Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sweet San Diego: Holiday Desserts Spreading Cheer

On Monday morning I'll be going on These Days on KPBS radio (89.5 FM at 10 a.m.) with the wonderful Michele Coulon to talk about holiday desserts. And, like all my appearances on the show, this required focused preparation. To that end, I've been traveling around San Diego to some of the hottest sweet spots. I've eaten tarts and French macaroons, Buche de Noels (Yule logs) and pumpkin spice cakes. And lots of chocolate, of course.

Because not everyone has started baking their holiday pastries yet, I've only got photos where they were available. So, let's start the round up:

  • Michele Coulon. The always elegant Michele Coulon is already starting its holiday baking extravaganza. The first items Michele showed me yesterday were a plate of Christmas cookies -- gingerbread dipped in chocolate, organic orange, shortbread and cappucino. Then there were the stunning caramel apples, drizzled with Belgian chocolate and nuts. These are the small ones, but she also has them in medium and large sizes. The cupcakes were so clever -- lovely pink and red poinsettias in an assortment of cake flavors like chocolate, vanilla and lemon. Of course, there's a Buche de Noel. This log is a flourless Belgian chocolate cake in Bailey's cream and covered with Belgian chocolate mousse with flourishes like a marzipan snowman and meringue snowmen. You should call at least a couple of days before Christmas Eve to have one set aside for you. Other holiday specialties include a rum eggnog cheesecake decorated with marzipan holly leaves, traditional American pies, French macaroons, and specialty sweet breads like a Danish Kringle (Danish pastry filled with almonds, cinnamon and marzipan) and Kougloff (a brioche filled with rum-soaked dried fruit). Michele Coulon is located at 7556 Fay Ave., Suite D in La Jolla.
  • Mille Feuille: I stopped by Mille Feuille last Friday, thrilled to find a metered parking spot near the cafe's prime location at Fifth and University in Hillcrest. Assistant pastry chef Sherry Punch led me through the variety of sweets they're preparing for the holidays and sent me home with a number to try. The Black Forrest is a deep, rich chocolate sponge cake soaked in brandy and dipped in a chocolate glaze before being topped with chocolate curls. The Eggnog Whisperer, an olive oil sponge cake layered with caramelized cinnamon apple slices and eggnog mousse, is topped with a caramel glaze and candied chestnuts with gold leaf. The flavors are sublime and subtle. Delicious but not so subtle is the Pumpkin Spice Cake, a chocolate sponge cake soaked in Grand Marnier alternating with pumpkin spice mousse and glazed in chocolate. The spices are bold, but not overwheming. It's a strong flavor in a very pretty package. Mille Feulle also has little packages of French macaroons in a rainbow of colors, orange blossom marshmallows (my friends and I found these disappointingly grainy in texture), and a variety of traditional cookies. Mille Feuille is located at 3896 Fifth Ave. at the corner of Fifth and University in Hillcrest.
  • Heaven Sent Desserts. I just adore Tina Luu. She's so creative and works such sweet magic at this North Park dessert cafe. She's got a variety of holiday specialties, starting with the traditional Yule logs -- both chocolate chocolate and vanilla lemon, which has a vanilla sponge cake soaked in lemon juice and wrapped with lemon marscapone. Chocolate fondant leaves and sugared cranberries add an extra festive flair. For something a little different, try the frangipane tart with cranberries, pomegranate seeds and orange confit. A little almond, a little citrus. A crunchy crust. Very nice.For pure decadence, it's got to be a the sea salted chocolate caramel tart. Inspired by the much-loved Millionaire's Shortbread of Ireland, with its cookie, caramel and chocolate layers, the tart adds a little something extra with crushed lavendar. Then there's the party girl, toasted pecan and spiced cream pie. Think caramel pecan pie filling studded with bittersweet chocolate, topped with a layer of vanilla custard and then Chantilly cream. Tina will also have an assortment of cookies ready for the holidays, including ginger cookies with candied, fresh and toasted ground ginger. Heaven Sent is located at 3001 University St. at 30th in North Park.
