Holiday Baking 2010

by Kathleen Culliton
Antoinette Bruno
November 2010

There once was a pastry chef in Brooklyn who had this problem—every Fall her restaurant’s owner would burst into the kitchen with what he thought was going to be the next hot holiday item on the menu. The problem was that his ideas were terrible—coconut sorbet with a gruyere béchamel, Canadian bacon gâteau with an avocado ganache; his invention knew no bounds. And every time he thought he’d discovered the best dessert of the season she had to tell him, “there’s a reason it’s never been tried before!”

Balancing the elements of an innovative holiday dessert menu clearly takes more than a knack for meringues, confections, and butter creams and an active imagination—it takes instinct. This is especially difficult during the holidays when diners live under the grand illusion that life should fit between the folds of a Hallmark card. Read: expectations are high. You’ve got to be able to push the limits while preserving the quality of flavor. Fortunately the pastry chefs we’ve tasted with this year are more than up to the challenge, able to unite creativity with comfort, savory with sweet, and naughty with nice.

Swimsuit season is over, it’s ok to eat your feelings again, and edible love, aka comfort food, will be as bountiful this holiday season as neon lit reindeer and plug-in menorahs. One exciting trend we’ve witnessed, in stations both savory and sweet, is the resurgence of comfort in haute cuisine. At Rouge Tomate in New York, Executive Pastry Chef James Distefano reinterprets homey bread pudding as a chic and urban delicacy—it’s local, it’s organic, and it’s healthy. And Pastry Chef Jansen Chan of Oceana elevates his childhood favorite, the brownie, to a sophisticated dessert with Art Deco plating and a flavor profile that’s dark and spicy—proving comfort can still be sexy.

And for those epicures anticipating with dread the obligatory force-feeding of mountains of über-sweet holiday desserts, there is a wave of savory elements in dessert that can provide a refreshing antidote. For instance, some people sear their steak, others wear it to the MTV Music Awards, but Pastry Chef Villavelazquez of Absinthe Brasserie puts it in mince pie and tops it with chocolate. For savory veg-lovers, Pastry Chef Sandra Holl throws a butternut squash into the mix of her subtle clafoutis with gingerbread crust at Floriole Bakery, and Commis Pastry Chef Carlos Salgado takes the much abused goat cheese and beets combination to brand new place with his tangy goat cheese panna cotta.

So whether you’re looking to calm down your sugar high or amp up your comfort in the throes of this inclement holiday season, pastry chefs are ready to answer. Perhaps some more experimental readers were considering reinventing the avocado ganache, but hopefully they’ll reach for these recipes instead. To share your discoveries in the pastry world (be it savory, sweet, or strange...) give Antoinette a tweet.