Sugar Plum Desserts

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These American pastry chefs draw from childhood and regional influence to revamp iconic holiday desserts for today’s discerning diner.

Homespun recipes and familiar flavors are never more in demand than during the holidays. It can be a challenge for restaurant pastry chefs to balance a restaurant’s culinary niche with the homemade tastes, traditional and even regional favorites that customers crave.

The following pastry chefs from across the United States are guided by their region’s climate, local produce, and restaurant format; but there is also a common thread that runs through their passion for sweets: time well spent in the family kitchen of their childhood homes. They all also report an influential presence of their mothers, which still informs the way they create dishes today.

Pumpkin Pie
Rye, Leawood, Kansas; Kansas City, Missouri
Chef Megan Garrelts
Celebrating traditional Americana is a year-round proposition for Pastry Chef Megan Garrelts and her husband, co-owner and Chef Colby Garrelts, at both of their fine-dining restaurants. Bluestem in Kansas City, Kansas, opened 14 years ago; and casual comfort-food restaurant, Rye, is a five-year-old institution that’s opening a second location in Kansas City, Missouri, just in time for the 2017 holiday season.

The timing of the new launch could not be better, as homespun recipes (particularly pies, layer cakes and brownie bottom sundaes) are one of the restaurant’s biggest draws. Although the Kansas City metro area demographic is generally “open to new things,” says Megan Garrelts, it also boasts a customer base that’s staunchly loyal to the lifelong favorites associated with big family gatherings.

The James Beard-nominated Garrelts is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. She says that, although pie seems simple, there’s nothing humble about it. Pie is a huge part of her customers’ childhoods as well as her own, so her creations must meet that standard of nostalgia and memory. For Megan Garrelts, she recalls baking pies from the fruit she and her mother picked off the family’s cherry tree while growing up in Ohio.

“At family reunions, many cousins brought pies made from a variety of recipes. For me, it is the ultimate Midwest dessert,” she says. “Although some may not think it is the most time-consuming dessert, when I consider the time involved in the making the crust, picking the fruit for the filling and putting it together, it is both a long process and a labor of love.”

As the Garrelts inched closer to buying the property for the first Rye restaurant, her goal was to master the the perfect crust. She spent copious time experimenting in her home kitchen with different recipes until she came across one seemingly straight-forward variation that calls for equal parts sugar, water and butter. “The desired result is (for the crust) to be light, flaky and one that will work with both savory and sweet pies,” she says, noting her pumpkin pie recipe is a solid best-seller and personal favorite that should not be restricted to the month of November.

She also enjoys using quince in other holiday pies, which balances out sour fruits, such as cranberry, offering guests something traditional yet unique to the Midwestern palate.

Chocolate Mousse
The Boulders Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona
Executive Pastry Chef Keith Taylor
“The key to succeeding as a pastry chef in Phoenix is the awareness that it is pretty hot all year round,” muses Pennsylvania-bred Chef Keith Taylor, who joined The Boulders after a successful run at the JW Marriott in Dubai. “You want those holiday flavors, but you don’t want to make something as heavy as a bread pudding or a fruit cake. It’s a matter of taking holiday flavors and incorporating them into deserts on the mousse-y, lighter side so customers won’t feel weighed down as they go into the hot sun.”

Although supporting local producers is now de-rigueur throughout the restaurant industry, Taylor explains the relationships he has forged with colleagues are especially important during the winter months for capturing both Arizona’s earthy terrain and the flavors of the season.

“I have observed there is a resurgence of classic dessert recipes. While the techniques used in today’s recipes may be different and a little more modern, especially in warmer places like Phoenix, the flavor profiles are intact even— though they are expressed in a more modern way,” Taylor says. “For example, I see a lot (of my colleagues) doing eclairs right now, but with a definite twist via unexpected filling flavors.”

While there will always be trends in desserts—just as with any culinary art—Taylor is also a man who is fond of the classics. It was those simple artistic elements of dessert making that attracted him to the craft in the first place. He says he enjoyed working with butter, cream, sugar, chocolate and nuts to build something that pleases the eyes as well as the palate.

“It gives me the freedom to create my own art,” as he envisions it with all of his senses, he says. From there, the icing on the proverbial cake is, of course, eating pastry treats all day. 10-Layer Carrot Cake Cameron Mitchell Restaurants Columbus, OH Executive Pastry Chef Summer Schott

Although comfort food never dies, this year, dessert trends have resurrected it to its proper pedestal, says Summer Schott, who devises recipes and menus for the Columbusbased Cameron Mitchell Restaurants group. “We are seeing a lot of emphasis on cultural recipes and the return of desserts featuring rich ingredients like butter and cream in the Midwest. Fat is flavor, after all,” she observes. “Lighter desserts are not as prominent this year, but there’s strength in looking for something local. That’s why apple pie and carrot cake are still two of my favorite holiday desserts. At Cameron Mitchell restaurants, the chefs prefer to keep it simple with the classics, and, of course, everyone has their own version of these desserts.”

