The classic pastry this dessert is based on takes its name from the highest mountain in the Alps and is essentially sponge cake, whipped cream, and chestnut puree piled into a mini mountain of sugar. In keeping with this idea, Dana made her Mont Blanc a little broader in scope by setting up an entire mountain range complete with a "lake" of chestnut hot chocolate. The mountains are made of shards of dried vanilla meringue as well as hunks of dense and fudgy chestnut cake, and chunks of vanilla poached pears provide some mild balancing acidity. Blankets of snow in the form of vanilla cream and hazelnut powder cap the mountains while a purposely non-quenelled chestnut ice cream is placed front and center in the range.
Dana wanted not just the taste of roasted chestnuts to be the star of the final dessert, but also the heady smell. These whole chestnuts are given a spin in the food processor to break them up into smaller faster roasting chunks and then steeped in cream which is used in a couple different components in the final dessert.
Dana roasts the broken chestnuts with vanilla bean "skeletons" or what is left of the vanilla bean after the seeds are scraped out. They happened to be laying around when Dana was testing the recipe, so she added them on a whim and found that they add a toasted marshmallow flavor.
The chestnut pour is essentially a caramel hot chocolate that is poured table-side to create a "lake" to the meringue and cake "mountains." The infused chestnut cream is combined with imported chestnut puree and brought to a boil. Valrhona caramelia, which is some of the best milk chocolate caramel you can buy, is blended into the hot cream. The result is the silkiest, carameliest, most comforting cup of hot chocolate I've ever had.
Vanilla Bean Collection
Vanilla is something of a passion for Dana. She showed me the eight different varieties she had on-hand. There are three different varieties in the vanilla cream component of the Mont Blanc alone, and the same varieties are used again in other components. Believe it or not, each one does have a distinct flavor. For example, some of the Mexican beans taste like bourbon while others are reminiscent of Oreos.
Dana rubs the seeds of a vanilla bean into sugar since they can be gummy and clump up in the meringue. She then sifts the vanilla sugar through a sieve before adding it to whipping egg whites.
Dana pipes vanilla chestnut paste out under what will be the "mountains." The paste is one of the two components of the updated mont blanc that belongs to the original dessert. The other is a vanilla cream that will give the impression of snow. Hunks of a uniquely dense but incredibly satisfying chestnut cake are placed over the paste. The cake is based on a French peasant cake that Dana first experimented with when developing a dessert for Avec. It ultimately didn't work out as a dessert there, but Dana went back later to it when creating this dessert.
Candied chestnuts are added for an additional textural component. Vanilla poached pears provide a subtle balancing acidity to the sweetness of the chestnuts. A soft vanilla cream, one of the two components taken straight from the original mont blanc, is lightly dabbed on top of the cake.
Shards of dried meringue are added to bring dimension to the landscape. Most of the time, if you order a dessert that includes ice cream at a fine dining restaurant, it will arrive at your table in a "quenelle" or a smooth, thin ovoid of a scoop achieved by turning the ice cream over and into iteself in a warm spoon. Dana has put a hard stop on quenelling in her kitchen. It just wouldn't make sense in this dessert; instead, the more natural facets of the chestnut ice cream are left intact to fit into the mountainous scene.
Avec's Chocolate Cake
If you've dropped by Publican Quality Meats in recent weeks, you may have noticed a new addition to their cooler section: a take-and-bake dessert identical to one offered at Avec. Dana explained how desserts at Blackbird and Avec couldn't be more dissimilar. At Blackbird, the desserts are contemporary compositions. They're unique, complex, and a deliberate progression from the savory courses. At Avec, on the other hand, she knows that diners are usually pretty full from the wine and heavier food so they want something soul-satisfying or something that tickles them emotionally for dessert. This chocolate lava cake easily fits the bill.
This dessert is a variation on a cake Dana first worked on when she was working out in Seattle. After attending a party with foodie-types where someone disdainfully said "But you would never put a chocolate lava cake on your menu," Dana's response was essentially "Don't tell me what I won't put on my menu." Thus, her version of the chocolate lava cake, in which she substitutes all of the fat in the cake with fruity olive oil and places a plug of Valrhona guanaja ganache in the center. A scoop of coffee ice cream sits on a topping of crushed hazelnut cookies and fried hazelnuts. After a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, this is about as far from the usual chocolate lava cake as you can get.
The cake is remarkably fruity from the olive oil and dark chocolate but also satisfyingly nutty and salty. It's one of those desserts that resonates so deeply on a comforting level that you can't help but finish it off even if you had been so sure you were as full as possible.