Sweet simplicity is in, excess out

The dough surrendered without a fight as Larry Hayden - his white chef's coat rolled up at the sleeves, his forearm muscles flexing - methodically pounded it with a rolling pin. Within a half hour, he had a dozen pie crusts obediently resting on top of cinnamon-spiced apples.

On a recent morning at Nick & Toni's restaurant in East Hampton, N.Y., Mr. Hayden danced around his kitchen, taking meringues out of the oven, signing for deliveries, measuring ingredients, and tossing blueberries into pies, all while answering questions about his profession.

Working as a pastry chef is not dis- similar to Hayden's former career as a ballet dancer: He needs stamina, discipline, precision, practice, and creativity. Each day, the curtain goes up at the same time. Ultimately, it's the audience that matters. And they expect a flawless performance.

Bravos are welcome in ballet, but Mr. Hayden now strives for a subtler reaction: He hopes eyes light up at first sight of his desserts - and then close in utter delight at first bite. The biggest challenge in the dessert business, he says, is winning over the customer, visually and viscerally.

A groundbreaking concoction, one might assume, would upstage an old-fashioned slice of pie at the end of a delectable dinner. Yet traditional desserts can prove to be the Cinderella of the pastry world: apparently simple yet stunning when transformed by a chef's singular style.

"People do wonderful, surprising things, but you have to walk a fine line between being different for the sake of being different and having truly exciting food," Hayden says.

After working at the glamorous Union Square Cafe in Manhattan, Hayden took his culinary skills two hours east to Nick & Toni's restaurant in the Hamptons. Away from the city's fierce competition, Hayden refined his approach, pursuing pure excellence without embellishment.

The accomplished chef's shift from city to country, from eccentricity to simplicity, parallels a shift in desserts over the past decade. The over-the-top combinations of the 1990s have been stamped out by today's message, "Less is more."

But that isn't an indication that chefs are getting lazy. On the contrary.

"The simple thing perfectly done on a consistent basis is a difficult thing to achieve," Hayden says. Radically innovative ideas can exhibit a chef's creativity, he concedes, but they can also engender overly complicated desserts.

Ron Roy, pastry chef of Caffè Umbra, nestled in the shadow of Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston's South End, couldn't agree more. He recalls desserts of Mt. Everest proportions that towered so high it was nearly impossible to take a bite.

A classic dessert - such as a tart or mousse - can be quite avant-garde with the right touch. For example, Mr. Roy has been known to add sweet fennel to a commonplace bread pudding or turn a run-of-the-mill gelato into a Gorgonzola-fig feast.

Savory ingredients are not off-limits in the land of sweet, and Maura Kilpatrick, pastry chef at Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., takes full advantage. She often visits the restaurant's lush garden for mint leaves, a dash of thyme, or a taste of angelica. One of her current staples is corn, which she incorporates into a classic Bavarian with crème anglaise, gelatin, and whipped cream.

The cutting-edge quality of Ms. Kilpatrick's desserts, which earned her Boston Magazine's "Best of Boston" award last year, is especially striking in the subtle flavors enveloped within.

"I like to make smart desserts," she says. "They might seem simple, but they're intelligent. Sometimes you don't taste an ingredient till the third or fourth bite. Sometimes you don't taste it until it's at the back of your throat." A diner with an educated palate - one who can discern subtle differences in flavor - will reap the most rewards, she adds.

A developed palate is also handier than a measuring cup when devising new recipes, says Gus Sarno, owner of the renowned Isgro pastry shop in the heart of Philadelphia's Italian Market. The chef, who has a big beard and a thick accent, educates himself by dining out. "I never walk out of a restaurant without having dessert," he says.

Mr. Sarno takes immense delight in describing his innovations, among them his chocolate applesauce cake with almonds and cinnamon and his pumpkin ricotta cheesecake. The shop's popularity, however, is founded upon a simple, centuries-old Italian staple: cannoli.

The recipe has not deviated from the one Sarno's grandfather, Mario Isgro, mastered in the kitchen of a Sicilian baron at the turn of the century, before he started the small Philadelphia shop in 1904.

Sarno takes no shortcuts. His staff uses fresh figs for jam, cuts cookies by hand, makes almond paste from scratch, and fills cannolis in front of the customer. "You can't get any fresher than that," he says.

On a recent rainy afternoon, a patron entered Isgro's and inhaled deeply with his eyes closed. "What a smell. You could get fat just smelling it," he said with a hearty laugh.

Indeed, a dessert modest in design does not translate into a dessert light in calories. It's almost sacrilegious for pastry chefs to hold back on butter, milk, and cream. At one point, Hayden tried. "It was all just perfectly awful. I can't see the point of trying to make a wonderful chocolate dessert and not use chocolate," he says.

His advice to diners: "Either abstain or have the real thing. Just don't have it very often, and really enjoy it when you do."

Pumpkin Flan With Spiced Whipped Cream

1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Line up eight 1-cup ramekins. Stir the sugar, water, and cream of tartar together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Place on medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring. When the syrup boils, stop stirring, and allow it to cook 8 to 10 minutes or until it turns a rich amber color. Immediately spoon caramel into the ramekins, dividing it evenly among them, and allow to cool.

1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin purée
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a medium-size bowl, mix the sugar, spices, and salt together and set aside. In a separate, bigger bowl, whisk the eggs together, add the pumpkin purée, and blend well. Add the sugar-and-spice mixture to the egg-and-pumpkin-purée mixture and blend well. Stir in the evaporated milk, vanilla, and water.

Set ramekins in a large baking pan. With a large metal spoon or ladle, pour the flan mixture into each of the ramekins. Carefully set the pan in the oven. Pour in very hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins, being careful to keep water out of the ramekins. Cover with a baking or cookie sheet. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the flans are set but still vibrate in the middle when shaken gently. Baking time will vary according to the shape and thickness of the ramekins. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Chill thoroughly for several hours or overnight.

Flan may be made and chilled several days in advance. To serve, carefully run a small, sharp knife around the edge of the ramekins and invert each flan onto a dessert plate. Allow all the liquid caramel to flow onto the flan. Garnish each with a generous dollop of whipped cream flavored to taste with sugar, vanilla extract, and cinnamon or nutmeg, or both.

Serves 8.

- From Larry Hayden, pastry chef at Nick & Toni's restaurant, East Hampton, N.Y.

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