To try Michael's recipe for "cider and doughnuts," adapted from a dessert served at Le Bernardin, click here.
I had never really considered the culture of desserts, nor mined the depths of our human desire for sweet things, until a discussion I shared with columnist Alan Richman a few years ago. Alan posed a rather vague and daunting question: "What is the essence of dessert?" I'm not even sure he knew what kind of answer he was looking for. After some introspection, I noticed that the taste for sweet things must be rooted deep within our psyche: the physiological, the emotional, and a sense of wellbeing and pure pleasure (both the hidden, guilty side and the shared, celebratory nature). And I realized that my trade is really one of nostalgia. Though savory cooks might retain some capacity to tell stories through their dishes, we pastry chefs surely tap directly into our collective DNA, coaxing out the inner child in all of us with sugar.
With the possible exception of salt, the instinctual desire for sweetness, more than any other taste, is surely hardwired into some hidden chromosome. From birth, we seek our nourishment and comfort in the rich, sweetened form of mother's milk. (Years later, as adults, we're hard-pressed to identify our primal attraction to creamy crème brulée and quivering spoonfuls of fragrant panna cotta.) The craving for sweetness endures.
Dessert functions as a reward for eating those vegetables, a miracle salve for that scraped knee, or even a mischievous child's stolen secret. These associations remain through adulthood.
As children, just when we might mature beyond that physiological need, the desire manifests itself in the realm of emotion. Our tastes, preferences, and associations with food begin to set as we explore new flavors and textures, and with sweetness we begin to associate pleasure, reward, envy, and guilt. As with Proust's madeleine, it is often the sweet that becomes intertwined with memory and a sense of comfort. Dessert functions as a reward for eating those vegetables, a miracle salve for that scraped knee, or even a mischievous child's stolen secret. The acquisition of penny candy is often a child's first foray into the world of commerce and finance. These associations remain through adulthood. Playing to this, for a pastry chef, can initiate the creation of something new yet familiar; the context of such nostalgia, especially unexpected in a fine dining environment, heightens such playfulness.
Everyone has deeply personal triggers that light up some fragment of memory, and I find my work as a pastry chef, no matter how refined, is a potential portal to one's own childhood. A sense of responsibility surfaced with this realization, but so too did a renewed sense of exploration; I enjoy the challenge of interweaving those nostalgic elements in ways that might not be obvious. Each dessert must have broad appeal, but a true "dialog" emerges when an element of a dish tickles the guest in some ineffable way. The more I explore this notion, the more fascinating I find it. While not the sole motivation for new desserts, it is playing an increasing role in how I now construct a dish.