Scottsdale, Arizona in the Troon hills
When winter lays its wet, frosty blanket over the Northwest, I dream of wintering in the Valley of the Sun, otherwise known as Phoenix/Scottsdale. All that blue sky and sunshine. Neighborhood streets lined with blooming lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees. Amazing desert hills all around. A new palette of ingredients and culinary techniques.
I’m not alone in this of course. Many folks have actually made my fantasy their reality. They’re called Snow Birds. They head south every winter to enjoy the plentiful sunshine and recreation of the Southwest dessert: golfing, hiking, biking, swimming, horseback riding, touring, sunset watching, coyote spotting, and of course eating.
For the past few winters, we have headed to the Scottsdale north desert hills for a break from the pressures of work and the long winter. When we aren’t relaxing (read: basking in the sunshine, doing as close to nothing as possible), we are exploring the abundant array of local restaurants, cafes, pastry shops, and ice creameries. What better way to zero in on the culinary personality and creativity of a region than by focusing on a specific aspect of their culinary treasure trove, in this case their restaurant desserts. We are also attempting this in Seattle, Portland, and Maui (see the links at the end of this post).
What I am specifically looking for when researching desserts in any part of the country are one or more of the following:
- Novel and creative use and combination of regional, seasonal ingredients and techniques.
- Harmonic interplay between the various components of the dessert (no element that is extraneous, superfluous, or a poor choice for the dessert; no missing element).
- Resonance (harmonic repetition of the same element in different ways in the dessert).
- Temperature play (at least 2 contrasting temperatures in the dessert)
- Color play (at least 2 contrasting colors in the dessert)
- Texture play (at least 2 contrasting textures in the dessert)
- Flavor play (at least 2 contrasting flavors in the dessert)
- Solid and broad technique.
- A personal, unique, discernible style.
- The visual WOW factor.
- The palatial YUM factor.
Any trained pastry chef can make a chocolate cake, for instance. But how do you make a chocolate cake that isn’t like every other chocolate cake in the world?? How do you tie a chocolate cake to the region and season you are working in? How do you put your individual mark on a chocolate cake? And how do you make a chocolate cake over-the-top delectable and thus memorable?
In the Southwest some of the ingredients and techniques that define the regional culinary potential are cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, lemons (Lisbon, meyer), grapefruit (sweet marsh white, oro golden), honey tangerines, tangelos, kumquats, oranges (Seville, navel, blood), limes (regular, key), prickly pears, peaches, apples, raspberries, strawberries, fresh herbs, medjool dates, sweet corn, carrots, pumpkin, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pine nuts, chocolate (even though cacao is not grown in the state), dairy products, goat cheese, corn meal, chiles, honey, beer, tequila, caramelization, and smoking and grilling over mesquite, hickory or pecan wood.
Of the desserts I sampled, most were comforting classics with regional twists. There were numerous plays on tarts, pies, cakes, bread pudding, cookies, custards, custard sauces, mousse, ice cream, gelato, sorbet, cheesecake, fruit compotes, candied citrus peel, tuiles, and Florentines. I was surprised not to encounter a sweet corn ice cream, lemon pound cake, anything using cornmeal, more use of fresh herbs, or the grilling technique. Nevertheless, there was so much to enjoy and enjoy we did. Here are the highlights of our latest culinary adventure.
NOTE For a frequently updated listing of some of the most interesting Phoenix/Scottsdale restaurant dessert menus, see the Arizona Desserts page (under the Dining tab).
Arcadia Farms (Scottsdale, Old Town)
Key Lime Tart with Coconut Almond Crust & Raspberry Sauce
This photo says it all. The combination of a crisp, chewy coconut crust, super tart key lime custard and fresh raspberry sauce is a taste experience not to be missed, especially when it is perfectly executed, as in this jewel of a dessert.
Baby Cakes Galore (Coconut, Chocolate Fudge Raspberry, Tuxedo)
Arcadia Farms makes a wide variety of Baby Cakes (1-2 person cakes) that look as fantastic as they taste, including a Baby Carrot Cake with pineapple, raisins, walnuts, and cream cheese icing, which is not shown here.
