Italian Jam Tart

italian jam tart

Last summer I consulted a pastry chef with much more experience in the world of Italian desserts than I. I was in need of some suggestions for traditional desserts to inform my menu at Avec, and he has managed the sweet side of Del Posto in New York for long enough to make him an expert in my eyes. It was my good fortune that he happened to be in Italy during our exchange of texts, and the flow of ideas was strong.

Amongst the desserts we talked about, he suggested a fruit dessert that I quickly tucked into my piggy bank of possibilities, safe and sound, waiting for the darkest, coldest, most barren part of winter. This dessert, the Italian Jam Tart, holds the Brooks Headley seal of Awesomness, and will forever hold a place on my roster.

Why? Well, it’s damn tasty, for one. Also, it’s damn easy. Not the kind of “easy” that we can get away with in a professional kitchen filled with appliances, big ovens, ice machines, and hired dishwashers. This dessert is the kind of easy I can make at home. For all my drive and skill at work, I am a lazy home baker. My house is my sanctuary, the place I use to separate myself from what I spend 12 hours a day doing. I despise making anything complicated in my home kitchen, where my counters are small, the equipment minimal, and all dishes are washed by hand.

However, it is not my minimalistic approach to home baking that will keep this dessert in my life year after year. It is the chance to highlight fruit in the dead of winter. Not citrus from distant states, or apples that have been housed in cool places since september. This tart is a vessel for all of summers bounty, preserved as jams, brought out in a time when it’s easy to forget what a real berry tastes like.

At the time this conversation took place, summer was slipping into Autumn, but not before we were able to preserve some of the late season berries as jam. The jars lay in wait for months, biding their time while peaches were tucked under flaky crostada doughs. They kept to themselves while the apples were shaved paper thin and layered in galettes. They didn’t make a peep as pumpkins were roasted and folded into spiced pumpkin budinos, or blood oranges topped light ricotta cheesecakes.

But as the shortest day of the year passed and fresh fruit was a fleeting memory, our jars of jam were carried up from the basement, ready for their day in the sun. A little research was done on these traditional tarts, and we happily ate them for a week at staff meal while we refined our dough and made a crust worthy of our mixed summer berry jam.

What came of this venture is a buckwheat crust flavored with a whisper of bitter almond. The dough is divided, the bulk pressed into a tart pan. jam is generously spread over, and the remaining dough is scattered on top with a handful of shaved almonds. Once baked and sliced, the tart is served with a little pitcher of cultured cream, just thick enough to cling to the tart when poured on top.

As we open the last few jars of our mixed berry jam, we are already day dreaming of the jams we will make this summer as chase the seasons fruits through their rapid shuffle.

 Italian Jam Tart

culture club


Spring has yet to spring here in Chicago. Temperatures still hover around freezing, and snow flurries obscured my vision as I walked home from work earlier this week. This hasn’t stopped my internal clock from sounding the bells of seasons change with no regard for the wintery climate outside. Without even a suggestion of the seasons first fruits and vegetables my own internal spring is growing restless and deeply unsatisfied.

To distract us from the doldrums of this long winter, we purchased Kilgus cream and milk and a handful of dairy cultures, and have been experimenting with the subtle changes we can occur in cows milk with a variety of bacteria.

Our little excalibur dehydrator is filled with various yogurts and keifers, all hoping for a spot on Avec’s brunch menu.

My oven spent the night on low, clotting cream for me, which came out nubbly and thick, and somewhere between velvet and butter.

Cream has been thickened at room temperature with the help of a sour cream culture, making me ask why we’ve ever purchased the stuff.

But the real excitement came from a half gallon of creme fraiche. I’ve fraiched many a cream in kitchens spanning the country, adding buttermilk and a little lemon to heavy whipping cream, and setting it in a warm place in the kitchen to perform it’s magic trick. 48 hours later a rich and tangy dairy product could be harvested and chilled to thicken. It was for all practical purposes a hack, and at the time it was all I cared to know about creme fraiche.  With my heavy handed introduction of acid, my creme fraiche was much more like sour cream than the expensive and seemingly bland creme fraiche I purchased for 9 dollars a pint at a fancy grocery store.

