The sweet nostalgia that an excellent dessert inspires is as literal as it is easy to indulge in, heart and soul. Which leaves one wondering: What is it about blissful bites of sugary confection that makes us swoon and crave, and bring us so much joy and comfort? Why do beloved sweets carry such singular emotional impact?
In searching for the answers to these questions, it seemed pastry chefs would be good people to consult. After all, they have devoted their professional lives to creating and serving sweet indulgences to grateful paying customers. So I called three exceptional local pastry chefs and asked them: What drew them into making desserts, what is it about eating dessert that they love and what are their personal favorites?
Sweetness of home
“I’m Hispanic and grew up in a family where food was the center of our gatherings,” said Rachel Ortega, pastry chef at Vail’s Larkspur. “One of my aunts married an Italian man we called Papa Ben. He always brought special cookies to family events, and everyone loved them. We’d get all excited, saying ‘Papa Ben! Thank you!’ I have very fond memories of that.”
So is that what she loves about making desserts — creating or triggering happy memories for other people?
“A good dessert reminds you of home, and I love bringing a slice of home to people who are out here visiting,” she said. “But my goal is to create something that also redirects and surprises a little bit — familiar and new at the same time. I especially love the creamy sweetness of chocolate, which is central to Mexican and South American cultures, and so I do a lot of chocolate tempering and marbling.”
Center of celebration
Shawn Smith, chef and owner of Mountain Flour, a local company that specializes in wedding cakes, gelatos and other celebratory desserts, ended up a pastry chef almost by accident.
“I went to culinary school at Kendall College, with no intention of being a pastry chef,” he said. “More than any other discipline of cooking, in pastry it’s crucial to understand the hows and whys of ingredients. It’s a precise industry. Some people are intimidated by it; there are plenty of people who lack the desire or ability to focus on the crucial details. But I took to the pastry classes really well, and here I am.”
Wedding cakes are not just the finish but the centerpiece of the marital celebration. They were traditionally made to bring good luck to the couple and all their guests, which is why everyone eats from a single cake. And for hundreds of years, it was a traditional concoction — tiers of white cake covered with white frosting. But in the past few decades, wedding cakes have become wildly elaborate and creative.
“You always have the classics, traditionalists and then you have the people that follow trends,” Smith said. “I devote a lot of time to understanding the style and tone of each wedding, and then design that reflects that.”
A Rose by any other name
Bill Fitzgerald, executive chef at Alpenrose in Vail and The Rose in Edwards, has a background as a pastry chef but made the switch to savory chef a few years ago.
“I switched to savory because I missed the rushed craziness of working the line on a busy night,” he said. “But now that I’m doing this, I miss the precise methodology and art of pastry. I have a background in art, and you can express that more in pastry. Also, the pastry course can not only make or break a meal, it can be a real aphrodisiac.”
Speaking of aphrodisiacs, at The Rose, Fitzgerald makes rose water-infused chocolate truffles, finished with dried edible roses. It’s flowers and chocolate mixed into one delectable offering — what could be more completely romantic?
As Larkspur’s chef Ortega put it, “Above all, I want people to enjoy. Life is hard, so many things are tough. But a sweet simple indulgence, at least for a moment, can make everything okay.”
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has served American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com for more.