profiteroles and avocadosI’m not sure I look up to anyone in this industry quite like Sherry Yard.

When our paths crossed, I was at a point in my career where leadership was becoming a skill I wanted to cultivate in myself. When I looked at the people in leadership positions through out my time in kitchens, many of them dominated kitchens in ways I did not believe would be successful for myself, in large part due to our difference in gender.

I was looking for someone with a leadership style I could successfully integrate, one that would help me to bring the team I led to their best every day, and help me navigate my own career growth. I knew a large part of this was how my cooks and bosses perceived me, and how differently behaviors are perceived coming from a man versus a woman. I needed to experience a leadership style that would help me take advantage of my personal strengths, and being a woman, those that grew from my female nature. The men I had worked for provided qualities that I admire and have assimilated into my role as a chef, but there were as many traits I had to leave behind.

Long story short, I needed to work for a girl.

Lucky for me, the call to do just that came quickly.  An LA area code popped up on my cell phone while shopping one summer day in Seattle, and within 48 hours I was on a plane down to meet the woman who would do more to shape me as a leader in the restaurant world than she could know.

Little did I know, she would also do more to reshape the way I created desserts than I could have imagined.

I’m going to have to make an embarrassing confession, one that makes me a little ashamed of myself. I took a job as Sherry Yard’s sous chef thinking there wasn’t much she would teach me creatively. I was coming back from the edge of cuisine, Alinea, Noma, Kadeau, Denmark! I’d seen the gods on their olympic mountains and watched infinity grow. I understood foraging, cultural reclamation, textural manipulation, and how to impeccably recreate impossible cuisine every night for those who came, like me, to worship at these temples.

The menu at Spago held desserts that I’d seen all over the country. Classics like soufflés , apple vol au vents, cobblers bubbling in copper pots. Then there were the signatures, like the Kaiser Schmaren, an Austrian classic transformed by Sherry years before, souffléd to order and served with warm berry sauce. Pineapple and Banana wrapped in rugelach dough, a unique and comforting turn over. Liquid centered warm chocolate cakes wrapped in crispy pastry, and a cookie plate centered with favorites like chocolate chip and italian rainbow cookies.

My deepest gratuity is that I came crashing to reality within the first two days of being at Spago, hitting the ground to see Sherry in her pink coat laughing down at me. It occurred to me, after tasting the desserts, and seeing the immense effort and technique that went into the uber efficient department, that the reason I felt like I’d seen all her desserts before was that her style, defined almost 20 years earlier, was so striking and so successful it had been appropriated by the masses, and facsimiles were now spread across the country. She wasn’t part of the masses, she had inspired the masses.

The bigger lesson I needed was to stay humble, and remember that there is much to learn in every kitchen if you are looking for it. I could have missed the opportunity that lay before me had I let ego blur my vision, and I learned more in my time with Sherry about pastry than every other job I’d had combined.

The first task Sherry put on my prep list was puff pastry. And gosh darn it, I had to admit didn’t know how to make this most classic of pastry techniques.

I’ll bet Sherry knew that.

I could make you a liquid custard that when poured on your table transformed into semi solid creme brûlée in front of your eyes, but I hadn’t laminated dough since pastry school. I understood how to use a pacojet and could work the anti griddle, but I hadn’t touched a sheeter for 15 years. It was clear I was here to learn much more than just how a dynamic woman is a leader in a male dominated profession. I still needed to learn how to be a pastry chef.

My time at Spago was eye opening, the most pivotal experience I’ve ever had in a kitchen. Yes, I saw everything I wanted in Sherry as a leader, learned simple things about body language, and sat wide eyed as she told me stories about her own growth as a pastry chef. I am constantly telling my cooks, “I can tell you what Sherry Yard told me” the same way a mother might tell her children, “your grandmother always said…” Spago was my last stop before blackbird, and the classics I relearned became crucial for my ability to intertwine the progressive ideas and techniques I’d experienced with sellable a la carte desserts. Not desserts sold as part of a tasting menu, but desserts chosen after bellies had been filled with bottles of wine, appetizers, and entrees. It’s not a stretch to say Sherry Yard put the dessert back in my desserts.

I took another cue from her this month, when a photograph of a monolithic cream puff with the hilt of a steak knife protruding from its crown it made it’s way to me, a Sherry Yard twist on a classic dessert, presented for the restaurant she created in DC, City Perch. At that moment, we were working on a dessert with heat stable chocolate pudding served warm against frozen avocado ice cream, and were deliberating as how to present these two divergent temperatures in an elegant way.

When the simple dome of baked choux pastry wrapping Sherry’s cream puff came into sight, I was reminded again to stop overthinking it and put a little dessert in it.

Our chocolate flavored shells, baked from pate de choux with a simple cocoa craqueline over the top, are split half an inch from the base and hollowed out with a spoon. The base is filled with heat stable milk chocolate pudding made with the butterscotchy Tanariva from Valrhona. Chopped roasted macadamia nuts are pressed over the puddings surface before the shell is toasted in the oven. The dome is removed from the oven early, and once cool to the touch, packed with avocado ice cream. Reassembled last minute, a bit of roasted macadamia butter anchors this hot-and-cold profiterole to the plate in a nest of red pumello and chewy jewels of candied grapefruit. Stars of fruity avocado puree radiate out from the center, and macadamia nut is grated with a microplane over the top to finish.

I’m now comfortably settling into the leadership aspect of my position, during a time when our creative style at blackbird is maturing. And with something as simple as a cream puff, I am grateful to be continuously humbled and reminded by the woman who helped bring me here, to keep putting the dessert in our desserts.


