Choosing the best of the best in New Orleans food is an almost Herculean task; one that requires discipline, an open palate and some set guidelines. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it.
In an effort to bring some kind of order to the task of determining which among New Orleans’ thousands of worthwhile desserts should make the final cut, I limited the contenders to those available to us throughout the year (or most of the year, as in the case of snowballs) as opposed to those tied to a specific holiday, such as king cakes.¶ If the traffic in area bakeries, confectioneries and ice cream parlors is any indication, during the pandemic people have rediscovering the simple joy to be had in a sweet treat.
Mile High Ice Cream Pie
The signature dessert at Jack Rose—and before that The Caribbean Room—in the Pontchartrain Hotel is a dreamy gravity-defying, three-tier pie crafted of layers of house-made chocolate, vanilla, and peppermint ice cream topped with marshmallow fluff, and finished with a chocolate drizzle.
Generations of New Orleanians have huffed out special occasion candles parked in slices of the towering confection.
Jack Rose, in the Pontchartrain Hotel, 2031 St. Charles Ave., 323-1500, jackroserestaurant.com.
Lemon Chantilly Cake and Chocolate Peanut Butter Dark Cake
Born and raised in upstate New York near the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), on Saturday nights Chaya Conrad’s mother frequently hosted dinners for CIA students, sparking her young daughter’s interest in the culinary arts. After moving to Vermont, the budding chef lied about her age (14) and got her first job at a local bakery decorating tarts and cakes. At 18 she enrolled in the CIA and did her externship in New Orleans. After working in several positions around the country she returned again to New Orleans, ultimately to head the pastry department for Whole Foods at Arabella Station, where she created the Berry Chantilly Cake, a celebrated, often replicated creation which is now sold nationwide across the Whole Foods brand.
In 2017, Conrad opened Bywater Bakery. Beyond the obvious, the vibrant space also serves as an art gallery, informal community center, and live music venue.
“We support all of the things we love,” Conrad said. “Bywater Bakery has become what we dreamed it would be.”
Choosing the standout was a maddening task but, ultimately, two radically different cakes rose—however incrementally—above the others.
The ladylike, pastel-hued “Lemon Chantilly Cake” consists of delicate layers of yellow butter cake soaked in lemon simple syrup, filled with whipped lemon-kissed Chantilly cream, and topped with fresh fruit.
Conrad’s “Chocolate Peanut Butter” is as hearty as its counterpart is not: Layers of dense, moist chocolate cake filled with peanut butter fudge, iced in intense chocolate buttercream, and dripped with peanut butter.
Bywater Bakery, 3624 Dauphine St., 336-3336, bywaterbakery.com.
Crowded with chunks of pineapple and banana and finished with a rich cream cheese frosting, Chef Nealy Frentz’s Hummingbird Cake is a house favorite at LOLA, the popular restaurant she operates and co-chefs in downtown Covington with her husband, Keith, a fellow Culinary Arts graduate of Johnson & Whales University.
“The recipe is from my grandmother, Bertie Bledsoe,” Nealy said. “She was an amazing home baker. We offer a lunch special and we give the customer a choice of salad or hummingbird cake. I would like to think offering a slice of delicious cake sets us apart from the rest.”
Lola, 517 N. New Hampshire St., Covington, (985) 892-4992, lolacovington.com.
Sometimes our first instincts are our best.
“My tiramisu is the first dessert I put on the menu the week I became the pastry chef at Coquette,” said James Cubie. “I developed it on the fly for a private party.”
To make his masterpiece Cubie fashions a “cake” of repeating layers of ladyfingers, chocolate pudding laced with Sambuca liqueur, pistachio, and candied lemon.
“This is my favorite dessert I’ve ever made, so it remains on our menu year-round. It has been served at weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and baby showers. I rarely eat dessert but if this one is around, I always eat an entire plate.”
An Atlanta native with a graduate degree in sculpture, after culinary stints in Chicago he apprenticed under Chef Zak Miller at Coquette starting 2014 and became Pastry Chef in 2016.