Lemon Cake Cookies with Lemon Icing
When you enter the complex of charming cottages that house the Arcadia Farms café, you may find yourself oohing and aahing in front of the entry goodies rack, as I couldn’t help but do. These tender, moist cookies are the essence of lemon and so pretty too. I can imagine them in a desert hike picnic basket, complete with red checked cloth napkins.
Chocolate Toffee Cookies
There are three large jars of great looking cookies on the Arcadia Farms entry goodies rack (Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin and Chocolate Toffee), but I zeroed in like a bat with radar to the Chocolate Toffee cookie jar. If you look closely, you can see some of the toffee oozing out at the sides of the cookies. If these completely addictive cookies don’t get you on a plane to Phoenix, I don’t know what will.
Bloom (Scottsdale Road, Gainey Village)
Bars of Sin
Pastry chef, Stacey Needham, creates some of the most intelligent, perfectly executed, and delectable desserts I have encountered anywhere. (By intelligent, I mean that all parts of the composition are in thoughtful harmony with each other. Nothing is extraneous to the whole. Nothing is overplayed or underplayed, either palatially or visually. And the effect of the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.) This decadent example features an intriguing base that shatters and melts on the tongue. When quizzed on this effect, Stacey said that she combined French layered wafer cookies, ground praline, and melted chocolate. (I really must try this.) On top of the base is a chocolate cappuccino mousse covered with the thinnest coating of crisp chocolate glaze. The effect of the three distinct textures on the tongue is beyond wonderful. And there is also a crisp tuile cookie, vanilla bean gelato, and chocolate and caramel sauces to enjoy as you work your way through the rich mousse bars. Harmonious perfection!
This is another of pastry chef, Stacey Needham’s, stunning creations. The lighter-than-air frozen lemon mousse sits on a pool of translucent blueberry sauce, which is punctuated with artistically arranged drops of bright lemon curd. Atop the lemon mouse is a compote of tiny blueberries and a tangle of candied lemon peel. There was fork fighting and plate pulling over the last bites of this dessert.
Cowboy Ciao (Scottsdale, Old Town)
Cuppa’ Red Hot Chocolate
If you are researching the restaurant scene in the Valley of the Sun, you won’t get too far before seeing a mention of this dessert. I was excited to sample this because it was one of the few desserts that we encountered that incorporated the heat and flavor of chiles. (I actually expected to see a lot more of the chocolate and chile combination.) Although the dessert is billed as a pot de crème (which is usually a baked custard), it is really more of a dense chocolate ganache (think chocolate truffle), spiked with cinnamon and cayenne. It’s topped with a chipotle crema and served with ancho chile spiced honey and a chewy chocolate chipotle cookie. This dessert is very rich, so unless you can singlehandedly eat 10 good-size truffles, it might be better to share.
Digestif (Scottsdale, SouthBridge)
Ricotta & Vanilla Fritters
I don’t care what they are called: donuts, fritters, beignet, Indian fry bread, elephant ears, or churros. I love ANY fried batter or dough that is dusted with sugar and spices or dipped in a sweet sauce of some sort. Pastry chef, Tracy Dempsey’s fritters are noteworthy because of her subtle use of spices and the tenderizing effect of the ricotta. I also love that she serves them with a choice of three sauces (whipped cream, strawberry compote, and maple syrup) and a brown butter gelato. The contrast in temperatures is very nice indeed.
Lemon Mascarpone Cheesecake
Here is another creation of pastry chef, Tracy Dempsey. A dense, rich mascarpone cheesecake sits on a pistachio shortbread crust and is topped with pistachio crumbs. It’s served with a drizzle of honey, cranberry and cherry compote, Limoncello gelato, and lemon tuile. I especially love the triple play of lemon in this dessert. In literature, that effect is called resonance and it is as effective in dessert as it is in literary fiction.
