A Sweet, Delicious Death: Killed By Dessert

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So, I’m just going to come out and say it: I have a problem. The San Francisco pastry scene, which I’ve only recently begun to discover in all its splendor, is far too enticing. I can’t stay away. I can’t not shovel pastries into my mouth. I can’t resist seeking out a new bakery. I don’t understand that thing they call “moderation”. In April, I embarked on a three-day Pastry Crawl to find the city’s best pastries, and the summary became such a massive endeavor that I am *still* writing my interminable 4-part blog post and sifting through hundreds of photos of cakes, cookies, flaky pastries, tarts, and ice cream. (I hope very much to have these posts up in the near future…)

Prior to this glorious adventure, I had purchased a ticket to an event that spoke directly to my sugary desires, and which I awaited with utmost impatience: Killed By Dessert. Little did I know how fitting that name was! Killed By Dessert is essentially a collective of six of the country’s most talented pastry chefs (from New York and San Francisco) who wanted to put a spotlight on dessert within the culinary world. Dessert is often overlooked, ordered if diners have room after a meal and want a sweet bite or two. The chefs hold periodic events in different cities to demonstrate the vast possibilities and potential of dessert; it should not take a backseat to the savory realm. This was their way to bring that much-deserved attention to dessert and to showcase their own favorite ingredients and inspirations. Proceeds from these events go to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign (for which they raised over $20,000 last weekend)– a beautiful thing, isn’t it? When the San Francisco event was announced a few months back, it was kind of a no-brainer that I would attend. And because this concept was exceedingly awesome, other local pastry chefs wanted to play too, so a second element, the Bake Sale, was added in order to include more bakers. Essentially my weekend was consumed by desserts; in fact, I have to admit that I ate one single nutritional meal during the whole weekend. (If you can call pizza ‘nutritional’… but I should clarify that it was good pizza, not the fast food crap that makes Italians roll over in their graves.)

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The biggest draw for me is that one of my greatest baking inspirations, Christina Tosi, is one of the founding pastry chefs of Killed By Dessert (and the only woman among the six chefs). Christina is the owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, an offspring of the New York City Momofuku empire by David Chang that includes Ko, Ma Pêche, and Ssäm Bar. I discovered her cookbook in the Fall of 2011 and immediately became enamored—it has transformed my baking and my understanding of baking science phenomena. (I totally geek out on that stuff.) I then visited several Milk Bar locations on my NYC trip last summer, and I still dream about that magnificent pretzel milkshake…

But I digress. Although Christina Tosi was the person I was most excited to meet, I have since become more acquainted with the culinary works of some of the other participating chefs, and I knew that this would be an incredibly interesting and nerdy fulfilling experience for me.

The Killed By Dessert weekend events were hosted at the brand-new San Francisco Cooking School, where I have taken a handful of wonderful classes. Some of the school founders/contributors are also KBD founders, so I suppose it was a logical location to hold the festivities, plus it’s a gorgeous space.

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The Bake Sale was held on Saturday morning, wherein 14 pastry chefs displayed and sold their most coveted wares to an eager queue of sweet-toothed patrons like myself. I was one of the first people in line, and I passed the time by chatting with other pastry enthusiasts and watching the chefs set up their beautiful displays… on the other side of the glass windows. The Crack Pie was so close, yet it felt so far away… (Part of me wanted to just smoosh up against the window, but fortunately I managed to restrain myself to socially acceptable behavior.) I stood fascinated and awe-struck as they loaded in tray upon tray of croissants, brioches, and beautifully wrapped packages holding unknown confectionary treasures. I enjoyed trying to guess what everything was, rabidly craving the gorgeous focaccia right on the other side of the window in front of me…

Anyway, when finally the doors opened, I was greeted cheerfully by Jodi Liano and Caroline Brinckerhoff of the cooking school, whom I know from the classes and other events that I’ve attended. They are always warm and friendly and make me want to cook stuff. 😀 I was given a box to collect my riches and started to make my way around to each table. The focaccia that I had longingly eyeballed in the window was Prosciutto Fontina Focaccia from Jessica Sullivan of Delfina Pizza, and they were selling mighty generous portions!

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She also offered do-it-yourself mini Cannoli kits (so cute!), but I wouldn’t be heading home for several hours, so I didn’t pick up one of those. (I know what you’re thinking—hello, lunch?!) Right next to Delfina was the work of Shawn Gawle from Saison, with which I was not previously familiar. I don’t believe he was in attendance, but his associates were peddling beautiful canelés, craquelins (orange flavored pastry similar to brioche), and cocoa nib-sesame financiers.

