naomi kooker
What's for dessert?

By Naomi R. Kooker, Boston Globe Correspondent

Somewhere between the pastel macaroons that look like miniature pillbox hats and the rustic apple-blueberry streusel tart lies a decision.

"If they had a pecan pie, I'd get a pecan pie,'' Elizabeth McCally says, gazing into a glass case at Cafe Vanille, where cakes cloaked in smooth dark chocolate ganache and fresh fruit glazed tarts stare back. McCally, her boyfriend, Adam Galeon, and a friend, Neda Talebian, all in their early 20s, are on their way to a dinner party. They need to arrive with dessert for as many as 10.

Cafe Vanille, on Charles Street, does not have pecan pie. It does have divas (chocolate and caramel mousse cakes) and carolines (miniature chocolate, vanilla, and coffee eclairs), Debbie's delight (layers of hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate mousse, iced with chocolate ganache), chocolate blisses (chocolate ganache in a cookie shell), and Paris-Brests (pastry filled with hazelnut mousse and topped with toasted almonds), names that conjure burlesque rather than prim and proper Beacon Hill. But then, ever since Rosie's Bakery's first chocolate orgasm (a chocolate fudge brownie, sometimes made with walnuts, that made its debut 20 years ago), bakery desserts have been catching on.

The Brockton-based Montilio's opened 50 years ago, cranking out petits fours, the bite-sized pastries and cakes whose name means, literally, small ovens. Now they stock Shaw's Supermarket cases with slices of gateaux Charlene (a French chocolate cake with strawberry filling and chocolate ganache) and tiramisu.

Where are we, Paris? It turns out that Boston is more than an ice cream town.

If you think this is just eye candy, pretty on the outside but disappointing once you dig in, taste for yourself. Patisseries such as Truly Jorg's, Cafe Vanille and Flour, and the veteran Japonaise Bakery are using time-honored techniques and obsessing over ingredients

and details to get us swooning. They use real butter and make their products on the premises. (Not all bakeries do.)

''To me, it's like an art,'' says Jorg Amsler, a native of Switzerland, where he apprenticed before training under the three-star chef Paul Bocuse near Lyon, France.

His specialties are classical French pastries and chocolate.

A little over a year ago, Amsler opened Truly Jorg's with his wife, artist Linda Lou, who outfitted the Chelsea store with antique chairs and tables, and lights that look like wedding cakes.

Amsler and his small staff work in an open kitchen. He sells to restaurants and caterers all over Boston, and to airlines and hotels. He has created desserts for President George Bush in Kennebunkport. This spring he plans to open another shop in Saugus.

Among his repertoire are small blood orange gateaux, miniature triangles of sponge cake iced with butter cream tinted with pure orange oil (extracted from the skin of the orange) for a light orange color and a slight citrus flavor. He candies blood orange segments and uses them for the garnish.

''Just do it small, but do it really, really nice and have the best ingredients,'' Amsler says. ''Don't do a shortcut.''

Hot for Valentine's Day are his chocolate treasure chests - chocolate boxes filled with heart-shaped cookies. On the boxes he hand-pipes white chocolate designs, or the name of your sweetheart.

Cookies, he says, are one way to end a meal when you're full but still want a bite of something sweet. And they can be elegant, such as his quince jelly flowers; thick almond Swedish wedding cookies; and cinnamon walnut cookies dipped in white chocolate.

Amsler and his peers share a philosophy: They're obsessed with detail, with getting their creations to look pretty, but not at the expense of how they taste.

''Some bakeries, it looks good in the case, but disappointing when you get it on the plate,'' says Philippe Odier, owner of French Memories in Duxbury.

For example, most bakers use shortening rather than butter to make butter-cream icing because it holds up well, looks white (which some customers prefer), and costs less. Real butter tints the icing a slight off-white and does not last as long. But the taste? There is no comparison.

