Beethoven composed symphonies and sonatas after he’d gone deaf. Jesse Lauer, the pastry chef at the Bearded Frog in Shelburne, has a comparable handicap in his chosen field. “I hate sweets,” he admits. “I don’t eat any of this stuff. I’ve never been a dessert guy.”
Once, Lauer actually aspired to go into Beethoven’s line of work: He majored in music composition at the State University of New York at Purchase. But the soullessness of throwing together preludes on assignment killed the young Lauer’s dreams. So the now-30-year-old became a rock-star pastry chef instead — and the creator of cakes coveted by brides all over Chittenden County.
Since the Bearded Frog opened in 2006, Lauer has gathered a following for his unique creations with bold titles. One highlight of his seasonal dessert menus was Decadence, a profiterole filled with foie-gras-black-truffle ice cream and covered in salted caramel and gold. Another was Part of a Balanced Breakfast, a composition of Cocoa Puff-encrusted banana fritters, ice cream reminiscent of a bowl of Peanut Butter Crunch and milk, caramel sauce made with Apple Jacks, and Fruity Pebbles dust.
No other pâtissier in Vermont works in the style of self-taught Lauer, but cooking wasn’t part of the plan for the origami-loving young man who once dreamed of composing film scores. He found his raison d’être by accident.
After leaving SUNY Purchase, Lauer returned home to Vermont and worked at Showtime Video in Hinesburg until an old friend, Andrea Cousineau, offered him a job as the garde-manger cook at Ferrisburgh’s Starry Night Café, where she was the chef. Lauer says that when he started the job, he didn’t even know how to make a salad, but the precision of pastry appealed to his artistic and mathematical sensibilities. Plus, he recalls, “No one else wanted to do it.”
Cousineau, who has known Lauer since preschool, says his personality is ideally suited to desserts. “He’s very creative and, for lack of a better word, extremely anal retentive,” she says — with affection, of course.
That self-discipline made Lauer a quick study. He read up on his newly chosen profession, then took a job at the bakery at Junior’s Italian in Colchester. There, pastry chef Sue Igler taught him to make wedding cakes and other ornate desserts.
In 2006, when owner Michel Mahe chose Cousineau as the Bearded Frog’s opening chef, there was no question who would be making the pastries. Lauer’s whimsical desserts quickly gained fans; some of his early efforts are so popular, they’re still on the menu. The ultra-rich Callebaut chocolate malt is now something of a warhorse, as is the bittersweet flourless chocolate cake that he complements with seasonal sauces and ice creams.
But Lauer may be best known for his “birthday cake,” an à la mode slice not reserved for those celebrating an actual birthday. He’s constantly changing its flavor, with two notable variations being hickory-smoked chocolate chiffon cake with spicy milk chocolate mousse and chocolate-cinnamon ganache; and chocolate Earl Grey chiffon with chocolate-citrus mousse, chocolate butter cream and chocolate-orange ganache.
On a recent Thursday, Lauer is putting the finishing touches on a chiffon cake flavored with curry and cumin. He fills a pastry bag with vanilla-bean-speckled, rose-scented buttercream and pipes a wall of frosting along the cake’s edges. This fences in a thick layer of yogurt-based mousse stuffed with tender chunks of mango. Lauer piles on another stratum of cake and does the whole thing again, before topping the creation with a last layer and frosting it all in more buttercream. Finally, he rolls the cake in the contents of a container labeled “toasty, obliterated cashews.”
When finished, the pastry tastes like Willy Wonka’s take on an Indian dinner. The chiffon subs for tandoori chicken, while the mousse evokes a cooling mango lassi. The rose flavor in the buttercream calls to mind desserts such as kheer and gulab jamun.
One couple so enjoyed a similar cake that they asked Lauer to make it for their wedding. A look at the Bearded Frog’s Facebook page — through which many of Lauer’s cake clients make initial contact — shows that Igler taught him well. Brides ooh and ahh over the pictures, with comments such as “Best cake ever” and “Jesse, you have a fan club.”
As for their creator, he says decorating wedding cakes is one of his favorite outlets. He’s created a pamphlet of suggestions, such as the Mojito, with minted lime curd and rum-soaked vanilla cake; and Autumn, featuring spiced chiffon cake, apple-cinnamon compôte and maple buttercream. However, Lauer says he prefers to let couples choose their own cake and enjoys working with them to come up with flavor combinations.
Just don’t ask him to wrap the cake in fondant. Lauer says that, while he enjoys working with the sugar paste and won’t absolutely refuse to use it, he doesn’t think it’s particularly edible. “I think it’s such a culinary atrocity,” he says. “It’s sugary Play-Doh, and I’ve never seen anyone eat it, ever. It’s just blech, so gross.”
Couples don’t have to get married to enjoy one of Lauer’s romantic sweets. Every year for Valentine’s Day, he contrives a special dessert for two. Some years it has included several small tasting portions, such as pots de crèmes and crèmes brûlées. This year, Lauer plans on making “a super-extravagant, garish and overdecorated” petite cake, perfectly sized for a pair of diners.
Guests will have to wait until Valentine’s Day to find out the flavor, but not because Lauer is keeping secrets. “As a student, I always got the best grades on the papers I wrote on the bus on the way to school in the morning. That sort of stuck with me,” he explains.
Soon Lauer may have the luxury of coming up with even more desserts on the fly. Pending zoning approval, he hopes to open his own bakery and café later this year. That means he’ll be baking for three restaurants — the third is another Mahe outpost, the Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes.
But Lauer could never leave the Bearded Frog. Not after the promise Cousineau elicited from him.
“I proposed once to Jesse,” the chef says with a chuckle. “I told him I never want my food to be followed by anyone else’s [but his].”
Luckily, Lauer made the commitment. His sweet finishes would be a hard act to follow.
The Bearded Frog, 5247 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, 985-9877. thebeardedfrog.com