Go on, give in to the most decadent dessert experiences at Madison restaurants
Mocha Chocolate Cupcake
Daisy Café &Cupcakery
As far as desserts go, it’s hard to get trendier than the cupcake. The perky little treat has enjoyed “it” status in big cities for years, and now Madison has a café that specializes in the diminutive desserts. Owner Kathy Brooks conducted extensive cupcake research in Chicago before opening in May. She paid special attention to developing the perfect icing—light and not too sweet—and uses all natural ingredients such as fresh fruit and real butter. The mocha chocolate cupcake is nicely spongy with a balanced frosting on top and a pleasant tinge of coffee flavor. Customers have told Brooks that the cupcake is better than those they’ve had on the east and west coasts—and she couldn’t agree more: “I think it’s perfect.”
A five-course meal that ends with chocolate is a true pleasure. But have you ever dreamed about indulging in five desserts instead? Your wish is granted at Kickshaw, a new fine-dining restaurant in Fitchburg. Executive chef Colin Beaumier enjoys the challenge of working with a single ingredient and created a five-part dessert celebrating the flavors and textures of chocolate. A scoop of soft chocolate ice cream kicks off the series, followed by a shot of liquid chocolate and a dollop of chocolate mousse. Next up is a stack of chocolate-covered potato chips—a great combination of salty and sweet—and finally a tiny chocolate cake. The portions are small so you can have a little taste of everything. And Beaumier encourages diners to slow down and appreciate the variations of the treats. “It wakes your soul up a little bit.”
According to Caitlin Suemnicht, the upside to the weather turning cold is that it’s the ideal opportunity to eat the restaurant’s dessert beignets. “I find them to be especially good in the winter because they’re comfort food,” says the general manager. The beignets are hot, fried buttermilk dough with a milk chocolate center and served with a bowl of vanilla crème anglaise for dipping. Cooked to order, the beignets resemble doughnut holes, only more upscale. “They’re comfort food dressed up a little more,” she says. Since these two-bite treats were added to the menu more than two years ago, they’ve come to be a dessert staple at the downtown dining hotspot. “People love ’em,” she says. “They’re great for sharing.” But one of the greatest compliments Suemnicht and her staff can receive is when a group calls their server over and says, “We’re going to need another order of those beignets.”
This dessert is actually a love story, one that involves executive chef Bill Horzuesky and his wife, Melanie, the restaurant’s manager. “I love cookie dough and he loves to deep-fry everything,” Melanie says. One day, about seven years ago, Bill filled an eggroll wrapper with cookie dough and deep-fried it. The unconventional dessert has been a hit at Bluephies ever since. Inside a chewy shell drizzled with chocolate sauce is warm, gooey, eggless cookie dough. Some diners are thrown at first by the dessert’s name and resemblance to a traditional eggroll. Yet Melanie is hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t enjoy this labor of love. “We tell people, it sounds odd but try it and you’ll love it.”
There’s snow on the ground and frost on the windows. So who’s ready for … ice cream? While it might not seem the most natural craving on a frigid night, this chocolate-hazelnut gelato makes a surprisingly good dessert choice. The sumptuous ice cream has a rich mouth-feel, making it better suited for this time of year than summer, says chef de cuisine Derek Rowe. He starts with hazelnut milk chocolate and uses more eggs and less cream—but both from local farms—to keep the gelato voluptuous. Later, he stirs in melted chocolate to create thin crisps of chocolate that satisfyingly contrast the thick, smooth texture of the ice cream. Rowe promises the gianduja gelato will be on the menu at least part of December. But if you have your heart set on it, call ahead to check. The dessert went quickly when it was last served back in September. Says Rowe: “It only lasted about a day.”
Like a poignant photograph or song, a taste can evoke the feelings of being in a special place. This dessert sends diners straight to the Big Easy—and that’s precisely why owner Dave Heide developed the recipe for Liliana’s. “It’s such a classic New Orleans dessert,” says sous chef Daniel Smith. He starts the dish by cooking a banana in a brown sugar and butter sauce, and then flambés it with rum. He serves the hot, split fruit along with the decadent sauce and a scoop of ice cream. Butter is the key ingredient of the dish, Smith says, adding that he gets his locally from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus. As you sit in the ambience of the restaurant, with jazz playing in the background and ice cream melting on your plate, it’s possible to pretend—even in the middle of winter—that it’s a sultry afternoon in the French Quarter.