Elements (Paradise Valley, Sanctuary Camelback Mountain)
Fossil Creek Goat Cheesecake
Local goat cheese shows up in numerous dishes in Arizona, from appetizers to desserts. It’s a distinct, savory, taste-forward ingredient, which can be a little tricky to work with in a dessert. Here a full-flavored goat cheesecake is balanced nicely with a sesame seed Florentine, sweet-tart tangerine sorbet, and translucent slice of dried tangerine. Black pepper flecks the plate, adding a hint of spice and heat.
Heirloom (Scottsdale, DC Ranch)
Chocolate Speckle Cake with Pistachio Sauce
Here we have a striking presentation with three thin layers of white butter cake speckled with bits of dark chocolate and layered with first a bittersweet chocolate mousse and then a milk chocolate mousse. The complement is a Pistachio Crème Anglaise and chef/owner, Michael DeMaria’s signature tuile cookie.
Noca (Phoenix, East Camelback Road)
Cheesecake “Deconstructed” (detail)
Noca is a restaurant that pushes culinary boundaries in interesting ways and mostly to excellent effect. This is the only example of a deconstructed dessert that I encountered on this visit to the Valley of the Sun. Balls of dense cheesecake are nestled into mounds of cookie crumbles, which in turn are set on top of smears of passion fruit curd. Bits of sparkling lime and vanilla gelée accent the plate and provide a bright, acidic contrast.
Raspberry Cotton Candy
One of the most delightful aspects of dining at Noca is the unexpected little tastes that appear unbidden between each of the courses that you order. This cotton candy arrived before the dessert course and was not only fun to look at but surprisingly tasty as well.
Quiessence (Phoenix, Farm at South Mountain)
Confection Plate for Two (detail)
If you are dining with a friend at the lovely Quiessence and neither of you can decide which dessert to order or if you both want to simply nibble a bit while enjoying a lovely pot of French press coffee, this is the dessert of your dreams. Created by pastry chef supreme, Paula Mattison, the large plate consists of two each of the following: white chocolate truffle, bittersweet chocolate truffle, oatmeal cherry cookie, almond Florentine, lemon bar, and chocolate “salami,” which is a slice of chocolate ganache embedded with white and dark bar chocolate and cocoa nibs. This dessert will make you feel much pampered. (My notes remind me that this is “the best Florentine in the world.”)
Pistachio Cream-Filled Tuile
Not to grumble too much about it, but the love-of-my-life, MauiJim, is not a dessert eater. This makes it just a tad difficult for me to do stories like this one. Even if cost is no object, it still feels “wrong” to take two bites from a dessert, write a heap of notes, and then ask for the bill. I find myself accosting neighboring tables with pleas such as, “Would you like the rest of this delicious dessert? I only had two bites and just hate to see it go to waste.” I tell you this so you will understand how surprised I was to see the Jimster devouring this dessert. I was stunned actually and had to react fast to get my two bites. A delicate, very crisp, fluted tuile cookie rests on a pool of beautifully acidic caramel sauce. It’s filled with the silkiest ever pistachio custard (so soft it melts in your mouth like a cloud), which is layered over sparkling fresh sections of blood orange and grapefruit and caramelized pistachio clusters. Then the entire construction is finished with pistachio “dust.” The effect of that custard (the best I have ever encountered) with the acidity of the citrus is spectacular. Pastry chef, Paula Mattison, is magic, I tell you!
Creamsicle Crème Caramel with Champagne Pecan Bark
Here is another dreamy, creamy creation of pastry chef, Paula Mattison. In this dessert, a lush crème caramel is loaded with vanilla seeds and orange zest. It sits on a pool of orange caramel sauce, which is flecked with crunchy cocoa nibs. For contrast, a champagne pecan brittle is nestled in the custard. I don’t care how sophisticated you are, you will lick the plate.
Blood Orange Sorbet with Biscotti
Whenever I see the words “blood orange” on a menu, I let out a little squeal of pleasure. I love it best when the flavor is concentrated and intense, as in this refreshing sorbet. Complemented with dried bing cherry and almond biscotti, it is a perfect simple finish to a lovely lunch on the tranquil Quiessence patio.
