When I turned 19, I made it my mission to eat 19 desserts, one to celebrate each year. I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, so I had never celebrated my birthday, and I wanted to make up for lost time. I made three reservations that day; at each restaurant, the plan was to order every dessert on the menu.
There’s nothing like the thrill of blowtorching each creme brulee crust to just the right shade of caramelized brown
At the first place, there were six mini eclairs, a candle tucked into each one by a friend. The second restaurant served a gigantic baked Alaska, properly set aflame. I also ordered a molten chocolate cake, a steamed lemon pudding, a slice of apple-cranberry pie, an ice cream sundae with extra cherries, and a plate of cookies and milk. At the final spot there was crème caramel, tarte tatin, chocolate soufflé with vanilla bean crème anglaise, a perfect rectangle of opera cake, a slice of almond-pear tart, profiteroles filled with strawberry ice cream, and a bowl of chocolate mousse studded with bits of candied orange. You could say that the six eclairs were a cheat, but that’s beside the point. Ever since, I’ve been convinced that everyone should order dessert — every dessert — after every meal.
It must be said: I used to work as a pastry chef. Near the end of high school, I was either going to a four-year university or culinary school after a childhood of watching Julia Child and Jacques Pépin on PBS and studying their cookbooks. At the last minute, I picked the more traditional path, but I spent my college summers working in small restaurant kitchens as a pastry assistant where I learned that dough coming together in between my hands is contentment itself. Two months after I graduated, I enrolled in pastry school.
At the restaurant I worked at after pastry school, I made nearly two hundred desserts a night, which could be as exhausting and monotonous as it sounds: Hauling 50-pound bags of sugar from the basement to the kitchen and boiling it down into a molten liquid; tempering chocolate in the middle of summer with no air conditioning, one of us bent over into a low refrigerator for hours; and once, after working for 24 hours straight, winding up in the ER after collapsing on the side of the street because my hips had given out.
It was draining, but also exhilarating, especially whenever the chef called for a "dessert storm": We’d send a table — of especially lovely people, or friends of the owners, or investors — the entire dessert menu. The chef would yell "DESSERT STORM" in a booming voice, then flicker the kitchen lights on and off as we frantically assembled all eight desserts on the menu. It was a celebration of collaboration, and connection, and of course, dessert itself.
Desserts transport us to a simpler, safer time and place, where all is well, we are loved, and the inevitability of death and the attendant meaninglessness of life is far from us
While there’s nothing like the thrill of blowtorching each crème brûlée crust to just the right shade of caramelized brown or feeling the cool, silky skin of puff pastry after the last turn has been made, I figured out that I loved eating desserts more than I did plating them late into the night. But that experience is why I’ll always advocate for an armada of $12 (or even $18!) desserts over a pile of candy.
Both produce the same chemical effects in the brain, but the act of eating carefully architected desserts, taking the time to let the side of your fork carve a craggy cliff off a slice of cake, thrusting your spoon into the center of a bowl of mousse, or shattering the sugar crust atop a crème brûlée, connects the neurochemical highs of the body to the pleasures of the heart. Like Proust’s madeleine, desserts are capable of transporting us to a simpler, safer time and place, where all is well, we are loved, and the inevitability of death and the attendant meaninglessness of life is far from us.
Dessert, carefully made, plated to order, and presented with the appropriate amount of pomp and circumstance lives on a higher spectrum. There is ceremony to good dessert and to good dessert service. Ordered en masse, all at once, that ceremony is transmuted into a greater spectacle of abundance and indulgence, at the center of which is you. When a parade of desserts marches toward the table and all the other diners in the restaurant turn and look, it’s the closest some of us will ever get to feeling like a Kardashian.
The pageant continues when hot chocolate sauce is poured over a plate of profiteroles, the cascade of dark chocolate producing a subtle steam when it hits the cold ice cream; when the scent rolls off a freshly risen soufflé; when you reach the center of a molten chocolate cake and its core bleeds out; or when the red cherry atop an ice cream sundae dazzles like a dancer on a stage. That drama is only heightened by the expectation that here is happiness not just on one plate, but many.
Ordering a single dessert is okay enough. But ordering every dessert for the table, to share, to gush over and squeal about underlines the reason we make plans and take the time to dine out: It's about living the life you want to live, and about being the person you want to be, with the people you want to be with. And if they are the right people, all those desserts let you linger in that moment for just a little bit longer.
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