Warm Milk Chocolate Profiterole- baking and assembly procedure

Pate De Choux- chocolate

Craqueline topping for cream puffs

Tanariva Cremeux- heat stable, for filling shells

avocado leaf ice cream

macadamia butter

avocado pudding

candied grapefruit jewels

Additional Components: pomelo cells, roasted macadamia grated on microplane

Plated Dessert


Mille Feuille

oranges illustrationOne of the most striking desserts I’ve had this year came from a place I had only considered for their decadent burger, a good beer and a bourbon, or if it’s late enough the over sized platter of chilequilles. This restaurant, a poorly lit dive with reel to reel music is commonly full of chefs and line cooks in the hours after their own restaurants shut for the evening, utilizing it for just this reason.

It’s rare to find me there during day light hours, but late last summer I received a text from an visiting friend that read “Lets eat cheeseburgers and ice cream.” This is hardly an invitation I’d pass up, and we ended up meeting at Au Cheval mid afternoon.

We hunkered down in a booth, the unfamiliar haze of sunlight spilling in the windows. Burgers turned into beers and beers turned into bourbon, and the idea of leaving for ice cream turned into staying for Au Cheval’s mille feuille.

I’ll admit, I was judgmental. This isn’t the kind of joint you go to for dessert. I mean, they didn’t even have a pastry chef. But the company was good and I was game for anything. We ordered, my own judgement silent behind my bourbon smiles. The dessert that came out was a stately affair, tall proud layers of caramelized puff pastry with ruffled layers of light custard piped between. With all the pomp of an ocean liner, the dessert was set before us. A quick snap of the servers wrist and a knife was plunged through the center, splitting the mille feuille in two.

The layers were light as air, deep, creamy, soft, crispy, cool, and warm, all at the same time. It was a dessert through and through, nothing more, nothing less.

As I went back for four, five, and six more bites, I remembered why we eat desserts. They are delicious and fun.

It’s easy to forget that, and I am as guilty as anyone else of this fact. I believe it’s vital to keep the connection between why I create desserts and why our guests eat desserts in tact. Sometimes it takes a subtle reminder from Dana-the-diner to keep Dana-the-chef from creating desserts out of self interest.

So Dana-the-diner told Dana-the-chef to start working on something that captured the satisfaction she felt eating that mille feuille. We are calling it just that on the menu, a french word that translates to “a thousand leaves”, a reference to the numerous whisper thin layers in puff pastry. The conventional mille feuille was updated to it’s current form by Antoine Careme, one of those old French dudes we hear a lot about in culinary school, and who is quoted a lot in contemporary food writing. It contains but two components, layers of puff pastry baked under a rack to contain the growth of the pastry, and layers of pastry cream, a tight custard thickened stove-top with flour, that upon cooling is lightened with a fold or two of soft whipped cream.

As we all know, winter is coming, and with that comes one of my favorite seasons of the year, that of citrus. Nothing delights me more than the bright sunny orbs in the dead of winter, a season when nothing feels bright and sunny what so ever. It seemed a natural fit to use the simple construct of a mille feuille to house the mandarins, satsumas, kumquats, and oranges that would make their way to us from sunnier places. We have been working directly with a ranch called Mud Creek, and the growers, Steve and Robin are exactly the kind of people you want growing things for you. Placing an order can be a 10 minute process at times, as Steve educates you on the migration of mandarins into Tangiers, thus creating the family of tangerines we know and love, or captures you with an in depth conversation about the citrus blight Florida is struggling with. The fruit that makes its way from their trees to our menu at Blackbird has made me feel like I’d never actually had an orange before. It’s a true gift and one we are honored to share with our guests every year.

This year we started peeling each individual segment of our mandarin oranges. The texture of the fruit is quite unexpected, and as the delicate citrus passes through your mouth you fight to remember where you’ve had it before. As you swallow, you remember it’s the same texture as the little canned mandarins popular with my mother and jello molds everywhere. To achieve this, the segments are peeled using an enzyme bath. This corrosive solution is made with a 1% concentration of Pectinex, a food safe enzyme available from Modernist Pantry. It’s not as scary as it sounds, and we too made the obligatory jokes about our tongues dissolving in the kitchen the first day we tried this technique.

To capture the textural pleasure of the classic mille feuille, we kept both of the original components intact. The pastry cream is flavored with a quick infusion of dried marigold and Tahitian vanilla, and folded with whipped cream before being piped into a small dome on the plate. A ring of citrus surrounds the cream; segments of charred navel oranges, candied kumquats, and our naked mandarin oranges. Passion fruit caramel is dripped over before the cream disappears under a pile of petite cubes of puff pastry, baked without restraint, the layers left to grow up and out and in any direction they choose. Curious little bits of freeze dried satsuma and candied orange peel mingle with the pastry before bright yellow and orange marigold petals dance across the dessert.

The mille feuille’s brief pause on the menu at blackbird is surely but a moment in it’s long life as a classic dessert. Perhaps it will find it’s way through your menu as well, the simple textures so compatible with personalization and variation. Keep sight of why this dessert is a delight to eat, and let the diner in you take the lead on this one.


Puff Pastry- Rough

Marigold Pastry Cream

Marigold Creme Bauminiere

Passion Fruit Caramel

Satsumas- Peeled

Orange Segments- Charred

Kumquats- Candied

Additional Components
Diced candied orange, freeze dried satsumas, marigold petals

Plated Dish

Chocolate Mousse

apple cinnamon illustrationI have a theory. It goes something like this. Chocolate goes with everything. Not in the cultish chocolate-is-better-than-fill-in-the-blank kind of way.

I believe with the high quantity of volatile aroma compounds present in chocolate it can be tied to any flavor, much like game of 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. At blackbird we have exercised this belief to pair chocolate with a variety of unexpected flavors.

To successfully incorporate chocolate into unusual places, we have devised a fairly effective system. Once the flavor we intend to pair with chocolate is decided, we start a three phase approach. First, taste all the chocolates that are available to us to find one that speaks to the flavor we are trying to pair.  Second, explore the documented world of cuisine for instances of similar flavor pairings. And third, find flavors that both ingredients pair with individually and use them as a bridge between the two. With this approach, we have paired chocolate with concord grape, watermelon, all manner of citrus and fruit, avocado, carrot, parsnip, cumin, and Parmesan cheese, just to name a few.