In dessert terms, ''America is the sweetest, and French is sweet,'' says Sakan (who goes by one name), the owner of Japonaise Bakery on Beacon Street in Brookline. ''In Japan, the pastries are very light and not overly sweet.''

In business for more than 10 years, Japonaise brings Japanese influences to its European pastries such as azuki cream, a flaky pastry filled with cloud-light whipped cream and rich azuki bean paste. Her strawberry shortcake, white frosting cake with fresh strawberries, looks too good to be good. Yet the moist sponge cake with layers of fresh, ripe strawberries and fresh whipped cream topping catch the freshness of summer.

When Bruno Biagianti left Boston's Ritz-Carlton to open Cafe Vanille with Odier two years ago, he wanted to re-create the desserts from patisseries he missed in Paris. French classics like the Paris-Brest (a pate a choux ''wheel'' filled with hazelnut mousse topped with toasted almonds and sprinkled with powdered sugar is named after the Paris-to-Brest bicycle race) are his bread and butter. But he doesn't stop there.

''People don't always want French, French, French, French, French,'' says Biagianti, who was pastry chef at the Ritz in Paris before coming to Boston. So in the fall he does pumpkin cheesecake. And lately, he's worked on deconstructing the Boston cream pie, a conception of a French pastry chef at the Parker House in 1855. It is now Cafe Vanille's best-selling dessert. This is Boston, after all.

His version is a round cylinder of yellow sponge cake soaked in a little rum, layered with white chocolate mousse. ''Boston,'' stenciled in gold leaf, is the final touch on the dark chocolate coating.

Another Cafe Vanille just opened in the Chestnut Hill Mall two months ago.

Joanne Chang, owner of Flour, says that when people come into her South End bakery looking for something to bring to a party, it's often for a cake or something ''more precious'' than cookies. ''There's a difference between a $1.50 cookie and a $4.95 individual cake,'' she says.

For one thing, making cookie dough is not as time-consuming, nor does it have as many steps as making and assembling individual cakes. Secondly, Chang points out the different sensory experiences of eating them. Chocolate chip cookies are a quick sweet fix, but they can't really compare to a slow gliding fork piercing a vanilla-bean pound cake, layered with lemon curd, lemon cream, and the dark red juices of fresh raspberries soaked in vanilla syrup. She makes both desserts at Flour.

Chang, former pastry chef of Mistral and Rialto, opened Flour two years ago to create a closer relationship between her pastries and her customers; part of her joy is seeing their smiles after they've eaten something she's just made.

But when she sits down to a dessert, she goes for comfort. ''I prefer simple, direct sweet things,'' Chang says. ''When I think about what I like, it's a huge bowl of ice cream; it doesn't need to be shaped like a quenelle'' - the oval shape of sorbet and ice cream at high-end restaurants.

Plus, she says, we can't always spring for the $100 dinner that includes a plated dessert, so something from a bakery is an indulgence that's always within reach.

Other bakeries such as SuSu's Bakery Boutique in Wellesley, celebrating its one-year anniversary today, also feed demand for the pretty dessert you don't have to make yourself. Operations such as 13-year-old Pastry Art in Central Falls, R.I., and Delphin's Gourmandise in Marblehead have sold to other bakeries for years.

Another pleasure of buying dessert is the simple act of going into a bakery, where warming aromas of butter and baking pastry mingle with the bouquet of brewing coffee. Amsler keeps a pot of mulled apple cider and steeping cranberries on low heat; Chang invites customers to submit a quote for the week, and if it goes onto the chalkboard, you get a free cup of coffee. Whatever you go in for, just try to leave without dessert.

Back in the warmth of Cafe Vanille, McCally and company make a decision. They like the looks of the tart, but what if not everyone wants it? The chocolate cakes are deemed too fancy. So they take a dozen petits fours, including a few divas, carolines, and bite-sized Boston cream pies to give guests the most options - that is, if all the dainty cakes make it to their destination.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 2/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
Copyright 2009. Naomi Kooker. All rights reserved.

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