I’ve talked about plated desserts before, and how I think about and develop them. At the risk of repeating myself or boring all of you pastry fiends, I wanted to talk about them again, specifically developing the new summer menu for the restaurant Travelle at the Langham, Chicago (where I work….as a pastry chef). More specifically, I want to give you as near as possible the step by step of how I developed the menu. In our last discussion of plated desserts, I tackled broader definitions and guidelines, and this is all of that being put into practice. This is a large topic to tackle, so I’m breaking it up into more than one episode in an effort to keep everyone awake.
some notes on creativity
I wish I could give you some secret method or trick to harnessing creativity. Hell, I wish I could give that to myself. Some people can light scented candles or sit in the woods or whatever and feel more creative. I’m not one of those people. Ideas come to me when they come to me, sometimes several all at once or in a flurry over days or weeks and sometimes not at all. The key to the creative process for me has always been not to fight it. I don’t try and push myself to be creative if I’m not feeling it, because I know it’s mostly a waste of time and that with some patience the ideas will eventually be there. That sounds all well and good, but isn’t always an ideal set of circumstances when outside forces (like say…my job) mean I need ideas right away. In those instances I’ll sketch a little more often or even sit down and conceptualize a menu or product, but they are never as good as the ideas that come organically.
OK, so I don’t try and push myself to be creative if the mojo isn’t there, BUT: there is always, always, some active part of my brain, at times subconscious and at others conscious, that is thinking of concepts/ideas/etc. I recommend getting into that habit. I’m not talking about being obsessive, just developing a mindset to apply what you see around you into your craft. And when I do have an idea, I write. That. Sh*t. Down. I repeat: Write. That. Sh*t. Down! No, you won’t remember it later. There’s no better time than the present, when the idea is fresh, to quickly put on paper a concept, idea, experiment, whatever.
- Know yourself and your process. Trust in it. Don’t fight it.
- Develop a habit of subconsciously applying your creativity to anything and everything you experience. Interpret the world around you through the lens of your craft.
- Write your ideas down as soon as possible and as often as possible.
How does this apply to my summer menu? Namely that I procrastinated like hell putting it together, with my creative energy spent on other projects and just generally not feeling amped about the menu at all. The great thing about ideas is that one can spark another and develop domino-type energy, which is exactly what happened for my summer menu. An interpretation of strawberry shortcake is all it took for me to get excited about the menu in general, and then the ideas came. Trust the process.
Speaking of the process, I thought I’d give you some broad stroke insight into why I chose the dishes I did. Being Summer, like nearly all chefs I wanted to focus on the obvious – all of the wonderful, fresh produce available during the season. With this in mind, I knew that the majority of the items would be fruit forward (we have six desserts on the menu) with some variety thrown in for non-fruit lovers.
Keep in mind that this process of development usually takes awhile for me, sometimes weeks. Often it starts as a casual sketch or note I make, almost certainly while I’m supposed to be doing something else. The initial idea is sometimes concrete (I want to make a French toast ice cream in a bar shape) or sometimes vague (I want to make a dish with strawberries). Whatever the idea is, it will sort of marinate in my brain for days on end, with more sketching as part of the process, before I’ve “created” the dish in my head enough times that I think there’s something worth making in the real world. That being said, on rare occasions the dish is clearly formulated in basically minutes with little to no tweaking. I love when that happens.
The image below is pretty typical of what my sketchbooks will look like (these were the first sketches of my concept for our new room service menu). Almost blueprints, I draw out the plate as I’d like it to be finished, and as I do I am thinking of how things will taste together and what the textures will be like, but also the logistics of how it will be produced and served.
grandma’s chocolate cake
Because not everyone loves fruit in their dessert, I never write a menu without a chocolate option. Grandma’s chocolate cake (so named for its resemblance to a classic America-style chocolate sponge cake often made by Rockewellian G’mas across the nation) has actually been on our menu before. With the style of the food in our restaurant, there’s a lot of flexibility for me to play with the presentation and components of my desserts from simple and rustic to complex and refined. That’s what I did for this edition of Grandma’s chocolate cake. The components are very simple; a classic chocolate cake with *ice cream and a crunchy chocolate element. I decided to simply refine the presentation.
