Dana Cree wants your ears to enjoy dessert. She's the pastry chef at Capitol Hill's Poppy—which is in the limelight right now, following chef/owner Jerry Traunfeld's appearance on Bravo's Top Chef Masters. People peer through the windows to the kitchen and ask the bartender: "Is Jerry here? Which one is Jerry?" He's there, but so is Cree, quietly making sweet, sweet magic.
Cree is responsible for Poppy's dessert thali. It is quite possibly the best dessert experience in all of Seattle.
Like Poppy's dinner thalis, the dessert thali is a platter with at least half a dozen different components. It costs $15. The small dishes change seasonally, depending on what's fresh and what's growing in the garden behind the restaurant, and while you get to pick from a few choices on the current dessert menu (there are always five à la carte items and five ice cream flavors), some of it is out of your control. You get little tastes of whatever Cree has perfected over time.
My first dessert thali—you'll want to read this slowly and think about every part—consisted of chocolate terrine with ginger, salted sesame, and cumin cashews; hot date cake with banana ice cream and butterscotch; a chocolate malt ice cream sundae; a small bowl of candied cumin cashews; two squares of nutter butter cake; two salted caramel truffles; two sugary rectangles of passion fruit gelee; and, as the server said, a small bowl of "Dana's famous caramel corn." That's eight items total—and every single item was absolutely delicious. (My only tiny complaint is that I like my caramel corn a little sweeter—my mom's is the best.) It's an indecisive dessert freak's dream come true.
The generous piece of hot date cake—with a surprisingly light texture—comes swimming in a pool of glistening salted muscovado butterscotch that, as Cree says, is "balanced perfectly with lemon juice." (Muscovado, I learned, is the darkest brown sugar one can buy.)
The thick and creamy malted chocolate sundae is served in a martini glass and sprinkled with adorable tiny malted-milk-ball candies. The chocolate terrine melts the very moment it touches your tongue, and the cold, fresh whipped cream is not a garnish—it is required to cut the richness of the terrine down to a slightly less than lethal dose of chocolate.
Then there are those nutter butters. Oh, the nutter butters.
"The nutter butters will never leave," Cree promises when I visit her in Poppy's kitchen a few days later.
The bottom layer of the nutter butter is made with feuilletine, she tells me, a small and crispy flake that tastes a lot like a sugar ice cream cone. It gives the nutter butter its crispy, Butterfingery character, but the flavors are much more complex—it's salty and sweet, and dense yet still flaky. And it's topped with a thick layer of white chocolate salted caramel ganache, which is probably the creamiest caramel I've ever eaten.
"The texture comes from the white chocolate," says Cree. "The longer you cook a sugar molecule, the more fragmented the molecule becomes, so we cook it as long as we can. Once you shatter it, the flavor is a lot more complex. It gets bitter—so much so that you have to treat it like you would coffee, by adding sugar and cream. So we add white chocolate back into it, which by itself is nauseatingly sweet."
While Seattle has a plethora of specialty ice cream, cupcake, and dessert shops, Seattle restaurants have been behind the curve on dessert. "It shocks me that even some of the city's best restaurants don't have pastry chefs," says Cree. "But now the dessert course is becoming just as important as all the other courses. Now you see Alex Stupak at wd~50, who makes these textural compositions that are so spectacular—on a national level, the bar is getting set higher every day, and Seattle is starting to catch on to that."
And Cree is happy to do her part to get our city caught up. "I spend a lot of time in development," she says about how she concocts so many amazing things. "I start with a flavor profile, and I'll start building texture around that. Like right now, we have chamomile growing in the garden, so I know I'll be needing to do something with that soon."
Cree has worked in the kitchen at (the now closed) Veil on Queen Anne, and interned at both wd~50 in New York and Noma in Copenhagen. She talks about all the things that go into creating each dessert—all the senses she considers, including hearing ("The eardrum is a half inch away from your mouth—you absolutely use it when you eat!"). She talks about the failures she's had in the kitchen ("There was malted parsnip ice cream—I loved it. It had a very distinct parsnip flavor—it reminded me of carrot cake. Jerry hated it," she laughs). Then I ask her, considering all the love and purposefulness that goes into creating each platter, if there is a specific way to eat Poppy's dessert thali to get the most out of it.
"No, there's never a wrong way to eat it," she exclaims with a smile. "The human element is fascinating. I can send the same dessert to five different people, and it will become five different desserts. My goal is that it tastes like the best version of what you expect."