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We caught up with Ron Ben-Israel, host of Sweet Genius and the mastermind behind Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in New York City, to chat with him about some of his holiday favorites. As he’s known for creating some of the country’s finest couture cakes, we weren’t surprised when we asked him about his favorite holiday dessert and he named an old-fashioned classic that, when finished, is a spectacular conversation piece.
What’s your favorite holiday dessert?
I love some of the old-fashioned desserts that have now disappeared from restaurants. Things you used to get at a tea parlor, like at the Plaza Hotel. Something that is elaborate and beautiful and nostalgic for me is baked Alaska. I’m also crazy about baked egg whites, which is really what meringue is. I used to be fascinated seeing my mother whip egg whites into a foam for baked Alaska or for mousse. Watching them gather up air and triple in volume to become white peaks was fascinating. You can mix dollops of egg whites with sugar and make the most amazing baked kisses. For an easy baked Alaska, take ready-made ice cream, shape it into a dome, cover it with swirls of meringue and brown it. The crunchiness on the outside and billowy soft layer underneath — it’s not hard to do. You can add a layer of cake for an interesting effect, or pour some liqueur around it and ignite the whole thing for flambe. Bring that to the holiday table and it’ll be spectacular.
You’re known for sweets, but what’s your favorite savory dish on the holiday table?
There’s nothing like latkes. I use carrots and parsnips in addition to potatoes. Parsnips have a nice sweetness when you cook them. I participated in a latke festival last year with lots of different restaurants and chefs. I made latkes with potatoes, onions, parsnips, black pepper and salt. After we fried them, I wanted to have some kind of dessert-y element, so we sprinkled coarse sugar on top and used torches to get a crystallized crunch. Latke brulee! And I didn’t win! It was rigged.
What’s your most memorable holiday tradition?
The best thing for me about holidays is having people come over. Gathering together people I don’t see often — it’s something special. You look after them. Personally, I don’t like potlucks. If I’m invited somewhere and I ask if I can bring something, it’ll be a special dessert — usually a cake. That’s when I figured out I could have a cake business. When I’m hosting, I like to control everything. I have everything set and people can bring a bottle of wine, but don’t expect to bring dishes.
Catch Ron in action every Thursday on Sweet Genius, 10pm/9c.