Coquette, 2800 Magazine St., 265-0421, coquettenola.com.
Orange Hazelnut Torta
Is it a cake or something else?
“The Italians and the French frequently use meringue held together by some kind of nut flour as cake layers,” said Maggie Scales, the ridiculously talented pastry chef for the Link Restaurant Group. She very humbly describes the technique for making the stellar, best-selling torta she created for Gianna as “a little involved.” The laborious process effectively ensures Scales’ job security as few mere mortals could successfully pull off what it takes to make this most desirable piece of bliss.
But it is a cakewalk for the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts graduate and Philadelphia native who worked under Lydia Shire in Boston before finding her way to New Orleans.
“Making the hazelnut daquoise cake first involves whipping egg whites and sugar to a meringue, folding in chopped hazelnuts and piping it on to parchment in perfect round circles,” Scales said. “We bake it until it’s crispy on the edges and a bit soft in the middle. We then make a ricotta mousse with gelatin and whipped heavy cream and fold in candied citrus. [We] recently added mini chocolate chips to the mousse to spice things up a bit.”
Gianna, 700 Magazine St., 399-0816, giannarestaurant.com.
Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes with Italian Butter Cream
Light as a dream and tinted a hue worthy of a couture ball gown, pastry chef Dwynishia “Dee” Lavigne’s fluffy Fresh Strawberry Cupcakes are flavored with pure vanilla and frosted with lofty swirls of Italian butter cream kissed with a hint of almond and tinted blush pink with fresh strawberry puree. The elegant puffs are also offered with a finish of lightly sweetened, freshly whipped vanilla-scented cream. Fresh, hand-cut strawberries adorn the crowns of both versions.
“As a child, strawberries were my favorite everything,” said the New Orleans native and Culinary Institute of America graduate. “I started making these in 2006. Everyone loves them.”
Deelightful Desserts, by appointment only, 655-1195, email@example.com.
Amaretto, Pear and Dried Cherry Pie
Nicole Eiden and Marielle Dupre met while working in a restaurant before Katrina. The storm/flood sent Dupre, a Mandeville native and Tulane grad, running for the California Culinary Academy. Eiden, a filmmaker, writer, and self-taught baker, returned home to Columbus, Ohio, started working in another restaurant, married a guy from New Orleans and moved back.
The friends reunited and started Windowsill Pies out of Eiden’s home kitchen in 2011, mostly fulfilling orders for friends and family. They recently opened their brick and mortar business.
“”When we conceived the idea for the Amaretto, Pear and Dried Cherry Pie it was almost fully formed,” Eiden said, “a rare and welcome gift.”
The complex concoction of fragrant, juicy pears and Lazzaroni amaretto liqueur-soaked dried cherries arrives under a golden pastry lattice of crisp, buttery Autumn leaves and clusters of cherries highlighted with freshly grated nutmeg and lemon zest.
Windowsill Pies, 381-4953, 4714 Freret St., windowsillpiesnola.com.
Banana Brown Butter Tarte
The deep, nutty underpinning of this intensely satisfying tarte starts with very slowly browning whole butter for about an hour. The caramel-hued butter is then blended with aromatic spices and custard. The mixture is poured into a par-baked shell atop sliced ripe bananas then baked until golden. The tarte is served with dollops of fresh whipped cream and sliced bananas encased in candied caramelized sugar. The play between the shards of candied fruit and the lush richness of the custard is a sort of crème brulee gone stratospheric.
Herbsaint, 701 St. Charles Ave., 524-4114, herbsaint.com.
Peanut Butter Pie
Unlike most barbecue shops dessert is no afterthought at The Joint, Pete and Jenny Breen’s standard bearing smokehouse/restaurant in the Bywater. The pies on offer are scratch-made in house, a point of serious pride for the staff. But it is the peanut butter version introduced by Carrie Lott, a former employee who moonlighted as a baker as a side hustle to her teaching job, that really stands out. Lott’s immortal creation has a graham cracker crust that crackles against a smooth and creamy filling, which has a faint, pleasing tang from the addition of Creole cream cheese from Mauthe’s Dairy.
