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.
Additional components: micro basil