Very Small Anna

From the Pastry Dungeon: Chocolate Zucchini Cupcakes

[Photograph: Anna Markow]

Recently I received a question asking how chefs, pastry or otherwise, build enough trust in their customer base that they won't lose business over their flights of whimsy. I did my best to answer the question as I understood it, but I'll try to address the topic here as well.

Chefs do get bored very quickly, and are generally much more adventurous eaters than the general public, so sometimes things don't take off the way we hope. Most pastry chefs I know tend to go with a few desserts we know will be crowd pleasers, like a rich chocolate dessert and a lighter one for the citrus fans, plus one or two dishes highlighting whatever fruit is in season. After you've gotten the attention of the "typical" customer, you're free to engage in a little hyper-creative bit of self indulgence and cross your fingers that someone will take a chance. In my case, this tends to be something with very little sweetness, a lot of spice, and some sort of fairly unusual fruit. Persimmons with cinnamon syrup and yogurt panna cotta and quince custard pie with coriander and candied lemon peel were two of my favorites. Occasionally, though, it's a little fun to throw those rules on their head.

Chocolate desserts are generally the one area where a pastry chef shouldn't play games. Chocolate fans want their gooey, their molten, their overwhelmingly indulgent bit of sweetness, and not much else. But in the summer I just can't see serving people wedges of heavy ganache. So one late summer I considered what was in season as the hot weather reached its peak. We had plenty of zucchini in the walk in, and having grown up with overabundant zucchini baked into cakes and muffins, I couldn't resist.

Chocolate zucchini cake is one of my few beloved chocolate treats. All I had to do was convince others of its extreme awesomeness. Like most restaurant pastry chefs, I had the servers on my side. Part of their job is to know enough about the menu to give an informed opinion and answer basic questions, and not only that but to cajole people into sticking around for dessert. For this reason I make sure that the servers I work with have a chance to taste everything I offer. The servers already trusted me implicitly, so when I said, "Eat this chocolate cake, it's got zucchini in it," they did as they were told. The first night we had the cake on the menu, it sold out.

What I love about this recipe is its extreme cocoa flavor. It's not too sweet with a texture that is dense and fudgy yet light, with wickedly delicious crunchy edges. Baked as cupcakes, the large shreds of zucchini are clearly visible in the middle, but undetectable upon consumption. Instead of a rich frosting, I opt for a modest topping of chocolate ricotta mousse, which is airy, not too sweet, and decidedly very grown-up. I originally served the cake topped with hazelnut brittle but, for my own tastes, chopped toasted nuts (pistachios, in this case) are all these cupcakes need in order to be perfect.

About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.

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