Think beyond conversation hearts and red lollipops this Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re a whiz with a whisk or have never cracked open your oven, these tips from five bakers and pastry chefs in D.C. will help you impress with your desserts.
Gregory Baumgartner, executive pastry chef at Cranes + Jiwa Singapura
Swap brown sugar for muscovado, table salt for Jacobsen Sea Salt. Find ingredients you wouldn’t typically use. And most of all, don’t forget to source sustainably. That’s the heart of executive pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner’s advice. “Are we actually making the effort to go out and find a company that’s invested?” he asks. Local shops like The Chocolate House offer great, ethical products, Baumgartner says. And sustainable doesn’t mean boring by any means. The chef loves a bit of glitz, suggesting edible gold or silver sprays to catch the eye. After all, “Everybody loves sparkly things,” he says.
Mary Mendoza, chef + pastry chef at Tonari
The best Valentine’s Day dessert Mary Mendoza has ever eaten is a black sesame sablé with strawberry rhubarb sorbet, stark and beautiful with the contrast of pink against gray. “It was so pure,” Mendoza says. “To this day, I remember the texture, the flavors inside my head.” A pastry chef herself, Mendoza aims to pair form with function. Her favorite Valentine’s Day dessert to serve is a simple flourless chocolate cake — chocolate, eggs, sugar and butter — decorated with cherry blossoms, a splash of pink reminiscent of D.C. spring. Mendoza says she often thinks in terms of color. If she’s developing a chocolate treat, she might decide, “Chocolate is brown. So, I’m like, brown and yellow, maybe chocolate and mango with turmeric.” Desserts should be like a bright painting, Mendoza says: full of contrasting colors with different elements to see and savor.
Aisha Momaney, corporate executive pastry chef at 101 Hospitality
Let’s say corporate executive pastry chef Aisha Momaney wants to bake with passion fruit. She’d add another flavor, perhaps milk chocolate. Passion fruit coulis with milk chocolate crémeux, a cross between mousse and pudding, could work. Then Momaney might throw in cocoa nibs for crunch or coffee for extra pungency. A professional chef’s recipe development process might sound complicated — but you should “absolutely go for it,” Momaney says. “You could do something like even the dessert I was just talking about,” she insists. “You could easily make a chocolate crémeux at home and whip up some kind of cool fluid gel.” As for decoration, Momaney suggests a floral touch: violas, oxalis flower, nasturtium, marigold or begonia, available at Whole Foods and local co-ops. She also encourages home cooks to Google around and try something new. Developing recipes can be a creative outlet, Momaney says: “This is my way of being able to give art to the world. And it just so happens that it’s edible.”
Sebastian Moreno, chef de cuisine at Elcielo Washington, D.C.
Passion, velvety textures, sensuality: markers of a successful Valentine’s Day, according to chef de cuisine Sebastian Moreno. Moreno’s choco-therapy, a massage of molten chocolate, models that ethos perfectly. On Valentine’s Day at Elcielo, servers pour a special version into diners’ hands: white chocolate accompanied by flowers. Moreno has made other elaborate desserts for the holiday: champagne ice cream with rose pastry cream and meringue, finished with actual champagne poured into the dish. But at home, Moreno says bakers can keep it simple — and stunning — with desserts like mousse, bonbons or an easy cake. “The most important thing is to think about you and your partner and how you are going to feel when you look at the dessert or eat it,” Moreno says. “Because at the end, any type of cooking is about love.”
Kareem Queeman, professional baker at Mr. Bake Sweets
“I come from baking for fun in the kitchen just because I enjoy it,” says baker and entrepreneur Kareem Queeman. “I was able to give all the things that I made to people, and they would tell me their honest feedback.” He started baking with boxed mixes around age eight or 10 and says you can’t go wrong with Ghirardelli for brownies or Duncan Hines for cakes. But for those looking to go a step further, Queeman thinks testing recipes in advance is a must. With practice, the baker has developed a menu of Valentine’s Day bestsellers: red velvet cake for two. Fudge chocolate heart brownies. A slew of cupcakes decorated with hearts or chocolate kisses. Food to enjoy with a partner or with friends. “Valentine’s Day means to me: single, single and single,” Queeman laughs. “I like to share with my friends. So, we tend to take ourselves out to dinner or have a dinner in the home and just love on