Episode 7 of Top Chef Just Desserts season 2 touched on at least one subject very near and dear to my heart — doughnuts! Le Bernardin‘s Executive Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis is back to discuss doughy treats and chocolate showpieces!
I play in a band called Hot Doughnuts (founded many years before they became trendy), named because we thought that there are few people who do not like a hot doughnut. That said, I fear the trendiness of the simple and humble doughnut (see cakes, cup). Any thoughts on that?
Wow, a band? I never realized you were so multi-talented, Caroline! (Ed. note: Ha! Hardly!) Because fried dough is so ubiquitous — it seems every culture on the planet has some version of its own — it’s almost trend-proof. I guess the only risk factor would be the inevitable poor execution that comes with more folks jumping on that bandwagon. I have to say I am a fan of NYC’s Doughnut Plant; the tres leches creation is that good.
I’ll have to break down and try one of the DP’s doughnuts then. Also, our band is only slightly worse than Crucifictorious. So, create the perfect doughnut! That’s a tall order! My idea of it is a very simple, painfully plain doughnut. I love a classic plain for dunking (note: not ‘Dunkin’!) or a classic light and fluffy glazed. Oh, and an old-school jelly doughnut. What are some of your ideas around perfect doughnuts?
Yeah, for the most part, I’m pretty old-school when it comes to doughnuts. Just as we tend to judge pizza on its crust, the fundamental aspect of the doughnut should be the dough itself. If I had one item that came close to Proust’s memory-inducing madeleine, it would be warm cinnamon doughnuts and apple cider, which takes me back to autumns of childhood, visiting the local cider mill in Michigan. And I’ve never really looked into the process that makes a classic Krispy Kreme so good — maybe that they glaze while still warm — but I always say that one isn’t enough, but two is too many. In a good way!
As we noted earlier, there are a lot of people doing doughnuts these days, including savory doughnuts. Truth be told, though, many of these are bad belly bombers – too dry, too dense, too crumbly. (i.e. Matt’s submission). What are they doing wrong (outside of forgetting the cream!)?
Time was probably a huge factor here; that Carlos won with a yeast-raised doughnut was impressive. Freshness is important, of course, but so, too, is how the dough is structured, handled, and, ultimately, fried. Frying temperature is crucial to get proper rise and to prevent greasiness. The added elements — glazes, creams, jams, textures — they can provide added value, but they can’t necessarily save what started as a bad doughnut in the first place.
For the QFC, they are tasked with creating a magnificent chocolate showpiece and a chocolate dessert. License for pure creativity! I think this is where you’d like to see pure imagination, Michael, something we haven’t really seen as of yet, yes?
I love the challenges with no parameters, because it really gives us insight as to the chefs’ talents and thought processes. And, as I’ve said before, chocolate can be expressed in so many ways and paired with so many different flavor profiles. But, it can be a tricky substance — your best friend or your worst enemy — depending on each contestant’s skills.
Talk to me about showpieces. I know you don’t have to execute these for Le Bernardin, but, what are some of the pitfalls here? It seems there’s a lot of input from different people, a lack of particular molds, and Chris is having a problem settling on a theme.
Knowing when to stop. It’s really easy to keep adding more and more elements to a piece, but when you look at the best chocolate or sugar sculptures, they all have a clear, simple, and clean look that comes with the experience of knowing when to press the “edit” button. A theme can either reign you in, or it can restrict your efforts; both Chris and Orlando had valid reasons for their choices in that regard.
Matt makes mention of chocolate and cherries, which I adore! What are some of your favorite flavors with chocolate and why?
There are two approaches one can take: work with the chocolate’s flavor profile, or create a contrast with it. In a sense, it’s kind of like pairing wine with food. To complement, I go for nutty flavors, or earthy ones, like coffee and spices. Some of our chefs have successfully countered the chocolate with tropical fruits and floral flavors, which also make perfect sense. Though chocolate is a wonderfully complex entity on its own, we have to be mindful that the more sugar, butter, and cream we add to the preparation, the more we risk obscuring it, by covering up that essence.
Have you had a boca negra? And, what is chiboust? It puffs like a soufflé – but does it fall like one? Are either of these techniques/desserts you’ve done?
Chiboust is one of those classic preparations that you don’t see much anymore amid the soils, fluid gels, airs, and microwave sponge cakes prevalent in modern desserts. It’s the simple combination of warm pastry cream with an airy meringue — but it’s all about proper timing. And boca negra — any pure chocolate blast, by any other name — always sounds appealing.
As a competitor, would you trust someone else to execute your plated dessert? I feel like that the judges might send a cheftestant home for a bad dessert rather than a poorly completed showpiece! And, speaking of the showpiece, would you prefer to see what your competition is making – or not?
I’m a control freak, so I would never farm out my dessert to someone else. However, being a good manager and team leader requires delegation and being able to clearly communicate what is needed. With so much on the line, I wouldn’t have used Orlando’s strategy, but focusing on the showpiece paid off. I always say that the chefs here are really pushing their own limits, separate from the capabilities of the others. Seeing your competition’s work might cause you to second-guess your own choices.
Components in a dessert – eight is good, 14 is better, teases one cheftestant. Is that true? And, is that especially true of a restaurant chef’s thinking?
My own style has certainly evolved over the years. For the most part, my plates tend more toward the minimal. Too many garnishes can detract from or muddle a key component, and a busy composition can throw the overall size and proportions out of whack. Generally, less is more and also shows an underlying confidence. I admit that our chef egos don’t always know when to stop! Sometimes a dozen components can work, as long as they are seamless and each one can stand on its own.
Circling back, I think the right team won — they had a more cohesive, nuanced showpiece and much more elegant plated desserts. But, I’m not sure that anyone really ran with the task at hand — letting their most fantastical chocolate dreams come to life! Do you?
I think there was a lot of creative territory left unexplored. I wonder if the chefs might have pushed the envelope had they known that wd-50’s Wylie Dufresne would be on the judging panel in advance. We’re at that point where the field has leveled out, so the judges are really starting to split hairs. Both showpieces were equally beautiful and impressive technically. I may have slightly preferred the piece presented by Team Chris, but I can’t discount the fact that his dessert — even if he did execute both — worked against him. The expectations for perfection will only intensify as we approach the finale!