Desserts are often the most anticipated part of the holiday meal, for obvious reasons. Rich cheesecakes, decadent cakes, and creamy pies offer the wintry flavors we wait for all year, like peppermint, gingerbread, pumpkin, and that aromatic combination of nutmeg and cinnamon.
Holiday desserts can also represent an opportunity to pull out an old family recipe, one that your mother, grandfather, or even great aunt used to make, and relive memories of time spent decorating cookies and sharing treats with family and friends. That’s when caramels, cookies, fudge, or even the much-jeered fruit cake become truly sweet.
Pastry chefs around Charleston know this well and are busy preparing their holiday sweets. Here are some of the desserts you will find and the inspiration behind them.
Twenty Six Divine: Jennifer Meintel Parezo
Jennifer Meintel Parezo is half of the husband-and-wife team running Twenty Six Divine. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, Parezo has also worked as the assistant pastry chef at both the Charleston Place Hotel and The Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. Her favorite holiday treat recalls memories from her childhood. “It’s probably corny but I love holiday cookies. When I was young we would spend three days making a ton of different cookies to package up for friends and family,” says Parezo. “It’s a fun memory and it’s why I still enjoy holiday cookies today.” For Parezo, though, the quintessential taste of the holidays is gingerbread. Although the menu isn’t quite set, Twenty Six Divine will be offering an assortment of holiday cakes, pies, and of course, holiday tins of Parezo’s favorite cookies.
Fat Hen: Kelly Kleisner
Formerly the pastry chef at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island, Kelly Kleisner has since opened her own Mirabelle Bakery and joined Fat Hen. She’s also proof that when you’re the pastry chef in the family, there’s no chance of getting off the hook for bringing the sweets to dinner. “My family is all over the place so our holiday dinner is potluck style. Usually dessert falls on me, without asking,” she laughs. “I usually make something pretty decadent, like a really rich cheesecake.”
Fat Hen will offer guests small treats after their Christmas Eve dinner and this year Kleisner is thinking about some kind of caramels or cookies. “I think this time of year gives you the chance to go eccentrically holiday with things. I like nostalgic desserts, the ones that make you think of your childhood.”
Circa 1886: Scott Lovorn
Scott Lovorn is the executive pastry chef at Circa 1886. A graduate of Johnson and Wales, Lovorn formerly worked at the Peninsula Grill and helped to open the VI College Culinary Academy, where he was the head baking and pastry instructor.
At the Progressive Dinner, a holiday tradition that occurs throughout the month of December, diners travel by carriage to three different locations, beginning with hors d’oeuvres at the Historic Kings Courtyard Inn, then on to Circa 1886 for a three course dinner, and rounding off at the Historic John Rutledge House Inn for a buffet of holiday desserts. There, alongside some butterscotch eggnog and spiked apple cider, you’ll find Lovorn’s Bourbon & Maple Pecan Pie, Peppermint Pluff Mud Bites, and an assortment of holiday cookies and petit fours.
On their regular menu, Circa 1886 is currently featuring a Crispy Pear Bread Pudding, finished with salty caramel and a rosemary-Cabernet syrup and served with an aged, four-year cheddar ice cream. Another seasonal dessert, the Sweet Potato Souffle, is accompanied by a butter maple and black walnut ice cream and a sorghum anglaise.
As for his own personal favorites, Lovorn also recalls family recipes. “I grew up in a house where my grandfather made a lot of candies: pecan pralines, chocolate pecan candies, candied pecans, pecan pies,” says Lovorn. It’s probably no surprise then that for Lovorn, the taste of the holidays is “sweet.”
Charleston Grill: Emily Cookson
A graduate of Johnson & Wales program for baking and pastry arts, Emily Cookson is the executive pastry chef of the Charleston Grill. This holiday season, the Charleston native is finding inspiration in her family’s recipes. “My grandmother always made fudge, hard candies, and caramels, so we always had lots of tins of those around,” recalls Cookson. “My mother still makes the caramels and I try to incorporate those recipes in what we’re doing here. This year for the holiday dinner petit four I am making a panforte, which is an Italian dessert my grandmother used to make.”
On the special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day three-course menu, Cookson will present a choice of three desserts. For one, the Guinness Stout Cake is topped with a blood orange marmalade and whipped dark chocolate ganache. The Sticky Toffee Pudding is made with apple tart, buttered pecans, and creme fraiche. The final option is a Chocolate Pate with pear jam, vanilla creme anglaise, and almond florentine.
So there you have it — all the reasons you need to save room for dessert.