No person who has ever had the pleasure of winding their way through sweet snacks in New Orleans would ever accuse the city of being coy about its full-on embrace of dessert. Sugary delights are not only a necessary part of any major dining excursion, but more often than not, pack a heft that could make any dessert a meal in and of itself. (If there was a culinary flag of New Orleans, I would wager a guess that a fluffy, airy beignet would be depicted like a gallant general in the middle, wearing a tuft of powdered sugar as a makeshift wig.)
While heavy-handed saccharine delights still have their place across the city, a new wave of inventive chefs are taking steps to reimagine these classic New Orleans dishes on their own terms, bringing a lighter, more delicate, nuanced refinement to classic meal-ending bites. Here are three places leading the movement.
Dominique's on Magazine
Born on the island of Mauritius, a country renowned for the seamless integration of European, Indian, and Chinese culinary customs, it comes as little surprise that Chef Dominique Macquet, the namesake chef of Dominique's on Magazine, has a keen eye and delicate touch when breathing new life into a local favorite, turning the New Orleans' classic praline into a wispy, delicate delight.
While lumpy, shrink-wrapped, and often stale versions of this New Orleans' confection live on every grocery store checkout counter, Chef Macquet's creme praline, almond nougatine, and house-made pecan vanilla ice cream triumvirate turns a sweet that is all too often better suited to be a drink coaster than dessert into a gauzy, complex array of nutty flavors, led squarely by the interplay of creme praline and pecan ice cream. Chef Macquet uses a Pacojet, a favorite tool in any tech-loving chef's kitchen arsenal, to whip the ice cream into an even creamier, fluffier "ice cream cloud" which perches atop the marriage of crisp nougatine layers and velvety creme.
If we're being honest, bread pudding is not a dessert towards which I gravitate. It is, however, a New Orleans' favorite and a staple everywhere from chandelier-lit dining rooms to church picnics. More often than not its ubiquitous status means that I end up slogging through gummy bites of what tastes like stale bread soaked in Mrs. Butterworth's.
Not so at Root, where Chef Phillip Lopez's bergamot bread pudding has made me change my tune. Bergamot is a fascinating, underutilized citrus fruit most often seen in earl grey tea and marmalade. The subtle essence of bergamot laced throughout the bread pudding leads the way in a parade of botanical complimentary flavors within the dessert, including a white gin caramel sauce and Satsuma balsam fir sorbet.
Chef Alon Shaya's reign at the helm of Domenica has solidified his role as master of Italian cuisine in New Orleans, which shines through prominently in Pastry Chef Lisa White's decidedly Neapolitan take on banana pudding: banana zuppa inglese. Charmingly similar in presentation to the standard bananas-and-vanilla-wafers affair that might very well come in a mason jar, the small glass container allows a glimpse into decadent layers of soaked banana cake, crema cotta mousse, and caramelized bananas.
"Banana Zuppa Inglese is the combination of a classic Italian dessert and a Southern favorite," said Chef White. "When you add in the history of bananas in New Orleans, whether it's importing or the historical dishes, it seemed a logical connection."
About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.