"Sweet nothings" is a ridiculous phrase, is it not? It doesn't matter if you're celebrating this heart-shaped holiday with your longtime partner, your kid, someone you just met on OK Cupid, or your old friends the bathtub and bottle of wine, we can all agree that we would rather have sweet somethings than sweet nothings. But with so much ganache, mousse, and buttercream, so many glazes, curls, and various nut brittles, how do you know which sweet somethings are worth seeking out? Our guide to the best and brightest of Twin Cities desserts is here, just in time for you to treat yo'self.
Seasonal Financier at the Kenwood, $9
The name implies something frilly and fanciful, but the financier itself is actually a rather plain-looking cake. Its impressiveness lies in the light and spongy texture, the super moist crumb, and the rich flavor of the browned butter that goes into its batter. This particular financier does a bang-up job of taking in all that it's paired with: pieces of caramelized Seckel pear, a variety known for its subtlety; a scoop of sweet, melting maple-infused sabayon, which is something like a fluffy ice cream; and tart pops of crushed cranberry. If you miss out on this particular preparation, fear not. The Kenwood's chef and owner Don Saunders always has another delicious idea up his sleeve. Case in point: the incredible sweet corn crème brûlée featured here in the late summer.
Caramel Roll Bread Pudding at Bars Bakery, $4.50
Even when served on its own, Bars Bakery's caramel roll is a monster — gooey, sticky, and huge — the same one that gained a cult following at Swede Hollow Cafe. So you'd think that when the day-old ones are further dried out, covered in milky custard, baked, and drizzled with some magical, buttery, brandy-spiked hard sauce, the end product would be out of control, over the top. But you'd be wrong. Very wrong. From time to time and depending on the season they'll also throw in chocolate chips, bananas, or raspberries for a little extra flavor flair.
Baked Alaska at Union Fish Market, $9
Though it was invented nearly a century prior, Baked Alaska rose to prominence as an impressive showpiece for dinner party hostesses in the 1950s and '60s. The hot and cold elements and labor-intensiveness of the dish make it daunting to attempt at home, which is all the more reason to order it when you're dining out. For a spell it was rare to see Baked Alaska on restaurant menus but it seems to be enjoying something of a return to the spotlight. We love all the pomp and circumstance of the version currently coming out of the kitchen at Union Fish Market, where the softened ice cream center is textured with graham cracker crumbs, making it reminiscent of another kitsch favorite, the no-bake cheesecake. The frozen ball is covered in chocolate and a thin layer of airy vanilla cake before getting all sealed up with generous peaks of meringue. Take in the visual of that pure white cap because just a minute after it's delivered, an enthusiastic server comes out and torches the whole thing right in front of you. Destroy and enjoy. It's all very Zen.
Scandinavian Strawberry Torte at Taste of Scandinavia Bakery, $25
Before you scoff at the price, note that this torte is generally not served by the slice (though the Finnish Bistro in St. Anthony Park sometimes has a sliced one in the cake display, so check in often), but you are guaranteed to be the hero of any birthday party if you bring along one of these gorgeous whole triple-decker tortes. Between each strata of bouncy, vanilla-y yellow sponge cake, there's a layer of chocolate ganache, so-slightly-sweet whipped cream, thick and seedy raspberry jam, and finally a layer of simple sliced fresh bananas. Topped with strawberries, it's patriotically colorful and so bursting with fresh fruit you can almost trick yourself into believing it's healthy. Almost.
Banana Tarte Flambée at Patrick's Bakery, $9.95
Traditional tarte flambée is essentially the Alsatian region's version of pizza, made with various toppings — usually savory ones, scattered over a rectangular, puff pastry-like base, and cooked in a wood-fire oven. As well and good as Gruyère cheese, sauteed mushrooms, and crisp bacon are on nearly anything, the tarte flambée we really love at Patrick's Bakery & Cafe is decidedly more dessert-like. Flambéed with dark rum, the banana tarte flambée has all the deep, roasty, caramelized flavors of a classic Bananas Foster but with the added bonus of a beautifully executed flaky pastry and, of course, a few specks of chocolate. Topped with restrained, non-saccharine crème fraîche, this treat easily feeds two normal people, or one very greedy one. If you don't care for a hot banana (we understand), the apple version flambéed with Calvados is also worthy of a trip to the 'burbs — to the Edina location, the shop inside Bachman's in Richfield, or the newest location in Maple Grove.
Tres Leches at Harriet Brasserie, $7
There was no dessert in memory that we swooned over more in 2012-13 than the perfect tres leches cake at Harriet Brasserie in Linden Hills, and to date, no one else's take on the Spanish dessert has managed to unseat it. Topped with a little lime zest, toasted shredded coconut, and made with thick, fragrant coconut milk as one of its three saucy elements, this cake has a celestial lightness that cannot be overstated. It's so far from the over-saturated, overly gummy, overly sweet cake that usually springs to mind when you hear the whisper of the words "tres leches" that it will make a convert out of the biggest haters — unless you don't dig coconut, in which case this cake is not for you.
Butterscotch Budino at 112 Eatery, $9
Greg Awada, co-owner of Zamboni Pizza in St. Paul, has publicly admitted to having something of an addiction to the butterscotch budino at 112 Eatery, stopping by once a week for the decadent sweet-and-salty Italian custard. But he's far from being the only local who has succumbed to its charms. Served in a rustic little canning jar (long before everyone else was doing it), the creamy dish starts with an egg yolk-rich custard base flecked with vanilla bean, then a thick layer of house-made not-too-sweet butterscotch sauce, and a dollop of creme fraiche decorated with a few scant flakes of pink sea salt. One might think a crunchy component would be disruptive on the impossibly smooth landscape of the budino, but truthfully without the finishing salt this dish would be one tragic brushstroke short of a masterpiece. Even though it's a re-interpretation of someone else's work (the recipe comes from Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery), you simply cannot call yourself a true connoisseur of Twin Cities desserts until you've had this one.
Buttermilk Panna Cotta at La Belle Vie, $10
Prior to tasting this complex, wholly enjoyable example from La Belle Vie's pastry chef Diane Yang, we fully admit we believed savory ice creams were on their way out. But the toasted coriander ice cream — full of sharp, exotic flavor but ultra-rich in texture — has us rethinking, well, everything. And it's just one component of this sophisticated last-course dish, in which a smooth and satisfyingly wobbly buttermilk panna cotta is topped with coconut water espuma, a deft and subtle foam, resulting in a truly special dish from an enormously talented culinary voice. Want to be surprised and delighted? This is the place to make your reservations, without reservation.