America's Best Gluten-Free Desserts
St. Jack; Portland, OR
“I don’t like to manipulate recipes with ingredients like xanthan gum to make them gluten-free,” says pastry chef Alissa Rozos. She uses meringue and a small amount of cornstarch to bind this delicate, moist coconut cake, which she serves with vanilla-poached pineapple and a blood orange crémeux (a silky, creamy mousse).
Table Three Ten; Lexington, KY
Nouveau-German Chocolate Cake
Stella Parks, pastry chef of Table Three Ten, loves the flavor of German chocolate cake, but always considered the classic presentation—with its goopy-lumpy coconut-caramel-pecan frosting—kind of homely. To disguise the components, Parks bakes a chocolate cake with shredded pecans and coconut in the batter, and covers the outside with light caramel buttercream, a pure caramel drizzle and an ethereal pile of coconut flakes. Parks, who loves alternative flours for their variety of textures and flavors, swaps wheat flour for nutty-sweet kinako made from roasted soybeans.
Café Boulud Palm Beach; Palm Beach, FL
“This dessert is pure nostalgia for me,” says pastry chef Arnaud Chavigny. “I recalled the time I spent at summer camp in the French Alps and how we picked blueberries to eat with farm-made yogurt, buttermilk pancakes and scones.” For his deconstructed vacherin (a cream-and-fruit-filled meringue), Chavigny combines zingy lime juice-marinated blueberries with crisp mini meringues. He arranges them around a cube of two swirled-together sorbets—yogurt and violet made with Rothman & Winter crème de violette, an Austrian liqueur made by macerating two types of violet flowers in brandy.
The French Laundry; Yountville, CA
Delice au Chocolat
One of pastry chef Milton Abel’s favorite recipes is a creamy banana crème fraîche sherbet, and here he serves it as part of a wonderful multitextural gluten-free dessert. He makes a rich chocolate mousse with Valrhona Manjari chocolate, a single-origin bar with a nice acidity. Alongside is pain d’épices, a spiced French cake that’s typically baked with rye flour and flavored with anise. Abel swaps out anise for spicy ginger powder and uses Cup4Cup gluten-free flour blend, the versatile mix of cornstarch, rice flour, milk powder, tapioca, potato starch and xanthan gum developed in 2010 by the French Laundry’s Lena Kwak and now marketed by chef Thomas Keller.
Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina; Baltimore
“I like surprising guests, because when they have dietary restrictions like celiac disease or gluten intolerance, they begin to just expect a scoop of ice cream or sorbet,” says pastry chef Chris Ford (F&W’s People’s Best New Pastry Chef 2012). “There is so much more.” His favorite gluten-free offering is a layered dish of rich caramel custard with peanuts in several forms: creamy peanut butter ganache, simple candied peanuts and a tasty powder that he makes by combining peanut butter with tapioca maltodextrin (an oil-absorbing ingredient). The marshmallow topping is lightened with two other staples of molecular kitchens: xanthan gum and versawhip, a modified soy protein.
Pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth whips eggs with sugar, pistachio paste and Cup4Cup flour, then uses a steam oven to bake his genoise, a traditional Italian sponge cake. The wet heat ensures that this gluten-free version stays exceptionally moist. Alongside are pistachio-cherry ice cream, a gelée made with rose water and Sauternes, and thin slabs of dehydrated mousse made from Valrhona’s single-origin Manjari chocolate.
Kyotofu; New York City
Gluten-Free Chocolate Soufflé Cupcake
Kyotofu’s Michael Berl and Nicole Bermensolo trained with an eighth-generation master artisan in Japan to learn how to make the silky tofu that gives desserts such as their addictive frosting-free cupcake a deliciously light texture. The tender cake is flavored with intense Valrhona 64 percent dark chocolate and subtly savory white miso, but also comes in citrusy yuzu-vanilla and pleasantly bitter matcha green tea flavors. All are made with Cup4Cup gluten-free flour blend.
The Catbird Seat; Nashville
Pear Ice with Fernet Branca
At the hottest restaurant driving Nashville’s booming food scene, cook Mayme Gretsch conceived this unusual and delicious dessert as a cheese plate without cheese. “I thought of all the things that I would like to eat and drink along with a nice wedge of cheese, then thought about how to transform them,” she says. Gretsch turns superripe pears into sorbet and freezes it into a pear shape, then adds a black walnut pudding, made with cream and walnut liqueur; a Fernet-Branca gelée, which she calls “a fancy Jell-O shot”; and crunchy cardamom meringues. These disparate-sounding components mesh beautifully, and Gretsch enjoys hearing diners describe their combined flavor. “Some say it reminds them of childhood butterscotch pudding, and others say bananas.”
Quince; San Francisco
Terrina di Sorbetti
Pig’s head terrine was the unlikely inspiration for Devin McDavid’s dessert of molded, sliced huckleberry and Anjou pear sorbets. McDavid makes the pure sorbets with little more than perfect fresh fruit and sugar, with a bit of liquid glucose to prevent the texture from becoming icy. He tops them with crunchy, vivid purple toasted huckleberry meringues. “It’s like Lucky Charms for adults,” he says.
