Pastry chefs are happily tying on their aprons and welcoming a flood of specialty orders.
There’s nothing like a custom cake or dessert to mark a special occasion. From bridal showers and weddings to bar mitzvahs and milestone birthdays, events like these are best capped off with a slice of something sweet, especially after “The Year That Was.”
With most clubs now fully reopening their doors, and bookings for wedding receptions and catered affairs on the uptick, pastry kitchens are once again bustling with activity. And as orders are placed for special cakes and desserts, chefs are on the hunt for new ideas to inspire them and help them create memorable meal finales that look as good as they taste.
Complexity in the Mix
For Executive Pastry Chef Todd Richter at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C., reawakening the senses of underserved palettes is cause for celebration in his kitchen. With several weddings having been canceled this past year and still others bumped to the end of the calendar, his kitchen is more than ready to accommodate the promised onslaught of new bookings. And with 2022 looking to be a busier season, Richter is ready to put his 21 years of experience to the test.
Specialty pastry trends that are catching Richter’s eye call for a more intricate design. “I am seeing desserts that contain less refined sugar and that have more complex flavors [using] herbs, fruit and various percentages of chocolate varieties,” he explains.
A favorite is the club’s signature “Preston Pie,” made with an Oreo crust, chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse, and topped with whipped cream, fresh fruit and raspberry sauce. Also popular this summer was a strawberry Key lime popsicle with lemon Chantilly cream and dried strawberries.
Richter is also noticing more chefs incorporating thickening agents, such as agar and gellan, into recipes.
“I have been using agar agar powder quite a bit for thickening of fruit sauces, chocolate creams and some confectionery,” he says. The powder’s seaweed base, he notes, also makes it a viable option for vegan/vegetarian creations.
In anticipation of a return to a full wedding season, Richter is taking stock of Prestonwood clients’ requests, many of which include traditional multi-tiered cakes with smooth buttercream finishes, clean lines and fresh floral designs. For general specialty desserts, chocolate, fruit, and mousse reign supreme, as do frozen elements with a twist.
Minis are Major
Custom desserts are a reason to celebrate—something that Dawn Boppe, Pastry Chef of Fountain Head Country Club in Hagerstown, Md., has been seeing more of in recent months.
“People are trying to make up for things they missed out on last year and wanting to make birthdays and other events extra-special,” she says.
In the 33 years that Boppe has been at Fountain Head, where she also doubles as the day-shift line cook, more than half of her career has been spent on specialty cakes and pastries.
“I have also taught cake-decorating classes, and my annual gingerbread house decorating event draws quite a crowd,” she notes.
But when she’s not fashioning frosting-topped roofs and gumdrop walkways, Boppe is tapping into the latest dessert craze: individual desserts arranged on a sweets table.
“It offers variety, and individual servings that do not have to be cut and handled by someone seem to make people feel safer,” she notes. Items that have worked well for Boppe for this type of presentation have included mousse parfaits in shot glasses, cream puffs and mini-trifles.
But COVID has had a lingering effect on just how much creativity can be pursued in dessert programs, she adds. “Post-pandemic staffing issues have severely limited the time I have available to develop new desserts, as I am constantly pulled to work the line or help with banquets,” she says. That’s led to greater reliance on rolling out her staple dishes, including a classic coconut cream pie that’s become a member favorite.
With over 30 years of pastry design and production experience, Pastry Chef JoAnne McKinsey knows a thing or two about how to whip up crowd-pleasing sweets for members at Deerwood Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla. She also understands how to roll with the punches.
“In the time leading up to pandemic restrictions, business had slowed and banquets were postponed,” says McKinsey. But rather than sit back and wait it out, she used the time as an opportunity to get ahead. “I was able to stock the freezer with cheesecakes and other cakes that freeze well, in case we were completely closed,” she notes.
In response to the shutdown of in-person dining, McKinsey played a key role in the rollout of Deerwood Curbside, the club’s to-go dining program. Packaged with each meal was a sweet treat prepared by McKinsey—a welcome indulgence for pandemic-weary members.
“I would create items that would package, travel and add that finishing touch to your meal,” she recalls. The opening of the club’s grocery store also kept her busy, baking pies, cakes and tortes for pick-up.
As Deerwood’s clubhouse reopened for member dining and events, McKinsey met another challenge head-on: replacing the buffet table with a safer tableside alternative that raised the bar (quite literally) on presentation. She designed raised cake plates, filled with macarons, éclair shooters and custom petit fours, to serve as dining-table centerpieces.
As private events have resumed, McKinsey has also been able to get back to doing what she loves best: working with brides-to-be on the design of their wedding cake.
Tapping into this year’s trends in specialty cakes, McKinsey is seeing more requests for taller cakes with clean, smooth sides, embellished with small amounts of sugar lace or scrollwork.
“Most brides prefer fresh flowers, even though I welcome the chance to do gum-paste arrangements,” she notes.
No matter what type of cake she is working on, McKinsey embraces any and all opportunities—even if that means finishing a cake in the club dining room during a humid Florida summer. She recently received a request for croquembouche, a French delicacy.
“It was something I hadn’t done in years—I got it done [and] I love it!” she exclaims.