This year, as autumn rolled around again and I was looking for an unexpected way to feature apples on the menu, chocolate came to mind. In following with the aforementioned approach, we first looked around for the chocolate that spoke to the flavor of apples.

We tasted through the collection of chocolates we have on hand finally landing on the cidery, fruity Manjari from Valrhona.

Second, we looked for examples of chocolate and apple that already existed. Internet searches turned up chocolate covered caramel apples, and chocolate chip apple pies. This did not produce a result we were happy with, so we began combing through our book collection. A book on chocolates and confections provided us with a chocolate bon bon scented with calvados. The thought of the apple brandy and chocolate together struck a chord, and we held on to this idea.

Finally, we began to list flavors that bridged the gap between the two flavors. Caramel, walnut, ginger, fig, rosemary, honey, cinamon, hazelnuts, shortbread, and so on, and so on. The flavors added up fast! It seems these two had a lot more in common than we thought. After a little testing we settled on the mutual flavors of black walnut, figs, and roasted cassia bud.

Roasted cassia bud sounds exotic, but it’s a flavor that all will recognize immediately upon consumption. Cassia is a close cousin to cinnamon. So close, in fact, that most cinnamon sold in the united states is in fact the bark of the cassia tree. Imagine the difference between the cinnamon flavor of a red hot, or a stick of big red gum, and the cinnamon from the little spice jar that we put in apple pie or over cinnamon toast. I assumed for most of my years that the first flavor was fake, a manufactured misrepresentation of what “real” cinnamon tastes like and inserted in red flavored candies. Surprise surprise, it’s indeed true cinnamon that flavors those candies, and cassia, a different plant altogether that I gleefully ate rolled up in cinnamon rolls or sprinkled in my oatmeal.

The cassia tree not only shares it’s bark with our kitchens, but also produces a second spice, the cassia bud. This small clove shaped spice is the unopened flour, harvested just before it blooms to be dried in the sun. The harvest has to be carefully timed making the crop available on a limited basis. The flavor is distinctly that of cassia, but also quite floral. The buds also posses the ability to be roasted, much like a nut. A little time in the oven, and these buds deepen in flavor and color, and take on chocolate notes. Once cooled, a spice grinder does quick work of powdering the roasted cassia buds, something nearly impossible to achieve with the dried bark.

Armed with information from all three of our exploratory pathways, we set to creating a dessert of chocolate and apples. I had my heart set on including a classic french chocolate mousse for our next chocolate dessert. We had perfected the texture for Avec’s menu first, flavoring the mousse with greek wild mint, and casting it into little cups, covered with a peppermint fudge sauce my cook Amy lovingly calls “liquid girlscout thin mints.” A little whipped cream, and a couple chocolate cookies, and Avec’s mousse is a lovely expression of the classic texture.

At Blackbird, the mousse is scented with calvados, and sweetened not just with sugar, but with apple saba, a unique concentrated apple syrup from the collection at Rare Tea Cellar. We pile the chocolate calvados mousse on the plate over dots of a cassia flavored fig jam, and crumble a butter rich black walnut daquoise over. Black walnuts sanded with roasted cassia scatter across the plate, as tiny chewy shreds of dried apple follow behind. Bits of a broken chocolate plaque find refuge amongst the cake crumbs, and flakes of crunchy seasalt rest atop the mousse. Finally, a scoop of ice cream flavored with fig leaves nestles into a comfortable spot near some crumbs of cake and a few nuts.

The dish was intriguing, and thoughtful, but it was fig leaf ice cream that truly surprised me. There was no way for me to prepare how elegant and distinct a flavor was locked away inside these biblical loin cloths. We procured leaves from anyone we knew with fig trees and infused them into ice cream. The smell was intoxicating, like a musky sweet bubble bath I remembered from childhood, and upon final tastings, the earthy flavor of black walnut fluttered about as intense coconut notes popped through. If you find yourself with a fig tree, even one that only produces nothing more than a few fruits for the birds, take note. There is more culinary potential in your tree than you think!

This post should help guide you through your own chocolate pairings. Perhaps I can even enlist you in my mission to prove to the world that chocolate goes with everything.

Chocolate Calvados Mousse

Fig Leaf Ice Cream

Fig Jam

roasted cassia

Black Walnuts- sanded with cassia

Chewy Apple Shreds

Black Walnut Daquoise

Additional Components: tempered chocoalte plaques broken, flaky sea salt

plated dessert



Bourbon Gooey Butter Cake

gooey butter cakeBlackbird went through a big transition recently. We bid goodbye and good luck to David Posey, the Chef de cuisine I’ve worked with for the past 2 years as he stepped away to start the process of opening his own restaurant. His large shoes are being filled by Perry Hendrix, a chef who I have had the pleasure of working with at Avec for the past year. Just like me, he is now responsible for menus at both Blackbird and Avec. When the announcement was made publicly, Perry was quoted as saying he envisioned style for blackbird as “modern Midwestern.”

It wasn’t but moments after the words left his lips that a devilish little laugh passed through mine. I’m going to put gooey butter cake on the menu, I thought as I snickered.

Gooey butter cake wasn’t anything I’d heard of growing up on the west coast, for that I’m certain. I’d remember a cake who’s name included gooey and butter. This cake was a St. Louis bakers mistake during the 1930’s, and quickly became a regional favorite. It’s not pretty. Much like it’s name would suggest, it’s kind of a flat gooey buttery mess. But Midwestern it is, and this unsightly heap of a sticky cake was surely something we could modernize and bring into the world of composed desserts to support our new chef’s vision. After all, the gooey butter cake has one redeeming quality; it’s undeniably delicious.