  • Cardamom Cafe and Bakery: Meet the new kid in the neighborhood. North Park, that is. Last June, Joanne Sherif opened the cozy cafe/bakery on Upas just off 30th St. A home baker since she was a young girl, Joanne has been busy raising five kids and doing volunteer advocacy for special ed kids, but long had the idea of having a business of her own that filled the need she has had to feed others. Everyday, her bakers roll out a wide assortment of breads, brioche, croissants and pastries. Take a look at the platter she served me last week: a sticky bun from brioche dough, a spinach and blue cheese croissant, a slice of brioche, a sugar star (also from brioche dough), a chocolate croissant, and a brioche fruit tart. She also makes a mean chicken salad, substituting all mayonaisse as the binder with one-third mayo, one-third buttermilk and one-third sour cream. It's divine. Oh, but we're talking holiday goods here, so let me tell you some of the traditional breads she'll have on hand. (I don't have photos because these weren't ready yet -- in fact, it takes about two weeks to make the starter and craft the bread, so call early to reserve what you want.) There's the Holiday Stollen, with dark raisins, dried cherries, candied lemon and orange peel, and almonds soaked in rum. There's Julia's Fresh Cranberry-Walnut Pumpkin Loaf made with a yeasted dough, a little sweet, a little savory, a little spicy. The Pan d'Oro is a relation of Panettone, sans nuts and fruit. Instead, it has three separate doughs and is shaped in a star. Hungarian Sweet Cheese Bread is bundt shaped and made with sour cream and goat cheese with a Grand Marnier apricot glaze. This list goes on and on. A novel approach to holiday baking. And the cafe is a lovely neighborhood spot for breakfast or lunch. Cardamom Cafe and Bakery is located at 2977 Upas St. There's no web site yet, so call 619-546-5609.
  • Opera Cafe and Patisserie: Owners Thierry Cahez and Vincent Garcia have been known around town and beyond as superb cooks and pastry chefs. Their new cafe in Sorrento Valley is a boon to local office workers. But the duo spread their magic far beyond the sandwiches and pastries they serve at the cafe. They do a very nice wholesale and catering business as well. I love their French macaroons, a perfect holiday gift. But I also enjoyed their flourless chocolate cake, with its oozy ganache (thanks to a quick 30 seconds in the microwave at home). A breakfast treat? One of their fruit tea cakes. I took home the raspberry, but they also had blueberry, peach and apricot. Opera has a very long list of holiday specials, starting with a large Yule log in chocolate, coffee, tiramisu, or chocolate creme brulee. There are pumpkin and eggnog cheesecakes, tradtional pumpkin tarts as well as Bourbon Pecan Caramel, Apple Cinnamon Crumble and Linzer tarts. Or try the holiday minis -- cream puffs, chocolate praline tartlets or mini yule logs. Opera Cafe and Patisserie is located at 9254 Scranton Road in Sorrento Valley.
  • Extraordinary Desserts: Karen Krasne's Extraordinary Desserts is a San Diego mainstay. Her two locations, on Fifth Ave. in Bankers Hill and now on Union St. in Little Italy/Downtown, draw a large swath of loyal customers. And no wonder. The pastries and cakes are delicious and just as decadent to look at, what with the abundance of flowers she uses to turn beige and brown into MGM color. Recently, I've enjoyed an amazing pecan shortbread with its crackle of sanding sugar. The chocolate streudel is nothing like what my Nana would have made; it's far more elegant in presentation and flavor but oh so good. Speaking of chocolate, there's also the decadent spire of Chocolate Cocada, a coconut macaroon like none I've ever enjoyed. And, the French apple cranberry pie was wonderful after briefly reheating it in the microwave at home and adding a drizzle of raspberry/blackberry sauce. What's on the menu for the holidays? It's a long list -- and you can even order online -- but it includes a Yule log of Valrhona chocolate, roasted almonds and a tough of whiskey, finished with a layer of chocolate truffle, white roses and gold leaf. There's also a Gateau Noel, a chocolate cake with raspberry creme brulee, raspberry-infused chocolate mousse and dark chocolate ganache; a toasted macademia cheesecake; and a white chocolate linzer torte. And then there's the Versailles, a decadent torte, with its four chocolate cake layers soaked with tuaca and surrounded by Valrhona chocolate mousse, salted caramel mousse and homemade caramel. Extraordinary Desserts is located at 2929 Fifth Ave. in Bankers Hill and 1430 Union St. in Little Italy (really more like downtown San Diego).
I know there's a lot more going on and I'll be filling in the blanks in the next weeks, so check back to find out what places like Eclipse Chocolat and Elizabethan Desserts are up to. And, if you have any favorite places to add, please let me know.


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