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Signature desserts are a secret plague on my industry. Ask any well-known pastry chef and they'll likely tell you how tired they are of their signature treat. Meredith Kurtzman is more than a little sick of olive oil gelato, and Michael Laiskonis would prefer not to see another chocolate egg (I learned both of these facts from the chefs themselves at demos when I was in school). But what makes us so bitter towards our most popular sweets?
One reason I can think of, beyond the obvious tedium of repetition on an extreme scale, is that signature desserts tend to be established very early in someone's career or tenure. Years later, when the chef feels that they have grown and evolved, they're stuck making something that can feel silly in retrospect.
When I started my first pastry chef job, I had a little time to work on an opening menu for the not-quite-ready restaurant, coming in and testing different delightful bites every day. Among the panna cotta, ice cream sandwich, trifle, and tart I was testing, I also baked a few cakes. We expected a lot of birthdays and special occasions and the chef wanted me to offer a few signature cake flavors—something beyond the standard chocolate and vanilla. I don't particularly enjoy making layer cakes but I do love cupcakes as a form of self-expression, so I was able to convert a few beloved recipes of mine. I ended up with a trio consisting of strawberry chardonnay, devil's food with espresso cream cheese, and peanut butter cake with banana jam and marshmallow frosting. As opening day grew closer, we decided we needed a rich dessert on the menu to balance out the lighter desserts which I tended towards. So the peanut butter banana cake became our fifth dessert.
Unfortunately for me, the labor-intensive cake took off immediately. While it was entirely too sweet and rich for my personal tastes (and featured peanut butter, an ingredient I'm less than enthusiastic about), customers and investors went crazy for it. Rich yet fluffy peanut butter cake sandwiching sticky banana jam and coated with even stickier marshmallow frosting is not my idea of a pleasant end to a meal, but it hit the mark with the less adventurous demographic, who also tend to yell the loudest when you tell them no. (When I removed it for the summer, a waitress reported being screamed at by a female patron.)
This cake was an on-again, off-again phenomenon on my menu, and when a couple of publicists came in to sample the food, Chef suggested sending a slice of cake out and mentioning it was my signature dessert. I gritted my teeth and suggested sending something a little lighter and seasonal.
One good thing about this cake is that it's something you can make year round, so if you're a little tired of citrus, this is a nice option in the dead of winter. Just be careful, if you serve it once people may hound you to make it forever.
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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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