"The chocolate business has always involved a degree of secrecy," says Gary Guittard, president of California's 134-year-old Guittard Chocolate. Guittard is mum about the formula that his great-grandfather Etienne brought from France, but he will reveal one ingredient: "You can't be in this business without incredible passion for chocolate." His company recently rolled out potent "single-bean varietal" chocolates, with beans from Western Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador that are slow-roasted and blended in small batches. In a tribute to Guittard's ancestor, the line is called simply E. Guittard (www.guittard.com).
Pastry chefs are obsessed with dulce de leche, the luscious, milky South American caramel. Small jars usually sell for $7 or more, but the new Argentinean import from Smucker's costs just $3 for 15.75 ounces.
Ovaltine may be for kids, but the new malt desserts are designed with grown-ups in mind. At Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco, Shelly Kaldunski serves malted-milk ice cream with Valrhona chocolate mousse cake.
Baking By the Book
The title sounds sweeping: Baking in America. But Greg Patent's new book delivers on its promise, documenting America's passion for pastry with 250 recipes ranging from traditional (molasses marble loaf) to modern (double espresso cupcakes). Patent's book stands out for another reason: The recipes work perfectly.
Pastry chefs know that desserts don't just have to taste incredible; they must offer some drama, too. With tableside service, dining becomes theater. At Spago Beverly Hills, the fruit cobbler is assembled while you watch: A waiter spoons apricot or peach cobbler over crème fraîche ice cream. At San Francisco's Redwood Park, diners build their own banana splits. The sundaes arrive at the table with a selection of delicious toppings.
Guatemalan-born pastry chef Oscar Palacios got his start at his parents' New Jersey bakery, then made his name in New York's four-star kitchens, training at Bouley Bakery before moving on to his current position at Le Bernardin. His brilliance comes through in unusual creations like his glossy dome of chocolate with layers of sensual chocolate mousse, delicate Rice Krispies crunch and buttery caramel. He also has a sense of whimsy, spiking his cherries jubilee with a slightly spicy Dr. Pepper reduction.
Comfort food doesn't stop with meat loaf and short ribs: Try the brownie ice cream sandwich at the Red Cat in New York City. At Moomba in West Hollywood, doughnutlike churros flavored with cinnamon are paired with a Mexican-chocolate pot de crème.
Some trends are perpetually reinvigorated. Chicago's Seasons serves a buttermilk panna cotta topped with macerated berries. At Aqua in San Francisco, the tarte Tatin is made with bananas and paired with maple-sugar ice cream.
Mix & Match Master
Maybe it's because I love being in control, or maybe it's because the presentation is so beautiful, but on a recent visit to Campton Place in San Francisco, I was impressed by Ruggero Massetti's signature mix-and-match tarts. The Italian-born dessert chef lets Campton Place chef Laurent Manrique's food guide his imagination. Echoing the tableside foie gras service, a waiter ceremoniously wheels over a cart displaying a trio of trios: three tart shells, colorful sauces in three silver bowls and three fruit medleys. I chose my own audacious combination: a cheesecakelike filling with citrus fruit and a passion fruit reduction. As Massetti says, "Simple, but not minimal."