Scratch Pastries (Scottsdale, Indian School Road)
The pastry case of Scratch Pastries is chock full of little jewels like this one. The Mogador consists of chocolate génoise sprinkled with raspberry kirsch, raspberry puree, chocolate mousse, raspberry glaze, and bear grass garnish.
Pear Almond Tart
The Pear Almond Tart was my favorite of all the pastries I sampled at Scratch Pastries. Imagine a combination of fresh poached pear, chewy marzipan, pastry cream, toasted almonds, and sweet glaze. Ahhh…
Strawberry La Fraise
This diminutive and very pretty cake consists of almond génoise, buttercream, strawberry puree and strawberry glaze. Can’t you just imagine these at a little girl’s birthday tea party?
Sweet Republic (Scottsdale)
Orange Blossom Frozen Yogurt
We didn’t make it to as many of the excellent ice creameries and gelaterias (Angel Sweet, Artecchino’s, Gelato Spot) as we hoped to during this past visit to the Southwest desert. But we had no intention of hopping the plane back to Portland without at least stopping at Sweet Republic—an all-natural, completely from scratch (no mixes) ice cream shop, which won Best of Phoenix 2008: Best Ice Cream—on the way to the airport. I went straight for a taste of the by now famous, Cheese Course Duo, which consists of a pairing of Roquefort cheese ice cream and Arizona Medjool date ice cream. Intriguing. Then, because I had become enamored of the orange blossoms that cover the Scottsdale orange trees in March, I happened to ask if Sweet Republic made an orange blossom ice cream. Voila, a very yummy orange blossom frozen yogurt.
Orange Cranberry Sorbet
Next, I wanted a bright, acidic sorbet. This 75% orange, 25% cranberry sorbet fit the bill perfectly. Incredibly fresh tasting.
The Kitchen (Scottsdale, Gainey Village)
Banana Nut Muffin
I’ll be honest. I loved the Kitchen Market with its mix of café, gourmet to go, upscale grocery, bakery, charcuterie, and pizzeria and wanted to mention them in this story. I spotted this muffin and knew it would make a great shot with its unusual wrapper. I was almost afraid to sample it though, in case it looked better than it tasted. But I shouldn’t have worried, because this muffin is as tender, full flavored, and chock full of bananas and nuts as can be. If I lived in Scottsdale, I would be tempted to stop in at Kitchen Market for a daily dose of banana muffin goodness.
The Mission (Scottsdale, Old Town)
Chocolate Manzano Cake
Now don’t take this the wrong way, but this cake reminds me of an upscale Hostess cupcake. You know, the chocolate cupcake with the white filling inside and the chocolate glazed top with white frosting squiggles. I have, at various points in my life, been nearly addicted to those cakes. Well, this cake is infinitely better, of course. It is dense and very moist with a creamy injection of coconut cream near the base. The Strawberry Sabayon Sauce is a perfect flavor companion to the dark chocolate cake, and the coconut brittle provides a crisp, caramel counterpoint.
Tonto Bar & Grill (Cave Creek)
Lemon-Lime Sour Cream Meringue Pie with Raspberries & Kiwi in an Almond Crust
It has been a long time since I devoured an old-fashioned lemon-lime sour cream pie. What a luscious treat. In this new take on an old favorite, there is a layer of lemon curd and then a layer of meringue on top of the sour cream custard. An almond crust and rolled Florentine cookie provide a crunchy complement. Add fresh raspberries and kiwi, plus pools of raspberry and lemon sauces and it’s hard to put your fork down between bites.
Zinc Bistro (Scottsdale, Kierland Commons)
Warm Cinnamon Waffles with Candied Pecans, Brûléed Bananas & Rum Maple Glaze
Who would imagine that we would find a Southwest dessert in a French café? We stopped in for a salad, but then I spotted this dessert on the menu and ordered it instead. I mean, really, lettuce is everywhere, but spiced waffles are a rarity. On the plate are two small, spice and sugar imbued waffles, candied pecans, brûléed bananas, whipped cream, and cinnamon ice cream. It just doesn’t get better than this. (This is such a great concept that I will definitely do a throw down sometime this year. Check back for my riff on this dessert.)
I Eat Restaurant News (Phoenix)