Recipe testing began with the gooey butter cake most Midwestern children grew up with, one made of a box of yellow cake mix and a pound of Philadelphia cream cheese. Texturally rewarding, this gooey butter cake was oh so very sweet, tooth-achingly sweet, almost inedible it was so sweet. We set to the task of recreating the cake with scratch ingredients, and found ways to cut the saccharine quality.

We employed one of the gooiest products we have in our employ, liquid glucose. Handling this dense syrup is sticky to the point of difficulty, but glucose has a sweetness that falls far below that of table sugar. It was just the thing, and the glucose replaced 33 percent of the sugar in the recipe, bringing the cake back to digestible levels.

And it was good.


Not Great. Not show stopping, grand finale great.

So we began to tinker with the flavors involved. Being as this is fall, we instantly stuck some pumpkin and some spices in it. Not quite.

Then, while mulling over how to lift our gooey butter cake to the next level, an email arrived announcing the beginning of another season, that of Kentucky small batch Sorghum syrup, and in one click of the mouse our questions were answered.

The deep malty, molasses-y flavor of sorghum syrup, thick and viscous like the glucose in our employ, added intrigue and depth to our sticky friend. And because I can hardly think of products of the south without thinking of Bourbon, what the heck we threw some of that in there too. Thus bourbon gooey butter cake entered our lives, and I do believe it’s here to stay.

Tis the season, as they say, and being that thanksgiving is right around the corner, our gooey butter cake became the cornerstone for components reminiscent of holiday pies. A streak of pumpkin puree, flavored with evaporated milk and pie spices smears the plate before the gooey butter cake sets anchor. Pecans drenched in sorghum butterscotch are cast over the top before a big dollop of whipped goat cheese is nestled over. Ground sorghum-pecan cracker jack is sprinkled over the plate before little bits of candied lemon are strewn about willy nilly. Finally, sheets of sugared strudel dough lean over the dessert, the thinnest version of a pie crust imaginable.

This variation on gooey butter cake should be replicated by anyone who likes things gooey, bourbon-y, and buttery. It should also open doors to variances of your own on this unassuming Midwestern cake of textural brilliance. I believe it’s time for gooey butter cake’s day in the sun.

Bourbon Gooey Butter Cake

Sorghum Strudel Leaves

Whipped Goat Cheese

Pumpkin Pie Puree

Sorghum Pecans

Sorghum Pecan Cracker Jack

Additional Components: diced candied lemon

Plated Dish

Mr. Darcy’s Crumpets


I’d firmly say I’m the type of gal that doesn’t stray, but when it comes to cuisine I am often tempted to wander. Last September, a dish belonging to another caught my eye. The object of my affections, a sourdough crumpet golden from the griddle peeked at me from under small bits of salmon roe and creme fraiche. This dish, created by Jamie Malone to honor Jeremiah Tower was gone in a few memorable bites, and like any good fling haunted my thoughts for weeks. Those dimples, so numerous and flooded with melted butter! And that mischievous tang of the sourdough. Crispy golden butter toasted joy, I was in full swoon. As preoccupied as a young lady of Austen, I could think of little else.

Luckily for me, I have control of a menu that allows me to curate my obsessions, and the team at Blackbird quickly set to the task of creating a sourdough crumpet that would satisfy my pining heart.

Before we could lift and scent a crumpet with the unmistakable quality of natural yeasts we needed to invite a sourdough starter into our lives. We have kept starters in the past when recipes have required them, and like all good parents named each. We had Rara, named by Janet, the mother that fed her nightly, after one of her heros, Shakira. Shortly there after Rara was used to start a rye flour starter, and begat a little brother dubbed Rye Rye. As the menu progressed, Rye Rye matured into Lil’ Ry, then Ry Guy, and finally just Ryan, before he graduated from our menu and exited our lives.

As our current team paused to consider the name of our fledgeling sourdough, we considered the final product. A crumpet, British by origin surely deserved a starter named in the spirit of that great nation. Not a moment passed before all three ladies of pastry looked at each other and uttered the name, “Mr. Darcy.”

Thus, Mr. Darcy entered our lives, and the helpful chap he is, he worked with us daily to recreate the crumpet that so stole my heart.

It was an easy path to wander down, no more daunting than a stroll through the garden, all the twists and turns delightfully devoured beneath a variety of jams and butters. Despite it’s ease, time it did take, and when we finally mastered Mr. Darcy’s crumpet, we owed our new friend permanent residence on the menu.

The flavor of horseradish and cheddar had been floating around in our minds, and it seemed a fit to house Mr. Darcy’s crumpet in a composed cheese dish.

We griddle the crumpets in the early hours of the workday, and toast them individually as each cheese plate is ordered. The crumpet is popped in the oven until the exterior starts to crisp before the pockets that riddle the surface are flooded with melted butter. Autumn quince, preserved in season and cooked to a ruby red membrillo anchors the crumpet to the plate. Fresh horseradish root is infused into cream and broken it into pearls of butter before being scattered over the crumpet in tandem with crumbled white cheddar. Asian pears are shaved and compressed with quince vinegar, and crown our darling Darcy. Red rimmed disks of breakfast radish dot the plate before petite beet-like amaranth leaves float over the top. Finally, fresh horseradish is grated over the entire plate, a fragrant but mild addition of the assertive flavor.

These crumpets will surely become a regular occurrence for us at any point in time we keep a sourdough. The batter requires a large portion of sourdough starter that would otherwise be discarded in the feeding cycle and a small addition of flour, buttermilk, and baking soda. You too can enjoy these crumpets without creating a composed cheese course, and any that can’t be consumed in a couple days can be tucked into your freezer for future toasting. It takes a little practice to get the bubbles to create pockets. Too thick and they can’t rise through the batter to the surface, too thin and they bubble away before the batter sets. If your crumpet rings are filled too full the bubbles get trapped under the weight of the batter, not enough and they look like little pocked pancakes. The temperature of the griddle is crucial to set the dough at just the right time, trapping the pockets left behind as the bubbles pass through to escape. Too hot and they burn, too cold and the bubbles don’t quite escape.

