JAY FORMAN JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHNew Orleans’ mantle of culinary tradition is proud but heavy, and it has stifled the creativity of local pastry chefs to some degree in the past. As a result, there are lots of places to go to enjoy an excellent bread pudding or sinful slice of pecan pie, but not too many that serve up a rhubarb pot de crème with lemongrass emulsion and wild blackberry gelée. However, the current culinary climate is increasingly receptive to original efforts on the part of pastry chefs, and they are crafting ever more expressive desserts using their imagination and the help of fresh herbs and exotic spices.
“Artisan chocolates” from Sucré.
At Stella!, Executive Pasty Chef Nola Ventura’s creations compliment Chef Scott Boswell’s kaleidoscopic menu. It is probably safe to say that of all the pastry chefs in the city, Ventura’s desserts are the most far-out. After all, people who go to Stella! are not going for the apple pie. At least, not until Ventura gets his hands on it first.
Ventura’s style tends not to highlight any single ingredient. Rather, he plays spices and flavors off each other to create exciting contrasts. Take, for example, his Apples and Oranges. An amalgam of Japanese, Indian and European influences, the apples are sliced into sticks and baked in a light panko breadcrumb batter. They are then served with a “curry fondue,” made up of oranges, curry powder and cream. What seems pretty strange at first blush actually makes sense: apples and curry are a natural combination, the orange provides high notes of citrus and the sweetness of the cream binds it together. All these disparate elements fuse together in a unique, eclectic and delicious dessert.
Italian ingredients and studies in contrast led Ventura to create his Sambuca-Glazed Parsnips with Espresso Butter and Fennel Seed Ice Cream. Plated, it’s a visually striking dish. Three ivory-white peeled parsnips lounge atop a mat hand-woven from egg roll wrappers, which have been transformed from savory to sweet by way of a dusting and a quick bake with butter and sugar. The Sambuca glaze lends the flavor of licorice, which ties in with the fennel-seed ice cream.
If, of course, this dessert is still on the menu when you read this. As per Stella!’s dinner menu, the turnover is near constant. Whatever might replace it, save some room at the end of your next meal to sample his creations.
Emeril’s Delmonico fills an interesting niche, striving to maintain a reverence for classic New Orleans Creole standards while at the same time introducing elements of contemporary flair. It is a delicate line to walk, and manages to do so thanks in part to the efforts of Pastry Chef Jennifer McCoy.
Rather than pushing the envelope with elaborate contrasts, McCoy views herbs and spices as a way to simply add another layer of flavor. One example of this approach is seen in her Vanilla Mascarpone Stuffed Pain Perdu with Meyer Lemon Marmalade and Anise Ice Cream. The spice shines in the ice cream. “It’s just a basic ice cream,” she says. “But by adding the star anise I provide a little depth.”
McCoy also enjoys experimenting with different flavor combinations. Witness her Munchkins – cocoa-rosemary doughnut holes served alongside a tiny glass of warm mulled wine. The rosemary, an herb one might think too strong to be used effectively in a dessert, is in fact embraced by the chocolate, lending a crisp, piney undertone to the dish. The mulled wine presents panoply of spices including cloves, cinnamon sticks, peppercorn, nutmeg and allspice. The acidity of the wine also balances the sweetness of the doughnuts, bringing the dish into harmony.
There is an undisputed element of comfort food, (a little “Americana” McCoy admits) as well in her dishes. Yet old-school classics such as Baked Alaska are made new again by using pistachio ice cream and dried cherry-Kirsch caramel. “I like to have things that are familiar to me, but also a little bit interesting,” she says.
When Sucré opens in late February-early March, New Orleanians will have a pastry shop unlike any other in the city. Looking to such Parisian stalwarts as Pierre Hermé and Ladurée for inspiration, Joel Dondis brought in Tariq Hanna as his Executive Pastry Chef and Co-owner, with Megan Roen Forman (formerly of Bayona) as his assistant, to make the patisserie on Magazine Street a reality.
Already open in a limited catering capacity, Sucré offers a full spectrum of plated desserts, along with gelato and a broad selection of fine chocolates and petits fours. Their truffles include thyme paired with dark chocolate and another with an Earl Grey-infused white chocolate ganache. “Using the white chocolate brings the bergamot flavor of the Earl Grey forward, instead of making it secondary to the chocolate,” Hanna explains. Also on the menu is a selection of hot and cold chocolate-based drinks, including a hot white chocolate infused with fresh lavender. “We’re using just the right amount to get that nice floral essence,” Hanna says.
Hanna sees herbs and spices as a way to help accentuate the primary flavor of his creations, adding a bit of dimension and also some depth. Hanna likes to use fragrant herbs such as cilantro paired with coconut and mango components, and uses Kaffir lime leaves to accentuate citrus flavors, along with lemongrass. “Fresh tarragon also goes well in my apple desserts,” he adds.
Pastry Chef Beth Biundo of Lilette recently spent two months traveling to such far-flung locales as Thailand, Cambodia and Turkey. She returned to work rejuvenated, inspired and bearing a wealth of ingredients. Now diners can taste them in her desserts, including cocoa powder from a spice farm in Bali and cardamom she uses with roasted dates, coconut sorbet and pistachio cookies in a Moroccan-style dish.
One flavor pairing Biundo particularly enjoys is Meyer lemon and basil. The soft, edible skin of the Meyer lemon lends itself well for use as both garnish and flavoring component. In the fall, she offered a pumpkin and rosemary cake, and other pairings include cardamom and orange along with black pepper and strawberries, a classic combination.
Recently, as a special she ran a Chèvre Tart with Huckleberry Sorbet and Meyer Lemon Curd. Attractively plated, the three elements worked together to create a memorable dish. The tart was mild with a slight tang, providing the focus of the dish. The Meyer lemon curd contributed an understated citrus component, but what really stood out was the huckleberry sorbet. Its indigo color and silken texture was amazing, with no iciness or granulation.
Also good was a Mascarpone Panna Cotta with Blood Orange Sorbet and Citrus Mint Salad. The panna cotta was rich without being cloying; it filled the senses without overloading them. The citrus mint salad was refreshing – sections of grapefruit tossed with a mint chiffonade which cut the acidity nicely, also offsetting with the fat of the panna cotta.
As we move toward spring, look for pastry chefs to avail themselves of fresh, seasonal offerings in creating even more tempting desserts, incorporating local dairy, soft cheeses and produce. Because as area diners’ willingness to try new things increases, we can be sure that our chefs will rise to the occasion.
Eat Dessert First!
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