In August of 2010 Link Restaurant Group hired Ronda Ruckman as executive pastry chef. Ruckman will be overseeing the desserts at the four venues LRG operates in New Orleans and the soon-to-open branch of Cochon in Lafayette. Ruckman is from New Orleans originally but has spent most of her career elsewhere. She received early training from chef Norman Love at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Fla., before moving to Beverly Hills, Calif., to work with chef Donald Wressell at the Four Seasons Hotel. In 2001 Ruckman opened Doughmonkey, a from-scratch pastry shop and confectionary in Dallas.
Ruckman spent a lot of time sourcing top-quality ingredients for Doughmonkey, and she maintained connections to the folks who supplied her with the best products. Patric Chocolate, a craft chocolate maker from Columbia, Mo., is one example. Patric’s chocolates are made largely from cacao beans sourced from single estates in Madagascar and Venezuela.
I had a chance to sample a few of the desserts she’s designed for Butcher, Cochon, Calcasieu and Herbsaint recently, and I came away impressed. Ruckman started with a demonstration of how to make the King Cakes that are now on sale at Butcher. The cakes are made with a rich brioche dough heavily flavored with cinnamon, and we got to taste one filled with chocolate. I’m not a huge fan of filled King Cakes –– or King Cakes at all for that matter –– but the chocolate that was ribboned through this cake was very nice. It was mellow, smooth and not too sweet. The cakes are available in “individual” and larger sizes at Butcher, and other filled varieties include strawberry and praline.
Next chef Ruckman presented us with an icebox lime pie topped with a white chocolate mousse and cashew crumble over a salted caramel sauce. It’s a light, refreshing dessert that will be even better when the temperatures heat up outside. The pie is on the menu at Cochon, along with such items as apple fritters with a Southern pecan ale sherbet, Ponchatoula strawberry cake layered with lemon curd and frosted with vanilla butter cream and pineapple upside-down cake with a coconut-lime sorbet.
From Herbsaint’s dessert menu chef Ruckman served her Gianduja chocolate cake with olive oil-roasted hazelnuts. The miniature cakes were topped with a milk chocolate ganache and a dollop of orange crème fraiche and then placed atop yet more chocolate in the form of a sauce. The cake itself was made of bittersweet chocolate from Venezuelan cacao beans, and again nothing on the plate was cloying. Ruckman’s desserts seem to be a perfect fit for the type of food on offer at Cochon, Butcher and Herbsaint: They are straightforward, but there is a lot going on; they’re complex without being whimsical. I don’t always have room for dessert after a big meal, but there are certain restaurants where I always do my best to save room. I’ve just added to that list.
On Saturday, Feb. 5, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum will host a workshop led by Sandra Juneau on the topic of St. Joseph’s day. Juneau will discuss local customs surrounding the day, including how to make an altar and how to prepare traditional fig, sesame and anise cookies. The workshop costs $10 for members of the museum and $20 for the unwashed masses. The museum is located in the Riverwalk, 500 Port of Orleans Place, Suite 169, and may be reached at 569-0405.
On Mardi Gras night, when the rest of us are nursing hangovers contemplating the fasting and self-deprivation of Lent, chef Tenney Flynn and his team from GW Fins will be in New York City, cooking at the James Beard House. The meal will prominently feature local seafood, including Louisiana barbecue shrimp served in pâte brisée shells with vanilla-bourbon sweet potatoes; crab, shrimp, oyster and crawfish gumbo with a scoop of potato salad; and sautéed Louisiana pompano with oyster-andouille dressing, mustard greens with country ham, purple hull peas, creamy sage butter, crispy leeks and pepper jelly. Each of the five courses will be paired with wine. If you are going to be in New York, you can attend the dinner by calling the Beard House at 212/627-2308. The cost is $130 per person for members of the James Beard Foundation and $170 for nonmembers.