Not too long ago, the pastry chef was a bit of an afterthought.
Sure, there was tiramisu and molten lava chocolate cake. But, for the most part, kitchen celebrity was measured by thrills at the grill, not by teaspoonfuls of baking soda.
Artisan cupcakes are everywhere, Bravo TV's "Top Chef" is spinning off a show "Top Chef: Just Desserts," and TLC has "Cake Boss." Then there's Food Network's "Ace of Cakes," following the adventures of Duff Goldman as he and his crew whip up such concoctions as Viking ship wedding cakes, detailed right down to the breaking waves.
Pastry chefs are the rising stars of the culinary world.
"There's definitely a lot of interest," says Peter Reinhart, baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University and author of five books on bread baking, including "The Bread Bakers Apprentice." At Johnson & Wales, one of the nation's leading culinary schools, "we sell out our baking and pastry program faster than any other program, and that tells us a lot."
Dorie Greenspan, author of "Baking: From My Home to Yours," thinks blogging has helped shine a spotlight on sweets. There are cake bloggers, cookie bloggers, macaron bloggers. "There's just been a lot more news about what's going on in the sweet world."
Meanwhile, baking books like "Hello, Cupcake!" and "What's New, Cupcake?" - in which authors Karen Tack and Alan Richardson instruct home bakers on how to concoct everything from corn on the cob to rubber duckies from simple cupcakes - are making a splash.
"There's a real excitement," says Greenspan.
On the dining side, restaurant pastry chefs even are winning their own followings, people like Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef at Restaurant Jean Georges in New York, and Sherry Yard, executive pastry chef at Spago in Beverly Hills, Calif.
And as a result, some pastry chefs are striking out on their own, taking flour power to the streets.
"Pastry chefs are leaving the restaurant kitchen for whatever reason - family, burnout, becoming entrepreneurs - and many of them are opening their own small business," says Kara Nielsen, a "trendologist" at the San Francisco-based Center for Culinary Development.
With the nation having a comfort food moment - has there been a time when sticking your face in a bowl of pudding seemed more attractive? - the new businesses are getting a lot of attention, for instance, "tweets" broadcasting the location of cupcake trucks. "Finally, some of these pastry chefs have moved into the spotlight," says Nielsen.
Paying more attention to dessert is a welcome trend to Maura Kilpatrick, pastry chef and co-owner of Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge, Mass. She gets frustrated sometimes with restaurants that serve up great entrees, then fall apart at dessert. "It's like, 'Why don't you pay attention to pastry?' I think they are focusing a little more."
Kilpatrick also is pastry chef at the Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, which specializes in Middle Eastern food.
Customers are there "for a completely different dining experience," and signature dishes include frozen nougat and cremolata - frozen almond milk churned into ice cream with a warm chocolate sandwich.
What's tempting America's sweet tooth these days?
A recent survey of chefs by the market research company Packaged Facts and the Culinary Development Center found that nostalgia is big - whoopie pies are making a comeback - but consumers also want something a bit adventurous, like desserts made with olive oil or salty sweets that incorporate bacon, sea salt or savory herbs.
Adam Busby, director of the education department at the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America, sees a couple of things inspiring pastry chefs to raise their game. People are more interested in food and they expect more from every course. And with the economy encouraging cost-cutting in every area, dessert has fight for attention.
"The pastry chef today has to be more creative than the pastry chef of 10 years ago to be able to capture and entice the diners of today," says Busby. "They're more knowledgeable and they're more demanding and they're looking for new creations."
Greenspan is pleased to see bakers getting their desserts.
"I love baking. I feel like a baking evangelist," she says. "I want everybody out there baking. It feels good. It's a great craft. There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction that you get."
You eat to live, but dessert's a treat, she says. "It is kind of a gift because it is special. You can get by without it, but it wouldn't be as much fun."
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