If you keep a sourdough starter, you’ll find you have a chance each day to master this recipe. I doubt you’ll have trouble finding hungry mouths to take your trials off your hands. Holes or no holes, there’s hardly a crumpet that isn’t made suitable toasted with a little butter and jam. If you don’t keep a starter, this recipe is a great excuse to invite one into your kitchen. Just remember to feed it daily, and to give it a right good name.


Sourdough Crumpet

Membrillo- pipeable

Compressed Asian Pears (in quince juice)

Horseradish butter pearls

Additional Components

Crumbled Milton Creamery “prarie breeze” white cheddar, Fresh Horseradish, Radishes shaved into ice water, Amaranth

The Plated Dish


parmesan cruller

parm cruller

Inspiration most often comes in the least likely packages. Our most recent dessert, a Parmesan cruller glazed in white chocolate, and served with basil and blackberries, was born of an orange box of Stouffer’s mac and cheese.

Nestle contacted me and put me to the task of hacking one of their products, which basically means turning it into something else. I said yes, absolutely, thinking in the back of my mind that Nestle = chocolate. Turns out, Nestle = many many other things I was not aware of, and rather than toll house morsels, or even cocoa mix with mini marshmallows, they shipped me 4 boxes of Stouffer’s mac and cheese.

It arrived while I was out of town, and my sous chef Krystle was even more confused than I was. I received a call, “Uh chef? are you expecting a bunch of frozen mac and cheese?” I laughed out loud. It seemed the pastry gods were playing a prank on me.

“yes, I guess I am” I responded.

I began to dig up any memory of cheddar cheese in a dessert, passed over apples and cheddar, landing on a flavor combination I’ve been itching to use since my first moments in Chicago; cheddar and caramel.

Chicago is blessed with numerous gourmet popcorn shops, and in each you will find something called the Chicago Mix. It’s deceivingly simple, caramel corn tossed with cheddar popcorn in equal amounts. It is also and highly addictive. I personally prefer a ratio of two cheddar popcorns for ever one caramel corn, eaten in one bite.

Once in front of a box of mac and cheese, I did the first thing that came to mind. I blended it beyond recognition into a smooth paste. We kicked around ideas for how to utilize our mac and cheese puree, and somewhere along the way, it was folded into pate de choux and piped into the fryer.

A couple tries later, the churros were being dusted with the ubiquitous orange cheddar powder, and being dunked in caramel sauce.

It was a small victory, mac and cheese- 0, blackbird pastry- 1. But the cheesy churros were too good to let slip out of our grip.

I was hesitant to put a churro on our menu. We already had a concha, a Mexican sweet bun, and our recent cheese plate was covered with elotes, fried hominy, and poblano jelly. And with the flan nestled under our peach dessert, I was afraid if my bosses saw one more Mexican inspired dish I’d be accused of trying to turn us into a Mexican restaurant.

A little research into churros turned up a recipe titled “Mexican crullers”, which let me to the reality that a churro piped in a circle becomes a cruller.

It took a little doing, a month of doing to be exact, to get the cruller to embody a crispy exterior and moist but not gummy interior that I had in my head. We saw crullers that blew up in the fryer to look like malformed old fashioned doughnuts, and some that held their shape beautifully, but were like eggy sponges inside. We would nail the interior texture, only to have a cruller with a papery flexible shell. I watched batters disintegrate in the fryer, and some that barely rose to the top. Long story short, I failed in every way a cruller could fail.

But goonies never say die, and we finally landed on a twice fried cruller. The cruller is flavored with Parmesan like a gougere, and served with a roasted Parmesan fondue, a texture we lovingly call “parm whiz”. Crispy bits of oven baked Parmesan behave much like a sprinkle, adding a little crunch to the top of the white chocolate glazed cruller. The warm glazed doughnut is nestled a basil infused custard, a nod towards the kind of cream you’d find inside a Berliner, and a black raspberry jam is dripped across the plate, another doughnut-filling-inspired component. Bulbous blackberries lean against the plated cruller obscuring the custard from view, and bitty basil leaves are scattered across the dessert.

I’d be hard pressed to say this dish would have found it’s way to us had I been correct in my simple assumption about the breadth of Nestle’s product line. I can say with pride, we are all smiling at what became of the pastry god’s prank on our department.


Parmesan Cruller

Basil Custard

Roasted Parmesan

Parm Whiz

Black Raspberry Drip

White Chocolate Glaze (hot applications)

Additional components: micro basil

Plated Dish

Coconut Haystacks

IMG_3725Sitting high above the countertops on a shelf many of can only reach on tip toes, we keep larger containers of dry goods we access on a near daily basis. Way up there was a relic of a dish past, dehydrated flakes of coconut, a byproduct of processing whole coconuts for our winter dessert of pumpkin, coconut, sage, and peanut.

Perhaps it was his large stature that kept Harry Flagers mind on the dried coconut, all 6 feet and 3 inches putting him at eye level with the stuff on a daily basis. He was the first to suggest using it when we discussed the mignardise for the evening, and it often made it’s way into the staff meals he prepared.

When he exhausted his own ideas, I passed him a recipe that has been with me since the beginning. This cookie, the coconut haystack is like a coconut macaroons older, sexier, naughtier sister, the one your friends parents mumble about with scorn and awe.

The coconut haystack came into my own life through the same path it arrived in Harry’s, via the tiny bites that finish a meal in a fine dining restaurant. At Lampreia, I would bring recipes in to test for our Petit Four plate, little cookies and candies. The coconut haystack came from one of my text books, citing it’s discovery to a time when war rationing was at an end and exotic flavors like coconut came back into daily life.