This time, however, armed with a little pouch of live culture, we made a legit creme fraiche. I was quite impressed with the end result. It was richer, more nuanced, and possessed a pleasant acidity that didn’t hover as close to sour cream as my previous attempts.

Also excited by this batch of creme fraiche was my Pastry Cook Molly Svec. This batch was promised to Molly, who promptly bludgeoned it in a Hobart mixer until it broke completely. She patiently hand massaged the buttermilk from the fat, and shaped the newly formed cultured butter into a beurrage for the croissant on our menu.

We have been purchasing a european butter and pounding it into a malleable submission with a french rolling pin, a noisy endeavor to say the least. Molly promised she could do better.

Molly had spent some of her formative years as a bakers assistant to a passionate baker who makes some of the most fantastic croissants I’ve had.  His company, aptly named Beurrage sells their outstanding wares at the farmers market in Pilsen, the previously Polish, now predominately Hispanic neighborhood just southwest of the Chicago city center (and also where I call home!). Each beurrage folded into Beurrage’s dough is shaped from hand made cultured butter. It seems like a daunting task, hand making the butter for croissants. Don’t be put off, however. It’s a labor of love, for sure, but in a way as streamlined and time consuming as pounding and pounding and pounding cold butter into submission.

Culturing the cream is as easy as heating cream to 86 degrees, stirring in a packet of culture, setting it on a counter for 12 hours, then transferring it to the refrigerator for 12 hours. The cold creme fraiche is made easy work of a hobart mixer, and the only real hands on task in this process is kneading the buttermilk from the butter. Once the buttermilk has been pressed out, the soft butter is immediately shaped as a beurrage and chilled. It sets into the correct shape, and multiples can be made at a time. Because the burrage is given it’s shape before the butter sets up, it retains a flexibility that can’t be found again by manipulating butter from a block, and the risk of the fat leaking from the dough when baked is drastically reduced.

Ok, so you need to get a 2 day jump on this. But once built into a production cycle in your kitchen, it’s quite easy to manage.

The end result? Less greasy, crisper, and more flavorful croissants. In a world where the laminated doughs used by restaurants and hotels are so easily purchased in a frozen case, a croissant laminated in house with handmade cultured butter will truly stand out.

If you never laminate a croissant with handmade butter, take one thing from this post. Embrace the discovery brought into our kitchen by a few boring weeks, that the many of the dairy products we are using can be created in our own kitchens with ease, and the results alone are as worthy of a place on our plates as the recipes that call for them. The craftsmanship of culturing an outstanding dairy outshines many recipes that manipulate the same purchased products.


Croissant dough with cultured butter





wide waffle sketchIt took a brunch baby shower at Avec and the guests request for an off-menu item to be served for me to see it. As I rounded up the requisite iron and discussed recipes, a hidden passion in my pastry cook came bubbling to the surface. Turns out, Amy McCudden loves making waffles.

It may come from her boyfriends love of eating waffles, but where ever this devotion stems from, I found as enthusiastic a waffle maker as I have ever seen standing in front of me last weekend, thrilled at the prospect of landing a new recipe.

To accommodate our guests request, I had flipped through the many and varied recipes that exist to make waffles, comparing leavening agents, regional styles, flours, sweeteners, and textures, settling on my personal favorite, the liege style waffle. This waffle is a yeasted dough, sweetened not with sugar in the batter, but chunks of pearl sugar folded into the dough that caramelize against the hot surface of the waffle iron.

I first encountered liege waffles when a lovely woman named Adrien emailed me one day, asking to discuss my availability as a consultant. I was flattered to say the least. I was still a fairly young pastry chef, and she was the first person to ask me to consult. I pretended like I had some experience with it, arranged a meeting, and went about the business of being a consultant employing the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality. We met at a coffee shop, and she shared her business with me, a liege waffle shop, for which she needed help designing the toppings.