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I looked back and forth at all three in a slight panic, knowing there were people behind me; I shouldn’t get all of them, I thought… but I couldn’t choose, so I did end up getting one of each, which turned out to be an excellent life decision. I had never had a craquelin or canelé before (wha?!), and both were absolutely divine! Next was Stephanie Prida from Manresa, selling pâte noisettes and Salted Butter Brioche. Pâte noisettes translates literally to ‘hazelnut paste’ in French, though I hesitate to equate this with “Nutella” because it’s so much more. It was sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts and packaged in a mini glass mason jar, which I will definitely keep as a souvenir of the occasion. The brioche was both beautiful and lovely in taste and texture. Its swirled dough puffed up well beyond the rim of the paper wrapper, and it had that pleasing hint of salt– I enjoyed it layer by pillowy layer on my tongue…

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It quickly became apparent that I would need multiple boxes, and I did, in fact, leave with three stuffed boxes, plus a few wrapped items that went right in my shopping bag without a box. A semi-complete list of bake sale treats can be found here, though there were additional bakers/items as well. Some of the other highlights for me include:

  • Pretzel Croissant with Black Garlic Mustard from Bill Corbett of the Absinthe group: This is the perfect hybrid of a croissant and a pretzel, showcasing the best features of both. I feel like this would be hard to achieve, given what I know about making these two very different baked items, but Bill has nailed it perfectly. It had the characteristic flaky, butter croissant layers, but also the dark color and unique flavor of a soft pretzel, as well as the salt garnish; it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, and the black garlic mustard elevated it to heights that make me cry a little.
  • Porcini S’mores, also from Bill Corbett: These gorgeous, sleek squares are a little breath-taking with their perfectly toasted mushroom marshmallow tops, but they get even more interesting. The bottom consists of an oat crust, topped with roasted white chocolate ganache, followed by said toasted meringue layer. I had no idea what to expect—mushrooms? in my s’mores? wait, seriously? I can safely say that I’ve never tasted anything like it, and it was absolutely heavenly. I didn’t detect a mushroom flavor per se, but there was definitely a warm depth and complexity in there, which I would likely attribute to the porcinis. The meringue layer was very marshmallow-y in texture, but not the stringy, dry, Jet-Puffed kind—the kind that I envision would be found in Haute Cuisine Candyland: gooey, lightly sticky softness filling my mouth. The middle layer’s texture was also smooth and soft, like caramel. Another achievement of pastry perfection. (I am so excited to take a Chocolate Desserts class with him next month!)

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  • Kouign Amann from Belinda Leong of b.patisserie: I visited this newer bakery on my aforementioned Pastry Crawl last month, and fell in love with the Kouign Amann. I had never had it before, and I was thrilled to have a second go at the bake sale. Kouign Amann (pronounced ‘kween ah-mahn’) is a French pastry from the Brittany region (the name is derived from the Breton language, which has Celtic origins—I wrote my college thesis about it years ago!), and I would liken it to a cross between a croissant, palmier, and brioche. The outer dough layers are eternally flaky, but also slightly caramelized, and they give way to a softer interior, which cradles a syrupy sugar center. There’s a reason that b.patisserie is famous for these—she has perfected them, and there’s really nothing else quite like it. For the bake sale, she had both the traditional variety and a “red fruit” version in which the center was filled with fruit puree. I went with the plain one and loved it. Again. It was also really cool to meet Belinda Leong after having visited the bakery!

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  • Olive Oil Bergamot Financier from Michael Laiskonis of Institute of Culinary Education in New York: This little round sounded so intriguing and I thought it was really beautiful with its bright yellow fruit curd center. The pastry dough had a distinct olive oil flavor (not an oily texture, mind you– it just captured the lovely flavor essence), which was nicely balanced by the delicate citrus of the bergamot curd.
  • Vegetable Tart from Greg Mandel of Neighbor Bakehouse: Several items were offered, including a gorgeous chocolate claw (which I inexplicably didn’t purchase), and I chose the vegetable tart because it was very different than anything else on any other table. It was a darling flaky square housing a colorful variety of julienned veggies, cheese, and seeds and I loved it! I ate it warm for breakfast the next day, and loved the combination of savory flavors with the flaky dough. I was not familiar with this bakery, and I’d like to learn more!

