Sweet Retreat

Bill Yosses - July/August 2005

Europe's great traditions get an airing at the Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat.

Old Europe dead? No way. Old Europe, you rock, cousin. There was nothing frumpy or fossilized about the aspects of the Old World on display at the Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat at The Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in St. Helena, California, in April. Conceived to explore how food beyond our shoreline influences contemporary American cuisine, this year's installment—cosponsored by Food Arts and the CIA—bore the title "Of Modern Flavors and Lost Arts."

Rarely do chefs get five minutes of downtime to think conceptually, but that's what they were able to do in this setting, dedicated to the open-ended exchange of information. The format of short hyperfocused presentations kept the participants' energy level high, and many new ideas bubbled up on the final day, when the chefs put into practice what they had learned from chef/presenters over the previous two days. For instance, after listening to the Austrians' presentation, Stephen Durfee (pastry instructor, CIA Greystone) turned tradition on its head with an inside-out strudel. As Durfee points out, "The retreat offers a forum for new ideas that are rooted in bona fide traditions as well as a stage to test them out on an ideal audience."

Playing against reputation, Oriol Balaguer (Estudi Xocolada, Barcelona), the oracle of modern Spanish desserts and a former pastry chef at El Bulli, made clear that nothing is as shocking as tradition rerevealed. Balaguer's interpretations are lean idealized versions of originals. One of the most typical Catalan sweets is a slice of bread doused with olive oil and chocolate; mothers feed it to their kids in the afternoon. In Balaguer's hands, pan, aceite y chocolate becomes a paper-thin crouton with fruity extra-virgin olive oil, creamy ganache, and a pinch of Maldon sea salt. His "seven textures of chocolate" appears as a cacao box housing the main ingredient in various states: liquid, frozen, as a tempered sheet, as ganache, as mousse, as cookie, and as gelée. Known for imaginative package and product design, Balaguer believes "the experience of pleasure should start from the first moment you view the dessert and continue through to the taste." He displays that perspective the best in the translucent packaging and wing-shaped form of a chocolate bonbon with black truffles, a startling combination of sweet and savory that gave me arrhythmia.

The most unconventional, though, is Balaguer's insistence that desserts should be made to order and delivered to the customer moments after they're made. There's no showcase of premade desserts in his shop. Every item must be specially requested. That's certainly an unusual approach for a retail store such as his, let alone a restaurant. Whoa! Where are we going here? What will we do with those expensive refrigerators we all bought? From a business point of view, pastry shops cannot always expect customers to buy into the pastry chef's artistic ways. As savvy entrepreneurs, Elizabeth Falkner (Citizen Cake, San Francisco) and Thomas Haas (Thomas Haas Fine Chocolates and Patisserie, Vancouver) wanted to learn more about Balaguer's approach. Certainly a dessert made under these conditions should be more satisfying, but they wondered what it would take to get their retail customers to appreciate such a level of production and its higher costs. As for adopting it as a business model, they remained skeptical.

In the opening session, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking (see Silver Spoon), explained the molecular whys and wherefores of dessert cookery. Ariane Batterberry, Food Arts' co–founding editor/publisher, then threw a figurative pie by focusing a long-overdue spotlight on underappreciated Austrian desserts—a personal favorite of hers—and then delivering a roundhouse left hook to the "mousse-ing" and oversweetening of American desserts.

Cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, a frequent collaborator with Pierre Hermé (Desserts by Pierre Hermé and Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Hermé), gave an eye-popping overview of au courant Parisian pastry, cluing in the glued-in listeners about the warmhearted simplicity of Pâtisserie Mulot, Sébastian Gaudard's supermodern sweets at Delicabar, and Hermé's sensational repertoire, paying special attention to his trademarked Miss Gla'Gla (named after French children's slang for freezing cold) and Mr. H, his ice cream sandwich and "lollipop" spring flavor collections, respectively. Hermé presents his seasonal creations in the form of a fashion show, with chefs displaying the latest pastry styles on domed platters as they high-step down the runway. Now in vogue are his three Miss Gla'Gla sandwiches—Eden (peach sorbet, saffron ice cream, apricot/peach macaroon), Montebello (pistachio ice cream, strawberry sorbet, pistachio macaroon), and Isphahan (rose ice cream, raspberry sorbet, pink-colored macaroon)—and his three Mr. H "lollipops"—the triangular Montebello (lemon biscuit, raspberry gelée, pistachio cream), the square Mogador (milk chocolate, passion fruit), and the round Isphahan (almond biscuit, raspberry gelée, rose cream). In a departure from Hermé, Greenspan's video of the late Lionel Poilâne making Breton sablés served as a poignant and moving eulogy as well as a damned good baking lesson.

Judging from the drinkable desserts, candy bars, and sweet sandwiches percolating into the mainstream at Delicabar, Ladurée, and Jean-Paul Hévin, Greenspan said, in Paris today "the execution of classic technique is applied to whimsical desserts that are conceptually new. Desserts that have been in the repertoire for centuries are getting new readings. Gâteau Saint-Honoré can now be found in rose flavor, religieuse in violet. Want a triple-flavored éclair (lemon, orange, passion fruit with orange glaze polka dots)? Just go to Fauchon."

Hazelnuts figure prominently in desserts from Italy's Piedmont region. The ingredient-obsessed presenter Fabrizio Galla (Le Tre Colombe, Turin, Italy) searches fanatically for the best hazelnuts to use in his dacquoise with cream and hazelnut gelato, which deftly held the intense hazelnut flavor in harmony with the other elements.

