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.
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.
Case in point: the tres leches-inspired dessert we added to our menu in the late summer. It was born in conversation with Jesus, one our youngest cooks in the pastry kitchen. On the surface, it was simply an exercise: How do we refine and transform a rather pedestrian dessert into something worthy of a four-star restaurant? What new techniques can we apply to the original concept? Once manipulated, how do we maintain that reference back to the classic, with or, preferably, without an overblown sense of irony? So before we did anything, we made the original version, without bells and whistles.
As we tucked into the wet, spongy tres leches, I asked Jesus how it made him feel. Born and raised in the Bronx, he made frequent visits to his grandmother in Mexico as a child. It took a lot coaxing, but Jesus eventually, shyly began to describe every memory connected to the tres leches his grandmother would buy from the bakery in her small town. He remembered her plates and sitting at her kitchen table. Visiting the shop itself was part of the ritual, so he also began to recall the sweet smells and even the color of its walls. "That," I said, "is what we're trying to do!" No matter how much we add our clever contemporary spin through technique or ingredients, that nostalgia is what we're trying to access. No matter the age of our guests, whether six years old, or sixty, the potential in tapping those memories can be powerful.
A very personal expression of the proverbial madeleine, the combination of spiced cider and warm doughnuts, stirs my own recollections. This simple snack calls to mind an early autumn Sunday at a cider mill in my native Michigan. The damp chill in the air, the early sunset, the smell of hay and fermenting apples, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot—they all become nearly palpable. In my memory, that combination of tastes draped me in a thick wooly blanket of happy simplicity. Though that event may have only happened a few times, in my mind's eye, apples and cinnamon represent a sacred ritual. Years later as a professional pastry chef, I often find myself drawn to the idea of recreating that sensation, if only for my own benefit. To those guests who've enjoyed my refined interpretations of cider and doughnuts over the years, it's served under the guise of a seasonal dessert, along with the trappings of sophisticated elegance, but also with a wink and a nod from behind the kitchen door.
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