Christina Tosi’s table was the last one that I visited, and *lucky me*, there was no one behind me in line for a good few minutes, so I actually got to chat with her. She was so unbelievably warm, friendly, and genuine—I was so happy. I said, “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but your book has been such a huge influence on my baking…” and she seemed to truly appreciate my enthusiasm and awe. You hear so much about chefs having huge egos, and I saw absolutely none of that at this event– everyone I talked to was gracious and approachable. It was so meaningful to me to meet Christina because I admire her work so much, but for her to also be so cool in person was just really special. I told her that I would be visiting New York next month and signing up for a baking class at Milk Bar, and I was thrilled to learn that she herself actually teaches the classes!

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Oh, and the baked goods– right. She brought her famous Crack Pie and three of her cookies: Blueberry & Cream, Marshmallow-Cornflake Crunch, and Compost. I have made all three successfully at home and had them at Milk Bar in NYC, so I was intimately familiar with these items. I settled on a slice of Crack Pie and a Blueberry & Cream cookie, because well, they were right in front of me in California. I am SO excited to re-experience the pretzel milkshake and cake truffles next month in New York…

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There were several more pastries that I lovingly ate, including the Twisted Vanilla-Bourbon Brioche from Lincoln Carson of the Michael Mina group and the Bittersweet Cocoa-Yuzu Bread from Matt Tinder of Coi, as well as one that I didn’t like (“Chocoyaki” buckwheat-sesame cookie with chocolate-walnut filling from Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions) and a couple that I wish I’d gotten; needless to say, the Killed By Dessert Bake Sale was truly outstanding. I nibbled on pastries throughout the day, and for the next few days, really. I feel so fortunate to have been able to sample all of these delicacies and to meet the pastry chefs. And that wasn’t even the main event!

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The Killed By Dessert dinner was held the following evening– that’s when the big guns really came out! As one would expect for a bake sale, the items sold were things that one could pack to go and eat out-of-hand, mostly actual baked items. The dinner was a more formal affair consisting of fourteen courses of mind-blowingly creative, visually stunning plated desserts (some with no baked elements at all) by eight incredible pastry chefs, as well as savory hors d’œuvres. It was likely the most decadent, indulgent meal I’ve ever eaten… but then, that’s the whole point.

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When I came in, the cooking school space had been totally transformed: long dining tables were set for the special meal, beverage stations busily served cocktails, dressed-up guests mingled and laughed, chefs expertly plated their appetizers, and servers carried beautifully laden trays of hors d’œuvres through the crowd.

Killed By Dessert 21Bill Corbett carefully plating his Artichoke Confit appetizer

I was greeted within 60 seconds by a gentleman offering me one of Christina Tosi’s famous Cubano Croissants– pickle puff pastry wrapped around roasted pork and spicy mustard. Now, I eat pork rarely and selectively, so I hesitated for a micro-second before remembering that I had the opportunity to eat this delicious creation actually made by the hands of Ms. Tosi at this amazing event that I had the privilege to attend; I quickly snatched that baby up and took a bite… and I am *so* glad I did! The flavors melted so harmoniously in my mouth– I almost laughed out loud at the absurd notion that I had almost passed up this genius little croissandwich.

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I later marveled at Lincoln Carson’s whimsical take on bacon and eggs (with caramel = WIN), and I begrudgingly came to the conclusion that I might have to re-evaluate my stance on pork. Anyway, I happily accepted several other delicious appetizers, including the Artichoke Confit, Michael Recchiuti‘s Seared Asparagus in a Lemon Pepper White Chocolate Shell, and Matt Tinder’s Smoked Sturgeon with Avocado and Sprouts (like an open-faced fish taco on a seeded cracker). I was already full.

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As guests settled into their seats, the chefs began plating the first course, Strawberries and Stracciatella from Brooks Headley of Del Posto in NYC, which was a delicious combination of fresh and roasted fruit with a type of creamy, torn mozzarella cheese. (I always knew “stracciatella” to be ice cream, but it is, in fact, also a soft mozzarella sometimes used as burrata filling.) Bill Corbett greeted the guests and explained the creation and evolution of Killed By Dessert… and by the way, he said, we were welcome to chat with the chefs throughout the evening while they worked and help plate desserts. I’m sorry, what now?!

