October 5, 2014

Dessert Plates and Disappearing Acts

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We’ve all got hidden talents. While some boast of their flexibility, others brag about their burping abilities. This week, I realized that my gift is half as impressive but arguably more disturbing than belching your ABC’s. My strengths lie within my stomach — a chamber that tolerates more sweets than any human being should ever be able to consume. Logs of cookie dough never get to see the oven light of day. My disappearing acts with ice cream pints rival those of any magician. And the question, “Can I try a bite of that?” is probably the most horrifying combination of words to ever enter my ears.  So naturally when the opportunity arose to sample the best desserts in Ithaca, I put my insatiable sweet tooth and bottomless-pitted belly to good use.

In a town swollen with gourmet shops and local bakeries, how could I possibly limit my stomach’s potential to just one article? For the sake of word limits and diabetes, I narrowed this article to the top five desserts I came across.  They don’t involve ice cream — because that’s a beast of its own league. They are substantial yet college wallet approved — because who is ever really content with that painfully dainty $4 macaron? And they are all uniquely delicious — because it requires something exceptional to stand out amidst an army of cocoa-dusted dessert plates.

Bananas Foster Bread Pudding, Stella’s

My dessert marathon began the moment I walked into the dimly lit, concave walled dining room of Stella’s. I pulled up a stool at the bar, ready to embark on the mission I had bragged about in each class that day. The dessert menu was titled “House-Made Ecstasy” and was tailed by a literary movement-inspired laundry list of espresso drinks and loose-leaf teas. When the waiter arrived bearing the plate of bread pudding, its dimensions and window-breaking density resembled that of a brownstone apartment brick. Warmth and the nostalgic smell of French toast radiated from the plate — two of the world’s most persuasive reasons to dig right in. Eagerly, my fork broke through the hearty mosaic of caramelized bananas and hand-torn Ithaca Bakery bread. After finishing the mammoth serving of caramel-soaked brioche, I concluded that an Ithaca winter might not be so bad if it’s warmed with a serving of Stella’s banana bread pudding.

Signature Chocolate Lava Cake, The Heights Café & Grill

I arrived at the The Heights with one thing on my mind and one thing only: the carrot cake s’mores. Although I was ready to construct a verbal shrine to the nutmeg scented, walnut flecked, chocolate-caramel drizzled, cream cheese-frosted, toasted marshmallow-topped carrot cake, I thought it only responsible to try each dessert on the menu. Before I could scribble down some notes and waddle out of the restaurant, the chef asked if I had room for molten lava cake — to which I replied with an overstuffed stomach grumble and an instinctive “always”. The ramekin of oozing dark chocolate can only be described as half-baked brownie batter with a college education.  This cake, served right from the oven alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, undeniably gives any veggie-ridden dessert a run for its money.

The Lexington, Sarah’s Patisserie

Steps away from the downtown bus stop, Sarah’s Patisserie is a vibrantly painted pastry shop where cocoa is the main act and chocolate work is an art form. Their dessert case, which rotates on the daily, houses everything from seasonal fruit tarts to chocolate-dipped éclairs. After seeing “salted caramel” listed in the Lexington’s description, the internal debate of what to order immediately ended. The balance of caramel, toasted pecans, sweet vanilla buttercream and dark chocolate created a complex simplicity — a flavor that one can only hope to snag when blindly choosing from Grandma’s mystery box of chocolates. From crunchy pecans to chewy caramel, each level of this miniature chocolate cake contributed its own interesting texture. Whether you’re stopping in for a box of truffles or a sophisticated Lexington cake, Sarah’s Patisserie is definitely the place for any lover of chocolate.

Vanilla Bean Goat Cheese Cheesecake, Ithaca Bakery

If you’ve ever stumbled into CTB and gawked through the glass at rows of sweets, you’ve witnessed the ever-present workings of Ithaca Bakery. Upon journeying downtown to the hub of all things baked in Ithaca, I selected this cheesecake for its gently inventive take on a classic dessert. Before even taking a bite, I was swayed by the generous crust to cheesecake ratio. The vanilla bean specked fluffy cheesecake was met with a dense crumble of the graham cracker crust. A subtle aftertaste of goat cheese lingered, yet was nowhere near overwhelming. Mildly sweet and covertly tangy, this dessert pleases both cheesecake lovers and goat cheese enthusiasts alike.

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Spyro Gyra,

When asking around for restaurant recommendations, I encountered one word again and again: Madeline’s.  Madeline’s, stationed on the corner of Restaurant Row in the Commons, is a lounge, restaurant and the proverbial Disneyland of desserts. While there, I sampled their espresso brushed tiramisu, vanilla and chocolate crème brulees, chocolate tulip enclosed Earl Grey chocolate mousse and a wild blueberry Frangipane tart — all in which the flavors matched their elegantly plated presentation. However, the Spyro Gyra’s alternating vertical towers of flourless chocolate cake and fluffy mocha buttercream undoubtedly takes the cake. The look of amazement on my face following my first bite into the chocolate ganache drenched cake converted the friend I brought along out of her month-long attempt at veganism. And although I just blew her cover, no regrets were to be had that day.