Pastry Pen PalsAugust 28, 2009
A couple of years ago I got a note from a woman who was in pastry school in Florence. I was intrigued as her card was hand drawn and very artistic, not your average pen and paper. She asked for some advice on pastry schools and the business in general. I wrote her back and gave her some ideas. Time went by and the next time she wrote me she was at The Cordon Bleu in Paris. Later she wrote she came back to The States and worked at a B&B in Maine. After that we lost touch.
Last month I was doing a book signing at my good friend Anne Sadow’s shop, FLORA, in South Dartmouth, MA. She told me the pastry chef from Gracie’s Restaurant in Providence, RI was coming. Always interested in meeting fellow pastry chefs I was looking forward to it. When she arrived, I discovered it was Susan Vandenberg, my pastry pen pal from Italy, France and Maine. What a small world!
So of course I had to go to Gracie’s for dessert and dinner. Want an amazing meal we had. I went with Anne and Richard from Flora. As soon as we opened the menu we wished we were part of a bigger group so we could order more dishes. Everything sounded delicious. For first courses Joseph Hafner, the chef and owner, and his kitchen team made us corn soup with crab rangoon agnolotti. (Anter, the general manager, told us that the corn soup is a special summer dish but even in the height of corn season it isn’t always on the menu. Although the corn is grown just outside Providence and is picked daily the flavor can vary. If it doesn’t have just the right flavor the soup is not offered that night.) We also had some house-made gnocchi that melted in your mouth, just like Italy. We all have had our fair share of heavy gnocchi but these were perfect. We also had a summer vegetable hash served with smoked pork and a slow poached egg. After eating it I wanted to sleep there so I could have it for breakfast.
Our main courses were equally as amazing. Local skate with braised rapini, fried capers, white beans and a brown butter buerre blanc and Colorado Lamb Rack with artichokes bariagoule, summer vegetable couscous, tabouli salad and romesco sauce.
All this wonderful savory food whetted our appetite for Susan’s dessert creations. Here’s the amazing array of sweets she sent out.
My first bite was a little fudgesicle square that far surpassed the bars you get in the grocery store. As much as I loved those as a kid Susan has now spoiled me. A “milkshake tart” had a chocolate crust with a milk chocolate ganache center and small pieces of brownie inside. Three different flavors and textures of chocolate. Need I say more? A mango cream with fruit and a baked ricotta custard were light and delightful. A small plum cake with an almond crust and streusel would be great any time of day.
When they brought a tray of mignardises with the check I thought I couldn’t eat any more. Sure glad I did. The chocolate macaroons were light and chewy and as I write this I wish I had one to nibble on. I may have to go work for her to get the recipe. The raspberry paté au fruit burst with flavor.
I feel so fortunate that Susan corresponded several years ago and that we ended up meeting (and eating).
Here’s Susan’s recipe for her fudgesicle squares.
Susan’s Fudgesicle Squares
4 oz best quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I use Valrhona 70%)
4 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
Place the chocolate in a large bowl. Place the cream and salt in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, then pour over the chocolate and whisk until smooth.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a separate bowl. Slowly whisk in the hot chocolate cream and place all back in the saucepan.
Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, but don’t bring to a boil.
Strain into a clean bowl, place over an ice bath and whisk occasionally until cooled. Put the custard, with plastic wrap directly on the surface, in the frig over night where it thickens even further.
Pour the cooled chocolate cream into flexi-molds and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours. Pop out of the molds and serve with chocolate sauce, candied nuts, chocolate streusel or whatever accompaniment strikes your fancy.