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Food Feature: Sweet Priorities

A creamy, dreamy dessert can be a well-earned reward, a vital midday energy boost or simply a sweet indulgence.

Desserts these days are rarely what they seem. What looks like a slice of pumpkin bread pudding topped with cinnamon infused whipped cream is really a reward for jogging an extra two miles. A towering wedge of vanilla-scented cheesecake with fresh berry compote may be seen as no more than fair compensation for eating only salad at lunchtime. A beautifully layered parfait with yogurt, fresh fruit and berries is not an obvious self-indulgence it once was, but a vital, midday energy boost for a deserving workaholic.

Whatever the reasons (or sweet excuses), desserts that feature simple, decadent dairy products are back in style.

Decadent Dairy

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, Pastry Chef Jim Okerson menus unique-flavored homemade cheesecakes, flans, even Boston cream pies for the sugar-crazed crowds that flock to his cafe.

After noticing a trendy relationship between cheese and dessert, Okerson debuted a Tiramisu cake (with mascarpone), a Chocolate Mocha cheesecake and an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta. “The ever-so-slight texture the ricotta gives the cake makes it rich, but light at the same time,” explains Okerson. Of course, it's not “light” in the sense that it is low in fat or calories — he prefers full-fat ricotta — but you'll certainly never mistake it for the super smooth and super dense New York-style cake.

During the spring, his Lime Habenero cheesecake garners rave reviews, while his egg nog cheesecake with a vanilla cookie crust proves to be the perfect holiday treat.

“Sometimes a heavy cream cheesecake can be too heavy on its own,” explains Okerson. “I want give my customers fresh, bright flavors that add interest and depth.” So, on top his traditional New York-style cheesecake, Okerson adds locally grown strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. “The berries in this area, when they are in season, are absolutely declicious. I like to use them as often as I can.”

With dozens of recipes in his repertoire, Okerson likes to occasionally debut flavorful dairy combinations that “wow” his customers. “We do a Harlequin Mousse (see recipe, pg. 66) with both white and dark chocolate positioned beside one another in a wine glass. It's beautiful, rich and creamy,” he explains.

“It's impossible to plate alone, though. The trick is to have two chefs piping the different mousses into the glasses at same time so as to balance both the white and dark chocolate.”

A Touch of Class

Simple, clean flavors make for delicious dairy desserts. “If you incorporate too many flavors, you confuse your customer's palate,” explains Aleks Pyka, corporate executive chef for FLIK International Corp.

Make no mistake, though. While decidedly simple, Pyka's dishes are equally upscale. Popular examples include his black and white lava torte with malted milk crème anglaise, a sophisticated dessert reminiscent of the well-known molten lava cake. It pairs white and dark chocolate on the inside of a torte; rosemary ice cream; cracked black pepper yogurt; and white chocolate bread pudding with Mt. Ranier cherry confit and vanilla bean crème anglaise.

Speaking of crème anglaise, Rika likes to bring a little extra drama to his dairy garnishes by adding spices that are both subtle and clever. Cinnamon, cocoa powder, saffron and cumin are among his favorites.

“My goal is to intrigue the customer by what they see and what they taste. I can't — and shouldn't — invent new food, but I can change how it looks and how it tastes.”

Simplicity Reigns Supreme

Panna cotta — or “cooked cream” — is a softly set and creamy pudding. It is perfect served with seasonal fruits or berry compote. Moreover, it is the perfect dessert for any catered event as it can be made a day or two in advance and kept refrigerated until service.

“Because we have so many varying levels of culinary capabilities and catering menus still have to have a certain level of elegance, we need our recipes to be simple and straightforward,” explains Marion Gibson, Director of Culinary for the National Catering Group for Aramark.

“The Summer Berry Fiore di Latte is a very simple, seasonal panna cotta with a velvety texture and citrus brightness. It's quite possibly the perfect dairy dessert.”

Creative Parfaits and Smoothies

In French, parfait literally means, “perfect.”

The pressure to consistently have this dish live up to its name doesn't faze Gibson.

“Parfaits are one of those dairy menu items that scream seasonality,” says Gibson. “You can layer fresh fruit in the summer or fruit compote in the winter. It can be served for breakfast or lunch, as a snack or even as dessert item. It's infinitely versatile.”

At Ball State University, Lucas Miller Manager of Menu Development, dresses up traditional parfaits with a homemade granola (see recipe at left). “We are trying to move toward more healthful food with integrity in taste,” he explains. According to Miller, the parfaits are big sellers, and the homemade granola makes them even more popular with the students looking for functional fare regardless the daypart.

Much like parfaits, smoothies also enjoy a dual menu role. Pat Bangsund, along with her colleague Pat Tonsager, of Lakeview Elementary School (MN), developed Sweet as the Sun Smoothies — a recipe that meets the 5-A-Day requirement for daily servings by combining an assortment of commodity products including frozen strawberries, pineapple chunks, peaches, pears and yogurt.

“The healthy smoothie recipes are good for kids — and they taste delicious,” says Tonsager. “The best part is that you can experiment with different fruits to find a favorite combination.”

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