Last night’s date night included attending the first-ever Sweet Start Smackdown at Higher Ground. The event, sponsored by Seven Days, kicked of the annual Vermont Restaurant Week to benefit the Vermont Foodbank. Ten top pastry “chef-testants” from around the state competed for the “Signature Sweet of Vermont Restaurant Week” title. As tasters, we were given the opportunity to sample one of each dessert and vote for our top 3. This was a family-friendly event, but we chose not to bring our kids. In fact, we didn’t even tell them where we went. It was a secret.
Now, I love dessert like it's nobody's business. But even I couldn’t finish all the samples from the chef-testants. This amount of food for the $8.00 admission price was pretty amazing. I had 8 and part of the 9th, but couldn’t even take a bite of the last one. Fortunately, I saved the least interesting one for last, so I didn’t feel as thought I missed out.
Here’s what I sampled, in order:
• Chef Jen Smith’s Cannoli Cuties: honey-ricotta mousse, candied kumquat, bittersweet chocolate ganache, and cannoli shards. (The Nomadic Oven)
• Chef Miguel Bernard-Rivera’s Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Lemon Delight: gluten-free brownie and flourless chocolate cake with a raspberry lemon mousse. (Chef Papi Gluten Free)
• Chef Jesse Lauer’s Five-Spice Carrot Cake Roulade: with lychee-mascarpone mousse, Mandarin orange-sriracha compote, and honey-sesame-see brittle. (The Bearded Frog)
• Chef Phil Merrick’s Cherry-Almond Brownie: with stout ganache. (August First)
• Chef Mike McCarthy’s Maple Cheesecake: with gluten-free nut crust. (Cosmic Bakery & Café)
• Chef Gretel-Ann Fischer’s Campfire Cakepops: toasted homemade marshmallow wrapped with a citrus and honey ginger cake, dipped in Callebaut chocolate and rolled in toasted graham cracker crumbs. (Cupp's)
• Chef Roger Alger’s Strawberry Shortcake: with layers of sponge cake, Chantilly cream, fresh strawberries, apricot jam, and almond paste, wrapped in white chocolate and accompanied by strawberry compote and raspberry sauce. (Trapp Family Lodge)
• Chef James Gioia’s Pecan Blondie and Maple Parfait: with caramel-whipped cream and bacon brittle. (The Pitcher Inn)
• Chef Nick Mahood’s Vermont Chèvre Panna Cotta: with pickled rhubarb, candied hazelnuts, rhubarb coulis, maple reduction, and a rhubarb tuile. (Cloudland Farm)
1. Strawberry Shortcake
2. Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Lemon Delight
3. Cherry-Almond Brownie
There were celebrity judges, including Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s fame, local Drag Queen Amber LeMay, and a pastry chef/author else whose name escapes me. While the commentary from the celebrity judges was humorous (although not entirely family friendly), that wasn’t the attraction for me. I attended the event to taste and judge the sweets. I’ve watched enough episodes of Chopped on the Food Network to know what criteria to base my decision on. I could totally be a judge on that show.
Despite the amount of waste in presentation (please, we live in Vermont and I’m practically green), the Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Lemon Delight was just that: a delight. The brownie was flavorfu
l and gooey without being molten-lava mush. The raspberry-lemon mousse was just the right amount of tart and sweet, and it complemented the brownie well. Seriously, because of the amount of waste involved, I had a hard time choosing this as one of my favorites. I realize presentation is part of the game, but could we be a bit more respectful of the environment when serving hundreds of people? In the end, it did receive of one of my votes because it was delicious. (My husband voted for this one, as well.)
The Five-Spice Carrot Cake Roulade was good. I loved the flavors, but the sesame seeds in the brittle were a bit overwhelming for me. (However, it was my husband’s top pick.) I’m headed to the Bearded Frog this week for Girl’s Night Out as part of Vermont Restaurant week so I’m looking forward to trying another dessert.
I really enjoyed the Cherry-Almond Brownie, even though it wasn’t a finalist for the masses. It was a subtle blend of the cherry and chocolate flavors without either of them being overbearing.
The Cakepops were delish. Unique flavor and very creative presentation of little cupcakes on a stick. Who doesn’t love a cakepop? They happened to be one of my hubby’s picks, and had almost zilch for waste.
Onto the clear winner in my mind and mouth—the Strawberry Shortcake. This beautiful dessert came encased in a thin layer of white chocolate, which gave the dessert its shape. One small paper plate and compostable spoon for minimal waste. The flavor was fantastic. Sweet and refreshing with the fresh berries, cold layers of cake and cream. So freaking good. I was actually able to take one of the last remaining samples home for a treat later (I ate it just a little while ago, and it was 98% as good as it was fresh last night).
The Pecan Blondie and Maple Parfait I really enjoyed, but I was so full by the time I got to it, I only ate part of it. The maple and caramel flavors were complemented by the flavor of the bacon brittle. Brilliant use of texture to really make a party in your mouth. I loved the crunch. Bacon. Need I say more?
The last dessert we sampled was the Vermont Chèvre Panna Cotta. I’ll give the disclaimer now that I don’t like chèvre, but the dessert looked interested so I tried it. Even though I didn’t love it (only because of the chèvre), it was good, and I loved the fact that it wasn’t so sweet I thought I might throw up while sampling my 9th dessert. It was a welcomed pleasantry after all the heavy sweets prior to it.
Did you want to know which dessert won? The three finalists based on the votes of the masses were the Strawberry Shortcake, the Dark Chocolate Raspberry-Lemon Delight, and the Pecan Blondie and Maple Parfait. The Strawberry Shortcake was the evening's title winner. Well-deserved congrats to Chef Roger Alger.
While this was the first time this event was held, I’m truly hoping it’s a permanent addition to Vermont Restaurant week, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s Sweet Start Smackdown.