The next big dessert in Austin? Top pastry chefs talk playful plates, cronuts and local ingredients
Cupcakes, ice creams, savory creations and panna cottas have been some of the most popular desserts in Austin over the past few years, but as the old saying goes, time changes everything. Austin is experiencing a revival in its pastry scene, and several themes and desserts are taking hold in restaurants.
We asked local pastry chefs and bakers to weigh in what they see as the future of Austin desserts and pastries. Four common themes emerged, from ingredient sourcing to playful plays on childhood favorites.
Local, responsible ingredient sourcing
Erica Waksmunski at Congress and Second Bar + Kitchen believes the sourcing and style of ingredients is more prevalent than any one dish. "Making food that's seasonal and sourced locally has become very popular in the past few years, and that rings true for pastry as well. I think this style of cooking for both savory dishes and desserts has become more popular because people want to eat food, plain and simple," Waksmunski says."People want to associate themselves better with the products they are currently seeing at the market. At Congress, we have a dish with local stone fruits and marigold, which is indigenous to the area, on a white chocolate semifreddo."
Greg Wilson of Flour Bakery thinks pure and sustainable ingredients will be strongly embraced by chefs around town. "We have noticed Austin is really focusing on pure flavors and experiencing everything an ingredient has to offer. Whether it is the amazing things produced at game-changers like TRACE or Qui, or just the exploration of exciting ingredient combinations, everyone is working to highlight the simplicity of clean, perfect ingredients," Wilson says. "Diners are demanding honesty in preparation and ingredients, and there is a real appreciation for the purity of flavor and method that was practiced years before our food was industrialized and commercialized."
Dee-Dee Sanchez, pastry chef at Jack Allen’s Kitchen, believes a focus on "local" will continue to make a play in Austin pastries. "Everyone is trying to incorporate local ingredients in their dishes. I use farm fresh eggs and local produce in my desserts at Jack Allen's Kitchen, as well as artisan cheeses and local heavy cream and milk. It's exciting to see what will be at the farmers' market, and that determines what I will make as my chef desserts for the week," says Sanchez. "I recently made a goat cheese fig tart where I utilized Swede Farm's fresh chèvre, Lightsey Farms' fresh black mission figs and Comanche Pecans for the crust. The tart was topped with caramel sauce and candied pecans as well."
Playful ingredients, flavors and preparation
Monica Glenn at Qui says goat milk is having its moment in the sun. "I know La Condesa and Barley Swine both feature goat milk on the dessert menu, as well as here at Qui. We use WaterOak Farm's goat milk to make our cajeta — goat milk caramel — that is served with our cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich, layered in between crispy waffles with praline, honey and yogurt powder. Goat milk has a great nuttiness to it that adds dimension to a dish in a way that cow's milk can't," Glenn says.
Taff Mayberry, pastry chef of Olivia, thinks experimental pastries are seriously in vogue. "Everyone seems to be migrating more toward component and experimental cooking and away from traditional baking. There are so many dishes available in town that offer complexity in textures and technique but that lack bold flavors or any items from the oven. Fried dessert methods seem to be coming back around, too," he says. "I love playing with textures and flavors, but I'm also just as at home making simple cakes. I have a very simple creme brûlée with berries and sea salt on my menu but also have a summer plate featuring sliceable honey, chèvre cheesecake, funnel cake, tomato sorbet, melon espuma and some crunchy and chewy tidbits."
Jorge Hernandez at Qui sees a future in Austin cuisine where blending international flavors and ingredients will become a mainstay. "I think the only commonality is one that is not a trend but a conscious choice, and that's blending of multiple culinary traditions. For example, I can go have Laura Sawicki's desserts at Sway or La Condesa, and they are undeniably Laura's desserts, but they pull from traditions from Central America, Southeast Asia and Europe," Hernandez says. "Or with Phillip Speer's desserts, I can understand that it's not a Japanese dessert, but instead enjoy it as influenced by Japanese sensibility and Spanish avant-garde technique. None of these approaches are what is popular; instead it is just chefs following their own creative evolution. I think as the Austin food scene continues to explode as it has, you'll find that all of these really talented chefs will continue to develop these tasty, conceptualized desserts."
