Dessert has earned a reputation for being the cute kid in class. Sweet and unassuming, it's a simple and satisfying way to wrap up even the most dramatic meal. Yet a growing number of pastry chefs are no longer willing to accept this innocent stereotype. They're tapping into dessert's dark side by digging up smoky and icy-hot flavors often reserved for the main course, creating memorable dishes that more than compete with the rest of the meal.
Caramel Layer Cake
with Bananas Foster
It's hard to beat the drama of a 34-ounce rib-eye, but Halls Chophouse makes an effort to keep their dessert offerings as big and bold as their regular menu. Chef Matthew Niessner is the brains behind one of their most popular desserts, a 7-inch tall, 14-layer yellow cake with eight layers of caramel. It's topped with bananas cooked in rum, brown sugar, and butter and whipped cream. "I just love bananas foster, traditional over ice cream, but I wanted to take the tradition one step further and do a caramel cake and introduce the bananas foster to that," Niessner says. "It's kind of a double dessert, so to speak." If you're lucky, they'll kick your cake up a notch by pouring Bacardi 151 over it and lighting it on fire before heading to your table. "We read our guests," Niessner says. "Some folks, if they have children and stuff like that, sometimes we'll do it, just because it's fun for them ... You can kind of tell who wants the show and who just wants to eat dessert and go."
Smoked Chocolate Parfait
with Chocolate Pudding Skin, Chocolate Pop Rocks, Caramelized White Chocolate
"Most of my inspiration for things comes from me being hungry and craving something," says Tristan's pastry chef Amanee Neirouz. And when she came up with this dish, she was craving chocolate. She begins the multi-step process by cold-smoking Cordillera chocolate, which involves placing the chocolate in a pan with smoldering wood chips and letting it sit overnight. She uses that to create a frozen chocolate parfait, kind of a mix between ice cream and mousse. The parfait is piped into a cylinder-shaped casing made of pudding skin, then finished off with caramelized white chocolate and chocolate pop rocks. The end result is an explosion of textures and flavors. "When you eat it, you know it's all chocolate, but you don't really realize it's all chocolate because it's not so rich that you can only take a couple of bites," Neirouz says. "You can eat the whole thing without hating yourself too much."
Voodoo Tiki Bar and Lounge
S'mores are a backyard, bonfire staple, but Voodoo brings them inside and right to your table. It's still the classic combo of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows, but you can roast them yourself, tropical cocktail in hand. You'll be given skewered marshmallows and a baby hibachi grill spouting hot blue flames. The experience feels altogether nostalgic, and a little naughty, too.
Dry Ice Sorbet and Ice Cream
We can just picture pastry chef Scott Lovorn making ice cream in Circa 1886's kitchen, rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist. His recipe is unique in that he uses dry ice as a major ingredient. "It's pretty fun to watch," Lovorn says. He starts out working with a liquid, and within 30 seconds it turns into a fluffy, hard-churned ice cream or sorbet. He then transfers that to a container and freezes it for eight hours, allowing the ingredients to release more CO2 and expand by 30-40 percent. "The next morning you come in and the containers are magically full," Lovorn says. It comes out as a really light, creamy, velvety ice cream and sorbet that Lovorn infuses with flavors like honeysuckle, caramel popcorn, dulce de leche, and blackberry.
Pineapple Habeñero Pop
King of Pops
Popsicles are typically an icy, sweet treat for hot summer days, but some of King of Pops' most popular flavors have a hint of fire. Using fresh hot peppers, the pop kings create tasty sweet-and-spicy combinations like jalapeño lemongrass, cucumber habañero, and pineapple habañero. "You don't really expect a sweet, cold popsicle to be spicy, but they're real tasty," says King of Pops' Andy McCarthy, who adds that although habañero peppers are usually spicier than jalapeños, he's more likely to use jalapeño as a base and habañero as an accent — so choose jalapeño if you really want to feel the burn. "People are a little nervous about trying them usually, but once they do, if you like anything even remotely spicy, usually people are a big fan," McCarthy says.