Pastry Chefs Reimagine Childhood Favorites in Snack-Sized Desserts

Rebecca Skoch

It can be tricky to find the sweet/happy medium between over-the-top sugar bombs and too-light sorbet when creating a dessert menu. These chefs lure diners to order dessert by appealing to a time in their lives when they couldn’t resist something sweet—snack time—and offering those treats in petite sizes. Whether it’s animal-fat cookies or ice cream sandwiches spiked with sherry, for these chefs, creating an enticing array of adult-approved offerings is child’s play.

Like a Kid Again

Woolly lambs and plump piglets are just two of the housemade frosted barnyard animal cookies on the bar menu at Chicago brewery/restaurant Band of Bohemia ($3, recipe). Chef Matt DuBois was inspired by a duck-fat sugar cookie created by his sous chef: “The idea sprang from that: ‘What if we made cookies in the shape of the animals of the fat we use?’” The kitchen tested different animal fats in both the cookie dough and the icing—including schmaltz cookies and beef fat-filled tamale-themed cookies—but most didn’t make it to the cookie cutter. “We found that some of the animal fats are so neutral you can’t notice the animal flavor, and some tasted too gamey,” says DuBois. He settled on bacon fat for the piglet crafted out of gingersnap dough, because “it’s the most consistent, since the bacon has to be cured and smoked,” he says. For a lamb-shaped oatmeal raisin cookie, DuBois used lamb fat and Irish oats. “The flavors of the oats and lamb fat mimic each other, so when we’re rendering it, we fry Irish oats in the fat to boost the oatmeal taste in the cookie.” He pays as much attention to the look of each cookie, especially to making sure they have crisp, clean edges. “Our farm-animal cookie cutters have a lot of little details that don’t get punched out clearly the first time,” he notes. “You have to cut the cookie and par-bake them, then punch them out again with the cookie cutter before you finish baking.”

At ABV in San Francisco, it wasn’t animal cookies but a 1920s-era amusement-park treat that inspired Collin Hilton’s adult-approved dessert snack. The “It’s-It” is a Bay Area beloved ice cream sandwich comprised of oatmeal cookies and ice cream encased in a chocolate shell, but in Hilton’s version, the ice cream is swapped with sherry-spiked semifreddo. “I had an oloroso that tasted so much like raisins, I knew I had to make a dessert that combined the two,” he says of his ice cream sandwich made with two oatmeal cookies studded with sherry-soaked raisins and covered with a white chocolate-cinnamon shell ($6, recipe). “The addition of sherry actually aids in the texture of the semifreddo,” he says. “Because the alcohol from the sherry doesn’t freeze, it helps smooth the mouthfeel of the liquid and fat-based ingredients.”

It was culture shock rather than nostalgia that inspired Sarah Jordan to add housemade Pop-Tarts to the menu at Johnny’s Grill in Chicago. Growing up in Ireland, she hadn’t tasted the pastry until a year ago, but was inspired to feature the sweet treat in a rotating array of flavors ($3, recipe). “The store-bought version tastes more like a cookie than it does a pastry, and ours tastes like pastry,” says Jordan, who got the idea to make the treats for the diner from a friend. She changes the fillings, with options like blueberry pie with lemon curd, chocolate fudge and Boston cream pie brimming with pastry cream.

At Austin’s Nightcap, Drew Dunston gave a favorite treat an adult spin with his foie gras doughnut. “The idea for the dish came about as a way of doing breakfast for dessert,” says Dunston of the doughnut, which is topped with foie gras buttercream, pickled blueberries, fresh basil and granola made with oats, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds (recipe). “The addition of the granola continues the idea of breakfast and provides a needed crunch,” he says. The foie buttercream frosting adds a sophisticated finish to the bite-sized treats, but it was not an easy component to perfect. “We looked at foie similar to butter in how it works. It was tricky to make it work as a frosting,” says Dunston. “We cure the foie in port with brown sugar and salt, just for a few hours, then poach it quickly and cool it down to re-emulsify it.” The resulting buttercream is luxurious and decadent. “The egg whites provide the lightness,” Dunston explains, “and the foie provides a voluptuous texture.”

Mini Mezze

At Chicago’s Avec, good food comes in small packages throughout the menu, including Heather May’s sweet mezze dessert platter featuring a selection of cookies, like crispy sesame cocoa crunchies made with tahini. “Cut those the day you make them,” May warns. “You don’t want to let them sit overnight or the base dries out, and they’ll crumble when you cut them.” Cinnamon alfajores, filled with dulce de leche, are also included. “The cookie soaks up the dulce de leche,” says May, who believes the cookies develop flavor when left to rest overnight, so “they end up a soft, chewy cookie versus when you just make them and they’re still crunchy.” A mint-chip biscotti finishes off the mezze (recipes). “This cookie in particular I have grown emotionally attached to,” says May. “It tastes like if a Thin Mint and a biscotti had a baby—you bite into it and you expect this crunchy, almost fruity biscotti, but then it totally takes you back to eating Girl Scout cookies as a kid.”

Rebecca Skoch’s favorite snack is shrimp cocktail.