For the pastry chef, the holidays are all about balancing the priorities of creativity and production value with demand. With such heavy sentimentality attached to holiday occasions, and an almost instant upsurge in demand, the pastry chef has to quench nostalgic thirsts en masse without capitulating to cliché. Pastry chefs balance the old and the new by trade; pastry, as a craft, is built first on repetition of technique—the perfect sponge cake, once discovered, is made the same way each time. But the creativity that binds technique to form is where the real art of pastry shows through. And that is where the difference between conventional and extraordinary holiday desserts begins.
Among the pastry chefs we’ve tasted with this year, a number of holiday-suited desserts stood out, all of them exhibiting the right balance of traditional ingredients, creative additions, and mastery of technique. And a common thread unites all of our favorite holiday pastry dishes: contrast. There is either a contrast in temperature or texture, if not both, within each dessert we tasted—from tapioca pearls paired with rum crisp to warm spiced ginger cake paired with frosty nutmeg ice cream.
A few unexpected flavor combinations made our list, like bacon in creamy caramel and blood orange with eggnog—all testaments to the undying inventiveness of the pastry chef. Even when faced with the monster of all pastry traditions, the holidays, pastry chefs continue to innovative and test boundaries.