Jalapeño Key Lime Pie
Kevin Tubb doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. Paradoxically, that might be why the executive chef and proprietor was able to create such an interesting dessert. He started with a traditional key lime pie and put his personal spin on it. “I guess I’m the one who threw the jalapeños in there,” he says. Tubb enjoys using chilies and other peppers in innovative ways in his food, and for this dessert he focuses on fresh jalapeños that aren’t overly spicy. He also insists on fresh lemon and lime juices that are squeezed daily. These cool citrus flavors are what diners taste first; soon afterward the warmth of the peppers slowly emerges. Eldorado has featured the pie on and off for eight years—and diners ask for it when it’s off the menu. “Key lime in general is really refreshing,” Tubb says. “It’s good after a spicy meal.”
Patrick O’Halloran learned quickly that his Italian restaurant must always offer this most traditional of treats. “Some people don’t even want a dessert menu—they want tiramisu,” says the executive chef and co-owner. When he took it off the menu once, there was such demand to bring it back that he insists he’ll never make the mistake again. But his tiramisu is popular for good reason. He makes the ladyfingers from scratch and soaks them in double-strength coffee, creating the spongy, moist base of the dessert. He balances the coffee flavor with a hearty cream and presents the dish dramatically with large chocolate spirals set on top. General manager Michael Banas says the classic dessert is in demand year-round—his numbers show that nearly one out of every four diners prefers tiramisu as the ideal end to dinner.
Fresh Berry Crepes
Sometimes the most indulgent dessert comes not from decadent chocolate but from the fresh flavors of fruit. That’s absolutely the case with this delightful treat from the modern Italian restaurant in Middleton. Owner Tony Lumani wanted to share with diners the dessert crepes he enjoyed growing up in Europe, so he developed a berry version as well as Nutella, chocolate ganache and gelato varieties. The berry crepes are filled with fresh strawberries and a mascarpone ricotta filling laced with vanilla. On top and along the side are more berries, a drizzle of raspberry coulis and—if you ask—a scoop of the restaurant’s gelato. The fresh berries burst with flavor and the dessert on the whole is light but satisfying. Lumani says the crepes are a great dessert to share after a meal, perhaps with an espresso or dessert wine. After all, as Lumani says, “It’s to end the night.”
Hubbard Avenue Diner
With roughly one hundred thirty pies available at this Middleton eatery, choosing just the right flavor can be difficult. Fortunately, certified baker and bakery manager Georgia Finnerty is willing to offer suggestions. A festive treat this time of year—and the diner’s featured pie for the month of December—is this mint and chocolate pie. “People crave chocolate and mint during the holidays,” Finnerty says. On top of a crumbly crust are layers of chocolate and mint Bavarian cream, with chocolate whipped cream and miniature grasshopper bars as tasty finishing touches. Finnerty pays a lot of attention to the flavors and textures her diners crave at different times of the year, and takes care to craft beautiful pies. “I put a lot of heart into it.”
Budino di Caramello
About a year and a half ago, chef and co-owner Francesco Mangano realized his menu was missing a key element. He discussed with pastry chef Susan Cesnik his desire to feature a custard-y, caramel-y, authentic Italian pudding, and shortly thereafter this butterscotch pudding appeared as a special. The response was so strong, however, that the dessert hasn’t come off the menu, even as other dishes change seasonally. The secret, Mangano says, is the balance of sweet and salty flavors. “It’s so light and perfect,” he says. “It’s savory.” Served in a small dish and topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of cocoa powder, it’s a nice finish to dinner or as a little treat on its own. “It’s good any time of day, week or year.”
