When I was in my twenties, I made restaurant desserts for a living. I never attended culinary school, but I had an aptitude for baking: the solitary morning hours, the exacting formulas, the on-the-fly creativity with ingredients at hand and in season. My time in professional pastry taught me this: Master the structure, and then you find freedom in the form. Hone a basic recipe for silky ice cream and you have the blank palate for mixing and matching whole worlds of flavors. Learn how to sweeten and thicken different fruits for a pie filling (and also how to enrich them with, say, brown butter and vanilla bean) and you understand how to heighten crisps and cobblers and buckles, too.
Grasping the foundations of baking served me well when I became a writer: The same guidelines of structure and freedom apply. My time in restaurants also imbued in me some particularly strong opinions about sweets, opinions I carry over into my work as a food critic. I most admire pastry chefs who value simplicity and clarity. I loathe over-wrought desserts that favor intellectualism over deliciousness; plates painted with saucy drips and drabs are often distractions from dry pieces of torn cake or adamantine sorbets. I believe the finale of a meal should send you out into the world again feeling delighted and comforted, a lullaby rather than a heavy metal anthem.
In sorting through the photographs of restaurant and bakery sweets I've taken over the last year as Eater's ever-roving restaurant editor, my predilections lay themselves bare. There is an abundance of pie. Fruit wins out over chocolate. I trained my lens most lovingly on the colorful expressions of late spring and high summer and early fall. Editing these twelve photographs made me long to be baking again, burying my hands in sugar, butter, and flour and then staining my fingers with berry juice.
Blueberry pie, Honeypie Cafe, Milwaukee, WI
While in Madison, Wisconsin this past August, reporting on fine dining jewel L'Etoile, I fell into conversation with a local about the glory of pie. When I mentioned I'd be kicking around Milwaukee for a day before flying home, my new friend urged me to stop by Honeypie Cafe in the restaurant-rich Bayview neighborhood. Honeypie's savory menu leans toward Americana comfort: hot brown, short ribs, Cornish pasty. A display case shows off the namesake pies — a dozen or so options among 50 variations in the kitchen's repertoire. I admired the signature salted honey pie but, true to my own tastes, most relished the goodness of summery blueberries tumbling out of flaky crust. 2643 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Milwaukee, WI, (414) 489-7437, honeypiecafe.com
Strawberry tart, La Sirena, New York
The highlight of dessert during a spring meal at the latest restaurant from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich was a tart created by pastry chef Thea Habjanic. The strawberries lining the crust had been baked just long enough to intensify their flavor and texture, making the freshly sliced berries alongside taste especially vivid in contrast. 88 9th Avenue, New York, (212) 977-6096, lasirena-nyc.com
Coconut cake, Chez Fonfon, Birmingham, AL
Dolester Miles, the ace pastry chef who oversees desserts at Frank Stitt's three restaurants (Highland Bar & Grill, Chez Fonfon, and Bottega), devised an unsurpassable recipe for coconut cake: four layers brushed with simple syrup and glossed with coconut custard, frosted with whipped cream, finished with toasted coconut, and served atop vanilla bean crème anglaise. A freshly constructed cake towers on display by the entrance at Chez Fonfon, a reminder that Miles' masterpiece will never leave the restaurant's menu. 2007 11th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL, (205) 939-3221, fonfonbham.com
Baked Hawaii, Liholiho Yacht Club, San Francisco
In honor of Liholiho chef-owner Ravi Kapur's home state, pastry chef Penelope Lao dreamt up this riff on baked Alaska: caramelized pineapple ice cream on a base of vanilla chiffon cake, encased in a beehive of toasted meringue. Its tropical lightness elegantly completes and complements the whorl of Hawaiian, Chinese, and Indian flavors that define Kapur's individualistic (and outstanding) cooking. 871 Sutter Street, San Francisco, (415) 440-5456, liholihoyachtclub.com
Chicory custard, Oriole, Chicago
Oriole was among Eater's 21 Best New Restaurants in America this year, due in no small part to pastry chef Genie Kwon's deeply satisfying marvels. The showstopper among a quartet of desserts was her chicory custard with milk ice cream zinged with whiskey, cinnamon, orange, and vanilla. Only later did it strike me that Kwon was paying homage to her native New Orleans by evoking the flavors of cafe brulot, the boozy spiced coffee drink served at French-Creole stalwarts like Arnaud's and Galatoire's. 661 West Walnut Street, Chicago, (312) 877-5339, oriolechicago.com
Plum crumble pie, Sister Pie, Detroit
