A Chat with Johnny Iuzzini, the Dessert Master

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Are you a lover of desserts? If so, then meet Johnny Iuzzini, who is to the dessert world what Shawn White is to snowboarding.  He is a master of this decadent craft and firmly solidified his place in the land of pastry after a decade of work at the renowned four star Jean Georges in NYC and countless accolades, including the prestigious James Beard award for Pastry Chef of the Year.

Add a touch of rebellion and a dollop of TV star power courtesy of Top Chef: Just Desserts (Johnny was the head judge) and one would likely feel a bit of nervous enthusiasm if given the chance to meet this rock-star of sweets, wouldn’t you say?  This is the state I found myself in when I was presented with the fortunate opportunity to interview Johnny during his recent trip to the Bluegrass for the Kentucky Derby.

Recently, we chatted about what drove him to the world of pastry in the first place.

Johnny started, as many young Chef’s do, working his way through the savory track at the Culinary Institute of America.  It was when he was training in a restaurant and was given the duty of killing the lobsters every morning in preparation for dinner service, that he found the Chef world loosing it’s luster.  His Mother was a generous and kind caregiver, particularly when it came to animals.  While he is not a vegetarian by any means, Johnny found that he couldn’t start each day in this manner and he saw a peacefulness in the Pastry Chefs surrounding him that lead him to request a change in his focus.

Clearly this was the right decision and Johnny’s career took off at an impressive rate.  He released his first book in 2008, Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef and his second book, Sugar Rush, is due out this September (it is available for pre-order here).  As someone who is quite terrified of making desserts, this book seems almost made for me.

Johnny is breaking down the basics this time around, showing the reader how to build a base of pastry techniques and to grow from there, guiding you every step of the way with his expertise and charm.  This mastery and ease was every apparent in his cooking demo, where he prepared four different dishes, all of which were terribly impressive and addicting, not to mention shockingly approachable for the home cook.

I was particularly excited when I saw that strawberry shortcake was on the menu.  A favorite childhood dessert, Johnny puts a grown-up twist by bathing the fresh berries in balsamic vinegar, imparting a deeply rich sweetness that is further amplified after the berries bake for over an hour in a 200 degree oven.  The juices of the berries concentrate and intensify, calmed only by the cool cream which has been whipped to perfection, flecks of vanilla bean adding depth and structure.

A classic biscuit is split to hold all of this goodness, flakes of salt secured to the top during the baking process, adding that certain something to this absolutely flawless dessert.  Now, I wouldn’t dare claim that my biscuits are half as fluffy as Johnny’s or that my cream is whipped as lightly.  But I can attest to the impressiveness of this classic dish, the volume turned up in such a way that any home cook can master.  It was a fantastic evening and I am quite grateful to Macy’s Culinary Council for giving me the opportunity to meet Johnny Iuzzini.  My dessert inspiration has runneth over!  I may just have a sweet tooth after all…

It is hard to put into words how satisfying these roasted strawberries are and they couldn’t be easier to make.  Begin by cleaning and topping three pints of local strawberries (you can find them at any farmer’s market now and they are dramatically tastier than those found in the big-box groceries).  Slice the strawberries in half and place them in a large bowl.  Cover with balsamic vinegar and allow to sit for thirty minutes to one hour.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and place the strawberries, cut side down, in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Roast in the oven for an hour and a half until their color has deepened and they are soft but still hold their shape.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

While the berries are soaking in the vinegar make your biscuit dough.  This was my first venture into the biscuit world and I know I have some work to do to master this craft.  That said, what I had anticipated to be a daunting task was actually quite simplistic.  The key to a perfect biscuit, as I’ve been told, is to be sure your butter, milk and eggs are all very cold.  Next time around I plan to cube my butter ahead of time and then place it back in the fridge to chill.  I found the warmth from my hands to have more of an effect on the butter than I anticipated and it became soft at the edges quickly.

To begin your biscuit dough, sift the following into the bowl of a food processor with the flat blade attached: two and one quarter cups all purpose flour, four teaspoons baking powder, one half teaspoon baking soda and one half teaspoon coarse salt.  Pulse several times to bring everything together.  Cut six tablespoons of cold butter into small cubes and add to the flour mixture.  Continue to pulse the blade until the butter breaks apart and turns into small pea-sized pieces (you want the butter to remain in small pieces, you do not want it to completely incorporate with the flour).