The Joint, 701 Mazant St., 949-3232, alwayssmokin.com.
Pistachio Mousse Tart
Breanne Kostyk earned a degree in design from the Pratt Institute at the height of the Great Recession. No jobs were available, so she joined Project M, a program employing creatives to benefit social change, placing them throughout the country. Her team ended up in impoverished Greensboro, Alabama, where they were asked to build something —they did not know what, that was their challenge—that would unify people. Kostyk recalled overhearing a girl marvel over a piece of pie.
“She was just saying how much she loved pie, and we all got into a discussion about how you can’t really argue with pie. Everybody loves pie. We decided to unify people around pie.”
No matter that Kostyk had never baked a pie in her life. PieLab, a combination pop-up cafe, design studio, and civic clubhouse, was a success, a “negative-energy inverter, fueled by pie.” It attracted a diverse crowd and fostered the exchange of ideas and the forging of intergenerational friendships. Pie was served on ceramic plates, creating instant community because, as Kostyk told The New York Times, “people were forced to stick around and talk to each other, and not take their pie and run.”
Kostyk discovered that she preferred making pie to working as a designer. She has been the Pastry Chef at the Ace Hotel and Josephine Estelle restaurant since the hotel opened in 2016.
“When I think back to all the desserts I’ve created at Josephine Estelle, one always comes back to me,” she said. “It was a bowl of pistachio mousse with passion fruit sabayon, blackberry granita, and a crunchy topping made with pistachio paste, brittle, and feuilletine.”
Her show stopping, perhaps divinely inspired, “Pistachio Mousse Tart” brings all of those elements together in a tart form while merging a symphony of colors, textures, flavors, and fragrances.
In addition to her work at The Ace Hotel, in May she started Flour Moon Bagels, a small baking business, out of her home. Check it out at @flourmoonbagels on Instagram.
Josephine Estelle, in the Ace Hotel, 600 Carondelet St., 930-3070, josephineestelle.com.
Antoine’s signature dessert is made from Angelo Brocato’s vanilla ice cream layered atop an oval of house-made butter pound cake, the entirety of which is encased in whirls of meringue. The resulting bombé is dramatically set aflame then sliced and served with warmed dark chocolate sauce.
“ We sell hundreds a week” said Lisa Blount, a member of the family that owns the 180-year old restaurant. “We actually have a special custom freezer to hold the desserts prior to serving.”
Antoine Alciatore, the restaurant’s founder, is alleged to have served a version of the impressive dessert on his menu.
Antoine’s Restaurant, 713 St. Louis St., 581-4422, antoines.com.
It was late afternoon, the French Market was closed, supermarkets had yet to exist, and restaurateur Owen Brennan challenged his sister Ella Brennan, and Chef Paul Blangé to concoct a show-stopping dessert in honor of his friend Richard Foster.
“Damn you, Owen,” Ella recalled saying in her memoir, “Miss Ella from Commander’s Palace.” The dessert would have to be fabricated from pantry items already on hand.
Though still exotic in other parts of the U.S., in 1951 bananas were abundant in New Orleans due to the presence of United and Standard fruit companies, both of which imported them from Central and South America. On any given day, bananas were usually on hand at Brennan’s due to family ties to Standard Fruit.
Remembering a childhood dish of caramelized bananas sautéed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon that her mother made as a treat, Ella and the chef decided to sauté some bananas. Tableside flambé was just catching on in New Orleans so they added some rum, set it aflame in the dining room and created a legacy.
Brennan’s, 417 Royal St, 525-9711, brennansneworleans.com.
Bread pudding is not a New Orleans invention. It’s not even an American invention. Merit for the creation of the confection we hold so dear belongs to unnamed yet clever and frugal Medieval European or Middle Eastern cooks with bread scraps too precious to waste.