While we called them petit fours at Lampreia, as I’m sure many other establishments do, I more commonly hear them referred to as mignardise. Mignardise are simple confections, candies, cakes, cookies, and other minuscule sweets, small enough to be eaten in a single bite and presented after  a guest has signaled for their bill. Be it a green foil wrapped Andes mint sitting on the handwritten check in a diner, a fortune cookie with the bill at a chinese restaurant, or the hand made specialties of a fine dining restaurant set on white china aside the billfold, these are all one last interaction between the guest and the restaurant, a final moment of hospitality.

Here at Blackbird, we offer a pair of mignardise each evening. An ever changing rotation of sweets, it is the creative responsibility of our line cooks to conceive, develop, and execute them on a daily basis. Inspired by the projects at Noma, I heard Rene explain to his overwhelmed cooks buried under their daily prep lists that when it came time to being a chef, you couldn’t walk out into the dining room and say “oh I’m sorry I don’t have anything new for you, I didn’t have time.” His projects are not only a way for cooks to express themselves, but an obligation to exercise creativity. Building yourself as a creative being doesn’t happen by chance. It comes through practice, and is a hard skill to come by. Rene’s point was not to wait until you had your own menu to begin exercising your creative muscles, and now just as in the future, there were no excuses.

We don’t have weekly projects here at Blackbird, but every person in my department has a creative obligation to the menu, one that allows them to enter the creative process under the guidance of a chef. Our sous chef is responsible for creating the intermezzo, a smaller dessert presented before the dessert course on our tasting menu, something that changes once a month. Our AM cook is responsible for the prix fix lunch desserts, one of which is always an ice cream coupe. Finally, our two PM cooks are responsible for mignardise.

So as I tracked down this recipe for the petit four plate I participated in creatively 15 years ago, I handed it off to Harry, a budding creative mind searching for a way to utilize our exceptional house made dried coconut flakes in his own mignardise plate. You’ll find it addictive, if you like coconut. The batter is made on the stove, an emulsion of butter and sugar, mounted with whole egg, and cooked to a tight dough with dried coconut. Once cooled, the batter can be rolled and baked in many sizes, although I don’t recommend anything larger than a nilla wafer. Do give this recipe a shot, who knows, maybe it will find a place amongst your own final offerings to your guests.


Coconut Haystack Cookies 


An Amaretto Cake


Our pastry work at Blackbird has remained exploratory in nature. We rarely use a recipe twice. Instead of relying on something we’ve mastered, we push ourselves to ask, “what else can we do?” It does mean some of our favorite recipes retire, never to see another mouth again.

Avec, however, has become my refuge for some of these recipes. A place where I can use a single delicious recipe a few times over, bringing it back season after season with a new dressing.

One such cake, a gift from my dear bambi Jason Stratton, chef of Artusi, Spinasse, and now Aragona in Seattle, made it’s way into our kitchen at blackbird as part of a dessert featuring a cardamom danish. This amaretto cake, moist, soft, fragrant with the flavor of bitter almonds, and soaked in a syrup of amaretto was simply too good to retire to the pages of a binder.

Instead, we started baking it in rounds and slicing the downy white cake neatly in wedges for Avec’s dessert menu. We have dressed this tender cake in fresh strawberries, tossed with elderflower cordial for a light summery dessert. When the darker evenings of winter came, we covered the almond scented rounds in chocolate glaze and gave it a glimmer or jewel toned seville orange marmelade. We have warmed slices in the woodfire oven, a hint of texture toasted onto the outside, and served it with a burnt honey ice cream.

Today, as the cherries are starting to mingle with produce stand stalwarts like oranges, apples, and pears, we brought this work horse of a cake back. Red-hearted Bing cherries are poached in spiced black cherry juice before covering a wedge of Amaretto Cake, a quick dollop of whipped goat cheese on top.

There is really not much more needed to perfect this formula; amaretto cake + tasty fruit + creamy something, and you have yourself a darling friend, welcome at any occasion inside and outside a restaurant setting.

However, don’t be afraid to put this recipe to work inside your pastry department. Bake it in thin layers for a classic poured fondant petit four or a twist on opera cake. Bake it in rounds and stack it tall in layer cakes. Pile the soft white crumbs on contemporary composed desserts, or decorate the top of glazed donuts with a scattering. Replace lady fingers with disks of amaretto cake in tirimisu, or bury them in a proud Verine. Bake in sheets, and cut precise shapes from the cake, piping mousses and stacking things on top of it for a classic plated dessert. Trifles! Bombes! Ice cream cakes! I could go on all day!

Perhaps I’m lobbying a bit hard for this cake, a proud mama who just wants this cake to find someone nice and settle down. Or, perhaps I know this cake can offer a long happily-ever-after for you and your pastry department.

Amaretto Cake

Cherry Poached Cherries

Whipped Goat Cheese




scatterI am a tiramisu purist. To me this means the quintessential Italian dessert is made with aged ladyfingers dipped in espresso, softened between layers of mascarpone that has been lightened with a Marsala sabayon. A proper tiramisu should contain nothing more, save a light dusting of bitter cocoa powder to finish. If I’m feeling really frisky, I’ll add a dash of the anise flavored Sambuca to the espresso before each lady finger is baptized in the bitter liquid, or swap the Marsala for Madeira depending on what’s around, but even those simple variations are stretching it.

I was shocked, upon a recent trip to Nico to taste Amanda Rockman’s desserts, that her tiramisu broke every one of these rules. Even more surprising to me was how much I loved it.

“Loved it” isn’t quite the right turn of phrase. If I’m being honest, obsessed better describes the amount of time I thought about her tiramisu in the days after eating my first one. I pondered what the crispy element was, hidden from sight between layers of Valrhona Caramelia mousse and mascarpone. The cake layer mystified me, soft with a bitter whisper from what I envisioned to be an ever so brief encounter with espresso, yet it was clearly added a la minute. Floating over the top of the variegated dessert was an unearthly light whipped cream, pure white yet scented like coffee. Or was it whipped mascarpone? And seriously, what on earth is that crispy crunchy layer?!

