On the Cutting Edge

America’s collective sweet tooth still favors cheesecake, chocolate and ice cream when it comes to restaurant desserts, but that’s not stopping pastry chefs and menu developers from a little wild experimentation. As sweet-savory flavor combinations continue to explode, other trends are also taking off: drinkable desserts, European and Asian-inspired treats, soy-based and gluten-free sweets and far-out indulgences made possible through technological breakthroughs. The three concepts here attract dessert fans by expertly straddling the mainstream and the modern.

Paciugo Gelato, Dallas, Texas-based

Husband-and-wife team Cristiana and Ugo Ginatta apprenticed at a gelateria in Turin, Italy, to master traditional techniques and original recipes so they could market authentic Italian gelato in the United States. They now offer over 200 flavors of the cool, creamy dessert in 21 locations. “Plain chocolate is our most popular overall flavor, but each franchise locale has its favorite gelato,” says Cristiana Ginatta. “In Austin, Texas, it’s black pepper-olive oil, while in Colorado, chocolate-cinnamon-chili pepper ranks first.” The gelato ingredients are hand-prepared in a central kitchen, pre-measured and packaged, then sent out to each store to assure consistency; only seasonal fruits are used for the changing roster of flavors. A small cup holds three flavors sculpted into a rose shape with a special scoop and spatula.

Kyotofu, New York City

A Japanese dessert bar might sound as incongruous as a Mormon cocktail lounge, but the year-old Kyotofu is tempting New Yorkers with a seasonally changing menu of decadent treats. What’s more, many of the beautifully crafted and presented desserts are based on miso, soymilk or fresh, artisanal tofu made on premises. Yet customers would be hard-pressed to detect soy in the Varlhona chocolate soufflé cupcake, Tahitian vanilla parfait with passion fruit caramel or bon bons filled with black sesame cream. “Our goal is in keeping with the Japanese philosophy—to create lighter, minimally sweet desserts so the guest can clearly taste all the elements,” says co-owner Nicole Bermensolo. Kyotofu also encourages pairing the sweet selections with shochu cocktails or sake—a first, claim the owners.

Sourcing ingredients is a daily struggle, Bermensolo admits. “We buy from Japanese trading companies and import on our own, but consistency is hard to come by,” she explains. “As our volume increases, I think we’ll have better luck.” A second Kyotofu is planned for downtown Manhattan.

Buzz Bakery and Dessert Lounge, Alexandria, Va.

Free wi-fi, a play area for kids and live music keep Buzz humming from 6 a.m. until midnight. Patrons stop in for everything from a breakfast cup of coffee with a homemade muffin to an after-movie chocolate martini paired with a white chocolate Napoleon. To keep up with these different dayparts and diverse customer base, pastry chef Josh Short is constantly infusing his menu with new ideas—some of which come from frequent guests. “Customers were asking for vegan and gluten-free choices, so I added cupcakes and brownies made with rice and almond flour. For the sugar-free requests, I used agave nectar as the sweetener,” he says.

For the less health-conscious late-night patrons, Short created a roster of dessert drinks. “I tried to incorporate the pastry aspect into various cocktails,” he explains. Items like his Lemon Cake-Tini (sour lemon frangelico with vanilla vodka) and Hot Apple Pie (steamed cider, Tuca apple liqueur and whipped cream) have turned Buzz into a destination for after-dinner drinks and dessert.

Sweet sourcing

Star Chefs’ Pastry Trends 2007 report reveals that a sizeable percentage of pastry chefs source ingredients from within a 50-mile radius (Show graph) That doesn’t surprise David Guas, longtime executive pastry chef at several Washington D.C.-area restaurants and founder of DamGoodSweet Consulting Group. Way before “food miles” became a buzzword, his focus was local and seasonal. Honey, goat’s milk, peaches, plums, strawberries and other of his standbys come from small producers in nearby Virginia and Maryland.

“My regular supplier can usually carry these products, but other times, I eliminate the purveyor and go directly to the individual beekeeper, goat farmer or grower. If you have time to make a few phone calls, you can establish a network and arrange deliveries,” Guas notes.

Guas transforms these local products into global desserts garnished with a dollop of comfort, such as his Asian-inspired Warm Ginger Lemongrass Pound Cake with Yuzu Huckleberries and Kaffir Lime Coconut Sorbet. He also enjoys collaborating with his savory chefs, sometimes “borrowing” their ingredients and equipment for inspiration. “I like to tinker in the kitchen,” he says. “Circulators make great custards and braising machines and sous vide equipment can be handy for different dessert preparations.”

To control costs, Guas keeps an eye on price spikes for dairy, eggs, produce and other essentials, updating his database with new cost-outs twice a month. If something starts to go way up, he may readjust the dessert list, subbing grapefruit for limes, for example. Pastry kitchen staples, like butter, sugar and flour, are purchased in high enough volume to offset the impact of price fluctuations.

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