Johnny Iuzzini is a regular Renaissance Man of pastries. A James Beard award–winning chef, author of two cookbooks (his latest, Sugar Rush, is available in bookstores now), director and star of Éclair Diaries, and both contestant and judge on numerous cooking shows (including an upcoming appearance on Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen: Superstar Sabotage, airing Oct. 22) it’s safe to say that acclaimed chef has his hands full.
"I've been forced to be more scrappy after leaving Jean Georges (where Iuzzini worked for more than two decades)," he admits. "But I have nights off, I can spend time with my family — I have that luxury now."
With his star on the rise, we figured there was no one better to ask about baking than the pastry chef/chocolatier, and Iuzzini didn't disappoint. But as intimidatingly beautiful and complex as Iuzzini's own dishes can be, he assured us that often the simplest desserts are the ones that can stand out the most, especially if you're cooking for someone special that you want to impress.
"It’s all about textures, and what’s sensual," he says. With champagne sabayon, for instance, you can achieve a rich, luscious texture without even turning on the oven. Or if you want to really impress her, try chocolate mousse. "It's the ultimate in decadence," Iuzzini says. "Don’t waste time measuring. Make it beforehand, give her a glass of champagne, and put it together in front of her." If you want to make dessert into more of a group activity, cupcakes are the way to go. "Have everything scaled out and ready," he recommends. "That way you can do it together — you’re mixing the ingredients while she’s buttering the pan. You’re both getting your hands a little dirty." Plus, the baking time leaves time for…other things. "What do you do while waiting for it to bake?" he asks. "Perfect time for foreplay."
But remember, much like whatever you choose to do after dessert, it's more about the effort than the final product. Luckily with the recipes below, you won’t have to decide between the two options. Taken from Iuzzini’s latest book, each recipe is a step-by-step lesson that even the most novice baker can follow to improve their skills (and impress a date). "Baking is about multi-tasking," Iuzzini says. "If you are organized and prepared, that’s half the battle."
Below are our top picks, from beginner to advanced.
Get your hands dirty with Iuzzini’s foolproof cupcake recipe (it beats taking your girlfriend to Magnolia Bakery, or any of those other cutesy, overpriced New York pastry shops). Buttercream frosting is as easy as whipping butter, sugar, and egg whites together, with a pinch of cream of tartar if you have it — if you don’t, she’ll never notice.
- 3/4 pound (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced (339 g)
- 2 cups sugar (400 g)
- 5 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise, at room temperature (75 g)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (10 g)
- 2 cups cake flour (220 g)
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder (107 g)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder (4 g)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (2 g)
- 1 cup low-fat buttermilk (247 g), at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two 12-portion standard muffin pans with paper liners. Toss the butter with the sugar in a standing mixer bowl until coated. Attach the bowl and paddle to the mixer and beat the butter and sugar on medium speed for about 5 minutes, until a thick paste forms and no butter lumps remain. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions and stopping to scrape the bowl down with a rubber spatula. Add the mayonnaise and vanilla and mix well.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking powder; sprinkle the salt over the top. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and buttermilk in 3 additions, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl several times.
Divide the batter evenly among the lined pans, filling each liner three-quarters full. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through, until firm to the touch and a cake tester inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Cool the cupcakes in the pans for 10 minutes before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. Once cooled, frost as desired.
It’s French, there’s champagne, it pairs well with strawberries — what more do you want?
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup sugar (50 g)
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 3/4 cup champagne (180 g)
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon rose water (optional)
Fill a saucepan half full of water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. In a heatproof glass bowl large enough to fit into the saucepan without touching the water, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt for about 1 minute, until combined and lightened. Add a couple of tablespoons of the champagne, whisk well, and then slowly whisk in the remaining champagne until combined.
Set the bowl over the water and whisk constantly and vigorously for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has tripled in volume and the temperature reaches 180°F. The sabayon should be thick enough to hold the trail of the whisk; if the volume in the bowl begins to recede while whisking, remove it from the heat immediately. You can also lift the bowl and look at the bottom — if there is liquid separated in the bottom of the bowl, it needs further cooking time. Whisk in the vanilla and the rose water, if using.
Pour the sabayon through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl to remove any cooked egg bits. Serve immediately or let stand until room temperature before refrigerating and using within one day. Repeat with the remaining custards and serve immediately.
Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse
Iuzzini describes this as "one of those desserts that can make people's eyes roll back in their heads." It’s all in the texture, which is "velvety, rich-yet-light… and, dare I say, orgasmic."
- 1-2/3 cups heavy cream (400 g)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (5 g)
- 11 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao), chopped (311 g)
- 5 large egg yolks
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar (100 g)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (4 g)
- 1/4 cup water (60 g)
In a medium bowl with a whisk, whip the cream and vanilla to medium-firm peaks and refrigerate until needed.
Fill a small saucepan one-third full of water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Put the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl and set it on the saucepan, being sure the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Reduce the heat to low, so that the water simmers, and melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. When the chocolate is completely smooth and hot to the touch, remove the bowl from the water bath.
Return the saucepan of water to a simmer over medium heat. Put the egg yolks, whole eggs, sugar, salt, and water into a standing mixer bowl, set it over the simmering water, and whisk constantly until the sugar is melted and the mixture is hot to the touch (about 165°F). Attach the bowl and whisk to the mixer and whip at medium-high speed until the mixture triples in volume and is cool. (Stop the mixer if the volume begins to recede.)
Remove the whipped cream from the refrigerator. Check the chocolate — it should feel warm to the touch but not hot (about 113°F). With a large rubber spatula, add about ½ cup of the whipped cream to the center of the bowl of chocolate and stir it in small circles from the center, working outward into the chocolate with the spatula until the cream is completely mixed in. Fold the mixture around the outer edges of the bowl once to combine; the mixture should be thick but smooth. If it looks grainy, add a little more cream to the center of the bowl and stir outward again; fold until the chocolate is smooth. This will lower the chocolate temperature and strengthen the emulsification with the whipped eggs.
Add all of the whipped egg mixture to the chocolate and fold until streaky; add the remaining whipped cream and fold until just combined, with no streaks remaining. Do not overmix.
Transfer the mousse to a large container or individual glasses and chill until set, at least 2 hours. The mousse can be made up to 1 day ahead.