Indian-Spiced Chocolate Fondant
When it comes to creating desserts, pastry chef Dan Almquist is fearless. He combines seemingly incongruous ingredients and somehow makes them taste like natural partners. However, he conquers a dish only once. “I don’t like to repeat things at all,” he says. This unusual dessert, which combines Indian and French influences, debuted on the restaurant’s menu in October and it’ll be around only through January. Curry complements and enhances the chocolate fondant, which shares a plate with a pistachio raisin financier, bacon brittle and mango coulis. “The bacon brittle’s a little fun part I added,” he says. “Creamy and crunchy gets the mouth excited. It’s more than just taste.” But no matter how much diners like this dessert, Almquist won’t budge in bringing it back on the menu. “You’ve got to find a new favorite.”
Monty’s Blue Plate Diner
Lots of sweets sound appealing after dinner, but few tempt in the early hours as much as this one. “It’s good with a cup of coffee,” says general manager Joey Connaughty, adding that it’s also pretty good any time of day. The pie is one of several that celebrate the combination of chocolate and peanut butter. Each slice is a pretty palette of browns and creams: dense fudge on the bottom followed by a silky smooth layer of peanut butter and topped with fluffy whipped cream. Peanuts and chocolate shavings sprinkled on top add a dose of fun. The pie’s been a staple for at least ten years, and Connaughty vows to never take it off the menu. “Customers would flip out.”
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
From mid-century modern furniture to pencil skirts to Elvis, a lot of elements have made the fifties an era to remember. And you can add to that list the pineapple upside-down cake—at least if you get it at this steakhouse and supper club. “It’s a little retro,” says general manager Mel Trudeau. “So it fits with our cuisine.” The cake became a feature on the menu two years ago, making it a relative newcomer at the thirteen-year-old restaurant. Baker Jim Zajak comes in every morning to make the dessert from scratch, using pineapple juice to keep it moist. It’s served drenched in a warm, buttery glaze with a pineapple ring and Door County cherry on top. Given the substantial portion size and richness, it’s a cake that’s made for sharing. Trudeau says diners can count on its presence on the Tornado Club’s menu—indefinitely. “Nothing changes here.”
Coffee Truffle Ice Cream
When a Madisonian thinks of eating local, what typically comes to mind are fresh-from-the-farm veggies or Wisconsin-made cheese. But sweets lovers can be part of the movement, too, and this ice cream is a delicious way to participate. Before Nick Schiavo opened the restaurant with his parents Rose Marie and Tony in 1998, he was a student in UW’s food science program. Before he left school, a professor encouraged him to do something great. So he created this ice cream, which the university’s Babcock Hall has made exclusively for Café Continental ever since. “This is about as local as you can get,” Rose Marie says. The ice cream is smooth and rich, with chewy truffles mixed into every bite. The restaurant goes through about twelve three-gallon tubs each month. Rose Marie attributes the demand to the special recipe as well as a phenomenon of this particular type of dessert. “People can always finish their ice cream.”
Cooking Up the Cover
Two thoughts may have crossed your mind when you glimpsed the photograph on this magazine’s cover. First, “Mmmmm …”
followed quickly by, “Where can I get that gorgeous dessert?”
If that image has induced a major chocolate craving, look no further than Madison Area Technical College’s Baking/Pastry Arts program. Lead teacher and certified master baker Punky Egan prepared the chocolate cake and sauce for the cover photo shoot, which took place at one of the school’s test kitchens.
MATC’s one-year program prepares graduates for careers baking in restaurants, institutions, cafeterias and retail locations. Thanks to lab-style classes on topics ranging from cake decorating to baking yeast breads, students leave with hands-on experience and knowledge of the latest trends in the industry. “I think our program is very vibrant and very current,” Egan says.
Over the last few years, Egan’s noticed “a renaissance in scratch baking.” But interest in this culinary art isn’t limited to those who want to pursue it as a career. This fall, MATC began offering a home baking certificate. Eighteen students a year can take a series of six one-credit classes held in the school’s baking labs. They learn everything from the chemistry behind desserts to dietary baking. And perhaps best of all, they get to bring home what they cook in class.
For more information on the Baking/Pastry Arts program, visit matcmadison.edu/program-info/bakingpastry-arts.
Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.