Traveling the US and the world has enabled me to try a huge numbers and varieties of desserts. Some have been memorable, some very ethnic, some downright strange, and many forgettable. But one thing seems to be a common thread: the chef does indeed try to express him or herself in a unique and powerful way. Dessert seems to bring out a passion or flair in a pastry chef. Let me tell you why.
10. Lappert’s Ice Cream
While this is not technically a creation of a pastry chef, it is nonetheless a passion of Walter Lappert (deceased), Hawaii’s resident ice cream purveyor. Lappert’s can be purchased in Las Vegas, at the California Hotel and Casino in downtown Vegas. Otherwise, you must fly to Honolulu, Maui, or Kauai for a taste sensation. And you must order the rather Hawaiian or tropical flavors. Once you lap and lick Lappert’s, all the others melt in comparison. I would have considered Nielsen’s Frozen Custard in a tie for tenth, but it is not a fair comparison. Frozen custard wins every time!
9. Bananas Foster
The original place to indulge in this taste delight was Brennan’s in New Orleans. It is a great way to top off a meal that starts with French Onion Soup or an etouffe (Cajun shellfish or chicken over rice). A large cart is wheeled to your table, with a wok-like pan fired with gas. The booze and other ingredients are heated into a thick sauce before the bananas are added. This is slowly poured over some vanilla ice cream, whereby some of the sauce hardens into a thin candy like consistency. This is the only way to eat bananas. Over the years, many places have tried to copy this signature dessert, all to no avail.
8. Cookie Berry
This is the invention of King Wong, formerly of Tomato Tree and 301 Bistro in Danville. It is a combination of homemade pastries, with fresh berries (3 kinds), placed delicately over a lemon curd. It was impossible to go there and NOT order this for dessert. Too bad the Wong’s retired a few years ago. I was driving over to Albany just to see them and have dessert. This and number three are the MOST creative on my list.
7. Grand Marnier Soufflé
The best place to order this is in Zurich, Switzerland. The second best place, that I know of, is at the top of Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. You must order it as soon as you are seated, for it takes a while to make and rise. When made properly, it melts in your mouth, begging for a brief moment to savor before the next bite. I had this on my 25th birthday in Zurich.
Again, this is a work of art, takes patience and just the right temperature.
6. St. Honore’s Cake
A staple of North Beach bakeries and Italian ristorantes in San Francisco. The layers of the cake are much like a dream cake, light and airy. But the top is crowned with numerous little cream puffs, imbedded into the top of the cake. Each slice should have one little cream puff adorning it. You do not have to be Italian to enjoy this. And this or any other photo I could find are highly inaccurate! Victoria Bakery is the best!
5. Coconut cream pie
The best is made by Tom Douglas in Seattle. It is the only dessert that is served in all of his restaurants, regardless of whether it is pizza, grilled, seafood, or Greek. It can also be purchased in his Dahlia Bakery, either by the bite, the mini pie, or the whole pie. I dare you! Once upon a time, banana cream pie was my favorite cream pie. No longer.
4. Ingrid’s apple pie
Our dear friend Ingrid is probably the best baker I know. Of course, my dear Aunt Rose is also up there, but she bakes a totally different repertoire. Ingrid has even taken her baking skills to a rented apartment on the coast of Spain. We wandered through the Spanish supermarket trying to find the right ingredients, until we ended up with lard. She even brought her pastry cloth in her suitcase. We improvised a rolling-pin with a bottle of Spanish wine. It was one of the highlights of our trip.
3. Fried filo tea ball with honey and pistachio
The guy who invented this needs to win a Nobel or Pulitzer for great desserts. The filo dough is crushed and placed in a regular tea ball. The honey and pistachios are placed inside, then deep-fried. It is served with vanilla ice cream and a small wedge of real honeycomb. This is truly the work of a genius at the Tom Douglas restaurants in Seattle. They say he learned to make this while on a baking sabbatical in San Francisco.
2. Peach Melba
I laughed when the waitress suggested ordering Peach Melba at Mustard’s Grill in Yountville. I remember this dessert in grade school. They used a packaged shortcake topped with a canned peach half. This more superb iteration had a slightly poached white peach, topping a moist airy white cake, smothered in a light syrup of peach and raspberry. We have begged them to make it again, even offering to have fresh white peaches shipped to the restaurant from our family farm.
1. Cherries Jubilee
There is one common but delicious version at the California Hotel and Casino in Vegas. It comes as part of their $8.95 prime rib and salad bar dinner. It is very good, and uses Lappert’s low-fat vanilla ice cream. But the best was from a French bistro that no longer exists in Danville. One side note however is the bottle of 1959 Chateau Laffite that was consumed prior. Though it needed decanting and about a half hour of breathing, it turned out to be the best bottle of wine I have ever had. This was followed by the Cherries Jubilee, made at the table, smothered over ice cream. It really was the only time in my life that I would have licked the plate clean!
I just remembered I left out one of my favorites, called Ice Kacong from Malaysia. It is a combination of shave ice, fresh fruit, sweet corn, gelatin, and flavored syrup. Let’s call it more of a hot weather refresher, for those of us that choose not to gulp a cold beer in the hot mid day sun.
The also rans: Key lime pie, strawberry shortcake, coffee crunch cake from Webb’s in Stockton, strawberry pie from Berry’s in Antioch, chocolat dessert tamal, mango sticky rice, and my favorite cookie, the Dunking Platter.