Every year, summer fills our baskets and drips down our chins with the ripeness of its bounty. Often, the natural sweetness of the berries, peaches, and melons that define this time of year can satisfy an aching sweet tooth all by themselves.
Hand that fresh produce over to an expert pastry chef, though, and witness divine creations that turn winter's chocolate torte into a forgettable trifle. Cobblers, sorbets, fruit-packed cakes — Charleston's culinary wizards transform nature's humble harvest into dishes that reflect both traditional decadence and innovative dessert combinations. We knew summer meant light, warmth, and freshness. But even we didn't realize how much those feelings could be captured by the fruity indulgences found around town.
Sweet Charleston Summers
Downtown. 149 Wentworth St. 853-7828
Circa 1886 pastry chef Alicia Prescott's summer dessert sampler showcases everything Charleston, everything fresh. The rainbow of color, texture, and flavor starts with a seedless watermelon chunk topped with a sweet tea granita. Think of it as a Lowcountry icee with honey and lemon undertones topped with mint syrup. Move then to a raspberry lemonade smoothie so thick it demands a spoon. No canned or frozen remnants here; only a fresh-squeezed lemon curd congealed at the bottom that offers the ultimate flavor complement. Finally, hot meets cold as a heap of blackberry sherbert seeps into a small serving of gooey peach cobbler (Prescott isn't chintzy with the thick, crumbling crust either). The accomplished chef says ideas for such samplers just pop in and out of her head. If only this combo could pop up on menus year-round.
Downtown. 55 South Market St. 534-2155
Imagine a tiny mound of frozen happiness. Now multiply — five times — the burst of fruitiness that sorbet ignites. Executive chef Ciarán Duffy tantalizes every taste bud with an impressive range of frozen flavors, all made in-house. The line begins with classic strawberry and moves to the exotic, lime-like flavor of kalamansi. Rosewater, the center option, sounds and smells like a relaxing body fragrance. But scoop it up and discover its aroma satisfies the mouth as well. Blobs of a magenta prickly pear and potent passion fruit complete the dish, each delivering full-bodied flavor without graininess. With bites of fresh fruit in between, these chilled options top any meal with refreshingly light bites of sweet perfection.
Village Bakery & Café
$4/slice; $40 for whole cake
Mt. Pleasant. 125 Pitt St. 216-6771
England native and pastry chef Steve Twyman had never tasted strawberry shortcake before he moved to the U.S. after culinary school for an internship. He's become very familiar with the dish since he started making it for restaurateur Sal Parco's new bakery — which supplies some of his restaurants, including Mustard Seed, Boulevard Diner, and Sette — in June. "It's been a smash ever since," Twyman says. With quadruple layers of a vanilla sponge cake, fresh strawberries, and homemade cream, it's a light evening closer or afternoon starter. The artful combination doesn't bleed or mesh until the perfect moment — in your mouth. Twyman keeps no regular schedule of when he adds it to the dessert case but says it's at most of the restaurants regularly and available for call-in orders. Just give him 48 hours notice, time for him to secure the fresh berries and for you to dream about how perfect it will taste going down.
Passion Fruit Soufflé
The Dining Room at Woodlands Resort & Inn
Summerville. 125 Parsons Road. 875-2600
Capping a five-star meal with a lightly-toasted puff of soufflé is delectable in and of itself. But to blend passion fruit into the base puree and heap a small scoop of coconut sorbet into the sweetened mound, that pushes the indulgence into sinful territory. Pastry Chef Sheree McDowell says she tries to keep imaginations and taste buds entertained with a variety of textures, flavors, and temperatures. She succeeds with this airy dish, which is light enough to follow even a four-course meal. When the frozen ball meets the oven-fresh crust, the creamy combo tastes neither mushy nor bland. The sorbet tempers the acidity of the passion fruit but doesn't dull the passion — fruity and otherwise — accompanying every spoonful.
Blueberry Ginger Mascarpone Cake
Sublime Pies and Cakes
$6.50 for a 4-inch mini-cake; $30 for a 9-inch
West Ashley. 829-A Savannah Hwy. 225-5463
Her Key lime pie might have won Tamlyn Willard the hearts of dessert lovers in Charleston — wait, the United States — but Willard, a self-taught cook, counts more than one fruity sensation among her baking repertoire. Each month she features a special, in addition to her nationally recognized Key lime pies and cheesecakes, which she chooses based on what the season's harvest offers. Last month she pleased palates with twin layers of a super-moist ginger cake topped by a creamy mascarpone icing and drizzled with a blueberry reduction. The best bites were those during which the whole berry exploded, meshing the two powerful flavors into a muffin-like morsel of yumminess.
Miss Sherry's Coconut Cake
T.W. Graham & Company
McClellanville. 810 Pickney St. 887-4342
So coconut cake doesn't drip down your chin with savory sweetness, but we couldn't exclude Claudia Kornack's version of this summer staple. Kornack and her husband Pete own and cook for McClellanville's T.W. Graham & Company, which features only local products. It's no surprise, then, that she attributes her coconut cake recipe to her neighbor's great aunt. Chock-full of shredded coconut suspended in a buttermilk base, the treat offers a richly textured example of down-home goodness. Visit anytime after Aug. 17 (when the Kornacks get back from vacation) and pick off flakes one by one outside at the 100-year-old cedar bar, salvaged from the tree in the front yard of Miss Thomasine Hardin. Now that's local flavor.