Few people put as much thought into dessert as Eras Bechakas and Donna Majewski.
It's a preoccupation because creating desserts is their occupation.
Bechakas has established her reputation as a dessert doyenne over the past 20 years at the Hourglass Restaurant -- owned by her husband, Terry -- at 981 Kenmore Ave. Patrons are not likely to end a sumptuous meal without one of her creations. Customers often ask "What's for dessert?" before they order their entree. They also frequently request that Bechakas prepare one of their favorites when making reservations, a practice the congenial dessert diva encourages.
"I think people really do love their desserts," she says. "They put a wonderful finishing touch on your meal."
Although she has 10 years of solid dessert-maven experience under her apron strings, Majewski is still the "newcomer" of the two. Her early dessert exposure came at Rue Franklin, where she supervised desserts for a year. But her dessert devotion began in earnest at Just Pasta, where she honed her skills as an artist. Her creations were showcased gloriously in the display case next to the hostess station, where they stopped customers in their tracks.
Majewski recently branched out as a freelance dessert chef and owner of "Room for Dessert."
Those enjoying dessert at such popular area restaurants as Nektar, Mother's, Brodo, Bacchus, City Grill or Lotis have tasted her creations. With Just Pasta recently changing hands, she has moved her dessert-making operation to the kitchen at First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle, where her only companions are "three perfectly calibrated ovens." Her products also can be purchased retail.
"I have a passion for creating desserts," says Majewski.
On one hand, Majewski admits she never wanted to get this big. Then, in almost the next breath she adds, "I wish everyone would let me be their dessert chef."
The two women believe that a meal is not memorable unless it ends with a great dessert. And by great dessert, they mean one made with only fresh, high-grade ingredients.
"I'm not talking about a slice of cheesy chocolate cake for one dollar," says Majewski.
As for Bechakas, she uses only fruits that are in season for her pies.
"I taste the berries before I will buy them at the market," she says.
Her desserts are made with Plugra butter ("made as the Europeans would make butter"), and imported bittersweet chocolates like Callebaut and Valrhona.
"Chocolate is very important to me," says Bechakas. "I grew up on such wonderful ice cream and chocolate. I'm very fussy about how both of those are used and how I make my ice cream."
On an average workday, each will whip up more than a dozen different items in a juggling routine that differs depending on the chosen recipes.
"I never make anything from start to finish," says Majewski. "I don't know if what I'm doing is multi-tasking or I have adult attention deficit disorder."
Bechakas developed a devotion to desserts as a child.
"I've always loved baking," she says. "I think it came from my dad (the late Peter Revelas), who owned a homemade candy and ice cream parlor (called the old Royal Confectionery on Main Street in Lockport)."
It's no surprise then that her repertoire now includes homemade ice creams to pair with her cakes and pies. But her professional career began in the research laboratory, not the kitchen. Her husband told Bechakas that her previous job as a microbiologist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute made her a better pastry chef.
"I do run my baking the way I would run an experiment," she says. "Baking is such an exact science. It's different from "cooking,' where you just throw things together. With baking, if you have too much flour, too much baking powder, or don't have enough or not the best butter, you won't get the best results. You really have to stay exact and true to what's needed in the recipe."
Bechakas started making desserts as a career when her husband opened the Hourglass. "I felt that we could do better with the desserts," she says. "I opened my mouth and put my foot in it."
"At first, I was supplementing the regular desserts with Greek pastries, mainly baklava. And then I started making traditional things that I loved, the simple fruit pies and cream pies, and cakes and crisps and cobblers. I wanted to make the desserts that people fondly remembered having as a child, all of the wonderful comfort desserts. I've since gotten into more spectacular desserts, but I find that customers really crave the things they remember from their childhood."
She offers the example of warm lemon pudding cake (see recipe on Page 16).
"This is something that my mom used to make quite often," she says. "I've ratcheted it up a couple of levels and serve it unmolded with a wild blueberry sauce."
While Bechakas talks about her passion for comfort desserts, she has developed a reputation as Buffalo's queen of creme brulee.
She first enjoyed the creamy custard topped with a thin crisp layer of caramelized sugar at Le Cirque restaurant in New York City. "I just loved it," she says, "and came home and experimented until I could find something as close to theirs as possible."