With a heritage of Creole thrift, creativity and a supply of “French” bread with its fragile yet crisp crust and light, airy center, it was preordained that bread pudding would become New Orleans’ best known concoction of leftovers.
The recipe for the “Bread Pudding” chef Jeffrey Heard serves at Heard Dat Kitchen in Central City belongs to his mother, Audrey Mae Heard.
“My mom thrived in the kitchen, and I believe that is what instilled my passion for cooking,” said chef Heard. “Bread pudding is the one and only dessert that is served here. I think the texture as well as the homemade caramel sauce topped with fresh pecans, and shortbread cookie crumbles elevates it.”
Heard Dat Kitchen, 2520 Felicity St., 510-4248, hearddatkitchen.com
Sweet Potato Pie
When she died last year at age 96, chef Leah Chase, the embodiment of the term “New Orleans icon,” left behind a mourning city transformed by her grace, wisdom, lifelong civil rights activism, and expansive Creole culinary acumen. Her cuisine was humble and straightforward, elevated by the freshness and purity of her ingredients and the surety of her skills. Such is the case with her unrivaled “Sweet Potato Pie,” the recipe for which hailed from her childhood home in Madisonville where her family grew much of their own food, including sweet potatoes, in a garden surrounded by pecan trees.
With an unsweetened crust made sturdy with chopped pecans, the pie’s filling is earthy, lightly spiced, and sweet. The recipe is so simple and straightforward Mrs. Chase chose to include it in “A Long Way from the Strawberry Patch: The Life of Leah Chase,” a recently published book of recipes and pearls of wisdom for middle-school students that she was writing with Carol Allen at the time of her death.
Not a fixture on the daily menu, the Sweet Potato Pie was reserved for special occasions and holidays, Thanksgiving in particular, a tradition continued by Chef Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV, Mrs. Chase’s grandson, who now mans the kitchen at the Treme landmark.
Dooky Chase Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Ave., 821-0600, dookychaserestaurant.com.
With the 2012 opening of Gracious Bakery + Café, Meghan Foreman fulfilled her dream of making artisan baked goods accessible in her hometown. She returned to New Orleans after earning a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and professional experience in NYC.
“We soon outgrew our first kitchen and decided to build out a commissary capable of supporting multiple locations as well as wholesale and catering, “ chef Foreman said. Gracious now has three locations serving breads, pastries, desserts, salads, and sandwiches, employs 60 people, has a growing product line available at Rouses supermarkets, and provide breads and pastries to many local coffee shops and restaurants.
The Gracious take on pecan pie is a standout among many.
“We wanted to put our own twist on it and hit upon the idea of using Sazerac’s Praline Liquor in the filling. It has this way of intensifying the pecan flavor. We always use local Bergeron pecans and for the crust we use European Plugra butter with a high butterfat content that makes it extra flaky.”
Gracious Bakery + Cafe, locations Uptown, Mid-City, and Garden District, graciousbakery.com.
Lemon Icebox Pie
Clancy’s has been impervious to change since Brad Hollingsworth bought it from a group of local businesspeople in 1987.
The seasonally driven menu is allowed to drift enough to keep it interesting, but a core group of dishes has been reliably, soothingly, on offer every day. One of them in the restaurant’s signature “Lemon Icebox Pie,” which was introduced by Christine Hall, a luncheon chef who departed the restaurant years ago, leaving this enduring legacy behind. The pie, which bears the same butter-cup yellow hue as the exterior of the building, arrives on a chilled plate, straight out of the freezer, with a bit of whipped cream — sometimes it has been piped neatly atop the pie, sometimes it is spooned on, sometimes it is adorned with a transparent slice of lemon and a sprig of mint, sometimes not.
Let your slice of pie sit for a few minutes. Drink you cup of coffee as the edges soften just a bit, but the center remains to the firm side, then brace yourself for the first bite. What could be shockingly sweet and rich, the pie is cut through by the bright refreshing tang of lemon. A graham cracker crust holds it all together.
Clancy’s Restaurant, 6100 Annunciation St., 895-1111, clancysneworleans.com.
