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
Spiced Chiffon Cake
Preheat the oven to 350°. Oil the bottom of a 10-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray, being careful not to oil the sides, and line with parchment paper.
Sift together the first nine ingredients and set aside.
Beat the egg yolks with one cup of the sugar on high speed until thick and pale yellow, about three minutes. Reduce speed to low, add the oil, water and vanilla, then set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed until frothy. Slowly begin adding the remaining sugar in a steady stream and continue whisking until the egg whites are stiff enough to hold a firm peak when the whisk is removed.
Quickly, by hand, beat the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture; Then, using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the yolk-flour mixture. Pour into the waiting pan and tap the pan gently against a table to force out any large air pockets.
Place pan in the center rack of the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the center springs back when gently touched. Let cool, then cut horizontally into thirds.
Mango Yogurt Mousse
Peel and cut up three of the mangoes. Whip cream to soft peaks and set aside. Toss mangoes in a food processor with the sugar, salt and lemon juice. Process until it looks to be about as liquidy as it’s going to get. Press through a fine mesh strainer. Discard the pulpy solids and measure out two cups of the mango purée. (Any extra is yours to nibble on.)
Heat purée to about 120°. If using sheet gelatin, wring out the excess water and stir into the purée until completely dissolved. If using powdered gelatin, pour the warmed purée over the bloomed gelatin and stir until fully dissolved. Fold about ? of the purée into the whipped cream. Next, fold the entire whipped-cream mixture into the remaining purée.
Fold in the yogurt. Allow the mousse to set up in the fridge overnight before using. Once fully set, peel and dice the remaining mango and gently fold into the mousse.
Beat butter, shortening and salt on high speed until light and fluffy, about six minutes.
Scrape down bowl. Add powdered sugar and beat until lighter and fluffier, about four minutes. Scrape down bowl again. Add heavy cream, vanilla and rosewater and beat until even lighter and fluffier, about two minutes.
To assemble cake, use a pastry bag to make a thick ring around the perimeter of one layer with buttercream. Fill ring with a smooth layer of mousse, then cover with next layer of cake. Repeat. Use the remainder of buttercream to frost the top and sides.