August; New Orleans
One summer, pastry chef Kelly Fields discovered the “stuffed” snowball—fine flakes of satsuma-flavored ice around vanilla ice cream—at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, a well-loved shaved-ice shop in New Orleans. She decided to pay tribute with this citrusy dessert. Fields replicates the texture of shaved ice in an orange sorbet made with local citrus and a splash of cream soda, then surrounds it with crunchy yogurt-flavored meringues, candied kumquats and oranges, and supremes of fresh citrus. Beneath the sorbet is a pile of carbonated sugar candy—similar to Pop Rocks—which Fields flavors with dehydrated and ground candied satsuma zest.
Crave Bake Shop; Lake Oswego, OR
After founding her gluten-free bakery in 2009, Crave owner Kyra Bussanich set out to create “the most delicious, gooey cinnamon roll that anyone had ever eaten.” But first she had to develop the perfect gluten-free flour blend. After lots of experimentation, she settled on a combination that includes potato starch, tapioca starch and millet flour. The result: wonderfully soft, huge rolls that should satisfy any lover of sticky-sweet pastries. She tops them with a perfectly tangy cream-cheese frosting.
The classic Mont Blanc is a decadent mountain of chestnut puree strands, topped with whipped cream to resemble its snow-capped namesake in the Alps. For her version, pastry chef Dana Cree evokes a whole mountain range with vanilla meringue, poached pears, and chunks of a fudgy, complexly flavored cake made with chestnut flour, hazelnut oil and white wine. She tops the plate with vanilla cream and finishes it by pouring in a lake of caramel-chestnut hot chocolate, which she makes with Valrhona’s Caramélia caramel-chocolate couverture.
Per Se; New York City
Pastry chef Elwyn Bowles set out to reinterpret Black Forest cake as a sophisticated gluten-free dessert. He uses his boss’s Cup4Cup flour, dark Valrhona chocolate and cherries. It’s served with a light, minty Chantilly cream and wafers of aerated chocolate—a tribute to the European chocolate bar Aero, which Bowles loved as a child in Wales.
Manresa; Los Gatos, CA
Chocolate Salt Pepper with Olive Oil
To make this salty-sweet dessert, pastry chef Stephanie Prida forms a square of chocolate mousse and olive oil pudding, then applies a perfect chocolate coating with a paint sprayer that she bought from Home Depot. Prida loves the balance of the components: bitter chocolate, sweet olive oil and a mild Maldon salt sherbet. She adds crunch and spice with a sprinkling of candied cocoa nibs, crushed milk meringue and ground long pepper. Manresa chef David Kinch is produce-obsessed, so Prida garnishes the dessert each night with a different combination of flowers and herbs from the restaurant’s farm.
La Condesa; Austin
Excellent meat-centric Mexican dishes—like Wagyu beef tacos made with soft corn tortillas—make this Austin spot popular with gluten-averse diners. Pastry chef Laura Sawicki makes her flourless chocolate soufflé cake with Valrhona chocolate and six kinds of chiles. “The complexity that I want can’t be achieved with just one or two,” she says, stressing that the result isn’t super-spicy: “The cake doesn’t have an aggressive heat. It starts with pure chocolate and then the chiles start to creep up.” She tops the crackly crust with banana ice cream to counteract the slow burn.
The Federal; Miami
Rocky Road Moon Pies with Salted Caramel and Bourbon Pecan Milk
Chef Cesar Zapata makes chocolate cookies with almond flour and coconut oil, then tops them with pecans, toasted marshmallow fluff, a caramel drizzle and Maldon sea salt. The dessert is Zapata’s tribute to rocky road ice cream (his favorite since childhood), but it also pays boozy homage to milk and cookies: Each order comes with a glass of warm milk that’s been steeped with pecans, sweetened with maple sugar and spiked with bourbon.
Mariposa Baking Co.; San Francisco and Oakland, CA
Mariposa is known for incredibly delicious baked goods that can be eaten by dessert lovers with a wide range of dietary restrictions: Many of their offerings are not just gluten-free but soy-free, nut-free and vegan. These cream-filled cupcakes—a tribute to the currently out-of-production Hostess Cupcakes—are made with a blend of rice flour, tapioca starch and potato starch. The vanilla filling is created with rice milk and organic palm shortening.
Gramercy Tavern; New York City
Peanut Butter Semifreddo
After eating a wonderful oversize macaron at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, star pastry chef Nancy Olson started thinking about how to incorporate the French almond-flour sandwich cookie into a plated dessert. “We needed to have textural contrast,” she says, so she wound up placing a crispy chocolate macaron atop a lusciously creamy semifreddo that she makes with house-made peanut butter. The dessert gets finished with hot fudge, salted caramel and candied peanuts. “I think it’s really fun to do a very American flavor combination and throw a French macaron on it,” says Olson.