At Mitchell’s Ocean Club and Ocean Prime restaurants, for example, signature Carrot Cake is made with 10 decadent layers, topped with cream cheese icing and drizzled with pineapple syrup. For the past four years, Schott has taught a family class for CMR associates on making apple pie, which keeps the enduring American family tradition alive. After picking apples at a local orchard, every family group makes their own pie to take home and bake. She notes that staff gains a bit more knowledge that can be passed on to restaurant guests.

Schott, who joined CMR in 2005, she participated in a culinary program that allowed her to work while still in high school. She then earned a degree in pastry arts from the International Culinary Arts and Science Institute before earning an associate’s degree in restaurant management. “I have a strong belief in the value of life-long learning, so I’ve continued to take other courses throughout the years at Ewald Notter’s International School for Confectionary Arts and the French Pastry School in Chicago,” she says.

Eggnog Cheesecake Bluestem Brasserie, San Francisco Executive Pastry Chef Lori Baker Chef Lori Baker’s signature holiday recipe is an eggnog cheesecake made with gingersnap crust, butterscotch cranberry sauce, topped with fresh cranberries. “I wanted to combine some of the most traditional holiday ingredients into one dessert, which is how I came up with the idea to do an Eggnog Cheesecake,” says Baker, who even makes the eggnog from scratch. “I also tend to create desserts that I’m most comfortable with: holiday-layered cakes featuring flavorful, seasonal ingredients.”

Baker says she loves the San Francisco market’s access to a bounty of hyper-local, seasonal ingredients that give her shareable desserts a perfect balance of American tradition and a local sensibility. For the winter season, she is particularly excited to work with fruit like pears, permissions, Meyer lemons and citrus.

“What I’ve noticed in our market and at Bluestem, as it relates to culinary trends, is that people not only want a dinner menu that offers options for sharing; but they also want to share their desserts,” she says. “With my pastry team, I tend to create desserts that are easy for multiple people to execute. My vision has always been to offer desserts that are unique but that people are familiar with.”

Baker’s professional career began in earnest in the teaching kitchens of Johnson & Wales University, where she earned a degree in Pastry Arts. After moving to San Francisco, she built her resume up at some of the city’s top restaurants including Postrio, Bix, Gordon’s House of Fine Eats, Fifth Floor, and Home Restaurant. She has also kept her skills sharp as a teacher for two years at the California Culinary Academy.

Chocolate Cremoso
Seaspice, Miami, Florida
Executive Pastry Chef Jill Montinola
“In Miami, it is warm and sunny almost all the time, and there’s always fresh produce,” says Jill Montinola in regards to the challenge of creating winter-tinged desserts for Miami’s tropical climate at Seaspice. “It is very different from working in New York, Las Vegas or big cities in California. In Miami, I get to work with fresh tropical fruits, such as mango, jackfruit, passion fruit and other things not widely available during their peak season in other parts of the U.S.

“Also, it may be ‘colder’ for Miami people during winter; but for people coming in from other places, it feels like summer. Therefore, I cannot create desserts that are too heavy, as visitors are dealing with a very warm climate that they may not be used to.” Montinola’s approach to creating holiday-appropriate desserts is to balance which fruits and other ingredients are in season with a refreshing sensibility suited for the tropics.

“I use apples and pears, but in a much lighter context compared to the way restaurants in New York or Chicago will use them, when you have temperatures at freezing and snow falling,” she says. “It’s about the reconciliation of climate and season. One year, we did a chestnut mousse served chilled and light. While it had a traditional chestnut base, it had a much lighter texture and was topped with chestnuts, meringue, a tart and refreshing cassis gel and whipped cream. The Chocolate Cremoso follows suit.”

Montinola has baking as long as she can remember, with the kitchen as the heart and soul of her family in her native Philippines. Her first professional job in hospitality was an office job at SUSHISAMBA’s New York City corporate headquarters back in 2002. She took it upon herself to learn by approaching experienced chefs and offering herself up as an apprentice, starting with SUSHISAMBA’s executive pastry chef.

“I worked five days a week in the office and two days a week in the kitchen,” she recalls. “Even after I moved to Las Vegas, when I was hired at the Wynn and crafting desserts for the resort’s two Asian restaurants, I came in on my days off and spent time with the chefs in the chocolate room, cake room, and in any other place where I could learn something new that I needed to master.” 

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