Modernizing the Classics

Everything Old is New Again

Modernizing the Classics – Everything Old is New Again

Ask any pastry chef worth his or her salt about the origins of their present-day creations, and the answer undoubtedly will point in the direction of the classics, whether European or American. The message in modern pastry seems to be this: To go forward, one has to go back to do the research before deconstructing what has been standard practice for perhaps centuries. Thoughtful and inventive pastry chefs are asking questions and yielding new answers and solutions with delicious results.


Yann Couvreur is owner of Patisserie Yann Couvreur in Paris. “I do not like to think that even the classics should remain unchanged for ever and ever,” he says. “It is true that pastry is built on precision of measurements and execution, but once those basics are learned and respected, pastry chefs can be bold in interpreting the classics. “Creativity has no boundaries, and this is no less true in the field of pastry than in other artistic endeavors.” Taking the mille-feuille a step beyond its classical beginnings, Couvreur opts for a kouign amman (sugared laminated dough) base instead of puff pastry. He is unconventional in cooking thin shards of the dough in a panini press, rather than baking, before layering with a pastry cream complexed with vanilla beans from three different places of origin. Though he may seem somewhat subversive in the cooking method for an element of his dessert, he is far from alone in exploring new ways to think about the classics of the sweet repertoire.


At Gramercy Tavern in New York, where American farm-to- table cuisine rules in both savory and sweet offerings, pastry chef Miro Uskokovic brings a fresh approach to the classics. Even some- thing as seemingly unassailable as apple pie gets a reinterpretation. Taking inspiration from New England, where serving apple pie with locally made cheddar cheese is a tradition, his version is enhanced, instead, by a scoop of cheddar cheese ice cream made with Cabot clothbound cheddar. The crust contains buckwheat flour, which lends a pleasant nuttiness. Locally made Laird’s applejack brandy figures in the caramel sauce served alongside. “At Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants, we recognize that the contemporary American restaurant is evolving,” Uskokovic says. “Desserts embody that reality, and need to be familiar yet interesting and intriguing. I am modernizing a classic through an emphasis on the quality and origin of ingredients. Sourcing many of our staples locally and working with a high-quality regional dairy for the cheese to use in the ice cream reflects our philosophy perfectly.”


Los Angeles-based baker/pastry chef Rose Lawrence of Red Bread ( gives a new spin to the classic madeleine by branching out and using einkorn instead of the traditional wheat flour. She explored locally grown grains and specialty grains from other regions of the country before settling on einkorn. With its high protein and low gluten content, einkorn was one the first grains to be cultivated. “The pleasing rich-yellow color and almost sweet, mellow flavor works well as the base for a classic sponge cake, where tenderness of crumb is desired,” Lawrence says. “With its creamy, malty, cooked-corn flavor, I can pull back on the amount of sugar in the cake. I flavor the batter with a bit of homemade limoncello for a highly satisfying, complex finish.”


Not content with the standard cream puff or éclair shape, pastry chef/educator Saba Jangjava, former pastry chef at Café Pouchkine, Paris, and now based in Moscow, modernizes this classic paste of butter, water, flour and eggs and transforms the mixture to create a unique shape. Using cylindrical metal molds lined from top to bottom with textured silicon mats cut to fit, he produces crispy golden-brown containers. These are then filled with chocolate cream and peanut caramel and topped with vanilla ice cream. Although one might ask how it’s possibly to innovate with something that has been around for centuries, in Jangjava’s tubular éclair, which functions as a kind of ice cream cone, function follows form.


French-born, French-trained Sylvain Marrari, executive pastry chef at Fisher Island Club, Fisher Island, Florida, says that a new generation of pastry chefs, along with social media, has helped give new energy to old-school desserts. “And in response to demands from the new dining public for desserts that are substantially less sweet than 40 years ago, chefs adapt.” His reinterpretation of a vacherin glace retains the classical meringue base, so it is recognizable and also reminds him of his childhood sweets binges. Now, though, in modernizing the classics, he has fun introducing flavors and shapes that inject new life into a warhorse of the French pastry repertoire. Lending his touch to another classic, Marrari riffs on the Paris-Brest choux paste ring traditionally filled with praline-flavored crème chantilly. He renames it Paris-Miami, incorporating some of the bright tropical flavors of the city he now calls home.


Brandon Malzahn, corporate pastry chef for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurant Group—Fiola, Casa Luca, Fiola Mare and Sfoglina—Washington, D.C., likes to play with the classic tiramisu, a staple of Italian restaurants from downhome rustic to upscale white-tablecloth. “As good as the espresso-drenched sponge cake and mascarpone cream layered dessert is, this staple of the Italian sweets kitchen was due for an update,” he says. “I have always loved the creaminess of the dessert, but felt that what it lacks is textural contrast. So in my version, I set out to reconceive the dessert with one thing in mind—texture.” To accomplish this, Malzahn creates a super-thin caramel-flavored tuile dusted with cocoa powder and sets it atop the coffee-soaked moist sponge encircled with pearls of whipped orange mascarpone. Marsala appears in his version in a gelato, a final element that marries the traditional flavors of the original with the modern sensibility of a pastry chef presenting plated desserts in a festive restaurant setting. “Growing up eating mascarpone at Italian restaurants since my youth, I always found that the versions I tasted were served in a glass or just as one big square piece,” he says. “I gave thought to changing it, and after much experimentation with different styles of vessel shells and square plates, I settled on the current version, which combines orange, caramel and coffee, elevating and lightening what can be an overly rich dessert.” As innovations keep tongues wagging and foodies talking, and provide pleasure to the dining public, they could themselves become classics, ripe for reinvention in the hands of the next generation of pastry chefs. As a 19th century French critic observed, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). So, too, in the world of pastry.

Read the full article by Robert Wemischner and get bonus recipes here!