Breakaway Bakery; Los Angeles
Lil Mint Scoutie
“I love Girl Scout Thin Mints and I missed eating them,” says Breakaway’s gluten-intolerant owner, Janice Lavine. “That was the inspiration for the entire bakery.” Her crispy chocolate-covered cookies, made with brown rice flour, vegan chocolate chips and organic palm shortening, have a dedicated following, but the Mid-City spot offers a huge assortment of gluten-free baked goods, including deli staples like chocolate babka, rugelach and a mock rye bread made with golden flaxseed meal and pumpkin.
Chocolate Polenta Soufflé
At Marc Vetri’s flagship modern Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s Center City, this chocolate soufflé cake has been a signature offering for 15 years. It’s a crowd-pleaser with a molten ganache center and a topping of exceptional vanilla gelato, but its chocolate flavor is surprisingly deep and complex thanks to a spicy 58 percent cocoa couverture from the French producer Cacao Barry. A bit of dry polenta in the batter adds a pleasant, just slightly grainy texture.
BabyCakes NYC; New York City, Los Angeles, Orlando
Since founder Erin McKenna opened BabyCakes NYC in 2005, it has become an alt-baking phenomenon. In addition to locations in New York, Los Angeles and Orlando’s Downtown Disney (with spots in Chicago and San Francisco planned for this year), the franchise now includes gluten-free cake and brownie mixes, and two fantastic cookbooks. There’s also an app with video appearances from Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, food writer Mark Bittman and pastry superstars David Lebovitz, Brooks Headley and Christina Tosi. Most bakery offerings are available gluten-free, including the moist, rich carrot cupcake, which is made with a garbanzo-and-fava-bean flour mix, agave nectar and coconut oil.
Fifth Floor; San Francisco
Jasmine Tea Crémeux with Pomelos
While growing up in the Philippines, pastry chef Francis Ang loved to eat pomelos, an Asian citrus fruit with a refreshing, bittersweet flavor. When he came upon an especially fragrant batch of pomelos from a local grower, Hamada Farms, Ang got the idea to add jasmine to this creamy, mousse-like dessert. “I was scraping the rinds and the oils burst with a jasmine-like scent,” he says. “Coincidentally, a jasmine bush surrounded my childhood house. It was very nostalgic!”
Saison; San Francisco
Spiced Caramel Apple
Recently relocated to a dramatic, airy new space in an 1880s-vintage building in SoMa (South of Market), chef Joshua Skenes’s restaurant offers one of the most spectacular multicourse prix fixe menus in the country. To create an indulgent dessert that wouldn’t be too heavy at the end of a three-hour meal, pastry chef Shawn Gawle (an F&W Best New Pastry Chef) started with the concept of a caramel apple and then lightened each component. He cuts the caramel with lemon juice, then whips the mixture in an iSi cream whipper. He poaches apples in caramel cream that’s been infused with Imperial Tea Court chai. The spices lighten the flavor profile further, and the chai makes the dessert especially good to eat with a cup of with tea—a bonus for Skenes, a tea fanatic.
No. 9 Park; Boston
At Barbara Lynch’s flagship Boston restaurant, pastry chef Jamie Davis uses a clever combination of ingredients to make a dessert that is by turns creamy, moist and airy as well as sweet, salty and savory. The base for her chocolate mousse is 70 percent cacao dark chocolate; whipped avocado gives the accompanying ice cream an incredibly creamy texture, and both are paired with an unusually light and fluffy banana cake, which Davis makes with a custom blend of tapioca starch, cornstarch and rice flour. She sprinkles the plate with crunchy caramelized popcorn and flakes of sea salt.
ABC Kitchen; New York City
Salted Caramel Sundae
Each day, ABC Kitchen makes 22 quarts of caramel ice cream, 15 quarts of dark chocolate hot fudge sauce and 10 quarts each of candied peanuts and popcorn to fill orders for this ultimate sundae, the creation of former pastry chef Cindy Bearman. The sweet-salty, melty-crunchy effects are fantastic, “But my favorite thing about it,” says current pastry chef Melody Lee, “is always having candied popcorn around to snack on.”
Tallulah on Thames; Newport, RI
Oroblanco Panna Cotta
“Oroblancos are my favorite—sweet, bitter and sour all at once,” says chef Jake Rojas of the bright green citrus fruit—a cross between a grapefruit and a pomelo—that he uses to flavor his light-tasting panna cotta. It’s topped with zingy passion fruit gel, crunchy cardamom granola and herbaceous candied fennel. “Fennel and citrus are an amazing combo,” Rojas says. “The flavors are so crisp and clean together.”
Tu-Lu's Bakery; New York and Dallas
Tully Phillips has achieved astonishing wheat-free baking prowess in the few years since she had to swear off gluten. After intensive research into baking without wheat, in 2010 she opened Tu-Lu’s Bakery in the East Village. Then her husband got a job in Dallas. Now she oversees two locations: The original in New York and one in Big D. For gluten-free brownies, she looked to pastry genius Alice Medrich. To mimic the silkiness and binding power of all-purpose wheat flour, after many trials she went with a blend of white rice and tapioca flours. Then she tweaked the chocolate and sugar levels, baking time and temperature to make it densely chocolatey but not too fudgy.