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Sweet Inspirations

In The Kitchen

Where does a pastry chef get his or her inspiration? For me, a walk down the streets of New York—which brings the aroma of roasted nuts, the sight of brightly decorated store windows, or the musical jingles of the Mister Softee truck—is enough to stir up my creative juices. Even a special dessert name can inspire me.

Inspiration comes unexpectedly at any time of the year, but it also results from planned seasonal menu changes. Each season has its own special look and bounty of fresh produce. Fall and winter desserts are heavier, spicier, and darker, with the occasional spurt of color during holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Spring and summer desserts tend to be lighter, fruitier, and more colorful.

For the flavor of a dessert, I often think of favorite childhood treats such as cookies, candy bars, or snack cakes. These ideas are often the most popular because of the fond memories they conjure up for my customers. For example, on my menu at Brasserie 81⁄2 is a Ring Ding Dome, a gourmet version of the original made with devil’s food cake and white chocolate mousse. Taking a popular old confection and giving it a new spin can result in sweet success. Another crowd pleaser is our butterscotch trio made up of pudding, cheesecake, and a sundae. Often, tweaking a good dessert—adding a spice, changing an ingredient, or pairing it with a different sauce—makes it even better.

I once had a perfectly good idea for an apple dessert with cumin, but I nixed it because of the overwhelming flavor of the spice. So I recreated it by removing the cumin and adding bourbon ice cream instead; the result was a smash hit.

Experimenting with a new or exotic ingredient can also be a great way to tantalize taste buds. Rambutan, a tropical fruit, makes a great floral-tinged sorbet and lends any fruit tart added mystery. Huckleberries can be used in anything that calls for blueberries, and they always impart a certain je ne sais quoi.


The activities around you can often influence the look of a dessert. The vitality of New York City—Broadway shows, nightclubs, museums, the architecture of the buildings—and the variety of street life spark my creations. When I worked in downtown Manhattan, my desserts were always tall and structured, mimicking the skyscrapers that surrounded me. For example, one of my signature desserts, the Tower of Chocolate, consisted of layers of brownie, cocoa meringue, chocolate almond cake, and milk chocolate mousse surrounded by four dark chocolate spires. Working in Midtown inspired desserts that took on the look of a show, landmark, or shopper’s delight. During my time at the Rainbow Room, we served up a dessert called 30 Chocofeller Plaza, a chocolate and mocha cake styled to look like Rockefeller Center. Other creations include the Maribu Slipper (a chocolate, banana, and rum concoction) and an Oscar special, complete with a golden statue.


Naming a dessert can be the most fun. Giving your dessert an intriguing moniker can entice the patrons, as well as put a smile on their faces. Names like Thoroughly Modern Melba and Pearspray are fun examples. Songs can be a source —e.g., a chocolate and beet dessert that I called Turn the Beet Around—as can celebrities—Charo’s Chocolate Churros with Cuchicuchi Sauce. For the past few years, I have been fashioning an Academy Award dessert menu featuring Oscar-inspired creations such as Lord of the Ring Dings, Two Killer Dillers (Chicago), Going Nuts and Bananas (A Beautiful Mind), Pianna Cotta Concerto (The Pianist), and The Irish Love Their Scotch (Gangs of New York).


No matter how impressed you are with your inspired dessert, order up a test run before serving. First present the new creation to your pastry staff for their feedback. Then let the waitstaff sample it, and if it receives their endorsement, run it as a special in the restaurant. Customers’ comments will
tell you if you’ve gone too far; sometimes what sounds good to you strikes your guests as just too wacky. Keep in mind that you do have to sell it! And the front-of-house team can also give you ideas; they let you know what the customer is really looking for.


Finally, I leave you with a line from Auntie Mame: “Live, Live, Live!” If you do that, you will never be short on inspiration for a dessert—or anything in life.

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