Ask me to name my favorite pie bakery in the country and I will cite 2015 Eater Young Guns winner Lisa Ludwinski's corner charmer in Detroit's residential West Village neighborhood. Her place is small, and a line often snakes around the room's one communal table, but its spirit looms large as a center of community and a destination for soulful pastry. Each slice of pie delivers taut, flaky crust barely containing copious filling that's never too sweet. This year I missed her show-stopping Michigan cherry pie perfumed with bourbon, a favorite in July, but earlier this month I vanished dreamily into her last-of-the-season plum pie covered with crisp oat streusel (and of course lots of whipped cream). 8066 Kercheval Avenue, Detroit, (313) 447-5550, sisterpie.com
Blueberry clafoutis, Le Coucou, New York
It is a cutthroat race to snag dinner reservations at Le Coucou, one of Manhattan's hottest openings of the year. Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt tipped me off to the restaurant's breakfast service: It offers simplified but still ample French-Continental pleasures, with none of the evening's barriers to entry. (It's also ideal for pre-lunch business meetings.) Love that the kitchen turns clafoutis — the classic French dessert that's essentially a custardy pancake, most famously baked with cherries — into a breakfast entree. When clafoutis replaces Dutch Baby pancakes as the morning dish du jour, we'll know where the trend started. 138 Lafayette Street, New York, (212) 271-4252, lecoucou.com
Victoria sponge cake, Coyle's Bakeshop, Seattle
Treats like scones, sweet and savory croissants, English muffins, and fruit galettes crowd the marble counter at Rachel Coyle's spectacular bakery, which opened last year in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood. Her Victoria sponge cake, an airy British favorite traditionally layered with cream and a fruit preserve, showcased the fineries of August: peaches offset with bracing plum-blackberry jam. 8300 Greenwood Avenue North, Seattle, (206) 257-4736, coylesbakeshop.com
Corn cake, Vida, Indianapolis
I traveled to Indy in August to write about chef Jonathan Brooks' brilliant Milktooth, a restaurant that's redefining breakfast and lunch dining in America. So where did I eat dinner while in town? Vida, a gorgeous restaurant (everyone gapes at the open kitchen's wall of hydroponic greens) with a modern American menu that zigzags through global flavors. Pastry chef Hattie McDaniels captured the Midwestern summer moment with her artful (but not overly fiddly) collage: grilled corncake with peaches, blueberries, peach sorbet, corn husk cream, and popcorn. 601 East New York Street, Indianapolis, (317) 420-2323, vida-restaurant.com
Pie feast, Petee's Pie Company, New York
Petra Paredez hails from pedigreed pie lineage: Her parents have run Mom's Apple Pie Company, a northern Virginia treasure, for over 30 years. She and her husband Robert opened their own shop on the Lower East Side in the fall of 2014, serving the kind of unabashedly homey pies that flaunt thumb prints in the fluted crusts and a puckery lemon undertone to many of the fruit fillings. A gaggle of Eater editors went overboard ordering pie on a balmy Sunday afternoon in September, before cherries and peaches and blueberries and nectarines disappeared from Paradez's repertoire for the year. 61 Delancey Street, New York, (212) 966-2526, peteespie.com
Passion fruit éclair, Republique, Los Angeles
Margarita Manzke is one of the most accomplished and versatile pastry chefs in LA — and in the country. For Republique's dinner service, to complement her husband Walter's meaty, Gallic-tinged cooking, she creates beauties like Normandy butter souffle with raspberries and Grand Marnier ice cream, or a triple-cream cheesecake with strawberries and rhubarb. During the day the restaurant goes casual with counter service; her ethereal pastries like this éclair (a winning, tart-sweet departure from the typical chocolate variation) steal focus from the sandwiches and salads. 624 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, (310) 362-6115, republiquela.com
Apple pie, Greenwood's on Green Street, Roswell, GA
For pie lovers, Bill Greenwood's rambling, 31-year-old restaurant in the northern suburbs of Atlanta has a place on the national map. Greenwood serves enormous portions of Southern and American staples (fried chicken, meatloaf, collards, broccoli casserole); he expects you to take home leftovers for another meal. Dessert follows suit: his staff cuts gigantic, billowing pies into quarters for servings. Lately Greenwood has been using organic soft red winter wheat milled in Georgia for his crusts, which have never been more tender and pliant. (I live in Atlanta and have been scarfing down his pies since 1995.) He serves his cinnamon-blasted apple pie year-round, but I crave it most right now, in the thick of autumn. 1087 Green St, Roswell, (770) 992-5383, greenwoodsongreenstreet.com
Correction: The article originally misidentified the creator of the strawberry tart at La Sirena; it was Thea Habjanic, not Michael Laiskonis.