Steven Cak of Parkside, the Backspace and Olive & June thinks ice cream is still in fashion, but believes more adventurous, unique flavors will replace the conventional ones on menus. "Ice cream has always been popular, but now more people are becoming aware of specialty ingredients and are more apt to try them. It is very exciting to see how many people are branching away from the typical chocolate and vanilla flavor profiles," he says. "We will typically play around with one or two at the different restaurants. We have had foie gras and walnut ice cream, a grilled ricotta salata gelato, a smoked vanilla and a star anise granny smith granita."
Jennifer Costello, co-owner/chef at The Bonneville, believes throwback, childlike creations are highly popular. "We see a trend toward throwback homemade desserts like contemporary twists or re-interpretations of the classic baked goods you grew up with, not so much decadent desserts or pastries, but more comforting dishes. For example, we serve housemade pop-tarts and sticky buns for brunch and during the evening. We have also been running a dessert special of house-made popovers filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate ganache," she says.
TRACE’s Executive Pastry Chef Janina O’Leary sees cakey desserts and childhood recreations as a new local staple. "While making homemade ice creams is still one of my favorite things to do, I am definitely seeing a move toward more homestyle and from-scratch pastries. I’ve been seeing, and making, a lot of doughnuts, biscuits and éclairs," says O'Leary. "I have not been able to take the Drunken Doughnuts off the TRACE menu. I’ve also been having a lot of fun reinventing childhood favorites with a grown-up twist. I’ve recently created items like the PB&J — a jelly filled brioche doughnut with 'nuttier' cream, salted peanut and berry swirl ice cream.”
Plinio Sandalio, pastry chef at The Carillon, agrees with the assertion that childhood desserts are making a comeback. "Austin pastry chefs are reviving their childhood desserts. Dining out at your favorite Austin restaurants, you will notice fried pies, fried puddings, bomb pops, ice cream sandwiches, pop-tarts and breakfast cereals. At The Carillon, we currently have a chocolate and banana dessert, which is a play on a banana fudge bomb pop. I’ve always loved the combination of banana and chocolate."
Finney Walter, pastry chef of Mettle, thinks memories, culinary- and childhood-related, are finding their way into his and other Austin chefs' desserts. "I see a trend of pastry chefs calling on 'flavor memories' in their dishes," he says. "My brioche ice cream with dulce de leche is essentially vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce; the ice cream base is steeped with brioche bread, with tonka bean essential oil to season; the dulce de leche is slow-steeped, slow-cooked sweetened condensed milk. The birch dessert plays on the cream and licorice nature of a root beer float, using herbs and essential oils to accentuate that. Tarragon, star anise and sweet birch are all included; hazelnut plays the role of salt," Walter explains. "You can intellectualize food to a point, but you need a reference. Whether it's mussels with Muscadet or tournadoes of beef, you need a starting point. So with pastry, you start with the end flavors and work back, using learned techniques, to create that flavor experience."
Kyle McKinney, executive pastry chef of Barley Swine, believes the trendy cronut is the next big Austin pastry. He actually makes his own version, appropriately deeemd the "croiss-o-nut." "It's made with fried croissant nuggets, caramel-coffee mousse, coffee pearls, spearmint fluid gel, aerated milk, chocolate peanut brittle powder, goat milk sorbet and crunchy milk. I wanted to do my own spin on a fried croissant," McKinney says. "My inspiration is having a warm chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee in the morning. I think that people love it so much because it's a fusion of two of the most popular pastries ever: doughnuts and croissants."
Laura Sawicki, executive pastry chef of La Condesa and Sway, foresees cronuts becoming a local favorite as well, but she still has a special place in her heart for ice cream. "The cronut is obviously the 'it' pastry sweeping the nation right now. DIY variations are popping up all over the place, but personally I want to hold out for the real deal. I hear H-E-B is even carrying their own version of a cronut, and that's madness," Sawicki says. "I personally am excited about all things ice cream. I've got ice cream sandwiches at La Condesa and banana splits at Sway; both are really playful desserts and take me back to a very special place in my childhood. They're fun, whimsical and unassuming, but they pack some serious levels of flavors and textures without being too esoteric. So many great pastry chefs in town are having fun and making some pretty inspired flavor combinations."
Tony Sansalone, executive pastry chef of 1886 Cafe & Bakery, is working on his own creation of a cronut. "In mid-August, we’ll be premiering the Do’ssaint, our play on the cronut. 1886 Bakery prepares fresh-baked croissants from scratch each morning, so our bakers are playing with ideas like a Bacon and Maple Do’ssaint or a Cinnamon-Sugar combo with a cream cheese-based frosting, similar to what we use with our famous cinnamon rolls."