The folks at Creole Creamery offer simple advice for a fulfilled life: “Eat Ice Cream, Be Happy.”
With a vibrant, seasonal, continually changing roster of over 100 flavors of ice cream, sherbet and sorbet, Creole Creamery is in the business of spreading joy. Those good vibes start back in the kitchen with chef Bryan Gilmore, a man with a vivid imagination, a brilliant palate, and the skill to manifest his ideas into ice cream.
Gilmore and his business partner, David Bergeron, met while attending Brother Martin High School and both worked part-time at Swensen’s ice cream parlor in Metairie. Following college, both men pursued other careers, but when Swensen’s closed, Bergeron bought all of their equipment, put it in storage, and started making a plan.
“Dave came to me about running the kitchen and making the ice cream,” Gilmore said. “I enjoyed making it at home to share with friends—unusual flavors like avocado ice cream, or pear and Champagne sorbet.”
When the lease came up on the original McKenzie’s Bakery on Prytania Street in 2004, they set up shop.
“David handles the business. I control production and the creative side,” Gilmore said. “Our mission when we started was—and remains—to make the highest quality ice cream possible and still get a family of four out the door for 20 bucks or less. I still make all the ice cream for all of our locations myself.”
He said his inspiration comes from myriad sources including seasonal produce, special occasions and people he knows.
“We have lots of unique and innovative flavors, but I try not to be gimmicky. Being good is more important than being unusual and setting trends is better than following them. We are uniquely New Orleans and yet unique in New Orleans. I love that.”
Creole Creamery, four locations, Uptown, Lakeview, Old Metairie, Bay St Louis, MS., creolecreamery.com
The Atomic Hot-Rod SnoBall
Ashley Hansen lovingly stewards Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, the historic snoball shop her grandparents founded in 1934.
“My grandfather was the creative force of the business,” Hansen said. “He made all the things that make Hansen’s unique. He came up with the “Hot-Rod” in the 1950s. He loved cars and named snowballs with ice cream in the center after them. Now they are known around town as ‘stuffed’ snoballs. We have been making them for decades.”
Hansen’s over-the-top Atomic Hot-Rod is a stunning work of edible art. A snoball —both Blueberry Cream and Nectar flavors work impressively for the base— is topped with the works: cream, crushed strawberries or crushed pineapple, marshmallow cream, ice cream and a cherry on top.
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, 4801 Tchoupitoulas St, 891-9788, snobliz.com.
Salty Malty Ice Cream Pie
There is an evil sorcerer lurking in Michael Nelson.
“ You will not be able to stop eating this,” he said, plunking down a slab of his “Salty Malty Ice Cream Pie” in front of three extremely over-fed diners who, clutching their swollen stomachs, refused dessert.
“ This is the perfect combination of salt, sugar and umami. It hits every note. You will not be able to stop.”
Three weary diners lifted their spoons into the plate. Just one bite. Just one more, again, and again, until it was gone.
Nelson, executive chef of GW Fins and best known for his sheer brilliance with finfish, conceived the idea for Salty Malty “eight or 10 years ago” as a New Year’s Eve special dessert featuring pretzels (his wife’s favorite) and malt powder (his favorite).
“This is a balancing act of sweet, salty and umami, “Nelson said. “There are extreme amounts of all three, so when they all hit your palate at the same time, it’s a flavor explosion.”
GW Fins, 808 Bienville St., 581-3467, gwfins.com.
Buttermilk Drop Bread Pudding
Partners in life and business, chefs Alison Vega-Knoll and Drew Knoll found inspiration in their favorite childhood treats. They started with the McKenzie’s buttermilk drop donuts Drew enjoyed as a child.
“We turned those into a bread pudding, soaking them in Sauce Royal overnight before baking,” Vega-Knoll said.
Portions of the belt-buster are warmed before serving so it remains light and fluffy on the inside with crunchy crags on the outside that are ladled over with warm, sweet/salty butterscotch sauce and served with whipped cream on the side.