Luckily, it was a simple enough job. Since she was as inexperienced with opening a restaurant as I was at consulting my cluelessness either didn’t show through, or didn’t dissuade her from hiring me. We met at her house, and tested and tasted my recipes on top of the waffle recipe she herself had already developed. I was instantly captivated by these waffles. They were light, crispy, and the depth of flavor of the caramelized pockets of sugar were mind blowing. (If you live in Seattle or find yourself passing through, you can find these waffles at Sweet Iron)

For our brunch party, we used the liege waffle recipe I developed for the waring company, featured here (disclosure, I am not exactly a firecracker on camera). It’s a fine example of the style, and our bellies were happily stuffed with more test runs than we realistically needed to make this weekend.

Amy was excited to find a recipe to bring home and make for her guy, and I am excited to discover this passion in my cook. I look forward to harnessing her desire for making waffles, and opening up our pastry menu at Avec to a waffle based dessert.


Liege Waffles

Craftsman and Cooks

craftsman 2With the flow of younger cooks in and out of the restaurants I work at, I hear snippets of conversations here and there often describing dreams for the future, and the chefs they want to be. Not in a lofty sense, actual names of the chefs they admire most and hope to grow into.

These cooks pour over menus, stare into pictures on the computer, and gather pieces of information through conversation, building a picture of their favorite chefs in their young minds. Sometimes it’s gossipy, someone used to work with someone who worked there and they said once the chef was a dick. Or my roommate worked there and said he kicked all the cooks out and ran service with just his sous chefs. I’ve heard outlandish tales, that one pastry chef was so organized he wrote “go to the bathroom” on his prep list.

But mostly they talk about the food. How creative it is. How different it is. How they want to be able to do that some day too.

The fledgling cooks admire these chefs for their brains, the creativity they bring to our profession, and they too wish to be as inventive as them, making their own mark on the world one day.

My advice to young hungry cooks who want to become chefs one day is this. Be a craftsman first. The artistry will come. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, and let the chef you are working for be your creative guide while you focus on making yourself the best craftsman in their kitchen.

You’re time will come. And once you get there the most empowering thing you’ll find in your arsenal is your ability to craft the food to fit your creative vision. The most interesting flavor profiles will fall flat if you don’t understand how to shape the products you’re working with in the first place. How to store and protect your vegetables, how to fabricate your meats and fish, how to boil pasta, how to apply heat to different products correctly to consistently transform them into something of quality.

The stronger your craftsmanship is, the more you will be able to execute your creative vision one day, and the better you will be able to teach your cooks to craft your cuisine when you turn them over to your line. Until then, while you have the benefit of repetition, practice with someone elses menu. Craft each component on each dish better than the day before. Pick one thing each day to actively improve. Don’t let the repetition of your station hypnotize you, instead let it offer another chance to improve every time you make it, plate it, taste it. Do this for your chef because one day you want your cooks to do it for you. But mostly do it for the chef you hope to become.

The chefs you admire did this. I guarantee it. No one climbs to the top of their field creatively without having the craftsmanship to back it up.

So you want to be like the chef you admire most? Then tomorrow, when you go in your kitchen, consider yourself a craftsman instead of a cook. One day, when you are creating for your own menu, borrowing inspiration from your favorite chefs career, you’ll look back on this mental transition as a turning point that allowed you to be the kind of chef they are.


Found In Translation

ricotta cheesecakeThe only thing constant about Blackbird is that it is in constant flux. The restaurant, founded to house the cuisine of Paul Kahan 16 years ago, was eventually released from his tenure as chef de cuisine, and transformed into a guided creative platform for younger talent. The reigns were first handed to Mike Sheerin who was launched into notoriety before opening his own Trencherman and now Chiccetti, bringing with him the playful manipulation marked by his time at WD-50. Amongst Sheerins ranks grew a young and passionate David Posey, who was handed the torch and has transformed the menu at Blackbird into a blend of Nordic influences, techniques and whimsy from his time under Grant Achatz at both Trio and Alinea, and the grounded, flavor focused philosophies garnered from his time with Paul Kahan.

