features Holiday Baking 2008
The holiday season is underway and emotions are running high . . .
November 2008

Holiday baking isn’t just about incorporating spices into the pastry palate, walking the line between sweet and savory, or the current bite-size dessert trend. Essentially, it’s about evoking emotions and creating memories. One way to connect with diners’ emotions this season—and pull them in the direction of the dessert menu—is to remind them of the past.

Holiday desserts and baked goods stir memories of family and tradition for everyone. In Chicago, hardly a city known for its conventional restaurants, we asked two pastry chefs how they modernize classic desserts to create dessert nostalgia.

“Great memories are always associated with food memories, and holiday tables always have classic flavors,” says Pastry Chef Malika Ameen of AigreDoux. Ameen’s kitchen philosophy is to take simple desserts and elevate them to the next level with quality ingredients and stellar technique, “Not exactly like Grandma had, but the way Valhrona intended.”

Ameen’s intentions for including a seasonal staple, apple pie, on her dessert menu came partly from the abundance of “beautiful apples in the market,” but mostly from her childhood memories of after-school trips to the pie chain Baker’s Square with her mom in the fall and winter.  For Ameen, taking the pie “to the next level” meant mulling cider from the farmer’s market with her own mulling spices, maple syrup, and dark rum, which she says help bring out the spices and adds caramel undertones. The individual-sized apple pie is delivered in a skillet, à la mode, with a crisp apple chip garnish, and is enjoyed precisely at the moment when the warmth of the spiced cider glaze begins to melt the generous scoop of buttermilk ice cream.

Her memories of being a young pastry cook in New York is what inspired the development of her Sticky Toffee Pudding. A frozen, commercial version was a mainstay in her freezer at the time, but the dessert she serves today is a sophisticated adaptation. Her khadrawy date-flavored sponge cake is soaked in silky toffee sauce made rich with the addition of cream fraiche. She serves it with a Devonshire cream sorbet that delivers a pleasant bite to the tongue from lemon juice and clotted cream. Ameen builds refined flavors by employing three types of citrus to garnish: cara cara orange segments, candied kumquats, and candied satsuma orange dust.

Like Ameen, Pastry Chef Judy Malafa, formerly of Graham Elliot, believes comforting desserts “strike something in us.” Malafa reflects on her childhood when creating holiday recipes then elaborates on the traditional desserts by adding “a new spin or flavor combination.” And her approach is playful. Case in point: the Spiced Krispie Treat served at Graham Elliot, which cleverly used pantry staples to riff on breakfast cereal and milk. By browning the butter and adding cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to the recipe, she exalts the Krispie treat beyond what diners remember as the marshmallowy snack from their childhood. It’s served with condensed milk ice cream and marinated strawberries, which Malafa says are the “fruit on top of your cereal.”

Malafa also revived the standard carrot cake by deconstructing it on the plate and channeling a more recent dessert classic—molten chocolate cake. Her carrot cake, still on the Graham Elliot menu, is made with freshly squeezed orange juice and a cream cheese filling which oozes out onto the plate when a fork is inserted into its steamy center. The raisins are stewed in Sherry vinegar and piled on the plate next to a walnut brittle and a quenelle of white chocolate ice cream; a carrot reduction adds color to the plate.

Her Gooey Peanut Butter Brownie is another dish that creates total recall for her diners. She adds graham cracker crumbs to the peanut butter filling to mimic the texture of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The filling is sandwiched between two layers of dark chocolate brownie, and gets a second dose of P.B. from the ice cream she serves perched upon retro crushed malt balls for crunch. As the final flavor dimension, a brûléed banana for garnish.

So this season, evoke emotions through the plate by creating sophisticated, homey holiday confections. And follow Ameen’s advice for holiday inspiration: “Put flavor combinations together based on what you are passionate about, and what you love. Food should be from your heart. When you feel so strongly, people perceive that.”