My Favorite Desserts 2015
With all "best of" lists, what I'm really talking about are my favorites. These aren't the 10 most technical or expensive dishes I ate this year. Some of them could pretty easily be replicated at home. But they're the dishes that I still can remember every detail of, the dishes I can still taste and smell when I close my eyes and think about them. Throughout the year, I kept track of any desserts that left me wanting more. More often than not, the dish was something simple.
The pumpkin pudding below is a perfect example of this. I had a lot of decadent, love-handle expanding desserts this year, but few stuck with me like this simple dish highlighting one ingredient. I'm still more of an apps/entrees man than a dessert one, but I ate more—for you!
I constantly reviewed my list, whittling it down in the dark of night, and I came to these 10 desserts (in no particular order). These are what I would eat again, and again, and again...
Sidney Street Cafe
A crumbled piece of moist, wonderful carrot cake served with shards of crispy ginger meringue, dabs of passion fruit gel, black currants, cheesecake puree (a “holy shit” delicious ingredient), and a carrot-passion fruit sorbet. Pastry chef Bob Zugmaier nailed it.
Khanom Mor Gang
Nomad chef Chris Bailey made the list last year with his modern take on the ice cream sold street side throughout southeast Asia; this year he does it with his spin on the classic Thai mung bean custard. In his own words: "The base of the dish is coconut custard thickened with mung bean. Atop that was an anise sable crumble followed by macerated white peach. It’s finished with a pandan and Thai chile ice cream for a lingering heat. It’s basically Thailand in a cup."
I'd never even had a green strawberry until this time last year in the Libertine CSA. Their acidity and kiwi-esque flavor makes them a perfect summer time ingredient, particularly if they're pickled or used in dessert. Niche's Sarah Osborn blew me away with her green strawberry semifreddo with anise hyssop cream, green strawberries, and fresh red strawberries. Like all dishes at Niche, beautiful plating goes hand in hand with a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
The team at Candlenut are doing with Peranakan cuisine what Chris Bailey is doing with Thai—taking the classics and making them way, way better. Kueh Salat is typically a two-layered gelatinous dessert. The bottom is made of glutinous rice, the top is a green pandan custard. Malcolm Lee and his team break it down: an intense pandan custard topped with coconut shavings, crushed Kueh Bangkit (coconut cookies), and a coconut sorbet on the side.
We went back to the restaurant just for this. Unreal balancing of coconut and the vanilla-ish pandan. I would consider this a perfect dish.
La Patisserie Chouquette
I knew I had to include something from Chouquette on this list, but deciding which pastry to add was damn near impossible. The choux-nuts and macarons are exquisite; The Darkness is a special occasion treat. I thought about my mantra—what have I eaten there that I want to eat over and over until my gut bursts?—and realized that the answer was simple: the canelé.
Even the flavored versions I've had (egg nog and lemon-thyme) are simple compared to most of their other creations, but there's something magical about them. You crack through that caramelized, crunchy exterior to find the soft, crepe-like center, perfumed with rum and vanilla. If you haven't bothered to try these before due to their small stature and dark exterior, you're missing out on my pastry of the year.
After one of the most overindulgent meals of my life, I thought dessert was out of the question (even breathing was a chore by this point). Yet there I was, eating Husk's modern-yet-classic take on chocolate pie. The filling, made with local chocolatier O&S chocolates, is rich, but not too rich. After all, they still want you to enjoy the peanut butter ice cream and the brown butter caramel ribbon/swirl.
I feel sorry for any chefs that make me a creme caramel in the future. It's going to be hard to top my first, Elise Mensing's incredible espresso flavored creme caramel. I'm not typically a lover of caramel, but this was outstanding: the earthy bitterness of espresso and the creme fraiche whipped cream brought down the sweetness of the caramel, the almond praline added a textural crunch, and the madeline made it classier. If it's on the menu, it's a must order.
Shinji by Kanesaka
I have an immense amount of respect for the Japanese and their ability to create simple dishes with huge flavor. This is particularly true when it comes to fruit and vegetables. After one of the finest sushi meals I will ever have, a small bowl arrived in front of me, simply described as "pumpkin pudding." The pudding itself was a soft, lightly flavored mix of vanilla bean and pumpkin, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and intensely sweet pumpkin sauce. Hidden in the middle of the pudding was a pocket of pumpkin puree. It was "simple" perfection.
Buah Keluak Ice Cream
This dish is a masterclass in dichotomies: modern yet classic, hot and cold, crunchy and smooth, savory and sweet. Buah Keluak is a little known ingredient from Southeast Asia that tastes like an acidic Oaxacan mole. It's never used in desserts. Malcolm Lee brilliantly paired the chocolatey nut with 80% Valrhona chocolate to create an intense ice cream. It rests over a salted caramel bed and is flanked to one side by chocolate crumble and chili specks, and a warm milk chocolate espuma on the other. The single most intense dessert I had all year.
Going into December, I thought that Sarah Osborn's plum cake with a buckwheat budino was going to take the final slot here, but no. She outdid herself with this one. Or, perhaps fearing that she wouldn't make the list twice, decided to get me with a savory Asian twist—my kryptonite. Housemade Missouri miso ice cream (incredible) paired with Jonathan apples, her perfect pecan financier, heady nasturtium honey, and candied pecans. This is my favorite dessert of hers yet.