Chefs put a contemporary spin on their favorite cakes and pies.
Classic is back. When it comes to desserts, chefs are hearkening back to childhood memories, updating desserts of bygone days with modern twists. Forget extravagant, edgy desserts. Now that the spotlight is on nostalgia, from devil’s food cake to retro snoballs, the trend to traditional favorites has hit pastry kitchens nationwide.
Nothing says nostalgia more than a rich chocolate cake or moist sponge cake. While these classic cakes require specific recipes, chefs are playing around with some of the ingredients, fillers, and toppings to put their own spin on tradition.
Executive Chef Michael Lomonaco has had devil’s food cake on his menu at New York City’s Porter House for years as a personal favorite from his childhood growing up in Brooklyn. Inspired by the chocolate Blackout Cake that was made famous by the Brooklyn bakery Ebinger’s, which had a lengthy run as one of the city’s leading bakeries from its opening in 1898 until it closed in 1972, the Porter House rendition uses Valrhona cocoa powder and single-estate chocolate so the icing will “go the extra distance,” Chef Lomonaco says.
Doug Psaltis, chef/partner of Bub City in Chicago also took a nostalgic route when developing his recipe for coconut cream pie. “Pies always require a little extra TLC,” Chef Psaltis says. “My grandmother made them all the time. Growing up in Queens, New York, we went to a lot of diners where pies were a staple. It’s this sense of hominess that I aim for with my desserts at the restaurant.”
In keeping with the everything-made-from-scratch trend, Chef Psaltis uses fresh coconut, shaving off the meat himself rather than buying a pre-shredded, sweetened version. “We find the long ribbons add a nice texture to the final dish,” he says.
For Cathy Whims, chef/owner of Nostrana in Portland, upside-down cakes remind her of yesteryears. Focused on seasonal cooking, Chef Whims works with the produce she can get locally, especially during the holiday season, and takes a departure from the traditional pineapple version, opting for local pear instead.
“The pear upside-down cake has been a seasonal favorite on our menu since we opened nearly nine years ago,” she says. “Pears are my favorite fall fruit; I love each variety for different reasons. Comice are rich and lush, but Boscs are the kings for baking.” Upside-down cake is just the base, using whatever fruit is in season creates the very modern approach.
Ed Moro, chef/owner of Moro’s Table in Auburn, New York, is riding the classics bandwagon as well. “Chocolate cake, well-made pies, strawberry shortcake—these are the types of desserts people crave, and we’re seeing a comeback on menus across the country.”
At his restaurant, Chef Moro enhances a traditional holiday spice cake with extra virgin olive oil and a fresh strawberry and Grand Marnier sauce for a savory-sweet addition. Nutmeg, cinnamon, buttermilk, and applesauce flavor the traditional base.
Greg Mosko, pastry chef at North Pond in Chicago, has revisited the classic Opera cake, a French layered cake traditionally made with almond or hazelnut sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with coffee buttercream and chocolate ganache. Chef Mosko switched the nut in the recipe, opting for wintery toasted walnuts as the base for the sponge cake and swapping out the crème anglais layer base of the buttercream for a mace ice cream and coco nib coulis.
“I tried to think what goes well with chocolate and coffee—and I thought about walnuts,” says Chef Mosko. “I used mace because it is a nice warming spice for winter, similar to nutmeg.”
John Kunkel, owner of Swine in Coral Gables, Florida, and Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach, pictures grandmothers and garden clubs when he and his team of 12 pastry chefs are working to come up with classic Southern-inspired desserts.
“My grandmother was in a garden club—it was like a traditional book or social club for women in small towns in the South—and everyone would bring an offering, like cakes and pies and cookies,” says Kunkel. “Then there are the Southern candies like Cracker Jacks and Almond Joy.”
At Swine, the Almond Joy grows up, plated in the shape of the candy bar with a coconut filling and chocolate ganache. Southern-style sticky buns are also fan favorites, made with bourbon-toffee syrup, pecan cream cheese, and candied smoked bacon, and served with sweet potato pie ice cream. At Yardbird, a lemon chess pie comes topped with a blueberry compote and a crumble of benne seed, which is similar to sesame seed.
“Thinking about how we can add a modern twist to the classics is part of our daily routine,” says Kunkel. “It starts with old recipes; sometimes we’ll dig through first-run recipe books and then think how we can use sous vide, or poach, or dehydrate, or use a modern technique. It doesn’t have to be super molecular but it has to make you crave the dish and keep wanting to go back to it.”
In New Orleans, where King Cake signals Mardi Gras, Amy Lemon, pastry chef at NOLA, puts her spin on that celebratory dessert by making a bread pudding out of the traditional recipe. She makes a brioche dough spiked with cinnamon sugar and then cuts the day-old baked bread into cubes as the base for the pudding. Cinnamon custard with cream and egg yolks binds the cubes, which are baked and then topped with traditional royal icing using green- and gold-colored sugar with a little lemon juice and vanilla.
“Tradition and culture are so important to people, and they love eating King Cake,” says Chef Lemon. “We wanted to bring it to the restaurant in a form that would respect tradition but be more appropriate as a plated dessert.”
For many chefs, dessert innovations hearken back generations, and sweet treats popular during the ’50s and ’60s are being revisited.
Todd Miller, pastry chef at Ted’s Bulletin in Washington, D.C., recreates the snoballs his mother enjoyed and that were made popular by Hostess in the late ’40s and ’50s. He fills fluffy, miniature chocolate cakes with cream and marshmallow, topping the treats off with marshmallow and pink-colored coconut flakes.
“I think people get into that retro feel because it brings back memories of what Grandma or Mom used to make,” Chef Miller says.
There’s a perception that nostalgia stands for wholesome, so classic desserts are often embraced with enthusiasm by diners who feel less guilt about indulging in sweets that are steeped in tradition.