*Originally I wrote vanilla ice cream, which was my concept for the dessert when first writing this post. Seeing it written out, vanilla ice cream seemed so….vanilla. So I’m deciding right here and now as I type this that we’ll do a malted ice cream with roasted cocoa nibs in it. Inspiration can come at any time, be open to it!
Rather than a buttercream-style chocolate frosting for the cake, we use a much richer ganache that we make from a blend of 64% and 48% chocolate. The cake itself is devil’s food, which is in my opinion the finest variety of chocolate cake known to humankind, and so it’s rare I use anything else when a serious chocolate cake is called for.
Devil’s food cake with chocolate ganache is a very rich and decadent combination, so the serving size is an important consideration. I want my guests to be able to finish their dessert (and want to in the first place) without feeling overstuffed on the one hand or ripped off on the other. I chose a long, thin cut of the cake for a few reasons. It’s visually appealing (and breaks from the traditional wedge cut of cake we’re more used to), easy to build components on, and is a serving size that rides the line between value and satiation.
To temper the richness of the cake in terms of other components, I added ice cream and chocolate crunch, both of which add textural variety to the overall dish. That in combination with the cold temperature of the ice cream works to balance the decadence of the cake and ganache. Those components also transform the concept from a slice of cake to a plated dessert.
Boom. One item in the bank.
I thought about doing strawberry shortcake as a blog post (something I still might do if you guys want me to) and over weeks of mulling it over thought that turning it into a summer menu item for the restaurant could be a good idea. Again, nothing especially unique about the concept, just wanting to take a flavor combination I love and a dessert I love and put my own interpretation of it together. I’ve never been of the opinion that one should try and break the mold or reinvent the wheel with each dish they compose.
My first focus for the dessert was that it centers around great, fresh, untouched strawberries. That’s the whole damn point of strawberry shortcake. Not much to do there, just find great strawberries during the summer months and cut ‘em up.
The other two components of a classic strawberry shortcake are whipped cream and pound cake. Again, not trying to get crazy, I decided to use a classic and very delicious pound cake and tear it into organically shaped pieces to create a more modern appearance. Instead of using whipped cream, I wanted to make a mousse.
Although I love the combination of strawberry and crème fraiche, I thought mascarpone would be a good base that closely resembles the notes of heavy cream but with more depth. I wanted something bright to compliment the mascarpone, and so I chose lemongrass – one of my absolute favorite flavors.
For the ever important temperature variation and a la minute aspect of the dessert I chose strawberry sorbet, to keep that flavor forward.
This dish has actually been on the menu for quite some time, but I still like it and think it works well for the summer so I’ve kept it on. The idea began when I decided I wanted to put some variety of donut on the menu. Brilliant, I know. Making donuts well during restaurant service – and to me doing it “well” means frying them to order – has its challenges, especially as our restaurant doesn’t have a specifically designated pastry cook at night and we have no specialized donut equipment.
The flavor profile started with the idea of blueberry and corn. After some playing around I came to the conclusion that all I really wanted from corn in this particular dessert was a light dusting of cornmeal on the finished donuts. Sometimes the evolution of the dessert works that way; you begin with an idea of one or two or three bold flavors and some fall aside or are replaced before the final product is discovered.
The buttermilk ice cream was to provide a sharp temperature and texture contrast to the hot donuts, and I’ve always loved the slight tang of buttermilk with the sweetness of blueberries.
So far we’ve gone over a little of how I create and a few of the dishes themselves and why I did what I did. Part 2 will feature the rest of the menu and the beginning of the R&D phase of the process! Stay tuned!
Cheers – Chef Scott