Majewski has her own dessert diva legacy. While her favorite dessert is old-fashioned fruit pie, she is building a reputation for spectacular pices de rsistance.
That's no surprise when you hear her talk about how she learned the basics of being a pastry chef when she worked as a pasta maker with her mentor, Ned Wilson, at Just Pasta.
One of the first things she learned to make -- and still considers one of her signature desserts -- is gateau Saint-Honore, a dessert named after the patron saint of pastry bakers. It features a flaky pastry topped with a ring of cream puffs, each of which has been dipped in caramel. She then fills the center of the ring of cream puffs with praline pastry cream.
"Ned told me, "If you can make that, you can make anything in the pastry business,' " Majewski says.
Strawberry dacquoise is another of her specialties. This is made with three large almond-flavored meringue disks, painted with melted chocolate and layered with whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries (see recipe on Page 16). After baking the meringue disks for an hour, you turn off the oven and leave them there for 24 hours before taking the next step.
While not all of Majewski's desserts are frou-frou, she does get a kick out of new creations, like her chocolate tower currently on the menu at Nektar. Imagine three small circles of chocolate cake layered with maple butter cream, then wrapped in a thin sheet of chocolate and topped with piped maple butter cream so that the "tower" sprouts tentacles.
With a big smile, Majewski shares the story of a gentleman who recently enjoyed the dessert at Nektar and then told his fiancee, a chef in New York City, about the experience.
Their whimsical wedding cake, based on her chocolate tower, is now on Majewski's drawing board.
Warm lemon pudding cakes with wild blueberry sauce (makes six, 8-ounce ramekins)
3/8 cup flour
pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cup of lemon juice or an equal mix of lemon and lime juice
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups half and half, scalded and cooled
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine the flour and salt. Reserve. If using lemon and lime juices, combine in a small bowl.
In electric mixer, cream sugar and butter at high speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to medium and add egg yolks one at a time, making sure each is incorporated before adding the next. Mixing at low speed, add the flour mixture alternating with the scalded cream, then add the juice and lemon zest.
In another bowl, whisk the egg whites at high speed until stiff. Whisk two-thirds of the whites into the yolk mixture, then gently fold in the remaining third, incorporating well (this keeps the batter light).
Set six, 8-ounce ramekins in a roasting pan and ladle the batter into the cups, stirring often to get a good mix of froth and batter on each ladleful. Pour hot water into the pan to come about halfway up the ramekins.
Bake until the cakes are golden-brown and a knife inserted in the top comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.
During baking, the batter separates into two layers. The bottom becomes a citrus pudding and the top, a fluffy sponge cake.
Transfer to a rack to cool. Unmold by placing in microwave 15 to 25 seconds to just reheat the cake. Run a small knife around the upper portion of the cake, then carefully invert onto serving plate. Serve with blueberry sauce on the side.
Wild blueberry sauce
4 cups wild blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Over medium-low heat, cook mixture about 10 minutes or until thickened. Cool to room temperature.
1 cup egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 cup ground almonds
3/4 cup sugar
9 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 quart heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
3 pints of fresh strawberries, washed, stems removed
Whip eggs whites and cream of tartar in stainless steel bowl until frothy. Slowly add cup of sugar to egg whites, beating until triple in volume and glossy.
Mix 3/4 -cup of the sugar with ground almonds and gently fold into whipped egg whites until incorporated totally.
Draw three circles (10-inches in diameter) on parchment paper-lined sheet tray. Divide batter in thirds and spread evenly on parchment circles. Bake for 1 hour at 275 degrees. Shut oven off and let layers dry in oven for 24 hours.
Gently remove layers from parchment. Paint one side of each circle with melted semisweet chocolate. Chill layers to let chocolate set, then paint the other sides. Whip quart of heavy cream with 1/4 -cup confectioners' sugar to form stiff peaks.
Slice strawberries. Layer whipped cream and then sliced berries on each chocolate-painted layer, carefully distributing all ingredients. Place one layer on top of another, decorating the top layer with sliced berries and piped rosettes of whipped cream. Chill. Serve the same day.
(Donna Majewski takes orders for her desserts at 983-0633)
Arthur Page is assistant vice president for news services and periodicals at the University at Buffalo. He is a former medical reporter for The Buffalo News.