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Top Chef Just Desserts: A Pastry-to-English Translator

Photo: Trae Patton/Bravo

As noted by our Big Gay recapping duo in the premiere episode, Top Chef Just Desserts is rife with terms that make no sense if you aren't a professional pastry chef. Or a sugarist, which is apparently a job. Some verbiage is self-explanatory (micro basil; non-functional garnish). Others, like "decoring," sound kinda made up.

For the rest, we turn to Le Bernardin executive pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, who was busy prepping for the restaurant's reopening, but took some time to clarify what the hell these people are talking about. Let's get up to speed, shall we?

Bomboloni: Every culture seems to have a dessert based on fried dough; this would be an Italian version, often attributed to Tuscany in particular. Usually filled, sometimes served warm, bomboloni are so named for their resemblance, of course, to small bombs.

Coulis: A sauce, or more specifically a thinned purée, typically of fresh fruits; derived from the French verb couler, which basically means ‘to flow’.

One could split hairs on the proper composition of a cremeux, but it really just means ‘creamy’. I like to describe it as a textural cross between a ganache and a mousse?dense, yet soft and, well, creamy. Pudding, as it were, might qualify as a kind of cremeux.

Dacquoise: A simple baked meringue with the addition of finely ground almond or hazelnut flour, to be used as a single layer in a cake or pastry; also refers to a finished cake, with multiple layers of the nut meringue filled with sweetened whipped cream or butter cream.

Feuilletine: Used as a textural element in desserts, feuilletine is essentially a very thin crepe that has been baked through until crispy, then crumbled in to flakes. It has a tendency become soft when exposed to moisture, so it's often mixed with chocolate and nut pastes.

Île Flottante: French for 'floating island', this delicate preparation is seriously old-school. Whipped sweetened egg whites a spooned into mounds and poached, usually in milk. Traditionally these light puffs would be served with creme anglaise and a wisp of spun sugar.

Micro cake: A light and fluffy cake created by loading a batter into a charged whipped cream canister, then dispensing the foam into a small paper cup; the cake is formulated to cook extremely fast, allowing it to be 'baked' in a microwave often, often in as little as 30 seconds. The technique was 'invented' by the research team at El Bulli a few years ago, and popularized in Albert Adria's pastry book, Natura.

Pavlova: A meringue-based dessert of Australian origin, named after, as the story goes, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, because of the meringue’s characteristic soft center. Often served with fresh fruits and whipped cream, one could call this dessert a close cousin of the French vacherin.

PCP (pastry cream powder): A pastry cream, is a cooked custard, thickened both by egg yolks and starch. Traditionally that starch was flour or corn starch. In recent years, special ‘hot process’ starch blends have been produced for pastry chefs to achieve the same result. Though typically not used in high-end kitchens, ‘cold process’ pastry cream powders are also available?such products produce a cream similar to the traditional one, though without the need to be cooked.

Reverse sphered yogurt: Spherification is another technique popularized by El Bulli and Ferran Adria. In the ‘conventional’ method, sodium alginate (an extract of certain types of algae) is blended into a liquid, then dropped into a bath containing a purified form of calcium, most often calcium chloride. A unique property of the alginate is that it forms a gel in the presence of calcium, so the resulting effect is a liquid-center sphere, encased within a ‘skin’ of itself.

Because there are disadvantages to the original technique, chefs now tend to prefer the ‘reverse’ method, where the calcium is added to the liquid to be spherified, and then dropped in an alginate and water solution. In the case of the yogurt spheres, added calcium is unnecessary, as the yogurt itself naturally has ample calcium for the technique to work.

Sablée: From the French word for ‘sandy’, this pastry term refers to basic shortbread-type doughs, and its characteristic crumbly, tender texture. It can take the form of a simple cookie, or as an element in a tart, cake, or plated dessert.

Showpiece: A large edible sculpture generally fashioned from chocolate or sugar or a combination of the two. Such technical skills?including the design and clean, flawless execution- are often a focal point of competitions, from Top Chef to the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, but showpieces are typically displayed as decorative elements to buffets. Often the showpiece itself can be used as a vehicle to hold a cake or small petit fours. Primarily the domain of hotel pastry chefs, those of us in restaurants are rarely afforded the opportunity to practice this meticulous craft.

· All Top Chef Just Desserts Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Michael Laiskonis Coverage on Eater [-E-]