Blackbird has no signature dishes. It doesn’t repeat history, or circle back and cover it’s own tracks. It’s not the groundbreaking think tank that Noma’s food lab is, or the progressive restaurant that Alinea is. However, the beauty of this restaurant is in it’s ability to constantly evolve and redefine itself.

It’s a pleasure creating the endings for this menu. A challenge at times, but nothing short of the best job I could want for.

However, it’s not my whole job. I also have under my wing the dessert menu across the alley at Avec. And Avec is everything Blackbird is not. It’s menu is static. It has served dates wrapped in chorizo, and a truffle cheese filled foccacia every night since it’s doors opened. It’s menu is deeply tied to the traditions and flavors of the wine growing regions of the Mediterranean. While much of the menu does change, you can come in expecting to see many of the dishes you remember.

The desserts at Avec are rooted in tradition and quite simple. This should not be mistaken for the word “easy”. It’s easier to impress with 10 components than it is with 2. And tradition can be limiting and binding.

I often find myself staring at a traditional Italian dessert, pondering it’s relevance on a contemporary menu in Chicago. This most recently came up when testing Ricotta Cheesecake recipes to pair with winter blood oranges.

Traditional ricotta cheesecakes  showcase the best qualities of the fresh cheese they are made from; a subtle sweetness, a soft curd, a pleasant blandness. They are crumbly, and feel a little dry compared to their thick creamy American counterparts.

How does one tie a traditional dessert to a menu so distant from it’s original context? Often I find myself deep in thought asking myself why this dish was made the way it was, what it embodies, and how similar expressions are made in our culture. While regional dishes differ drastically across the globe, the sentiment behind cuisine on every continent is created with the same human intention and most often resonance can be found.

Why did a person in Italy 100 years ago make a cheesecake, and how does that mirror a person in America making a cheesecake today? This dessert can be traced back to roman times, utilizing products that were available in the days before spring form pans and philledelphia cream cheese factories. A crust of nuts held the ricotta cake in place, and a few eggs were used to bind the batter. A light hand in mixing was used, and the texture and flavor were left to highlight the beautifully bland quality of the fresh cheese. Sweetness came from a drizzle of honey after the cake was sliced and the addition of sweeter fruits like dates and figs. It was a lovely expression of regional available product, and a true luxury when eaten.

Today in America, land of abundance, this cheesecake would not feel luxurious, rather it appears light and simple, if not even a little clumsy. Cheesecake, however, is still seen as luxurious, and we often hear this dessert associated with words like “sinful” or “decadent”. Our cheesecakes rely on a highly stabilized cream cheese and are dense, silky, and quite sweet. They are baked over buttery crusts of crushed graham crackers, and often strongly flavored with things like coffee, chocolate, pumpkin, lemon, or rum. A far cry from the cheesecakes across the ocean.

This time around, I didn’t look to resurrect the tradition literally. I took my cues from Italian cheesecakes in flavor, and put my efforts in capturing the light subtle quality of fresh ricotta. However, I quickly divorced this updated ricotta cheesecake from the crumbly nature of the cheese. Because we love a thick dense creamy cheesecake these days, I pureed the ricotta until smooth, and added a touch of cream cheese to the mascarpone laced batter. The crust was made with both ground nuts and crushed cookies. The resulting cake is light and sweet like ricotta, flavored subtly with a hint of blood orange, but embodying the smooth silky texture we have come to expect of contemporary cheesecakes. A kaleidoscope of fresh and candied blood oranges sit in tandem over the cheesecake, offering additional sweet and sour counterparts to the rich dairy, and pine nuts coated in caramel sauce finish the dish.

Sometimes a tradition can be resurrected, and we can favor authenticity. Other times we use modern desserts and only include the flavors of the region. This time it’s a hybrid. Two traditions melded into one. A cake all it’s own, found in translation.


