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From pastries to sundaes, we explore the best desserts in South Jersey
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From pastries to sundaes, we explore the best desserts in South Jersey

You may or may not be aware of it, but October is National Dessert Month. While many of these obscure holidays seem random and arbitrary, this one makes a bit more sense to us, as October is the only month that features a day where costumed children are encouraged to go door to door, begging for whatever sweet treats their neighbors may be offering. Even if you are too old for trick-or-treating, between the pumpkin pies, caramel apples and gallons of cider, sweets are definitely on the brain this time of year.

Perhaps the most highly respected master of sweets in South Jersey is Thaddeus DuBois, a world-renowned pastry chef who has worked everywhere from Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa to the White House to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, where he currently resides as Executive Pastry Chef. Dubois and his team prepare desserts for just about every restaurant at the resort, plus in-room dining and special events — and all of it is overseen by his watchful eyes. We had a chance to sit down and talk sweets with him recently. Here is what he had to say.

Atlantic City Weekly: Beyond the basic concept of sweetness, what elements go into creating the perfect dessert?

Thaddeus DuBois: I always say sugar is kind of a crutch for the pastry chef, the same way salt might be for a traditional chef. So you have to be careful with sugar, because it can sometimes make things just taste sweet without much actual flavor. Let’s say you are preparing a mango mousse … if you put in too much sugar, it’s going to overtake the mango. So I always try to look at it from the standpoint of how much sugar does a recipe need to balance the other ingredients, but not take over. I’m really committed to that concept. Making a good dessert is all about the method, having a good recipe and balancing the ingredients.

ACW: In 2004 you worked as Executive Pastry Chef at the White House under President George W. Bush. What was that like?

TD: It’s obviously very unique, and most people don’t get the opportunity, so I enjoyed working there very much. The White House is sort of a cross between a very exclusive private hotel and a home. The President will often have working lunches that might have 20 or 30 people or a state dinner for 100 people, and then you have the private side of it with very small functions for just the President and his family. It’s kind of a mix of two things.

As far as favorite desserts go, the President was very simple in his tastes, as was the First Lady. Mrs. Bush actually really liked a dessert called the Lady Baltimore Cake, which is a simple white cake that will sometimes be studded with candied fruits, with a marshmallow icing. One time I made that for an event and she had had a very large piece of it. So I was in the kitchen about 30 minutes after the gathering had ended and the phone rings and it was the First Lady on the phone asking me to bring her up another piece!

President Bush liked chocolate chip cookies. We used to always keep fresh-baked cookies in their private kitchen on the second floor. Those would be in there daily. He always liked simple desserts like pies … he used to love this chocolate cream pie that I would make. I swear he would eat half of it. Then he would say he was on a diet!

ACW: What first got you interested in pastries?

TD: I was always interested because my grandmother was always a big baker, so I used to do a lot of baking when I was a little kid. I swear we probably baked at least three or four times a week. So I was introduced to it that way. Then later I was working in a few bakeries out West and one of my bosses said, “If you are really interested in this as a career, you should get some good schooling.” And he recommended The Culinary Institute of America. So I went there, and that’s how I got into it.

ACW: What are some of the biggest mistakes someone might make when preparing a dessert?

TD: There are a lot of them. It’s hard unless you are professionally trained in this field to look at a recipe and know if it’s a good recipe or a bad recipe. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad recipes out there. I always tell people that it doesn’t matter if it was printed in a book or a magazine or not, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good recipe. And if you have a good recipe but don’t follow the method, that can be bad, as well. Baking is like chemistry … it’s very specific. It’s not like throwing salt on a steak. It has to be precise.

ACW: What have some of the challenges been working at such a large resort such as Hard Rock?

TD: This is the third large casino I have worked in, so I am getting used to the challenges because they are all the same. With pastries we deal with a lot of fragile things — show pieces, wedding cakes, little delicate pastries – so one of the biggest challenges is just getting the products that we make within the pastry shop to the location where the event is. We have racks that we have to roll over bumpy tile floors and things like that. So actually getting all the pastries and desserts to their locations intact has always been one of the biggest challenges at any big casino.

