Breakfast flavors find their way onto dessert menus at the Beard House and around the country
The dish looked simple and cozy: a soft block of toasted, sunny cornbread, studded with bacon and apricots, and crowned with a gently maple-tinged ice cream and—what the heck?—more bacon.
I gleefully ate this creation not for breakfast but for dessert at the James Beard House last fall, where chef Gabriel Rucker and his crew prepared a menu of hits from Le Pigeon, their popular Portland, Oregon, restaurant.
This wasn’t the first time that breakfast—and more specifically, everyone’s favorite pork product—had snuck into the final act of a Beard Foundation dinner. In fact, at the Dinner of the Decade event in March of 2000, James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Stephen Durfee of the French Laundry prepared a daybreak-inspired oeufs à la neige (“snow eggs”). Using hollowed-out eggshells as vessels, he served three different meringues, one flavored with egg, another with maple, and the final with bacon.
Nine years after Durfee’s visionary dish, scores of chefs and pastry chefs are developing their own breakfast-influenced desserts, many of which are rooted in the familiar flavor synergy of bacon and maple.
Rucker doesn’t clearly recall the inspiration for his dessert. “It just kind of made sense to have all of those flavors together, especially bacon, in a dessert,” he says.
Yes, it would make sense to anyone who has stumbled upon the delightful accident of maple syrup colliding with crisp, salty bacon. The two flavors plug easily into the sweet-and-savory equation that informs some of today’s most cutting-edge desserts.
There are other dishes like Rucker’s that offer a simple homage to the pairing, such as the pomegranate apples with cheddar–pecan streusel and maple sugar–bacon ice cream that Elizabeth Falkner served at the Beard House in October 2008.
Then there are desserts that take that harmony and turn the volume all the way up. At New York’s critically acclaimed Dovetail, pastry chef Vera Tong serves a brioche bread pudding inspired by French toast with a side of bacon. She amps up the butter-laden brioche with banana, bacon crumble, and a coating of maple syrup mixed with rendered bacon fat. A scoop of rum–vanilla ice cream comes along for the ride, too.
Pastry chef Michelle Duran, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, recently unveiled a dessert of churros, traditional fried breakfast pastries, accompanied by cinnamon-dusted pork rinds at Irving Mill in New York.
“I encourage all my chefs to put a little heart and soul in what they do,” says chef Ryan Skeen of Duran’s atypical choice. “She decided she wanted to feature churros, which are of her people, and I thought pork rinds would go well with them.” Not surprisingly, Skeen’s recent Beard House menu featured oatmeal chocolate-chip sandwich cookies with bacon ice cream.
Tong, who is known for her masterful savory-accented desserts—butterscotch pudding with barbecue potato chips, anyone?—also developed a caramel cake with popcorn ice cream and peanut butter powder for New York’s Restaurant Week. For her, it recalls the flavor of an Entenmann’s cake soaked in coffee, a treat her grandmother enjoyed for breakfast when Tong was growing up in Queens. The dessert may not evoke breakfast for everyone, but, like Duran’s churros, it speaks to the comfort we find in breakfast, whether as a beloved familial ritual or a quirky personal indulgence.
These breakfast-enamored chefs admit that their tokens of familiarity and nostalgia are sometimes met with confusion, even indignation. Tong noted that many of her diners are surprised to unearth a layer of crumbled bacon in their desserts. And Rucker mentioned that some people seem angered by the presence of bacon, convinced that dessert should be a strictly saccharine creation. “Sometimes we get people who are like, ‘What is he thinking?’” he says.
Thankfully, he has an alternative for patrons wanting an unadulterated sugar rush: a caramelized banana–filled “toaster strudel” that is toasted to order in the oven and served with a shot of caramel milk—a glorified Pop-Tart® and glass of milk that practically cry out for some Saturday morning cartoons.
The same goes for the soft-serve ice cream made by pastry chef Christina Tosi at New York’s Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar, which is available in four cereal milk flavors: Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Apple Jacks, or Fruity Pebbles.
Most diners, however, love Tong’s addictive bread pudding, while Portlanders stop by Le Pigeon specifically for the apricot–bacon cornbread. For someone like me who goes to bed looking forward to what I’m going to eat when I wake up, all of this is good news. Breakfast-inspired dessert? I can’t think of a better way to end the day.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of JBF Notes, the James Beard Foundation member newsletter. Don't miss out on future articles; become a member today!