Ricotta Cheesecake

Caramel Pine Nuts

Candied Blood Oranges


Molten Chocolate Cake

On the occasion I leave my restaurant for the night, or have entire days off, I can occasionally be tempted to join the greater part of society and attend a party. Years ago, on one of these such occasions, I found myself in a small circle of adults, foodies if you will, discussing my favorite topic; dessert.

The conversation shifted towards a modern classic dessert, one everyone in the room was familiar with. This discussion of molten chocolate cake was focused on it’s “pedestrian” status, from every mid range fine dining restaurant in the suburbs to it’s signature status on Chili’s menu.

While I sipped my glass of wine, I heard some chuckles as all faces turned to me. “Not that you’d ever have a molten chocolate cake on your menu!”

Laughter ensued.

I smiled, and chuckled with the crowd, thinking to myself, “oh I wouldn’t? Watch me.”

I set myself to the task the next day, and the dish that came from a momentary desire to be contrary has followed me from Poppy in Seattle, to Spago in Beverly Hills, and has finally landed itself a spot on my menu at Avec.

You might not realize it’s that molten chocolate cake when you order it, and I’ve taken some liberties with the recipe, swapping the butter for a fruity olive oil, and serving it contained in it’s baking vessel rather than turning it out onto a plate. But make no mistake, my “Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocotte” takes it’s cues directly from the same molten chocolate cake that has permeated every inch of American dining.

A few years ago, I found myself with the good fortune of being in Denmark over the summer. As if summering in Denmark isn’t fortune enough, I was one of the lucky attendees of the first MAD festival. This may not be the place you’d expect a discussion to turn to molten chocolate cake, and I was surprised and delighted when it did. Upon introducing Michelle Bras to the stage, Rene Redzepi took a minute to speak on the breadth of a chefs influence.

To prove that we as chefs have more influence than we think, he brought up a photograph of a dessert created for the menu at Michelle Bras eponymous restaurant in the early 1980’s, the Chocolate Coulant. You might not recognize it by name, as Bras patented it there-by limiting it’s use to one menu. The dish, however, could not be contained to the country of france let alone one restaurant, and imitators were forced to come up with titles of their own. Over 20 years later, if you’re unfamiliar with the Coulant, you’ll most certainly have seen a Chocolate Lava Cake, or a Molten Chocolate Cake.

I write this post now, because Avec’s Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocotte has made it’s annual appearance on the menu, just in time for some mighty cold weather. The batter is cast into a casuela, the flat terracotta baking vessels used through out Mediterranean countries, and baked in our woodfire oven. At a whopping 800 degrees, this cake barely hovers inside the door as it bakes to order, just long enough to set the outside and leave the inside as ooey and gooey as any one of this cake’s alias’s would suggest. Upon removal from the oven, a sprinkling of buttery hazelnut crunch and a scoop of coffee ice cream are placed on top, and a quick drizzle of black olive oil finishes the dish.

If a trip to Avec isn’t in your future, these cakes are packaged in little jars and sold in the refrigerated case at Publican Quality Meats. One simply needs to unscrew the cap and place it in a 350 degree oven and molten chocolate cakes, I mean Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocottes can be enjoyed at any moment you find suitable.

Best chocolate cakes in the U.S.- Food and Wine Magazine

Cracked Coconuts

We professional pastry chefs have at our fingertips access to something home cooks could never dream of. High quality fruit purees. They come to us frozen in 1 kilo containers, ready to be thawed and folded into our recipes with the simple removal of a plastic seal. Some are better than others but all in all they are very tasty.

Thanks to companies like Boiron, Cap Fruit, and Ravifruit, my cohorts and I can use ripe flavorful strawberry any time of year, Alfonso mango from far away India, and most importantly, difficult to process fruits like pomegranates and passion fruit without breaking a sweat. All of these and more are at our immediate disposal, and trust me, we lean on them.

One of the purees I have always enjoyed using is coconut. It is a blend of coconut cream and coconut water, and has a much cleaner flavor and higher fat content than canned coconut milk.