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It was great to attend the event, but I would have much preferred to work in the kitchen, so my arse was up and out of that chair fast! Are you kidding me, I get to plate desserts with these amazing chefs?! My friend Sheri is a student in the first graduating class of the cooking school, and she was working the event; I locked eyes with her immediately… Christina Tosi was plating the second course up front, and she *knows* all about my Milk Bar baking crush. Sheri had had the opportunity to help prep the Cubano Croissants earlier, and she now pulled me over to the prep counter and sort of shoved me right up next to Christina! I was in shock for a brief moment (was this really happening??), but had no time to ponder the current situation– a bowl of whipped coconut and a container of olive oil were thrust into my hands, and I was tasked with filling the “crater” in the center of the coconut with olive oil as quickly as possible. Christina kept passing me bowl after bowl, and I tried my best to fill them quickly and neatly– not easy when I was nervous! But we got them done, AND IT WAS AWESOME. (In my head the whole time: “Don’t f*ck up. Don’t f*ck up. Don’t f*ck up.” But no pressure.)

Killed By Dessert 13(This really happened.)

Oh, incidentally– the dish we were plating was Matt Tinder’s Whipped Coconut with Olive Oil and Rhubarb, which was one of my favorite things the whole evening. It was visually jaw-dropping with its electric pink fruit against the bright white coconut and golden olive oil. The dense, creamy coconut texture was sublime, and the tropical/sweet/tart/olive oily/fruity combination was utterly magical– so many rich, bright flavors that worked perfectly together.

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The courses kept coming, one after the other. I ate each one as swiftly as possible so I could go help plate the next one, though making sure to savor each one for at least a brief moment. Each chef explained his/her dish course by course, its ingredients or perhaps its inspiration or origin. Each one was so interesting and unique– I was fascinated by the process of developing and crafting these works of plated art. For each course that I helped with, I got to do something different, whether it be spooning olive oil, sprinkling a garnish, or adding fruit. After eating each one, I was quite certain that I couldn’t possibly put anything else into my body, but they kept coming… and I kept eating. I couldn’t help it– that’s what this event was about, after all. I wasn’t about to crap out after 12 courses!

Some of my personal highlights, though not an exhaustive list of dishes:

  • Lincoln Carson’s “Old Dog” (cornbread, apricot, mulberry, vanilla ice cream, and coriander) was another of my favorites, which I got to help prepare as well. Fruity, creamy, crunchy, sweet, tart– it was a beautiful mélange of flavors, textures, and colors. I was so eager to dive into my dish that I forgot to snap a photo before wrecking its pristine presentation with my spoon!

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  • I was waiting with great anticipation for Christina Tosi’s Strawberry Sorbet with Celery Root Ganache and Ritz Cracker Crunch. I meant to help with this dish, but in watching her expertly apply the ganache to the sides of the bowls and form perfect sorbet quenelles, I felt that I couldn’t offer much skill here. Not the best attitude perhaps, but mostly I was watching her work in awe, and that was okay. Celery Root Ganache is one of the recipes in the book that elicits (for me, anyway) a reaction of, “Really?! How does that work?” I have not, as of yet, built up the courage to try it on my own, BUT I’mma have to, ’cause it rules. The base is a white chocolate ganache with a distinct celery root flavor, which may sound bizarre/offensive/unappetizing, but it just works. (It’s because of brilliant things like this that the woman won a James Beard Award!) Anyway, the dish also incorporates one of her signature creations: Ritz Cracker Crunch. She has invented a genius concept known as the “crunch”, which consists of a base of some kind (often a snack food– Ritz crackers, pretzels, cornflakes, etc.), crushed and mixed with sugar and malt/milk powder, then baked to golden deliciousness. They can be used as snacks, garnishes (such as here), or mix-ins in other recipes. Though I’ve made cornflake and pretzel crunches countless time, I hadn’t yet tasted Ritz crunch, and it was the perfect, albeit unlikely, addition to this dreamy dessert.

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  • Bill Corbett’s Goat Cheesecake with Candy Cap Mushroom Puff Pastry Shards, Candied Kumquats, and Cajeta: I’m just going to call him the Mushroom Whisperer. The cheesecake was smooth and delicate with a goat cheese tang, enveloped by the candy cap flakes like a coating of toasted coconut. Who does that?! I had coincidentally made dulce de leche the previous week for homemade Alfajores and I happened to read about its zippy cousin, cajeta, which is a caramel-like sauce made with goat milk– et voilà, there it was, right in front of me to taste! Thick and creamy, with that goat-tastic edge– delish.

