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Classics Reimagined

- 2011 Volume 12 Issue 3


The thought behind each of these makeovers differs. But chefs say that it’s important to include classics — or at least use them as a reference point — on dessert menus. “Guests equate classics with comfort,” says Uno’s Gatto. “There’s a familiarity there that builds trust.”

When reintroducing classics, chefs sometimes choose to stick pretty closely to the dessert’s origins, altering the recipe only slightly to use the best possible regional ingredients or give the dessert regional flair. At Pican in Oakland, Calif., for example, chef Dean Dupuis’ pecan pie uses toasted Georgia pecans in a filling that blends Steen’s cane syrup, maple syrup, molasses, Kentucky sorghum and brown sugar for a more-balanced Southern sweetness.

Likewise, Dupuis includes stone-ground grits and a peach bourbon sauce in a Southern-slanted crème caramel. “Classic crème caramel can be a little boring,” he says, “but the grits add body and texture, and the peach bourbon sauce, flavor and interest.”

“It’s very important to have something recognizable on the dessert menu,” says Jeff Pfeiffer, chef de cuisine at Bistro Niko in Atlanta, part of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. “We like to keep the classic names for dishes to maintain integrity but give the actual desserts a twist to bring them up to modern times.”

Baba au rhum, for example, is a very traditional French dessert of rum-soaked pastry and cream. Changing that up a little, Niko’s baba is built with rum-syrup-soaked brioche — less dense than the traditional savarin cake — and he uses little timbales for the dessert rather than a savarin ring mold.

Sometimes, dessert classics are referenced by name but largely deconstructed on the plate. The recognizable name gives guests something to grab on to as they jump off into new territory with whimsical chef interpretations.

Take the “shoofly pie” at Sheppard Mansion. “This is not your grandma’s shoofly,” laughs chef Little. The name, crumb topping and intensely rich molasses filling of the old-fashioned Pennsylvania-Dutch pie are there but converted into fried ice cream. Little rolls balls of sorghum-molasses ice cream in several layers of oats/flour/brown-sugar crumb coating (repeatedly frozen between coatings) before deep frying and plating. “The contrasting temperatures and textures are unexpected — as is the format,” says Little.

“When we recreate a classic dessert here, we’re not trying to give it a new shape so much as we are trying to reconnect it to native logic,” says Isaiah Billington, head pastry chef at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. “Take our Peanut Butter Cup. The germ of that idea was Reese’s peanut butter cup candy,” explains Spike Gjerde, chef.

Because Woodberry Kitchen is able to source fresh, raw, locally grown peanuts, the restaurant decided to roast and mill them to preserve the truest, freshest peanut flavor. To create a “Fluffernutter experience” with the peanuts, Billington folds the nut butter into a fresh meringue. He fills chocolate shells (made by coating and then popping balloons) with the peanut fluff and tops with ladyfinger-popcorn caramel corn, pretzel sticks and roasted peanuts. The result is a dessert that “tastes like a state fair,” says Gjerde.

Since certain guests will gravitate to classics they “know” on dessert menus, is there a danger that tweaking such desserts will disgruntle those who love them the most?

“I don’t think so,” says Kate Neumann, pastry chef of Chicago’s Lula Cafe. “There’s a reason classics have stood the test of time, but people are still looking for that new twist. You want to give them a classic in a new way they wouldn’t have thought of. Otherwise there is the danger of having the guest say, ‘Oh, I can do that at home.’”

Baker, of Baker & Banker, agrees: “I’d say about 90 percent of guests appreciated seeing classics done with a new twist.”

Brennan’s of Houston bridges both groups. Given the Brennan family’s long-time connection to the cooking of the Old South, the restaurant has to offer classics like pecan pie and bananas Foster (which originated with the Brennan family), says chef Danny Trace. “Some guests demand the original, but others are open to new things.”

Trace’s Pecan Pie Sundae layers chunks of the classic pecan pie with tangy Creole-cream-cheese ice cream, caramel, chocolate sauce and Bulleit-bourbon-spiked whipped cream. Southern-style caramel corn (made with Steen’s cane syrup, brown sugar, butter, vanilla and bourbon) gets sprinkled on top.

Fern Casio
(713) 522-9711
Author: Fern Casio
Phone: (713) 522-9711
Fax: 713-520-1718