Naturally, when we came to the conclusion that we were going to pair coconut and pumpkin for a winter dessert, I ordered my favorite coconut puree from our purveyors for testing. I also ordered something I have never ordered before: whole coconuts. I had seen Rene, my tournant at Alinea breaking whole coconuts down for a dish every day, and got a little bee in my bonnet that I wanted to do it too, or go down trying.

Lucky for me our chef at Blackbird David Posey had been breaking down those same coconuts at Alinea long before Rene, and he was available for consulting. When he had a spare moment, he made the trek up to our pastry department, tools in hand.

He laid down a dry towel, a butcher knife, an oyster knife, and a vegetable peeler. Gripping the coconut over a bowl with his left hand and the inverted butchers knife in his right, he began tapping the shell of the coconut with the blunt side of the knife. With a series of firm but controlled whacks against the circumference of the coconut, he was able to breach the hard shell. The foggy coconut water inside began to escape the fissure, and holding the coconut over the bowl, David carefully inserted the oyster knife into the thin fault and turned it to pry the two halves apart. The coconut water collected in the bowl below was immediately transferred to a strainer lined with a coffee filter to remove any brown particulate.

To remove the meat from the shell, David folded the towel in fourths and laid it on the counter. He placed a coconut half, shell side down, on the towel. The oyster knife was inserted into the seam between the white coconut meat and the hard brown shell, and with a series of shimmys, twists, and turns, the flesh of the coconut was pried loose in one clean piece.

Obligatory jokes were made about coconut bras, and the shells were discarded in the trash.

The startlingly white coconut meat still retained a thin, soft brown skin, which was removed with a little work from a vegetable peeler. The flesh was rinsed, and cut into pieces no larger than 1 inch.

At this time the Champion Juicer was lifted to the counter. The coconut meat was pushed through the juicer a few pieces at a time. The sharp teeth inside the hub made quick work of the coconut, separating the coconut cream from the coconut fiber. The coconut fiber was spread on a sheet and placed in the dehydrator for 24 hours, resulting in dry coconut flakes similar to those used for macaroons.

The entire process left us with three products to work with; coconut water, coconut cream, and coconut flakes. It’s a labor of love I tell you. Each of the three coconut products we create by processing whole coconuts is available for purchase with no additional labor required.

During the development process, it became clear to me that it was not the flavor of the coconut, but the process itself that became the heart of the dessert it belongs to. Every part of the coconut is utilized. The dehydrated coconut fiber is ground for the flour in a steamed pumpkin cake, and toasted to infuse flavor into the ice cream that sits atop. The coconut cream helps moisten the steamed cake, and what’s left is infused with sage and poured warm over the cake and ice cream table side. A simple powder of toffee peanuts and fried sage passed through a Parmesan mill is all that adorns this coconut dessert.

Steamed Pumpkin Cake

Peanut Sage Powder

Toasted Coconut Ice Cream

Sage Coconut Cream



Hold For Service

A comment on twitter regarding the last post about posset doubted the recipe’s authenticity due to the inclusion of 2 sheets of gelatin. I can understand the doubts of the reader. The post told of a custard set entirely by acid, so what was a sheet of gelatin doing in there?

It’s quite simple, and a point I thought worth bring up as a larger topic. The recipe given is one designed to function in a restaurant service. This means it isn’t simply made, set aside, and eaten at the optimal time. It must endure specific conditions that consider holding the product over a period of time and placing it on a plate as the customers order it.

The gelatin in this posset was introduced to prevent weeping, a small amount of liquid that would break out of the custard during service. The amount introduced offered nearly zero texture. In fact, if it were the only force at hand holding the cream in place, it would still look and feel like cream.

For this custard to be served, we cast it into flat 1 cup deli containers 1 inch deep. Each deli holds 8 portions which are spooned out of the deli as each order comes in. One deli is removed from the refrigerator anywhere from 1 to 8 times during a service, agitated slightly with each spoonful pulled from the mass. The agitation, along with the subtle temperature fluctuation caused by removal and  return to the refrigerator was the cause of a small amount of liquid seeping from the custard. While not the end of the world, the loss of liquid both made the custard a slight bit denser, and concentrated the flavor. We strive for consistency at Blackbird, doing what we can to ensure that the guest who enjoyed our posset at 6 on Tuesday will have the same experience as the dinner who orders this dessert in the peak of a busy Saturday. So to do this, we added gelatin to add longevity to this texture in the circumstances of service.