The pivotal session for this retreat was introduced by Yusuf Yaran, executive pastry chef of the Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski in Istanbul. For sheer dash, his first dessert, pumpkin confit, couldn't be equaled. Suffice it to say that plaster of Paris is one of its ingredients. That got our attention. It turns out that lime, or calcium carbonate solution, is used in Turkish pastry for its textural properties. The carbonate part of this solution, McGee explained, helps dissolve the cell walls (hemicellulose) of the marinated pumpkin, while the calcium part cross-links and thus strengthens the pectin of the wall, making it crisp, as in pickled watermelon rind. The result is pumpkin both tender and crunchy. Amazing.

Beneath the gee-whiz quality of Yaran's recipes lies the more important historical fact that Istanbul was the gateway for the entry of sweets into Europe. Sugar from India spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, starting in its home base of Turkey. European royalty, in imitation of Ottoman splendor, imported it. The pashas and sultans were the envy of Europe for their textiles, libraries, fragrances, and cuisine, especially the desserts. This "culture of sweet" took several different paths in Europe, and the results can be seen today in the difference between the desserts of eastern Europe and those of western Europe. Siegfried Schnecker, a confectionery instructor at the Gastgewerbefachschule, in Vienna; Friedrich Rinner, a pastry chef from Graz; and Wolfgang Ban, chef to the Austrian ambassador to the United Nations (see Techniques), revealed the technical skills of a very different, and separate, tradition as they showed us fruit dumplings and Sacher torte. Ultimately, the best strudel dough is the one with the most developed gluten; the glaze of a Sacher torte is deliberately crystallized. Both techniques would be heretical in western Europe's pastry tradition.

Plates by Dan Budd from Taste Budds, in Red Hook, New York (see "Four-Star Fair Fare," Front Burner, page 22), and Daniel Kish, chef/instructor at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, represented a dissertation on dessert and drink pairings. Serving nonalcoholic chasers matched with their reworked classics, they struck the perfect tone in the harmony of old and new: chocolate/tea tartlettes with Turkish sweet tea and framboise caffè latte.

The final tasting veered toward the refined. The audience was we ourselves, and the peer-to-peer observations were neither negative nor positive, neither fawning nor wary. I don't think I heard a single compliment; no one was trafficking in polite clichés. As presenter Gilles Renusson, pastry instructor at Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, put it: "These retreats focus our attention not only on the trends in baking and pastry but also on our sense of debt and responsibility to the public and how we see ourselves as a group." The Worlds of Flavor provided us with the mirror. How we interpret what we saw is up to us.

**Which pastry chef made what**

"Bill Yosses"

In addition to the chefs whose dishes are represented by photographs, these are the other participants who produced desserts beyond the call of duty for the grand tasting:

Tammy Alana (Alizé at the Top of the Palms, Las Vegas) Pandan leaf crème brée spring roll with red currant/orange sauce
Chris Broberg (Cafe Gray, New York City) Pear braised in black olive caramel with fromage blanc sorbet and roasted almonds
Stephen Durfee (CIA Greystone, St. Helena, CA) Inside-out apple strudel
Robert Ellinger (Baked to Perfection, Port Washington, NY) Nutty Joe Jansci, layering nuts and coffee into the chocolate trio of biscuit, mousse, and glaze
Alexander Espiritu (The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco) Nougat glacé with chocolate mousse and rose water
Elizabeth Falkner (Citizen Cake, San Francisco) Red Light District, a beet fritter served on drained yogurt with honey, olive oil, and rhubarb gelée
Mark Furstenberg (The Bread Line, Washington, D.C.) Poppy/walnut, cheese/prune, and almond/orange zest kuchen
Della Gossett (Charlie Trotter's, Chicago) Thai chile profiterole with curry ice cream
Thomas Gumpel (Panera Bread, Hyde Park, NY) Baumkuchen with kirschwasser cream and caramel/cherry compote
Kurt Gutenbrunner (Wallsamp;é, New York City) Unusual Black Forest cake
Ethan Howard (Martini House, St. Helena, CA) Vanilla yogurt panna cotta with chilled spiced apricot soup and toasted almond relish
En-Ming Hsu (consulting pastry chef, Henderson, NV) Orange/almond cake with horchata de chufas (a drink made from chufas, a tuber that tastes like a cross between a pineapple and a coconut)
John Hui (Caesars Palace, Las Vegas) Gâteau Pithiviers with vanilla poached pears, crème brûlamp;eacute;e, and almond nougat
Maura Kilpatrick (Oleana, Cambridge, MA) Nougat glacé with citrus spoon sweets
Michael Laiskonis (Le Bernardin, New York City) "Turkish coffee" with lemon, pistachio, almond, and honey
Paul Lemieux (Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, CA) Phyllo-wrapped chocolate dumpling with tarragon ice cream and extra-virgin olive oil
Emily Luchetti (Farallon, San Francisco) Apple marmalade–filled buckwheat crêpes with vanilla ice cream and brown butter/Sherry sauce
Sue McCown (Earth & Ocean, W Seattle) Olive oil ice cream with fennel/honey tuile and orange zest
Michelle Myers (Sona, Los Angeles) Kouing-aman with orange blossom milk, mara de bois, and fleur de sel/caramel ice cream
Pierre Reboul (Wallsamp;eacute;, New York City) Apple/celery sorbet with grated horseradish
Richard Ruskell (Montage Resort & Spa, Laguna Beach, CA) Honey/almond Berliners