As a fourth-generation pastry chef whose desserts are often startlingly untraditional, I’m often asked where I get my inspiration. It’s a hard question to answer since just about every encounter I have—with food, people, even artwork—is a potential creative lead. What’s easier to explain is what makes my desserts so original: it’s the way I combine flavors and textures to such exciting, surprising, and above all, delicious effect.
The layered desserts I’m presenting here (the Fine Cooking staff has taken to calling them parfaits) began with an idea for a mousse, but not a typical fruit-flavored or chocolate mousse. While I wanted the mousse to be delicious in its own right, it also had to be somewhat neutral so it would harmonize with the other components in the parfait. A velvety cream cheese mousse was the answer; it’s subtly tangy and only faintly sweet, the perfect backdrop to the refreshing flavors and contrasting textures with which I intended to team it.
Once I settled on the mousse, I created three parfaits, each with its own beguiling personality. One is rich and soothing: along with the mousse, it layers chocolate rice pudding with caramelized Rice Krispies and a dollop of chocolate-hazelnut whipped cream. Another is fresh and sassy, with a strawberry compote, freshly chopped strawberries, and a sprinkling of icy lemon granita. The third is cool and sophisticated, with a cardamom-ginger-orange mixture that I call a marmalade, a crumbly streusel topping, and a garnish of fresh raspberries.
Cocktail glasses show off the layers
What I like most about these parfaits are their contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures. You’ll notice these juxtaposing sensations right away, and I think you’ll agree that they really make the parfaits come to life. To get the full effect, I like to plunge my spoon straight down to the bottom to get a sampling of each layer in every bite.
Before you start cooking, choose serving glasses for the parfaits. I think they look best in martini glasses, but there’s no need to buy a set just for these recipes. Another type of cocktail glass or wineglass will show off the dessert’s pretty layers just as well.
These recipes make eight generous servings, if you’re using eight-ounce glasses. But if your glasses are smaller than that, the yield will stretch to nine or ten slightly smaller servings.
A cream cheese mousse supplies lightness and body
I love the subtle flavor of this cream cheese mousse: slightly tangy with a hint of salt. You’re aiming for a soft, smooth, and light texture. To achieve this, you’ll prepare three separate components—a melted cream cheese, gelatin, and confectioners’ sugar mixture; an egg yolk and sugar syrup mixture; and whipped cream—and then gently fold them into one another.
A small amount of gelatin helps the mousse set once it’s chilled, and it also contributes to the silky, smooth texture. (Gelatin also firms up the strawberry compote and the orange marmalade.) To use powdered gelatin, soften it in a liquid—the granules will swell—and then heat it so it dissolves.
Temperature is important when working with gelatin. The key is to fold the egg yolk mixture into the cream-cheese–gelatin mixture once they’ve both just cooled to room temperature. If the mixtures are too cool, the gelatin will be too set and won’t blend in evenly; you’ll end up with flecks of hardened gelatin in the mousse. If the mixtures are too warm, however, it will knock some air out of the whipped cream and the mousse won’t be as light.
Use a light hand to fold in the whipped cream. The whipped cream provides volume and lightness in the mousse, so you want to fold it in gently without losing the air that has been beaten into it.
A few more guiding thoughts
Once you’ve conquered the mousse, the rest is pretty straightforward. Here’s one more tip for each of the three parfaits:
For the orange marmalade parfait , choose an orange with a thin layer of pith; a Minneola tangelo works well. To make the marmalade, you simmer unpeeled orange slices in a sugar syrup and then purée the mixture in a blender. I like the bitter edge that the peel provides, especially when it’s countered with ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and sugar. For oranges with a lot of pith, such as navels, you’ll need to taste and adjust the spices and sugar so the bitterness isn’t overwhelming.
For the chocolate rice pudding parfait , the rice should still be al dente and the consistency a little soupy before stirring in the chocolate—the mixture thickens a lot once the chocolate is added. If the pudding stiffens too much (some brands of chocolate will thicken more than others), stir in a bit more milk. For the chocolate, I use Valrhona (my favorite type for this recipe is called guanaja), but any good-quality bittersweet is fine.
For the strawberry compote parfait, you can play with the texture of the icy lemon granita topping by stirring more frequently during freezing. The easiest way to make it is to simply stir the mixture once while it’s freezing and then pulse it in a food processor just before serving. This produces a fine, snowy-textured granita. For a granita with larger crystals and a coarser texture, stir the mixture with a fork every 15 minutes until it freezes and skip the processor. To serve this coarser granita, scrape an ice-cream scoop or spoon across the surface of the granita to produce chunky shards.
Finally, a note about superfine sugar, which I use often, especially when the sugar needs to dissolve quickly or without heat. If you can’t find superfine sugar (also called bar sugar) in the store, make your own by processing granulated sugar in a food processor for about a minute.