If you look in the same post at the recipe provided for creme avec, a nearly identical custard that is cast in a casuela and served in it’s entirety, you’ll see the sheets of gelatin was omitted. Because the custards were removed from the refrigerator only once and not agitated until the diner inserted their spoon, we did not encounter the same weeping.

When professional pastry chefs discuss dishes we ask, “how do you hold that for service?” It’s as much a part of the quality of a dish as the recipe used or the creativity in the flavors. If the texture isn’t held properly, or suffers from being held for service, it cripples a dish. I would venture to say this is a defining mark of a great line cook. They take the time to monitor product through the entirety of a service, examine quality fluctuations, and come up with solutions to maximize quality. If you don’t know how to hold your product for service, you can undo a days worth of work in a minute.

I bring this up, because these recipes are designed for restaurant service. They are sized to fit the standardized equipment that we have in our kitchens, and they are modified to survive service conditions. I made the decision to present our recipes exactly as we use them, because when I seek information to use in my restaurant, this is the information I want to find. The internet is choked with recipes, and there are cookbooks for days that tell of every dessert you can think of. However, to introduce these recipes to a restaurant setting a lot of translation needs to happen. I wanted these recipes to speak directly to those professionals doing exactly what we do every day, and help inform them as directly as possible.




Adventures In Setting Cream

Crème Brulee. Pot du crème. Panna Cotta. Custard. Pudding. Pastry Cream. Yogurt. Crème Fraiche.

A pastry professional spends a lifetime setting dairy.

Every time we do this we are attempting one thing; to disrupt the fluidity of dairy with enough matter change it from a liquid to a solid state. Sound complicated? It’s not, I’ll bet you have watched this simple act of magic happen yourself.

At it’s best, it can be done so delicately, the solid state reverts into liquid moments after it hits our tongue.

In our employ are proteins, enzymes, starches, bacteria, and alginates, all introduced to the liquid phase of dairy with the sole purpose of holding our delicious milks and creams in place long enough for us to transport them from a service piece into our mouths.

Here in our pastry department our recent foray into setting cream elegantly utilizes the protiens that exist in dairy naturally. A dessert pulled from the ages, Posset is a velvety custard made of cream, sugar, and acid. With a simple addition of an acid, commonly lemon juice, we lower the PH of the cream.

As the PH of the dairy drops and becomes more acidic, those tight little coiled proteins start to loosen up, and unravel. As they unravel they start to crisscross, creating a network of proteins so entangled, the water molecules in the milk are slowed, and at times immobilized. You’ll be familiar with this transformation if you’ve eaten yogurt, spooned sour cream onto a piece of pie, or let a thick keifer mosey down your throat.

Yogurt, creme fraiche, and keifer all obtain their acidity through bacterial fermentation, which requires a mindful chef and controlled environments. Once introduced, the bacteria begin to feast on the sugars in milk called lactose. They eat and eat, leaving behind lactic acid. Temperature and time must be watched to keep these bacteria lively and healthy.

Possets on the other hand require little attention and obtain all the acid they need from a direct and controlled introduction by the chef. Once combined, the acidulated dairy is left to it’s own devices in the refrigerator overnight. What emerges is custard with a texture somewhere between a creme brulee and sour cream.

Posset found it’s way into our kitchen by way of broad scope testing “cream” textures to work into a peaches-and-cream anchored dessert for blackbird. What resulted is a nectarine (turned pear for winter) poached in bourbon, set aside a posset made with a remarkable cream from Kilgus Farmstead. Lightly scented with rose, this posset employs lemon juice and a small dose of lactic acid. Burnt hazelnuts and bourbon buttercrunch sit in foundation while billowy sheets of caramelized phyllo and torn pickled roses cover the dish.

