Welcome back to our behind the scenes series on summer desserts! Last week I talked about the start of my creative process and gave my insider’s scoop on a few of my dishes for the menu. This week I’ll finish off my analysis on the rest of the menu and give you a brief description of my R&D process (research and development. Let’s jump right in.
Last year I made a spring verrine of blackberry, lemon and aperol that I really liked in flavor and presentation. I had it in my head to do summer variety as well, but it never made the menu for whatever reason (probably my procrastination) so I’ve been sitting on the concept for literally a year. It almost didn’t make this year’s menu either until my CDP Danielle reminded me that I’d been mulling that one over for like 13months and should probably just do the damn thing.
I didn’t want to change much at all about the presentation and general components for the summer verrine, just the flavor profile. Watermelon came to mind for a few reasons. First and foremost when it’s truly ripe it’s absolutely delicious and classically summer, but also because in my opinion it’s not used often enough in plated desserts, and lastly because it’s challenging to work with (poor cellular structure and extreme water content – maybe why you don’t see it used too often) and I thought that would be a fun puzzle to solve. Chili spice and lime immediately came to mind to pair with the watermelon as a Latin-inspired balance between sweet, spicy and sour.
Sorbet seemed like a natural fit to use the watermelon in. The verrine centers around sorbet and ice cream components as it is (the original idea for the spring verrine was a play on a vacherin) and the recipe would lend itself to making the most of the watermelon’s natural water content and delicate flavor. I also wanted to use fresh pieces of watermelon because that’s its best form of all.
I wanted the lime component to have some fat base to balance the sorbet and also temper the acidity of the lime itself. Something whipped or from an isi would be too light and insubstantial in mouth feel with the sorbet, so I chose to make a cremeux which has a denser texture and richer flavor.
Managing the level of heat and application of the chili would be the make or break element of the dessert. I wanted just enough of the spice to highlight the lime and watermelon, but not compete as a forward flavor. I chose an ancho chili powder because of its more mild heat (than cayenne for instance) and its round flavor profile.
I lent a hand here and there in creating this dish, but the true credit for it belongs to my CDP Danielle. I apologize to Danielle in advance for speaking on her behalf, and possibly misquoting her or her thought process. When she first drafted the dessert, it was a play on an orange creamsicle. Orange and vanilla were the forward flavors with coconut and coffee added for nuance and variety. When we tasted that first version, the vanilla blanketed everything and it was hard to pick specific flavors out. The build of the dessert was in a bar form, which ended up being a low return process given the time and effort it takes to make an ice cream bar. We liked the orange components as well as the shortbread crumble she created, so we wanted to make sure to keep those items.
For the second version, I asked Danielle to edit, both in flavor and composition. It’s the same process I ask of myself, always to focus on the main flavors and edit out anything that doesn’t serve to enhance that focal point. Version two had a streamlined profile of coconut, mandarin and passionfruit. I suggested building the plate a little differently and we had ourselves a finished dessert! The shortbread crumble gives good texture and contrast in temperature. Granite was added to maintain the overall cold and refreshing style of the dessert but again add contrast.
I gravitate towards the produce that was around me growing up during the summer – melons, berries, stone fruit. While it’s tempting for me to use exotic ingredients and produce, I have tended to stick with the fruit that I’ve known since childhood. Among those things, blackberries are a favorite for me.
My first version of this was a dish I made for our Green City Market dinner series at the restaurant. Quick shout out to the GCM dinner – if you happen to be in Chicago for dinner on a Weds., you should come check out the weekly, custom pre fixe menu we make with product picked up from the local farmer’s market that very morning. The food is dope and the price is a crazy deal.
ANYWAY. I made a blackberry parfait a few weeks ago for the custom menu and liked it so much I thought it should be on the summer menu full time. Version 1.0 used a pound cake, but I decided a cake with fresh herb in it (thyme, which I feel pairs nicely with blackberry) would be nicer and add a unique option for the menu as a whole. Since pound cake is being used for the shortcake dish, I chose an olive oil almond cake. No big secret here, thyme, olive oil and almond work well together.
Like the strawberry shortcake and the watermelon verrine, I wanted one of the components to be unadulterated blackberries. Within the last few years, I’ve gravitated towards experimenting with taking a single flavor and seeing how many ways I can deliver it within one dish rather than taking many flavors and seeing how I can balance them. I wanted blackberry in three forms for this dessert, and three different textures and temperatures. Fresh blackberries, blackberry cream (a hybrid recipe of mine that achieves a texture between a mousse and a custard) and blackberry sorbet. The herbed olive oil almond cake is there to create some contrast and compliment the blackberry, which is the clear star.
Once I have a solid concept for my desserts, I create packets of recipes for each one. 99% of the time the recipe is one I already have or a tweaked version of one I already have. Occasionally I’ll have to find another source for a recipe or even create one from scratch. I’m a big fan of what I call “base recipes,” a solid, basic recipe for a component – say, mousse – that can be easily adapted and edited for various flavor profiles, so those come into play a lot. Why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to?
From there it’s pretty simple, I go through the packet and make all of the recipes. Sometimes I’ll make slight adjustments to the recipe before I get started, usually in terms of total weight. As I’m making the recipe, I’ll make notes as I go if I decide to change a method or quantity. Further notes are made on how the finished product should be cut or treated. Those decisions are a balance of intuition and experience.
Once the recipe is made, I make sure to get a yield so that I can adjust the final recipe size to fit our needs. Sometimes we’ll only have so many of a certain mold, and it’s important to know how large a recipe will have to be to meet those needs without too much excess.
You may have noticed that up until this point I haven’t talked much about tasting the recipes or the dish. This is all about taste, right??? Yes. Yes it is. I will always taste my dishes, and that is always the final test of a dish that is a success and one that isn’t. I’ve only ever known of maybe one chef that has proudly proclaimed that they don’t taste their dishes. To me, as long as you still possess the incredible and beautiful gift of taste, to not do so simply out of preference is, as a chef, unthinkable.
That being said, I absolutely use my taste memory and experience when creating a dish in its infant stages. We all build a sort of muscle memory for flavors, both good and bad, and it would be silly not to use that ability during the R&D phase. Still, in the end what you think something will taste like or what you think a texture will feel like just doesn’t translate until you actually eat the damn thing.
If after tasting I feel no adjustments need to be made (a rare thing) then the dessert is ready to go! All that’s left is for me to create what we call tech sheets for the FOH staff, outlining the allergens and details of the dish, build sheet for the line cooks in the restaurant so they have step by step directions on plating each dessert, and final recipe packets for my staff in the pastry kitchen to produce all of the components.
It was fun for me to share with you my process! This is the type of thing that most often never sees the light of day, and is rarely if ever appreciated by the guest that experiences the end result of all of this work. I hope you were at the very least entertained, and perhaps beyond that inspired to get crackin’ on your own creations.
Cheers – Chef Scott