I bombarded Amanda with so many questions via text messages, she finally stopped answering and just snapped a picture of a recipe.

So naturally, I put her tiramisu on my menu.

Well, not quite. Rather, we set ourselves to task creating a dish that embodied all the components of Amanda’s gripping tiramisu. To hear Amanda put it, she adores this kind of “collective collaboration”, an incubated creative process fueled by open sharing between like minds, much like the ghost stories written in closed competition by Mary Shelley and her contemporaries that begat Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The most gripping part of the tiramisu Amanda created for the dessert menu at Nico, the Italian seafood restaurant recently opened in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, is the inclusion of crispy textures. After being questioned for what seemed like hours, she admitted the crispy layers included crushed aged lady fingers. These cookies, called Savoiardi, are found in every tiramisu. They are hard through and through, and are made soft with a short dunk in espresso, quick enough to soak just the surface of the cookie, and a long period of time absorbing the moisture from the layers of mascarpone mousse they sit between. The fate of these cookies changes drastically in Amandas hands.

Nico is the third Italian restaurant on Amanda’s resume, so tiramisu has long been a cornerstone of her dessert menus.  In Austin, Texas at a restaurant called Asti, genesis came in classic form, as Amanda produced a tiramisu per her bosses instruction, daily for the dessert menu. Years later, and over 1000 miles north, Amanda set up shop at Balena here in chicago with this recipe in tow. She tweaked it here and there, included more mascarpone, and layered her tiramisu in a narrow pulman pan. Once unmolded, Balena’s tirimisu was sliced like a terrine, the distinct layers laid flat, running across the plate over a streak of dark chocolate sauce. Here, an evolutionary leap was made; a crispy espresso streusel was sprinkled atop, and a petite coffee roasted pear flanked the reinvented classic Italian dessert.

When Amanda was tapped to open Nico last fall, it was made clear to her she needed to put a tiramisu on the menu, and it needed to be the best in the city. No small task, but one gladly accepted by a girl so admittedly in love with tiramisu she would gladly eat one found in the rear of a 7-11 freezer 2 years after it was stocked.

It was quickly decided that Nico’s tiramisu would be constructed individually as a Verine, layered to order in a tall glass. Amanda wanted the dessert to look deceptively simple, holding all of it’s textural secrets out of sight, a surprise in each spoonful. A cremeux made from Valrhona’s , Caramelia, a caramel-y milk chocolate, is cast in the base of a rocks glass. Left to settle into it’s pudding like texture over night, the cremeux is the only pre-set component in this dessert. Upon order, the cremeux is scattered with a combination of crushed lady fingers and espresso streusel. The mascarpone mousse, in it’s 3rd variation from it’s Texan origins, is piped into the glass. A piece of moist, vanilla scented olive oil cake is dipped quickly in espresso, then inserted deep into the billowy mousse.  Crackly praline crunch, made with fuilletine and praline grains bound by praline paste is nestled on top of the cake before the glass is filled to the brim with a cold infused coffee cream lightened with the charge of an ISI cannister. To finish this contemporary tiramisu, Amanda opted to dust the top with atomized chocolate rather than cocoa powder.

After I sampled this dessert for the first time, I came into work and told tale of the deceptive layers, of the tiramisu that broke all the rules. The team at blackbird discussed what a tiramisu would look like in our dining room, reconceived in the modern, minimal style we work in. It was quickly decided that however it was created, it was to be constructed directly on our large flat plates. We made cakes, butter creams, chocolate mousses aerated in the vacuum chamber, the mascarpone layer from both Avec’s recipe book and Amanda’s. Crumbles, crunches, chocolates, and nuts were broken apart, mixed together, and tasted.

We began editing the dish, talking about the dessert as a haiku, including as few components as we get away with. Harry suggested that just a dollop of mascarpone misted with madiera and a bitter espresso streusel would exemplify the core of the dish. We tried it, making our own mascarpone from kilgus cream and tartaric acid, and agreed that yes, it possessed the core values of tiramisu, and yes, we could add a couple more things for the dining room at blackbird.

What finally came of our Amanda Rockman inspired wanderings through flavors and textures of tiramisu is a dish simply titled Chocolate Pudding, which does indeed describe the main component on the plate. The chocolate pudding, made in classic american stovetop style is deepened with espresso and a dose of sambuca. Piped in a large disk, the chocolate pudding obscures a smaller dome of mascarpone cream, lightly sweetened with madiera. Dropped from a 12 inch distance, 5 textures rain over the pudding, clinging to it’s surface and scattering towards the edge of the plate. First falls a texture directly lifted from the aforementioned tiramisu, a crispy streusel with freshly ground espresso folded in with the flour. Next, salty butter roasted hickory nut pieces are scattered, followed by flecks of coffee toffee, and paper thin shavings of morello cherry flavored chocolate. In finale, the dark powdery dusting on our tirimisu inspired dish comes in the form of a chocolate cookie, ground fine enough to resemble the espresso responsible for the core flavor in the namesake dessert.

On more than one occasion, I’ve delivered this dessert to a table and shared the story of our inspiration only to hear that the guests had enjoyed Amanda’s tiramisu recently as well. I hope they too can see her brilliance shining through the dessert she inspired here at Blackbird.


 Sambuca Pudding

Madiera Mascarpone

Espresso Streusel

Buttered Hickory Nuts

Morello Chocolate Shavings

Coffee Toffee

Chocolate Rock







Culinary Schools

culinary schoolThe topic of culinary school has come up lately here in Blackbirds pastry department as we get to know the newer members of our team, Krystle and Harry. Through conversation, it’s clear we all have a lot in common. However, it’s interesting how divergent our paths into this kitchen are.