As research suggested this custard was the origin of panna cotta, it was only natural to find it a home at Avec as well. Cast into traditional Mediterranean terra cotta dishes called casuelas, we flavored this acid set cream with lemon, almond, and vanilla. In search of a name we simply titled it Crème Avec. This luscious custard needs nothing more than a sheer dressing of a sauce made from ripe fruit, in our case a plum caramel.


Creme Avec

Plum Caramel


Pear-rose Pudding

Burnt Hazelnut – Buttercrunch

Bourbon-rose Poached Pears

Pickled Rose Petals

Rice and Chocoalte

We’ve been playing with a lot of starchy components in the blackbird pastry kitchen these days. Specifically, potatoes, rice, and beans. It’s been an interesting venture. A savory cook makes a quick study of the pitfalls and successes of these starches, working with them in their natural state early on in their career. I won’t pretend to say we didn’t have a learning curve. But batch after batch of gluey muck after another, we persevered, determined to utilize the familiar-yet-unexpected texture these savory starches bring to our dessert.

I’d like to say it started with a desire to push my team, to expand ourselves creatively and walk down a road less traveled, however the truth of the matter is it started with a rice cake.

This rice cake is exactly what you think of as a rice cake. Similar in appearance to styrafoam, and made with brown rice. The only differentiating factor  between this puck of puffed rice and all the other pucks of puffed rice sitting in cellophane sleeves in your local grocery store was a coating of dark chocolate. It was purchased in a small natural foods grocery store in Freiburg, a town in the German black forest. The fact that the rice cake was purchased in a little village in a far away land may sound romantic, but in actuality this purchase holds all the charm of going to whole foods, and buying a rice cake.

My sister has taken up residence in Freiburg, and subsequently started a family. I splurged this year, and spend the entirety of my vacation time with them, getting to know my new nephew Flynn and my 3 year old niece/hurricane named Vivienne. Upon return, I was welcomed back into my kitchen with the inevitable question, “what did you eat?!”

It would seem natural that a chef traveling in Europe would make their way home with a belly filled to the brim with decadence. However, the priority of this trip was simply family. We cooked all of our meals (my sister makes an excellent quiche) between diapering, chasing, napping, and generally attending to the needs of young children.

So, when I was pressed to name the best thing I’d had while traveling, the honest answer was a rice cake coated in chocolate. It was lovely.

I decided then and there, that a dish could come of it, and we began testing rice textures, to pair with a chocolate. A memory of an ice cream sundae over sticky rice at Ping in portland inspired the textural base of the dish. It was one most memorable dishes I’ve ever eaten. The sweet, bland chew of the rice was the perfect counterpoint to all the familiar textures of an ice cream sundae.

With this textural construct in mind, we steamed, boiled, and folded a variety of rices before coming across a chew that suited our desires, and technique that was successful daily in our kitchen.

Simmered with the turkish chili urfa biber in a pot, glutinous rice is immediatley folded with a sweet and sour date condiment until the starches begin to tighten and pull the sticky rice kernals together.

Our second rice texture is a puffed rice chip, similar in appearance to a chicharon. It is made by overcooking jasmine rice in water, spreading the slurry on a silpat, and dehydrating it. Once dry, a quick dip in 400 degree oil brings the crackly rice chip to life.

The dish itself features the flavors of chocolate, rice, dates, urfa biber, and sesame. A whipped date is spread on the plate and bruleed before a nest of sticky rice is added. 3 pieces of chocolate cremeux, stable enough to be warmed through in the oven are placed over the sticky rice. Crushed sesame brittle tumbles off the cremeux and acts as a seat for Medjool date ice cream. To crown our dish, shards of the crackly puffed rice chips.

It just goes to show inspiration comes from the least likely places. Had my trip been filled with classic european pastries, or the work of other pastry chefs, I might have been distracted from the simple brilliance of a rice cake coated in chocolate, and this lovely dessert may never have found it’s way to us.


Warm Chocolate Cremeux

Urfa Sticky Rice

Whipped Date

Medjool Date Ice Cream

Sesame Brittle

Puffed Rice