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Photos: Watch Chicago's Best Pastry Chefs Work Their Magic

By Kristine Sherred in Food on Dec 18, 2015 3:24PM

Ten of Chicago's best pastry chefs brought their very best to the table last week at TWO, in a massive toothache-inducing feast that also did some holiday good, as guests brought a wrapped gift for the students of the Brian Piccolo School of Excellence in Humboldt Park and, of course, their appetite for dessert.

The host pastry chef, George Kovach of TWO, built an enchanted forest of graham cracker marshmallows and dark chocolate "dirt," conjured from crystallized dark chocolate. He paired his one-bite, proudly gluten-free s'more—the marshmallow secured with a light molasses meringue and smoked croquet, nestled between a chocolate mousse cracker—with a rich Irish whiskey-laced hot chocolate. “Feel free to make it a little sweeter with the dirt on the table,” he joked.

Pastry star Mindy Segal's current pastry leader at Hot Chocolate, Becky Broeske, also followed the chocolate path with a Walnut Frangipane (traditionally an almond butter cake). She and assistant Bo Durham filled the miniature cake with sour cherries, topped off by a dollop of caraway ganache and a square of dark chocolate brittle. Despite the abundance of Valrhona Chocolate, the dichotomy of textures emulated a cherry meltaway with a salty, savory crunch. They insist this particular dessert is one that could be somewhat easily replicated at home, candy thermometer optional.

Diverting from traditional vehicles of indulgence, Cantina 1910 and Chef Andrew Pingul took their theme to heart: an intense cocoa tortilla enveloped a dark-milk chocolate mousse drizzled with cajeta (a lightly spiced dulce de leche made from goat's milk) and a healthy serving of salted and buttered corn nuts. "That's my favorite part," said Pingul of the crunchy topping. Hiding under all of the above were soft, surprising but hardly unwelcome chunks of avocado.

Joanna Ruiz, now of Mexique, and Joe Espinoza, fresh off two years with national touring pop-up company Dinner Lab, drew inspiration from the humble tamale. "It's all grandma stuff," laughed Espinoza. "We are playing to our heritage." With a banana nut masa cake as the foundation, their spicy mole - the classic high-ingredient Mexican sauce - makes the dish, though they tossed in a solid sprinkle of Nutella powder for good measure and a shot of atole (a chocolate egg nog without the eggs, explains Ruiz) with smoky Mezcal mixed in after cooking.

Though not all about the competition, guests were encouraged to demarcate their favorite dessert by relinquishing a single Bit-o-Honey candy. TWO owner Yamandu Perez says they chose that poor outlier because "no one we know actually eats them."

Chef Jove Hubbard of Cindy's (and formerly David Burke's) was underserved by Bit-o-Honeys; perhaps it was the lack of chocolate. He plucked the Southern winter citrus, Satsuma, for a creamy, tangy sorbet atop a toasted sesame praline sable (a delicate and of course buttery French cookie) painted with an equally delicate white chocolate cremeux (another classic French style of pudding). Pillowy dots of satsuma powder lightened the entire tartlet.

The female duo behind the pastries at The Gage, Acanto, and The Dawson—Kym DeLost and Julianna Westgor—offered a comforting key lime tart with a tiny drop of black currant and toasted meringue. Yet two spins on two familiar sweets garnered the most honey candies.

Representing Bohemian House, Jessica Vazquez’s spiced parsnip cake, accented with a caramelized parsnip puree, came in a very close second. The drop of simple sweet potato mousse on top, an edible flower, and honeyed parsnip chips completed the easy-to-like package. But it was the humble croissant that won the guests over: Travelle’s Scott Green painstakingly recreated dozens of Kouign-Amanns, a Breton pastry most often made from leftover croissant dough. “It’s more of a breakfast thing,” he explained, “but I like to do it for dessert.” Finished with milk jam, oat streusel, and maple ice cream, the flaky pastry earned him a beer shotgun and, naturally, notoriety among his pastry brethren.

With the help of Toothache and Gina VanValkenburgh-Ruffolo (the wife of TWO co-owner Matthew), every student at the Brian Piccolo School will receive a gift this holiday season.