For me, the idea of a perfect dessert is a bowl of fresh summer berries, covered in sweet cream. I am not a fan of cake, sweets don’t send me, and the concept of a composed dessert has always been alien to my way of thinking. When I watch the antics of the chefs on Top Chef: Just Desserts, I do more eye-rolling than note-taking.
Leave it to a savory chef to change my ways. Paul Bertolli is a chef I admire deeply, and his thoughts on pasta, on charcuterie and on food in general have been hugely influential on my own culinary journeys. His book, Cooking By Hand, is a prized possession, and I chose Rodale as the publisher of my book because I would get to work with Pam Krauss, who was Bertolli’s editor on his book. Cooking by Hand is mostly a savory cookbook, but one of its many relevatory chapters concerns desserts.
If you are to design a perfect menu, Bertolli says, you start with dessert: It is the last thing your guests eat before they leave. Dessert is a punctuation mark on a meal. A master creates a memorable dessert, then works backward. One key is to ensure that the flavors in the dessert work with what has gone before. Another is to make sure the portions of all your earlier courses are small enough so your guests are still hungry for dessert — this is where most restaurants fall down. The split between sweet and savory in most kitchens almost always ensures that dessert is an afterthought: Savory chefs are so eager to please they kill you with food, leaving you reeling when it’s the poor pastry chef’s turn to shine.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I designed a six-course dinner party for my friends last weekend. The dishes ranged from wild game consomme to Spanish shark with pine nuts and tomatoes, to wild foie gras and crispy duck tongues (more on those later). Of all that, the dessert was what most excited me. It was a total experiment, and it worked.
The dessert is inspired by one I saw in Chef Rene Redzepi’s NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. I’ve written about how much I love this book before, and, now as then, I completely altered the ingredients to suit my time, and my place. I call this dessert Icehouse, after the area in the High Sierra where I found almost all the ingredients.
Icehouse is this: Elderflower ice cream, elderberry-buttermilk sherbet, Sierra red currants (ribes cereum) and a brioche made with acorn flour and manzanita sugar (more on that one later, too). It is dusted with dried mountain pennyroyal (monarda odoratissima), a kind of mint.
The dessert is many things at once. Uber-creamy elderflower ice cream, which is an absolute dream, tangy elderberry-buttermilk sherbet, the tart-sweet currants, which have a sweet-funky aroma a little like highbush cranberries, crunchy-soft broiche (the cubes are fried in butter), and a final zing from one of the most powerful wild mints I’ve ever eaten.
I am writing about this dessert not because I expect anyone to actually make it — it is virtually unrepeatable outside my part of Northern California, although you could make pieces of this dish elsewhere (and the elderflower ice cream recipe is below). I am really writing about it to push those of you who cook to make food that speaks of your time and your place. New and wonderful ingredients are all around us. All we need to do is look for them…
elderflower ice cream
Elderflower ice cream is a subtly flavored ice cream that you have to smell to really appreciate. It is equally good with fresh or dried elderflowers, although if you use dried elderflowers you should make sure they are not too old — old flowers begin to smell musty. I also add a little elderflower syrup, too, but you can skip this if you want.
Make sure that if you use fresh elderflowers to remove all the stems. Most dried elderflowers already have their stems removed.
Makes about 1 quart
Prep Time: 12 hours, most of it inactive
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup dried elderflowers, or 1 cup fresh
- 1/4 cup elderflower syrup (optional)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 4-5 egg yolks
- Heat the cream, milk, sugar and elderflowers in a heavy pot set over medium heat. Bring to 160 degrees — steaming, but not simmering — and turn off the heat. Stir in the elderflower syrup, if using. Cover and allow to cool to room temperature, and then pour into a container and allow to steep overnight, or at least 6 hours.
- Pour the cream mixture back into a pot and bring back to 160 degrees. Put the egg yolks into a bowl and get a whisk and a ladle. Temper the eggs by slowly whisking in a ladle of the hot cream mixture, then another. Pour the tempered egg yolks into the cream mixture and allow to heat for 5-10 minutes. Do not let this simmer.
- Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and cool once again. Pour into your ice cream maker and follow its directions.