One Theme, A Growing Story

Each month, Tasting Table’s Monthly Editions explores a single topic from a variety of delicious angles. Our February issue, Sugar, examines the ways that sweetness adds nuance to our eating and drinking, from cocktails to short ribs to, of course, dessert. And to kick things off, we've taken inspiration from pastry chefs, those beloved meal-ending masters. Click through the photo-essay below for our picks for Best Pastry Chefs 2012, along with their most delicious recipes.

  • cover-feb
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Angie Mosier

    Cynthia Wong,
    Empire State South, Atlanta

    “My parents wanted me to have a 401K kind of job,” recalls Cynthia Wong. Lucky for us, her passion for desserts trumped her family’s wishes. At Cakes & Ale, where she had her first job as a pastry chef, Wong created delicious iterations of simple classics. Her steroidal whoopie pie, Phatty Cake, became Atlanta’s most crave-worthy cookie.

    Since transferring to Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South last summer, Wong has stretched her repertoire to include more modern touches. Her Meyer lemon custard cake (click here to see the recipe) has the heart of a lemon-meringue pie: Serve the cake with whipped cream for a simple dessert, or garnish with black sesame crunch and yuzu for a special occasion.

  • cover-dec Cynthia Wong’s Meyer lemon custard cake with black sesame crunch
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Jody Horton

    Kyle McKinney,
    Barley Swine, Austin

    At Barley Swine in Austin, Texas, seasonal Southern cooking is turned on its head, and the restaurant’s dessert program leads the charge.

    Kyle McKinney came on as pastry chef last March, but with 15 years of experience as a savory chef (including a brief stint in sushi), McKinney doesn’t merely stick to sugar. He works the line in addition to running pastry, which explains the origin of plates like butternut-squash ice cream paired with a savory sage funnel cake and finished with duck fat and grilled foie gras.

    Hyper-local ingredient sourcing inspires much of the Barley Swine menu, from pumpkin cheesecake to a beet cake topped with raw goat’s-milk ice cream (click here to see the recipe). Keeping diners paying close attention, McKinney flavors the ice cream with tarragon and tops the cake with honeyed tapioca pearls.

  • cover-dec Kyle McKinney’s beet cake with goat's-milk ice cream
  • Chris Ford, Wit & Wisdom, Baltimore

    Chris Ford, the pastry mastermind behind Wit & Wisdom at the Baltimore Four Seasons hotel, wants to take you back to your roots.

    Ford’s desserts embody playful nostalgia, giving childhood favorites an upscale, modern twist. To wit: A textbook apple crisp is updated with fiery cinnamon ice cream. It’s a Red Hot in frozen form.

    A perfectionist when it comes to technique, Ford insists that reinventing the simple and traditional demands a careful approach. He spent months perfecting the classic pâte à choux recipe for his take on a Fluffernutter sandwich (click here to see the recipe). Coconut pearls, chocolate and hazelnuts sit on a banana cream puff base, creating a dessert that’s far sexier than any sandwich we used to pack in our lunch box.

  • cover-dec Chris Ford’s banana cream puff
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Heather Sperling

    Meg Galus, NoMI Kitchen, Chicago

    Since NoMI reopened last summer, the goal has been to offer the same high-end dining experience that the restaurant has always been known for--but with an added level of accessibility.

    For Meg Galus, that means tarts. She considers them the perfect balance of refinement and ease. The pastry chef, who did stints at TRU and the Sofitel before coming to NoMI, offers three tarts every day, in iterations such as pistachio with cardamom and orange, or vanilla malt topped with Amarena cherries (click here to see the recipe).

    But tarts are hardly the full extent of her talents: The most popular dish in her artillery is the beignet, with mascarpone vanilla cream, passion-fruit caramel and roasted banana sorbet. “You don’t eat dessert because you have to; you eat dessert because you want to,” she says. We concur.

  • cover-dec Meg Galus’ vanilla malt tart with Amarena cherries
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Dave Brown

    Samm Sherman, Linger, Denver

    Street food is the focus of Denver’s Linger, and as its pastry chef, Sherman tweaks iconic open-air sweets with rare inspiration. She soaks künefe phyllo strands in cava syrup, gilds Mississippi mud pie with miso and butterscotch, and matches Italian zeppole with lemon espuma.

    Then there is her inspired peanut-butter-and-jelly cup: A sucker for candy, Sherman whirs together peanut butter, silken tofu and agave, then mounts it in a chocolate base. She flanks the cup with Cabernet Sauvignon-caramel coulis, candied peanuts and brûléed bananas (click here to see the recipe).

    Many of Sherman’s desserts are free of either gluten, nuts or dairy. But there is no sanctimony at Linger: Instead, Sherman uses uncommon ingredients in familiar guises, cracking open a universe of delicious possibility.

  • cover-dec Samm Sherman’s peanut butter cup
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: E. Katie Holm

    Heidi Woodman, Heidi’s Place, Minneapolis

    “My approach isn’t as a pastry chef, it’s as a cook,” says Heidi Woodman of Heidi’s Place in Minneapolis.

    Woodman is known for her playful combinations: caramelized pineapple and banana with basil ice cream; liquid-nitrogen-frozen chocolate mousse with dehydrated peanut butter and liquefied marshmallow. She’s known for constant innovation, too: After a fire ruined her restaurant in 2010, she spent a year revamping her pastry approach.

    Her recipe, sponge cake with citrus salad and Madeira sabayon (click here to see), is a dish from the restaurant’s previous incarnation. The version of the dish currently on the restaurant’s menu is infinitely more complex, with candied mint, candied ginger, coconut-chocolate sauce, Madeira caramel and citrus, all layered as a parfait.

