I have almost no sweet tooth. My ideal dessert is a fat hunk of one of those blue cheeses that scratch the roof of your mouth and make your eyes water. All my pastry-chef friends have generously fielded my impossible questions over the years about the kinds of not-sweet sweets I wished I could create: Hi! I want to make granola bars but I want them to taste like Caesar salad. Any ideas? Hi, I’d like to make savory meringues with saffron and tomato paste, is that possible? Could plain, salted club-soda Jell-O work, or do I have to use sugar? I even make my go-to cocktail, a gin and tonic, without regular tonic: I use light tonic and a splash of plain seltzer, or as it’s called, a “gin and sonic.”
This year, my wife, Ashley, asked if I wanted to try a dry January and go 31 days without alcohol. In the first 48 hours, I ate through a whole Entenmann’s Louisiana Crunch Cake from the supermarket. By the end of the second week, I’d eaten a pint of ice cream and a box of cellophane-wrapped Little Debbie Nutty Buddies. I was stunned to discover not a longing for the missing gin but a powerful craving for sugar. In a span of two weeks, I’d eaten more cake, ice cream and sweet treats than I might, under regular circumstances, eat in two years.
Replacing an overgenerous but satisfying nightly cocktail hour with insane, ersatz supermarket-shelf-stabilized low-quality sugar didn’t seem like the right way to go, but I said I’d do the dry month, and I wanted to know that I could. While the Nutty Buddy, with its peanut-butter filling, wafer layers and milk-chocolate-y coating, was a bomb of dextrose, chemicals and “chocolate” that felt like wax in the mouth, it had become my very favorite new craving. In a lot of ways, it was right up my alley: sweet but savory, crisp and plain and nutty. As usual, though, I wondered if I could make my own version with, you know, hardly any sugar, and maybe an extra bitter, high-quality chocolate. I texted my friend Katherine Yang, a pastry chef, and she replied with a recipe.
It was right up my alley: sweet but savory. I wondered if I could make my own version with hardly any sugar.
She is a dessert maker I’ve known for over 10 years and has a cake business called Gigi Blue. She worked at Prune as a reservationist, when she was still incubating Gigi Blue — tweaking her flavors and recipes and slowly building her client base. Her signature item, before she expanded her line to include gorgeous, perfectly proportioned layer cakes and cookies, was what she calls a bell, which is essentially a superb iteration of a Ring Ding, a two- or three-bite individual chocolate cake, cream-filled and chocolate-glazed. When she was developing her recipes, she would bring samples of these bells — raspberry cream, salted-caramel cream, espresso cream — to the restaurant and leave them out for the staff to guinea-pig, and to be professional and collegial, I’d cut out a little wedge and have a taste. When she brought the peanut-butter-cream-filled, I ate two whole ones, wedge by wedge, and could’ve gone for a third. I adore her palate; she makes things deliciously sweet, not toothache sweet. Years later, when I married Ashley, I ordered a hundred of those bells for my wedding “cake.”
Katherine’s work is careful, organized and well researched. Maybe even obsessive, in the very best way. After 20 years of building a résumé that spans the large-scale production of the Waldorf Astoria, the precise fine dining of Daniel and the high standards of Thomas Keller, she still questions if she has the necessary cachet for a brick-and-mortar shop of her own. She is never sloppy or off the cuff, and her desserts are gorgeous, balanced and technically superior. This peanut-butter cream filling is sturdy — the cornstarch spares you a lot of heartache when you’re cooking it, because the eggs won’t curdle as the custard boils. Many cornstarch custards do well with a few cubes of cold butter stirred in while the custard is still warm, to loosen and silken the mouth feel. But Katherine’s use of commercial creamy peanut butter results in the perfect consistency: luscious and craveable.
I dip the wafer sheets in tempered chocolate for snap and gloss, and decorate the perimeter with a finely ground roasted-peanut mixture while the chocolate is still tacky, so that it will stick. Piping the peanut-butter cream, once fully chilled, with a star tip is easy and makes for a rather impressive edge on the layer “cake,” but after it’s assembled, it should be eaten soon before the waffle-y wafer loses its crisp, dry quality — so it’s best for a group and a celebration. Or, if like me you’re having a dry period, it feeds just one, beautifully.
Recipe: Peanut-Butter Wafer Cake
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