I have been the pastry chef of Blackbird restaurant for almost 3 years now. A respectable tenure by all means, but one that comes at the end of a long line of pastry chefs. It’s an interesting roll to take on, a custodial position in an established restaurant that hasn’t always belonged to you, one that will likely be passed down to another person.
I didn’t help open blackbird, or help mold the style of the restaurant. Rather, I am part of it’s evolution, and am entrusted with representing it’s current core values while upholding the standards that carried the restaurant through 17 years of business. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, and I’m grateful for the sweat and tears of my predecessors and the nationally recognized pastry department they all helped to build.
The desserts have evolved a great deal over time, as has the entire restaurant. Recently, when the partners chose Perry Hendrix as our chef de cuisine, Paul saw a glimmer of his original cuisine in the work of Perry. We started to hear tales of the early years of Blackbird, what brought them their original success, and how we could recapture and reintegrate those qualities into the mature restaurant blackbird has grown into.
When Paul invited me to create a dessert for a special dinner in which he was cooking some of his original dishes, I knew I wanted to rework a dessert from Blackbirds early years. I wanted to understand the foundation my dessert program was built on. It didn’t take much asking before it was clear Blackbird had a signature dessert from the first day.
This dessert was mentioned by every one of the the partners, the big guys who now manage an award winning restaurant group, grown up from the self-proclaimed knuckleheads that once hustled the floors of blackbird every night. Each of these people immediately told me about the crepes.
These crepes were made out of a chocolate batter, and folded into triangles to encase a rich coffee flavored mascarpone cream, stacked and served with crushed hazelnut brittle, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Today, this dessert would likely be more at home at Avec, as Blackbird has followed the trajectory of contemporary cuisine and the desserts are no exception.
I set to the task with kid gloves. I wanted to give my bosses their dessert once more, one that captured the heart of the restaurant that still beats today. While Paul told me to “Cree it up”, I wanted to add as little of myself as necessary, just enough to indicate the time and place this dessert is being served, a thin veneer allowing the original dessert to shine through.
We looked at the core of the dessert, and decided to start with the creamy center of the crepes. I tried everything I could think of to replicate the coffee mascarpone. We moussed it, whipped it, melted it, and even tried hand making the mascarpone itself. Finally I reached out to one of Blackbirds early pastry chefs and admitted my dilemma. Elissa Narrow is now the pastry chef for Paul Virants handful of restaurants in the Chicago area, a working relationship that began in the walls of blackbird itself. The dessert wasn’t hers, rather born of Sheira Harris, the original pastry chef of Blackbird. Elissa kept the dish on the menu after she took the reigns, knowing it was something unique to the restaurant and a crowd favorite. She divulged the secret of the mascarpone and I balked.
No, I thought. Not trablit. I hate trablit.
Trablit has been available to the public as a concentrated extract of coffee since the mid 1800’s, an invention of a french pharmicist eager to provide a product to his customers that allowed them to enjoy a high quality cup of coffee where ever they were. However, my only experience with the inky brown potion has been in a professional setting. Most pastry centric purveyors will carry it, and I have seen it added to chocolate cookies, butter creams, ice creams, and all manner of chocolate confections.
The first time I tasted it, I flipped. What was this magic elixer that made everything taste like the best coffee ever?! Then, after years of over consumption, I cracked. One day, it no longer tasted good. It tasted too much like coffee. It became too intense.
When I inherited blackbirds pastry department I came across a bottle of trablit and attempted to discard it. My cooks rioted, begging me to keep it. I gave them the green light, with the caveat that it only be used in staff meal, and I would not eat anything made with it. They agreed, and the trablit disappeared from sight.
When Elissa illuminated the addition of trablit in the original coffee mascarpone, I hesitated. I didn’t want to order a bottle just to see what the original tasted like, I wasn’t going to use it anyways. Gross. But a little hunch sent me to our pantry, and sure enough, hidden high on a shelf tucked behind some tall bags of tea, I found the trablit. My team was keeping it tucked out of sight, and it’s clearly not the bottle I tried to banish 3 years ago. They have been secretly reordering it.
So I mixed a few drops of my coffee flavored nemesis into sweetened mascarpone, swallowed my pride, and tasted. And gosh darn it, don’t ya know. It was delicious. So delicious, that it became evident that this coffee mascarpone was the heart of the dish. Flavors and textures quickly fell into place around it, and the dessert was ready for the menu within days.
A dome of coffee mascarpone is piped onto the base of a large bowl, and is covered in a riot of crepes, cut into ribbons and brushed with cocoa nib infused brown butter. To replace the chocolate sauce, we nestle little dots of a deep chocolate cremeux along the twists and turns of the crepes. The nooks and crannies formed by the tangled crepes are filled with cubes of coffee gelee, crispy bits of chicory streusel, enrobed hazelnuts, and crunchy bits of burnt sugar that catch the light in the dining room, glimmering like gems.
It may not look anything like the dish served all those years ago, but the flavors will bring anyone back to the day the restaurant was born. In our way, we have worked to honor and elevate this dish, bringing this blackbird relic to the forefront of our menu again. Whether you’ve eaten this dessert in it’s original incarnation, or are tasting it for the first time today, I hope it captures the heart of blackbird for you.