  • cover-dec Heidi Woodman’s Madeira parfait with citrus and coconut
  • pc-7 Photo: Noah Fecks

    Ghaya F. Oliveira, Boulud Sud, New York

    Not only is Ghaya F. Oliveira making some of the best dishes in their class at Bar Boulud, but she has also forged new sweet worlds at the Mediterranean-inspired Boulud Sud.

    Oliveira’s desserts call equally on her 10 years in Daniel Boulud’s kitchens and on her native Tunisia. Her taste for fruit and a childhood redolent with nuts, dates and citrus inspired her Greek yogurt parfait, loaded with whole-wheat couscous, dried apricots, toasted pistachios and pomegranate seeds (click here to see the recipe).

    Her signature grapefruit givré combines spun strands of sesame halvah, soft Turkish delight and grapefruit sorbet, capped with a caramel-orange tuile. The hollowed-out fruit, lording over a bowl of crushed ice, stops traffic in the dining room. We wouldn’t expect anything less from Oliveira.

  • cover-dec Ghaya F. Oliveira’s grapefruit givré
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Leah Harb

    Lauren Fortgang, Little Bird, Portland, OR

    French desserts are the starting point for most pastry chefs. But for Lauren Fortgang, pastry chef of Little Bird and Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, they’re the finish line.

    Her résumé is full of lauded restaurants, such as New York City’s Hearth and Craft, where she built her repertoire on rustic, Italian-influenced desserts. So for the Francophone challenge, Fortgang turned to the queen: “I read a lot of Julia Child,” she says.

    And if her tarte Tatin (click here to see the recipe) is any indication, that studying has more than paid off. At the restaurant, Fortgang uses an heirloom variety of apple called Caldille, thought to be the type originally used in the dessert. We made it with a different variety, and it still resulted in the best tarte Tatin we’ve ever tasted.

  • cover-dec Lauren Fortgang’s tarte Tatin with crème fraîche
  • ME-slide-dec-img1 Photo: Aubrie Pick

    Devin McDavid, Quince and Cotogna, San Francisco

    Last October, Devin McDavid assumed the role of executive pastry chef for Michael Tusk’s celebrated Quince and Cotogna restaurants in San Francisco. There, the 31-year-old native of Trinidad both showcases what he has learned from his mentors (such as Thomas Keller) and passes on his skills to fledgling pastry cooks.

    The unique challenge of creating desserts for both the fine-dining ethos at Quince and the rustic Italian bent at Cotogna appeals to McDavid. “I look at the ingredients,” he says, citing a recent fascination with a Valrhona single-origin chocolate from the Dominican Republic, “and I imagine how I can best use it to accentuate a meal at either restaurant.” Our favorite proof: McDavid’s two-chocolate tart with praline ice cream at Quince (click here to see the recipe).

  • cover-dec Devin McDavid’s chocolate tart with praline ice cream
  • recipe_10 Photo: Rina Jordan

    Neil Robertson, Crumble and Flake, Seattle

    It’s hard to imagine what territory might be left for Neil Robertson to cover. But after having led the pastry departments of some of Seattle’s best restaurants, he’s renewed his career once again with his first solo venture, a bakery called Crumble & Flake that will open in April. The focus here is classic French pastry, executed with precision and a bit of whimsy. Expect cream puffs filled to order with pastry creams in flavors such as chocolate, goat's milk and bourbon, as well as that current darling of the pastry menu, kouign-amann.

    For a taste of this elegant simplicity at home, try Robertson’s lemon marshmallows (click here to see the recipe). Delicate, with a delightful tang, they make lovely gifts, and even better snacks to keep for yourself.

  • cover-dec Neil Robertson’s lemon marshmallows
  • SENT AUGUST 16, 2013


    Brunch Becomes Her

    Get your Michy's fried chicken fix at Sunday brunch

    For years, Michelle Bernstein has served her fried chicken at Michy's during all-you-can-eat bacchanals on summer Wednesdays. Now the bronzed bird appears in a new form on her...

    MORE »
  • SENT FEBRUARY 28, 2012


    Yeast of Eden

    Measure your doughnut aptitude with our IQ test

    Sugared and fresh from the fry oil, doughnuts are universally loved as few things are. The treats are always in fashion, to be sure, but the past year has suggested a moment: New...

    MORE »
  • SENT FEBRUARY 24, 2012


    Spice of Life

    Flavored rum isn't so bad after all

    Spiced rum is gunning for respectability of late. Sure, it may never fully escape the cloud of countless bad decisions and rough mornings-after, but those of us in the know can...

    MORE »
  • SENT FEBRUARY 23, 2012


    Meet the Other Tim Burton

    Burton's Maplewood Farm is the latest site of cheffy syrup

    To some, chef-branded pots, knives and sauces are a sign of selling out. But chef-endorsed syrups have escaped that stigma; on the contrary, these collaborations of chef and sap...

    MORE »
  • SENT FEBRUARY 21, 2012


    Roll With It

    A rolling pin for every personality

    Inheriting Grandma's rolling pin is high on our list of coveted kitchen scores. If, however, Granny wasn't much of a baker, take heed: We put four distinctly different rolling...

    MORE »
  • SENT FEBRUARY 17, 2012


    Vocabulary Quiz

    For postprandial drinking, remember Quarts de Chaume

    When it comes to dessert wines, most drinkers don't get past Sauternes. But those in the know can now commit a new vocabulary phrase to heart: Quarts de Chaume. This region in...

    MORE »

Tasting Table Join