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  • Matt Tinder’s second course could not have been more different than his light, fruity whipped coconut– he presented the dark and decadent Blueberries and Silken Milk Chocolate with Baguette and Cocoa Praline. I scattered a few blueberries, but mostly I watched the assembly on this one. It was rather amusing to observe half a dozen people furiously grating cocoa praline shavings over the plates with microplane blades and cheese graters! The aftermath of this dish was pretty epic– chocolate dust lightly blanketed the entire kitchen prep area! By the time this dish arrived at the table, I was beyond full… but like the dessert trooper that I am, I soldiered on for the cause! And a scrumptious cause, it was– the milk chocolate quenelle was TO DIE FOR. I honestly don’t know if it was mousse, ice cream, ganache, or some other incarnation of milk chocolate (possibly with magical properties), but it was absolutely exquisite– dense, creamy, silky, and obscenely rich. Dear god. I’m not the biggest blueberry fan, but the chocolate just made everything perfect.

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Every course was so beautiful and expressive– I could write pages of nerdy analysis here. Suffice it to say, these chefs are visionaries and true artists; each clearly possesses an intimate understanding of how to marry flavors and ingredients to produce superb, wildly creative confectionary art that is almost too pretty to eat… but someone had to do it. (I am SO selfless, am I not?)

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Some of the other gorgeous offerings, clockwise from left: Christina Tosi’s Cereal Milk Panna Cotta with Avocado Purée, Cornflake Crunch, and Chocolate Hazelnut Thing; Lincoln Carson’s “New Trick” (the dark, indulgent foil of the earlier light and fruity “Old Dog”), a liberal reinterpretation of mint chocolate, with infused flavors of Douglas Fir and pine cone; Bill Corbett’s alternative take on German Chocolate Cake: chocolate cake with coconut, pecan, and caramel topped with an objet d’art of pulled chocolate; Brooks Headley’s “intermezzo” Veggie Burger– the only savory bite, served after the 6th course; Michael Laiskonis’ hazelnut-themed “Antonio Bazzarini’s Theoretical-Practical Plan”; and Brooks Headley’s Butterscotch Semifreddo. 

After Bill Corbett’s German Chocolate Cake, the prep counter in the front was finally quiet and empty– no more plates or bowls rapidly set out for refilling with sweet culinary wonders. The last item placed on the table was a mignardise platter (“daintiness” in French) by William Werner of Craftsman & Wolves, consisting of several tiny, elaborate pastries surrounding a balloon whisk centerpiece, of which I could only eat one because I was definitely going to blow up, were I to attempt anything more. We were invited to take home Spin Art chocolate (Remember Spin Art drawings? It was just like that, but the designs were spun on a chocolate bar– way cooler.) from Michael Recchiuti… which I still haven’t eaten because I’m still full. 😉

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This evening was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience, and certainly the first where I’ve been presented such a multitude of extraordinary desserts by their creators and where I was even allowed to participate! I learned so much about the process of how such dishes come together, how to turn out large volume, and how to work alongside chefs in a kitchen. I’m so deeply grateful for this opportunity, and I’m hungry to get my hands dirty in the pastry kitchen as soon as possible!

My final thought: I can say with 100% confidence that this event could NOT be more appropriately named. When I left San Francisco Cooking School on Sunday night after a weekend of sheer and shamless gluttony, I felt like this:

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UPDATE: My San Francisco Pastry Crawl blogs can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3 ½, Part 4/Epilogue. So much sugar! 🙂

© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.

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10 Responses

  1. Wow, sounds like an amazing event. Loved your write-up and pictures. I’m having major food/dessert envy over here in Boston and you’ve definitely convinced me that I need to go to Milk Bar next time I’m in NYC and I need to buy the cookbook!

    1. Thanks, Andrea– I appreciate the compliment! Hey, maybe they’ll have a KBD event in Boston at some point– I bet Joanne Chang would be involved! 😉 I’m sure you will love the Milk Bar book– it has been a huge influence on my baking, and I hope you too will find it interesting/helpful/awesome. Can’t wait to hear about it and so excited to meet you next month!!

  2. This sounds like the best weekend EVER!!! Wow! What a great post….I feel like I was there, just without the yummy tasting. Everything looks amazing. And how exciting to be working and talking with the chefs. Can’t wait to read more about your San Fran pastry adventures! 🙂

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