Chocolate and caramel might be the most common dessert flavors, but there's a whole world of possibilities when it comes to sweet treats. At least, that's the first lesson we learned from a recent Food52's cookbook, Genius Desserts, a compilation of 100 inventive, downright decadent recipes that promise to change the way you bake.
"My job in working on this book was to find the best examples of what we consider genius desserts—both memorable and extremely delicious; they're the ones that surprise you and shake you out of casually accepting what a dessert can be," says Kristen Miglore, author and creative director at Food52. Indeed, many of Miglore's favorite recipes have untraditional flavor combinations. "The cookie I craved most through recipe testing was Alice Medrich’s Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies because the flavors are subtle and almost savory: bitter cacao nibs, nutty buckwheat, and toasty brown butter. So good!" she says. Other standouts include a parsnip cake with blood orange buttercream and cardamom walnut cakes with pink peppercorn.
Meet the Expert
Kristen Miglore is a best-selling author and creative director at Food52 with a master's degree in food studies from New York University and a culinary degree from the Institute of Culinary Education. She has been featured in Saveur, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.
Forget what you know about desserts—these three recipes from Food52's new cookbook will convince you to get creative in the kitchen.
Parsnip Cake with Blood Orange Buttercream
"With its gentle spice and swirly, tangy frosting, this parsnip cake is closer to what much of the world thinks of as carrot cake," says Miglore of this delicious, inventive recipe by Peter Meehan and Mary-Frances Heck. "But because it was developed by the Lucky Peach crew for their book Power Vegetables, it’s a little kooky and very, very good."
Ingredients for the cake:
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup neutral oil (such as grapeseed)
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated
1 tsp. grated peeled fresh ginger or 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
Ingredients for the buttercream:
1/2 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 to 4 cups confectioners’ sugar
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter or oil a 9 by 13-inch cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, milk, salt, and vanilla until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves and whisk together until smooth and homogenous, about 2 minutes. Fold the parsnips and ginger into the batter.
Pour the batter into the pan—the batter won’t rise much, so you can fill the pan to within 1/2 inch of the top. Bake until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out with just crumbs clinging, about 24 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
To make the buttercream, pour the blood orange juice into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer until the juice is reduced to a syrup, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium-high until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Stop the machine, add the reduced blood orange juice, and beat to incorporate. Incorporate the confectioners’ sugar into the creamed butter 1 cup at a time—stop the machine, add it, slowly stir it in, increase the speed to really beat it, then stop and repeat.
Pistachio and Rose Water Meringues
“For the legions who know Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s restaurants as vegetable kingdoms, this line from their first cookbook may be a shocker: If you ask someone if they’ve heard of Ottolenghi, the answer is often, ‘Yes, I know, it’s the place with the meringues,’” says Miglore. Genius Desserts shares the exact recipe for their cult meringues, lovingly referred to as "wonder dough."
3 cups superfine sugar
1 1/4 cups large egg whites (about 10)
2 tsp. rose water, or to taste
1⁄2 cup shelled pistachios, finely chopped
Heat the oven to 400°F, with racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two opposite sides for easier lifting. Spread the sugar evenly on the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven on the lower rack and roast until the sugar is hot, 6 to 8 minutes—watch it closely. You should be able to see it beginning to melt at the edges, but it shouldn’t caramelize or burn. (If you want to check with an instant-read thermometer, scrape some of the sugar into a little pile on the baking sheet with a heatproof spatula and poke the thermometer into the pile—it should be over 212°F)
While the sugar is in the oven, pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. When the sugar is getting close, turn the mixer to high speed and let it run until the whites just begin to froth up, about 1 minute.
Carefully pour the hot sugar slowly onto the whisking whites—it can help to pick up the edges of the parchment to funnel it in. Once all the sugar has been added, add the rose water and continue whisking on high speed until the meringue has cooled to room temperature, about 10 minutes (you can get a sense of the temperature without stopping the mixer by feeling the outside of the bowl). At this point, the meringue should look smooth and silky and hold its shape when you scoop a bit from the bowl.
You can now taste the mixture and fold in a bit more rose water if you want a more assertive rose flavor. (From here, you can proceed with the meringues or check out the spin-offs below.)
Turn the oven temperature down to 225°F. If your oven runs hot, you may want the temperature to be even lower to keep the meringues bright white, rather than a tawny brown color. To shape the meringues, line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Blob a bit of the meringue under each corner of the parchment to help it stick.
Using two large kitchen spoons, scoop 12 large round tufts of meringue onto the baking sheets. To do this, use one spoon to scoop up a big dollop of meringue—the size of a small apple—then use the other spoon to scrape the meringue onto the baking sheet. Repeat to make more meringues, spacing them at least 2 1⁄2 inches apart—the meringues will almost double in size in the oven. Sprinkle with the chopped pistachios.
Coffee Cardamom Walnut Cakes
Claire Ptak's playful recipe might look impressive, but it’s surprisingly simple. “By baking these little cakes in standard muffin tins and then inverting them, not only do they give off the fancy vibe of a canelé without having to buy special molds, but the muffin bottom is no longer an afterthought,” says Miglore. Genius.
Ingredients for the cakes:
3/4 cup walnut halves
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground pink peppercorns
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. crème fraîche
Ingredients for the icing:
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 to 3 tbsp. freshly brewed strong coffee or espresso
To make the cakes, heat the oven to 350°F (175°C), with a rack in the center. Generously butter a 12-cup muffin tin and dust with bread crumbs or flour, tapping out the excess.
Spread the walnuts on a large rimmed baking sheet and warm them through in the oven for no more than 5 minutes—you’re not toasting them, just bringing out the fragrant oils. Let the nuts cool to the touch, then transfer them to a cutting board and finely chop them.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cardamom, pink peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves in a large bowl. Whisk in the chopped nuts.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat just to combine. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture and mix just until no streaks of flour remain. Add the crème fraîche and mix just until combined.
Divide the batter among the 12 muffin wells. Bake until the cakes spring back to the touch, about 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Let the cakes cool in their wells for about 10 minutes, then gently slide them out (you may need to run a small paring knife around the inside of the wells to ease the cakes out). Turn the cakes upside down on a rack and let cool completely.
Whisk together the ingredients for the icing and spoon it over the cakes. Use the back of a spoon to gently guide it to the edges so that it willingly drips down the sides.
Looking for more decadent desserts? Shop Genius Desserts by Food52 for more sweet treats.