French-trained pastry chef Francois Payard thought he had done his homework when he opened his first patisserie in New York in 1997, but he soon realized that the learning curve might be a bit steeper than he’d anticipated. That year he stocked the display cases with a surplus of Easter-friendly confections, anticipating a rush of biblical proportions.
“Was I ever wrong,” said the celebrated Frenchman Payard, who now operates 13 sweets-centric establishments around the world. “Passover was much, much bigger for us.”
Bigger, indeed. As Passover approaches, chefs around the country are plotting their Passover dessert menus. Some keep their selections rooted in tradition and others seek a creative edge, but the common denominator is a quest for good taste in the face of some very basic culinary conundrums, and an inclination whenever possible to favor culinary expertise over gimmickry.
“No flour and no dairy? That’s tough,” said Zohar Zohar, owner of New York’s Zucker Bakery, which features many Israeli-style pastries. “The stricter you are, the harder it is,” she added.
For Payard, what started 14 years ago with flourless chocolate cake has grown into a seasonal business featuring six items — with more new products on the way. “We try to develop something new every year,” said Payard, who begins plotting his Passover production six months in advance, sometimes running through a new recipe concept as many as 20 times before he gets it right.
This year’s dessert debutante is a chewy meringue kiss Payard makes by whipping a classic Swiss-style meringue of heated egg whites and sugar, adding ground toasted nuts and then freezing the batter before slicing and baking. The result is a fragile, soft-centered confection with a shattering shell that melts on impact. “We think it’s going to be big,” said Payard, who isn’t Jewish but enjoys telling his Passover-observing customers that his first girlfriend was of Moroccan-Jewish descent.
He’s also quick to remind this reporter that his desserts, though inspired by the holiday, aren’t under kosher supervision — and many contain dairy products, meaning they can not be served after a meat meal.
So do the desserts made by Zucker’s Zohar, who’s been asked to handle the sweet stuff at this year’s James Beard House Passover Seder in New York.