Philadelphia has built a reputation as one of the most innovative food destinations in the world with a renowned, chef-driven restaurant culture. Famed French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten chose to open a breathtaking restaurant on the 59th floor of the Four Seasons hotel and local inventive, celebrity chefs like Greg Vernick, Marc Vetri, Nick Elmi, Michael Solomonov, Joey Baldino and Eli Kulp continue to impress audiences with forward-thinking tweaks and takes on regional cuisine. One area where this has been most evident is with the rise of the superstar pastry chef.
PHLCVB talked to a few of Philadelphia’s most talented young pastry chefs to get their thoughts on what it means to create a truly drool-worthy dessert for the holidays and one that pays appropriate homage to the region and ingredients that have transformed Philadelphia into a food capital.
Zahav, recipient of the James Beard Award for 2019 Outstanding Restaurant, adds certain sweet and savory dishes around the holidays, which are mostly stemmed in family tradition. Camille Cogswell, who took over the pastry program at the landmark restaurant four years ago and recently named one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 for Food and Drink, draws on good vibes from her past.
“Food and the art of cooking is soul-satisfying, but there is something so magical and special about desserts,” Cogswell said. “Getting that sweet treat adds a little bit of magic to your day, especially around the holidays. It’s a time of year when people are a little more indulgent, like to feel that child-like magic, and it’s something I still connect to.”
At Zahav, Cogswell features a special holiday favorite, Chocolate Babka, an item that is on the regular menu at K’Far. It was a traditional Jewish custom to bring a loaf of babka to a friend or neighbor’s house for dinner and share it as a token of welcoming and a gesture of hospitality. While no babka recipe is exactly the same, that feeling of warmth and communal sharing gets ratcheted up during the holidays.
“The cuisine that we do at Zahav and K’Far is not strictly Jewish, it’s actually Israeli and that draws on flavors from both the Christian and Arabic world. It’s really a culinary melting pot and these recipes have endured for more than 100 years. The ingredients aren’t drastically different in these varying cultures, but the way they pull out the flavor profiles is. It’s amazing to taste the subtle nuances.”
Meehan has created a special cheesecake-pumpkin pie hybrid for the holidays called the Pumpkin Cassis Cake.
“My inspiration for this dessert was to bring a unique twist to American classic and bring it to the holiday table.” The recipe is basically two cakes in one. First, Meehan bakes a pumpkin cake relying on rich flavors of cinnamon, pumpkin puree and orange zest and then builds out a cassis cheesecake featuring fresh vanilla bean, sour cream and cassis/currant puree. The two desserts are stacked together using a homemade pumpkin cream as the glue.
“Cakes and cheesecakes are the types of recipes that I learned when playing in my parents’ kitchen,” Meehan said. “This recipe has so many cozy, warming spices and it presents a flavor and feeling that you want to share around the table.”
“Family is so important during the holiday time, and apple pie has always reminded me of home…and it’s my favorite dish,” Schmitt said. The chef has drawn on all that sensory goodness for a seasonal menu heavily rooted in apples.
Schmitt credited his mom for instructing him on how to bake a traditional apple pie, but he’s added several chef-driven techniques to the American classic over the years. One of his favorite inspirations came from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey who taught him how to make the apple tatain when the two worked together in Los Angeles. He also recommends serving warm apples with ice cream or shaved black truffles to fully complement all that sweet-tart flavor.
“Everyone has different interpretations, and everyone likes apple in some sort,” Schmitt said. “At Vernick Fish, we have an apple hazelnut tart. Vernick Coffee Bar will be adding an apple dish and so will Jean-Georges Philadelphia.”
The Holiday Pumpkin Roll was the first professional dessert Fereck conceptualized at Fork and High Street after owner Ellen Yin challenged her to create something new for the dessert menu. She pulled out a tempting memory from her childhood.
“My mother makes this every year around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I have always loved helping her in the kitchen,” Fereck said. “The dish gets completed with a frozen walnut nougat and candied pumpkin seeds. It’s perfect for the holidays because of the warm winter spices that fill the oven while it’s baking,” Fereck said. “Philly, being the City of Brotherly Love, needs a holiday recipe like this one to keep their families and friends close for the holidays.”
At Walnut Street Café, Peterson enlisted the help of Head Bartender Jamison Donahue to create a Pumpkin Spice Scone. The spiced-up pastry follows a basic buttery scone recipe then kicks it into overdrive with pumpkin puree and pumpkin spice. The latter is a house-made concoction featuring cinnamon, allspice, clove, ground ginger and nutmeg.
“Everyone loves pumpkin spice this time of year, so we wanted to give the people what they want,” Peterson said. “We make a simple buttery scone, add pumpkin puree and pumpkin spice.”
Peterson ices the scones with a special espresso glaze that is comprised of confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, salt, cornstarch and the secret ingredient — two healthy shots of La Colombe espresso. “These scones are perfect for Thanksgiving or Christmas brunch or a family Sunday breakfast,” said Peterson. “It’s a really nice and simple tweak on a fan favorite.”
Colbert prepares Pumpkin Spice Ganache Truffles for her family at Christmas time because they are the quintessential winter warmer.
The recipe takes a deft and delicate touch. First, Colbert hand-chops her chocolate melt wafers into tiny pieces and places them in a metal bowl. Then, she takes a pot and combines heavy cream and pumpkin spice before bringing those two ingredients to a boil and pouring the mixture over the chopped chocolate. And, the secret ingredient? Crumbled graham crackers. Colbert tops the truffles with them once they are fully coated in chocolate.
“With gloved hands, put some melted candy melts on your palm and fingers and roll the truffle centers in between your hands until they are completely covered in chocolate,” said Colbert. The process of rolling the truffles has become rather therapeutic for Colbert. The rolling ritual reminds the chef of making meatballs with her mother as a child, establishing her passion for food.
Cover photo by Michael Persico for K’Far.