“It reminds me of Christmas when you’d get those lifesaver books,” Vega-Knoll said. “The roll of butterscotch was always my favorite. So, the dessert has endearing memories for us both.”
Station 6, 105 Metairie-Hammond Hwy., Metairie, 345-2936, station6nola.com.
Milk Chocolate Dome
Oxlot 9 chef Jeffrey Hansel’s “Chocolate Dome” starts with a soft, rich dark chocolate cookie as a base topped with pillows of light milk chocolate mousse. The entire affair is enrobed in a shell of bitter dark chocolate, drizzled with buttery salted caramel, and topped with a vanilla cream infused with macadamia. A scatter of toasted macadamia nuts finishes it off.
“We garnish with whatever fruit is in season to brighten the dish as well,” Hansell said.” The portion is also just right, about five to six bites so you’ve completely satisfied your sugar craving without going over the edge.”
Oxlot 9, in the Southern Hotel, 428 E. Boston St., Covington, (985)400-5663, oxlot9.com.
Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé with Whiskey Sauce
The late, beloved chef Paul Prudhomme achieved immortality through many of the dishes he created during his lengthy career. Among them is the enduring “Bread Puffing Soufflé” he concocted during his tenure at Commander’s Palace for the restaurant’s 100th anniversary in 1980.
The menu advises you to order the labor-intensive dessert at the same time you order your entree. In the kitchen the employee devoted solely to this task will fold clouds of meringue into a cinnamon and vanilla custard foundation heavy with soaking cubes of Leidenheimer bread and dark raisins. The result arrives at table a puffed golden dome atop a pristine soufflé cup. On cue, your server cracks the dome with a spoon and ladles in whiskey cream sauce until it flows down the sides. The best part? The thin candy-like rim where the puff meets the edges of the dish. Make the effort to chisel it all out with your spoon.
Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221, commanderspalace.com.
Cranberry and Rose Labneh Cheesecake
Rome was not built in a day. Neither was the ethereal, faintly floral cheesecake at Saba.
“Labneh is strained yogurt and it adds a delicate texture and a distinct tang to the dessert,” said Alon Shaya, executive chef and owner of Saba. “This, with cranberries and rose, was developed by our amazing culinary team. Candied nuts give it the crunchy texture it needs.”
Saba, 5757 Magazine St., 324-7770, eatwithsaba.com.
Thiakary Pudding with Fresh Fruit
A serendipitous encounter in a Senegal airport in 2016 brought chef Serigne Mbaye—an American citizen raised and educated in Senegal—to New Orleans where he quickly landed a job as a line cook at Commander’s Palace. There, he quickly rose to sous chef, before leaving for Café Adelaide for a top role in the kitchen. In 2018, he started hosting pop-up dinners exploring the connections between the foods of Louisiana and Senegal. He left New Orleans to hone his skills at Atelier Crenn, a 3-Michelin Star restaurant in San Francisco, and at L’Atelier Joel Robuchon, a 2-Michelin Star restaurant in New York. The rolling stone returned this spring to New Orleans, a city he vows he loves above all others, to stay.
His pop-up, Dakar, regularly features Thiakary, a feast for the eyes. To make the gorgeous dish Mbaye cooks millet, West African grain with a light, nutty flavor, in sweet cream with raisins to form a pudding. He tops it with toasted coconut and a rainbow of seasonal fresh fruit.
Dakar, 249-8966, dakarnola.com.
Roasted Banana Zeppole
Born and raised in St. Lucia, the flavors and textures of chef Nina Compton’s native Caribbean home merge with worldly influences and techniques she gleaned while living and working in celebrated restaurants in France and Italy.
“During the holidays I like to make my ‘Roasted Banana Zeppole’ with rum caramel,” Compton said. “It’s a Caribbean spin on the traditional Italian dessert. Sometimes I even add pecans or other nuts to add more texture and depth to the dish. It’s the perfect fall treat.”
Compére Lapin, in the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, 535 Tchoupitoulas St, 599-2119, comperelapin.com.