Jane currently attends the french pastry school and spends the few hours she has before an overnight baking shift on the weekends learning with us as an extern. Harry opted for a degree in food science while staging under an enviable list of pastry chefs before he took his first paid position in our kitchen. Krystle went to a Jr. college in California as her father urged her not to take out loans, landing at Bernardus for 5 years before signing on as our Sous chef. Kara took her courses at the CIA, passing through Cafe Boulud and The Peninsula before I found her in our dining room eating the entire dessert menu and hinted that we had a job opening up. Both Molly and Amy went to JJC here in chicago, and between the two of them have seen the inside of pie shops, chocolate shops, large scale bakeries, and Bouchon in New York before they joined the team and showed their dedication to craftsmanship.

Me? I dropped out of the Art Institute of Seattle.

Yet here we all are, standing in the same kitchen, sharing the same experience, the same hours, and the same wages.

While all our paths converge here, some of us carry with us the burden of student loans left over from our choices in educational experiences.

Student loans are extremely hard to pay off on a cooks wage. In order to pay student loans, I see passionate cooks take jobs that don’t necessarily further their eduation or satisfy them in order to repay loans, or take second jobs with their minimal free time in order to make ends meet. It’s a challenge enough to live on a cooks wage, and the monthly obligation to repay a loan can be crippling.

So is school worth it? Yes. A culinary school will give you a broad scope survey of the wide world of culinary arts. It is not training ground for working in restaurants. It is not a degree that will allow you to step into a management level position without first climbing the ranks and starting at 10 dollars an hour. You will learn to make a million different things, once, and you will get a taste for the varied nooks and crannies of our culinary profession, of which restaurants are a small but highly visible part.

Culinary school will help you stick your foot in the door, and present yourself as career minded candidate for jobs in the field without any previous experience. Studying formally will also give you an idea of what part of the industry you might like to narrow your career into before you start applying for jobs.

Based on what I have seen passing through kitchens over the last 10 years, most culinary school will do this. Those with prestige and expensive tuition and those housed in junior colleges or trade schools will all send you into the work force with a similar level of experience. Your degree will open a door. But once that door is open, it’s your passion and drive that keeps it from shutting. In my experience, there is no educational marker for the cook that keeps the door open for themselves. They come from every walk of life, and all have two things in common, drive and passion.

I feel lucky. The universe took care of me. I was 19 when I wanted to enter the industry, and I saw culinary school as my way of presenting myself to the profession. I toured the community colleges in Seattle, put off by the job posting board’s inclusion of grocery store bakeries (what a snob!). I was captured by the Art Institutes schmancy kitchens, views of the water, and the promises of an elite education, all of which came with a forty thousand dollar price tag. I wanted to emulate the chefs I held on high like Thomas Keller and Jacques Torres, and believed the path began with a fancier education.

So I enrolled in The Art Institute and agreed to exchange 40 k for my chance to walk down the road to chefdom. I paid my tuition each quarter in 20 dollar bills that I collected, 2 or 3 dollars at a time from the breakfast tables of a family friends Diner where I waited tables full time in the mornings before I went to school. The tips I earned were enough to pay my tuition outright and support a meager life, and saved me from a 20 year relationship with a lender.

I say I feel lucky because its likely I would have taken student loans to pay my tuition had my employment been different. Had I done this, I would never have been able to travel and stage like I have, or take jobs solely for their educational value instead of their wage. Or, knowing me, I would have gone gallivanting around the globe anyways, let my loans default, and worried about it later.

I feel eternally grateful to the universe for giving me the ability to pay my expensive tuition outright. As someone who is now asked frequently for advice by young cooks (or more often their parents) about whether to go to school or not, I can say this.

If you know you want to cook, but don’t know where to start, go to school. Be wary of assuming debt to do it, keeping in mind you will get from any school what you put into it. You will meet working chefs and see various styles of cuisine by volunteering at large events. You’ll spend every day along side people who will enter the workforce with you and remain friends and colleagues for years. You’ll tip toe into the industry through mandatory externships, and when you leave school, you’ll start your career with a budding knowledge of cuisine, ready to begin your career by starting at the bottom and paying your dues just like everyone else.

If you know where or what you want to cook, just go do it. Get yourself in a kitchen, and work your ass off learning things as simple as how to hold a knife. You’ll have to open doors for yourself, but someone will take you. Cast a wide net and start building experience. Actively educate yourself while earning money instead of spending it. In a year or two, when the culinary students are graduating, they will be taking the same job you had a year ago, at the same entry level wages. You will be ready to take a step into your second or third cooking position and can be hired on as a dependable member of a kitchen at an elevated wage. While at The Fat Duck I met a cook who took his college fund and spent it staging in Europe for 18 months. The Fat Duck itself is helmed by Heston Blumenthal, who had never studied formally yet managed to earn 3 michelin stars and the title of #1 restaurant in the world, twice.

I’m glad I went to school. My own desires upon entry straddled the world of savory and sweet, and by the end of studying in both programs, I finally saw  my own trailhead existed in restaurants. This wasn’t clear to me when I started, and my education built confidence in me that I was of some value to a restaurant when I finally asked for the door to open. I left school behind, deciding instead to take a mentored position under Scott Carsberg at Lampreia in Seattle. Without looking back, I walked away from the study of sugar and chocolate sculpture, the final class sitting between me and a degree. The 35,000 I had invested in my education up to that point was forgotten and I moved forward without a degree to show for it, investing solely in my skills and abilities by learning on the job from a master.

I can’t tell you which path to take for yourself. I guess you could say I took both paths, abandoning one when the second became clear. My only endorsement for any other individual is that you follow your own path, understanding value in yourself and the direction you take. And by all means, consider your options thoroughly before you take out a large student loan.