Take a guess as to what this is.
Its components are described as: “…falling chocolate trunk filled with frozen chocolate powder, on a forest floor of lime-and mint yogurt, with almond praline, puffed quinoa, and green-pistachio streusel.
…or how about this…
Some of its (many) ingredients include frozen green pine cone powder, green pine cone “infusion”, and liquid nitrogen.
Give up? Both of these are desserts from Spain’s famed El Bulli restaurant. Set to close in 2011, the restaurant is considered by many to have led the way in innovating the most advanced of avant garde techniques in cooking today, and El Bulli’s pastry chef , Albert Adria, is one of a handful of chefs whose work is profiled by by Adam Gopnik in the article “Sweet Revolution: the power of the pastry chef” in the January 3rd issue of The New Yorker.
Having given up sweets, both at homes and at restaurants, Gopnik begins to puzzle over the purpose of dessert. Certainly, humans seem to be hard-wired, for the most part, to gravitate toward the sweet in food. At its most basic level, sweetness indicates ripeness and serves as a marker for what food is good to eat. However, up until fairly recently, substances that make food sweet were scarce and were used sparingly and mostly by the rich. All of that changed during the seventeenth century with the advent of what Gopnik calls a “hideous invention” (an assessment with which I agree) of the West Indies sugar plantation. Cheap sugar led to a revolution in dessert cuisine in France with, as Gopnik describes it, “the pastry chef as hero.” At New York’s WD-50, Gopnik speaks with pastry chef Alex Stupak who says: “I happen to not like sweets. It’s an idiosyncrasy of mine. I decided to become a pastry chef because it gave me autonomy. Whether you think your desserts are manipulated or not, they are!…Pastry is the closet that a human being can get to creating a new food.” It’s clear that for this chef creating dessert is creating art.
Further pondering leads Gopnik to Spain and to the above mentioned El Bulli. He also visits El Celler de Can Roca where the pastry chef, Jordi Roca serves him a dessert that combines a soccer ball made of passion fruit cream and powdered mint leaves covered in white chocolate with artificial “grass” and white candy netting. A waiter turns on an MP3 player and a soccer announcer’s voice fills the air of the restaurant. Nods from the waiter cue Gopnik to eat three meringues one by one. Picking up the last meringue triggers a spring to propel the chocolate ball above the netting and fall back to the plate where it breaks open to revel the passion fruit/mint filling while the soccer announcer shouts MESSI! GOOOOOAL! Roca aims for this dessert to recreate for the diner the emotions experienced by Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi when he scores a goal. Gopnik is appropriately moved and impressed yet seems very clear that this is art and as such is a unique experience less about “dining” and more about entering into the aesthetic realm of a particular creator i.e. the pastry chef.
So is dessert supposed to fill us with awe, wonder, and delight or does it serve to fulfill our needs for warmth and comfort?
When I was a kid, my mother—a wonderful cook—didn’t bother with dessert most of the time. There was always ice cream in the freezer for me and my siblings and Mom might heat up the occasional frozen pie. When we had guests though she pulled out all the stops. Elaborate desserts were always featured—Chocolate Swirl Mousse, English Trifle, something heavenly that she called Strawberries Romanoff—all stunning in flavor and appearance. “We never get stuff like this unless there’s company!” my brother would moan as he flung himself onto a nearby chair or sofa. “Exactly,” Mom would reply. I understood what she was talking about. Having such extravaganzas very often would have taken the glow off of them…made them less special.
Then I think of my paternal grandfather. For him, all meals were eaten at home unless one were traveling and those meals had a structure that never varied…meat—always in an identifiable shape, a vegetable or two, and biscuits or cornbread. After lunch and dinner, Granddaddy would always call out, “Hon, how about something sweet?” This he said to my grandmother who was, of course, already on the way to the table with a slice of pie, layer cake, or cobbler. It would no more occur to her to make a souffle or a mousse than it would for her to have given him a sandwich. For both of them, dessert was a necessary punctuation to a meal—a symbol of normality and security and a demonstration of love.
What do I think? On the admittedly rare occasions when I order dessert in a restaurant I want to be wowed. Maybe not on the order of El Bulli’s “falling log” (although that looks interesting to me) but I definitely want something out of the ordinary. At home it’s a different story. I will sometimes make a dessert for guests that I hope will impress but, honestly, I think that the French Apple Tart with Ginger Ice Cream that I made for a large dinner party last spring was not nearly so good, nor so enthusiastically received, as the gingerbread that I made for just 3 of us for Christmas Eve dinner.
Near the beginning of “Sweet Revolution,” Gopnik speaks with Bill Yosses who is the pastry chef at the White House and who is considered by many as “the Great Still Center of the American dessert.” In describing his philosophy, Yosses says, “Dessert is aspirational. It’s the one part of the meal you don’t have to eat. It’s the purest part. The art part.” I think that this statement pretty neatly encapsulates the shared approach of the profiled chefs. Yosses then goes on to say, “But it’s also the greediest part, the eat-in-a-closet part,” which seems to highlight the less articulate hungers that dessert can feed.
I don’t know how many of us will ever get to the White House for dinner, but here at DCPL you can sample some of Yosses’ “art” in The Perfect Finish: special desserts for every occasion by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark. How does Chocolate Caramel Tart with Sea Salt sound to you? Or how about Candied Bacon Peach Cobbler? As I understand it, dessert is not served at the White House every night but these goodies sound like great “every-so-often” treats. Or try Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse with Pear and Fig Chutney or Fresh Ginger Cake from Ready for Dessert: my best recipes by David Lebovitz. Chocolate Bete Noir and Lemon Verbena Poached Nectarines from NYC’s beloved (though now closed) Chanterelle are but a few of the offerings in The Sweet Life: desserts from Chanterelle by Kate Zuckerman. And for “cozy” recipes check out Blueberry Buckle and Apple Pie from The All-American Dessert Book by Nancy Baggett.
Hmmm…I think I still have some of that gingerbread in the freezer at home and I believe that it’s calling my name.