Cover the bowl again and let the dough rise until it has doubled in size again, 45 minutes.
8. You will need a significant amount of bread flour to coat your work surface. Choose a surface that is cool to the touch. Sprinkle a thin blanket of flour over it, and using a pastry scraper, pour a third of the dough over the flour. Then sprinkle the surface of the batter with more bread flour. With the palm of your hand, gently press the dough down to about 1/2 inch thick. Dip the end of a 1 1/2-inch round cutter in flour and begin to cut the doughnuts out. Rather than picking them up with your fingers, use the cutter to push the doughnut off the end of the counter and on to the palm of your hand. Or try using a small spatula dipped in flour to lift the doughnut off the counter, careful to keep the round shape. Then gently place the doughnuts on the floured baking sheet. Repeat until you have cut all the doughnuts. Wrap the baking sheets with plastic and refrigerate the doughnuts as you work. (Bring to room temperature before frying.)
9. To fry, add enough oil to come halfway up the sides of a large saucepan and heat to 350 degrees. Drop the doughnuts into the oil, about 6 at a time, making sure you do not overfill the pot. Fry the doughnuts until they are golden on both sides, 3 minutes total. Drain on paper towels, then toss into a bowl of sugar to coat.
Each serving: 221 calories; 59 mg. sodium; 86 mg. cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3 grams fiber.
Total time: 1 hour
Servings: 24 (About 3 cups)
Note: Elizabeth Belkind makes this jam to fill the doughnuts at Grace, but she says it also would be good served with scones, shortcakes or ice cream sundaes.
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut lengthwise and seeds reserved
Water (about 1/4 cup)
2 cups diced rhubarb (cut into 1-inch pieces), about 4 stalks
1/4 cup red wine
4 pints small to medium strawberries, diced
1. Place the sugar and the vanilla bean seeds in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add enough water to moisten all of the sugar. Be sure to brush down the sides of the pot with a pastry brush to remove any stray sugar granules. Cook the sugar over high heat until it caramelizes and turns golden, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rhubarb and the wine. Cook, stirring, over high heat, until the rhubarb softens and becomes a pulp. (Be careful; the mixture will splatter.)
2. Add 1/3 of the strawberries to the pot and stir quickly into the rhubarb pulp, working over high heat. Cook until the berries turn into jam and the liquid has mostly evaporated from the pot, about 8 minutes. Add another 1/3 of the berries and quickly stir until just softened. Add the last batch of berries, turn off the heat, and stir gently. Allow the jam to sit undisturbed about 10 minutes. If using to fill the doughnuts, refrigerate the jam so it sets up and filling is easier. Keep refrigerated.
Each serving: 51 calories; 1 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 1 gram fiber.
Pink peppercorn meringues
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Servings: 14 to 16 servings (about 80)
Note: Michelle Myers of Sona finds that pink peppercorns make an interesting foil for the sweetness of the meringue. The peppercorns are sold at specialty stores.
Nonstick cooking spray
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg whites
2-3 tablespoons pink peppercorns
1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Spray 3 baking pans with cooking spray and line with parchment paper.
2. Whisk 1 tablespoon of the sugar with the egg whites in a bowl. Set the bowl over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water and whisk until the mixture is warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. With an electric mixer, beat the whites on medium speed while slowly adding the remaining sugar. Turn the mixer to high, scraping down the sides of the bowl, and beat until stiff peaks form, about 7 minutes. Using a piping bag with a star tip, form quarter-size rounds on the baking sheets, or spoon dollops of the meringue onto the baking sheets. Sprinkle each meringue with a few peppercorns.
3. Bake the meringues until they’re dry to the touch with melt-in-your-mouth centers, about 1 hour to 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Each serving: 30 calories; 8 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0 fiber.
The secrets of pastry chefs
Pastry chefs can do complicated desserts precisely because dessert is all they do. It would be folly to imitate their most elaborate confections at home.
But tricks of the trade come in handy in any kitchen. Here are some observed after an afternoon in the kitchen at Water Grill with Wonyee Tom.
* Never let onions or garlic occupy a plastic container that will then hold flour, butter, ice cream or fruit. Keep a separate cutting board for fruit.
* If making a fruit sauce from summer berries, prepare the sauce in advance, heating it before you serve the dessert. And just before serving, toss in some fresh berries.
* When serving a dessert with a sauce, use a couple of dabs beneath the dessert to hold it firmly in place on the plate.
* A piece of pie or tart doesn’t necessarily need a garnish -- say, the disturbing leaf of mint. Try serving the unadorned slice on a plate with a decorative rim or interesting shape.
* When pulling a batch of freshly baked cookies from the oven, gently and quickly press the tops with the edge of a Tabasco bottle, leaving an indent to hold a squidge of chocolate icing or jam.
* It’s hard to get ice cream to the table without it melting. The solution: Roll the ice cream in a plate of ground pistachio nuts. It looks pretty and slows the melt.
* Serve soft desserts in a lipped bowl, so you can catch the last bit with a spoon.
-- Emily Green