Custards' New Stand

They're back, with an upscale twist

January 12, 2000|By Kathryn Matthews | By Kathryn Matthews,SUN STAFF

Like Cher and '70s disco music, custards and their close kissing cousins, puddings, have made a cool comeback.

They've left behind their roadside-diner status and now they're on dessert menus at the toniest restaurants.

You'll recognize home-style favorites such as vanilla custard, bread pudding and rice pudding, and fancy restaurant classics, like creme brulee and creme caramel.

But there's a distinctly new taste twist.

These days, his top-selling chipotle flan has pastry chef Fabrice Mallet scrambling to fill orders at JBar, a Mexican-inspired restaurant in Tucson, Ariz.

In America's heartland, pastry chef Gale Gand dishes out saffron panna cotta with quince stew at Chicago's Tru, and pistachio-crusted creme brulee at Brasserie T, two restaurants she co-owns with her chef-husband, Rick Tramonto.

On the West Coast, David Lebovitz, author of "Room for Dessert" (HarperCollins, 1999) and former longtime pastry chef at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, scored a runaway hit with his nocino-infused custard (nocino is green walnut essence).

And on the East Coast, pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen taps into customers' nostalgia with her chocolate-espresso custard served with macerated tangerines and sweet basil at New York City's Quantum 56.

What's the appeal of custard-based desserts?

For diners, custards are comfort items, with attendant childhood memories. "They're popular because they're homey, yet upscale, taken to a new level you wouldn't see at home. But they strike a familiar chord and I think that's one of the things that people look for," says Janos Wilder, chef-proprietor of Janos, his namesake French-Southwestern restaurant, and of JBar, both in Tucson.

Creme brulee, in particular, has lasting appeal. "We just can't take it off the menu," he adds.

In terms of dessert preferences, Gand pegs diners as either "chocolate, custard or fruit people, and you know which one you are."

A self-described custard person, Gand believes custard sells well, in part, because it crosses gender lines. She observes that while it's rare that men order a fruit dessert, custard tends to appeal to both sexes. "As a matter of fact, I know I get a lot more marriage proposals from my bread puddings than any other dessert," she confides.

According to the peripatetic Lebovitz, who now teaches at in-store cooking programs around the country, people remember puddings from childhood. "There's something about a rich custard that makes people sort of happy -- it's a very familiar thing to people."

Jurgensen agrees people are rediscovering simpler desserts, finding custard-based ones, especially creme brulee, comforting.

Pastry chefs are always on the prowl for the latest and most exciting flavors. But, as with an haute-couture runway collection, there is always a translation process for mass-consumption taste, which is usually more conservative.

What appeals to an inspired pastry chef may not always find receptive palates among customers. So pastry chefs looking for a license to thrill often use custard-based desserts as a medium to introduce new flavors in a recognizable package. "A familiar dessert can have unexpected flavors if it's in a familiar form," says Wilder, citing the chipotle flan and chocolate jalapeno ice-cream sundaes that are among his best-selling desserts.

He wouldn't get any argument from Lebovitz who, when at Chez Panisse, led customers to unusual flavors such as green tea and fresh mint via creme brulee. Or from Gand, whose creamy comforts include caramelized raspberry rice pudding and cherry charlotte.

But these days "familiar," as in packaged versions, no longer passes muster. Pastry chefs have raised the bar, setting high-quality standards for ingredients, technique and plate presentation.

Savvy diners now expect fresh ingredients that may include a variety of seasonal fruits, texture and temperature contrasts, and myriad flavors, from cardamom, lavender and star anise to coffee and tea infusions, inside, atop or alongside their custard.

Although we tend to think of custards and puddings as comfort desserts, the earliest puddings were not sweet, but savory.

The word pudding is derived from the French word boudin, or sausage. In its original culinary context, Marie Simmons writes in "Puddings A to Z" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), "Boudin was a dish made from animal blood, mixed with bread crumbs, oatmeal or other fillers, suet and lots of spices, or from animal organs, well seasoned and stuffed into containers or casings. Depending on the dish, boudin might be wrapped in a cloth and steamed over a simmering pot of stew."

The British capitalized on this culinary concept, starting their own tradition of steamed puddings such as Christmas plum pudding and bread puddings. Even creme brulee (French for burnt cream), which we think of as quintessentially French, is of English origin.

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