The hum of a passing ice cream truck or glimpse of a Hostess cupcake are all it takes to bring memories of childhood—complete with waves of nostalgia and comfort—flooding back. And pastry chefs around the country are capitalizing on that feeling by drawing inspiration from their own wonder years. Using ingredients, presentation, and even sounds that evoke memories, pastry chefs are reimagining the treats of their youth as elegant, nostalgic desserts for a modern age.
While this trend isn’t new (Sue McCown was one of the first to put nostalgic desserts on fine dining menus back in 2003 and we wrote about it in the 2005 Dessert Trends feature), in the past year it’s only continued to spread. There is immense satisfaction in eating something that instantly transports the diner back to simpler, happier times. And most importantly for consumer and chef: it’s entertaining. “I like to have fun with it,” explains Pastry Chef Angela Pinkerton of New York’s Eleven Madison Park. “And for people to have fun with it. You're not eating dessert to sustain yourself.”
Pastry chefs may be looking backwards for inspiration, but they’re modernizing these old school treats into the future with cutting edge culinary techniques that allow them to challenge preconceived notions. It’s a surefire way to engage customers and grab their attention after a long meal. Especially for the less adventurous diner, familiar desserts reframed with modern techniques will introduce them to something that might otherwise be outside their comfort zone.
In Cambridge, MA Chef Gabriel Bremer of Salts has adapted one of the most nostalgic dishes of all time: the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Bremer deconstructs the elements of the classic sandwich for a dessert that is familiar in flavor but unrecognizable in presentation. And it’s far more interesting to eat than the childhood lunch, with different temperatures and textures to surprise and excite the palate. A quenelle of concord grape sorbet is delicately sandwiched between two pieces of melba toast, the bowl is filled with peanut butter powder, and the dish is garnished with compressed celery sticks.
For Bremer, the play between savory and sweet in the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is an ideal starting point since, as he says, “I don’t like sweet desserts—things where you have two bites and can't have more. It’s important to have that flow and a nice transition from dinner to dessert without a speed bump.” Incorporating savory elements like peanuts and celery into pastry is one way to make that transition seamless.
Angela Pinkerton uses multiple childhood treats as muses for one of her desserts: orange soda, the classic soda float, and Pop Rocks. But using über-modern techniques with a fair share of liquid nitrogen and freeze-drying, Pinkerton creates ethereal-looking desserts that defy all expectations of the benign dish titles. For example, Soda Pop: Tangerine Soda, Lemon Meringue, Citrus Salad. Pinkerton wanted to do a nostalgic citrus dish, and first thought of "the creamsicle, but it's so over-played. So then I thought orange soda," she says. She makes the "pop" using fresh tangerine juice and egg whites to create a carbonated foam, which she then dips in liquid nitrogen to harden into a dramatic dome shape. She places the tangerine foam dome on top of a nest of frozen, crumbled lemon meringue, orange cream, and pop rocks.
Every element of the dish is fun. The smoke from the liquid nitrogen is still lingering in the bowl when the diner cracks open the dome to release the inner citrus soda in a playful mini-explosion. And with each bite there are multiple textures, as well as extreme cold from the liquid nitrogen and crackling in the ears from the crackling Pop Rocks. The multi-sensory components of this far-out dish are a reminder that taste is not the only memory trigger.
But inspiration doesn’t have to come from personal childhood memories. New York transplant Bill Corbett, the pastry chef at San Francisco’s Coi, has co-opted a local pastry legend: the It’s It ice cream sandwich. This iconic treat—which consists of vanilla ice cream between two oatmeal cookies that are then dipped in dark chocolate—has been a San Francisco institution since 1928. “The whole idea of Coi,” explains Corbett, is that it’s supposed to be an expression of the Bay Area, so that's why I chose to do a play on that.” His version, It’s Almost It, nestles milk chocolate ice cream between two addictive layers of oatmeal cookie dough before being blanketed in dark chocolate. For a bit of acidity and an upscale twist, Corbett serves the ice cream bar with a blood orange and candied fennel marmalade.
Few treats among timeless childhood legends have had such a cross-generational impact as Cracker Jack. It’s inspired songs, conjures images of baseball parks, and pioneered the practice of offering cheap plastic prizes in a candy box. Pastry Chef Dana Cree of Poppy in Seattle makes her own pine nut version to top an herbaceous cider sorbet. The sorbet is a grown-up chilled treat, boldly flavored with bay leaves, rosemary, sage, and lemon thyme from the restaurant’s garden plus star anise, cinnamon, black peppercorns, allspice, cloves, and fresh ginger juice. Cree’s salty-sweet pine nut-studded play on Cracker Jack tops the sorbet for a fun, crunchy finale.
Playing with nostalgia can be touchy—there’s always the fear of violating a venerable dessert “classic.” But these pastry chefs demonstrate the timelessness of childhood treats by creating desserts that tug at the heartstrings even without the promise of a toy prize. And by bringing these nostalgic favorites into the twenty-first century, pastry chefs are staying within their diners’ comfort zones while also testing the boundaries.