Whisk two thirds cup whole milk with one large egg until combined.  With the blade running, pour the milk and egg through the feed tube, continuing to pulse until the dough comes together and pulls into a ball (this will happen quickly and be careful not to over mix).

Lightly flour your counter and turn the dough out onto the surface.  Form into a square and cover in plastic wrap.  Set in the refrigerator for one hour.  Resting dough is an important aspect in just about any recipe.  It gives the glutens time to come together and develop and will result in a much more texturally pleasing biscuit/cookie/pizza, etc.  Preheat your oven to 425 while the dough is resting.

After one hour, remove from the refrigerator and place on a floured surface.  Roll the dough into a half-inch thick square.  Cut one and one-half inch square biscuits from the dough and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Brush the top of each biscuit with melted butter and sprinkle with pink salt (if you don’t have pink salt, another course salt will do fine).  Bake for five to ten minutes until they have puffed up and are golden brown.

While the biscuits are baking whip up the vanilla creme chantilly topping.  Pour one cup heavy cream, one cup creme fraiche, four tbs confectioners’ sugar and the seeds from one vanilla bean into a large bowl.  Whip until the cream is light and airy and forms stiff peaks.  Remove the biscuits from the oven, top with the whipped creme chantilly and slow roasted strawberries.  Garnish with fresh mint and serve.

Makes 12 Strawberry Shortcakes

Slow-Roasted Strawberries

  • three pints local strawberries
  • balsamic vinegar
Biscuits
  • two and one quarter cups all-purpose flour
  • four teaspoons baking powder
  • one half teaspoon baking soda
  • one half teaspoon course salt
  • six tbs butter, cut into small cubes and kept very cold
  • two thirds cup whole milk
  • one large egg, beaten
  • two tbs unsalted butter, melted
  • pink salt
Vanilla Creme Chantilly
  • one cup heavy cream
  • one cup creme fraiche
  • four tbs confectioners’ sugar
  • one vanilla bean, seeds scraped out and reserved
  • fresh mint leaves for garnish

Slow-Roasted Strawberries
Begin by cleaning and topping three pints of local strawberries (you can find them at any farmer’s market now and they are dramatically tastier than those found in the big-box groceries).  Slice the strawberries in half and place them in a large bowl.

Cover with balsamic vinegar and allow to sit for thirty minutes to one hour.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and place the strawberries, cut side down, in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Roast in the oven for an hour and a half until their color has deepened and they are soft but still hold their shape.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.

Biscuits
To begin your biscuit dough, sift the following into the bowl of a food processor with the flat blade attached: two and one quarter cups all purpose flour, four teaspoons baking powder, one half teaspoon baking soda and one half teaspoon coarse salt.  Pulse several times to bring everything together.  Cut six tablespoons of cold butter into small cubes and add to the flour mixture.  Continue to pulse the blade until the butter breaks apart and turns into small pea-sized pieces (you want the butter to remain in small pieces, you do not want it to completely incorporate with the flour).
Whisk two thirds cup whole milk with one large egg until combined.  With the blade running, pour the milk and egg through the feed tube, continuing to pulse until the dough comes together and pulls into a ball (this will happen quickly and be careful not to over mix).
Lightly flour your counter and turn the dough out onto the surface.  Form into a square and cover in plastic wrap.  Set in the refrigerator for one hour.  Resting dough is an important aspect in just about any recipe.
Preheat your oven to 425 while the dough is resting.  After one hour, remove from the refrigerator and place on a floured surface.  Roll the dough into a half-inch thick square.  Cut one and one-half inch square biscuits from the dough and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Brush the top of each biscuit with melted butter and sprinkle with pink salt (if you don’t have pink salt, another course salt will do fine).  Bake for five to ten minutes until they have puffed up and are golden brown.

Vanilla Creme Chantilly
Pour one cup heavy cream, one cup creme fraiche, four tbs confectioners’ sugar and the seeds from one vanilla bean into a large bowl.  Whip until the cream is light and airy and forms stiff peaks.  Remove the biscuits from the oven, top with the whipped creme chantilly and slow roasted strawberries.  Garnish with fresh mint and serve.