ACW: What inspires you when coming up with dessert concepts?

TD: There are a lot of trends out there, but unfortunately a lot of them come and go very quickly. And for Atlantic City, they tend to get here a bit late. The trends mostly come from the West Coast, with the majority of it coming out of California. But I do try to keep up on all of it. I have a lot of magazines and books and stuff, and I incorporate those ideas into some of the things that I do. But a lot of the things that we use the most of are the classic desserts, like crème brulee or tiramisu or fruit tarts. Those classics will always remain popular. We do work a lot with basic stuff, but we also do a lot of events where I can work with some concepts that are more current.

The sweetest things

If you are wondering where to find some top spots to celebrate National Dessert Month, look no farther. Below are some of the best bakeries and restaurants in South Jersey to give your sweet tooth a workout.

Council Oak Steaks & Seafood: Hard Rock’s signature high-end dining experience leaves nothing as an afterthought, and that certainly goes for the dessert menu. The gorgeous list of creations from Executive Pastry Chef Thaddeus DuBois includes cinnamon-sugar doughnuts served with a quartet of sauces, creme brulee made with Grand Marnier, berries and an almond wafer and their much loved Blackout Torte, which also happens to be the personal favorite of Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall Chef Charles Soreth. “My go-to dessert in South Jersey is the Blackout Torte at Council Oak,” he says. “It’s an amazing brownie with hazelnut anglaise and raspberry sorbet.” Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City is located at 1000 Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Go to HardRockHotelAtlanticCity.com.

Ventnor No. 7311: When the local small-batch bakery you are thinking about stopping in at is owned by someone named “Cookie,” you know you are on the right track. When the “Cookie” in question is none other than local legend and restaurateur Cookie Till, you can expect nothing short of perfection. Such is the case at Ventnor No. 7311, a spot cherished by those in the know from its incredible lineup of tasty treats. “We do a lot of blueberry muffins, scones, and, of course, the fruit pies,” says Till, whose blueberry handpies are a thing of beauty. “We do a lot of gluten free and paleo options, too, which are really popular simply because they are so good,” says Till.

And while the treats here are sweet, flavor is really the key. “You have to be subtle with sugar. You have to let the ingredients speak for themselves, Till says. “The sweetness is just the transfer.” Till is quick to transfer much of the credit to Kim Richmond, the onsite partner who you are likely to meet should you stop in for a visit at Ventnor No. 7311. “She is my working partner, and she is there every day, and she is an amazing baker!” Ventnor No. 7311 is located at 7311 Ventnor Ave. in Ventnor. Go to Ventnor7311.com.

Baker Burger Co.: Baker Burger Co. is the new kid on the block in Margate, having just opened their doors last spring. A one-stop-shopping experience, this combo burger joint/dessert paradise serves up amazing burgers, crab cakes and chicken sandwiches, but the desserts here are anything but an afterthought. Their incredible ice cream sandwiches — your choice of cookie-based or brownie-based — have created a sizeable buzz, as has the list of baked goods including various pies, cakes and specialty cookies, including The Big O, a sweet tooth’s dream consisting of two chocolate chip cookies with an Oreo baked inside. A lineup of autumn-based options are currently on the menu, including a snickerdoodle sundae, Jewish apple cake, Bourbon pecan pie and a pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap cookie crust. Her mini cupcakes with vanilla buttercream are worth the visit alone. Baker Burger Co. is located at 7903 Ventnor Ave. in Margate. Go to BakerBurgerCompany.com.

Hammerbacher: For the last few years this incredible bakery has been on the radar of foodies and anyone who has a soft spot for baked goods done the right way. Run by the husband and wife team of Paul and Lauren Erbacher, the shop shares the sort of mystique of an underground club, with its untraditional appearance and tendency to be open only three days a week at random hours. But none of that seems to stop them from selling out of their incredible offerings every day, as guests line up early for treats like their stuffed brioche, brownies, rotating cupcake flavors and, of course, the ever-popular Sin Buns — Hammerbacher’s take on the classic cinnamon bun. And while it’s National Dessert Month, it would be remiss not to mention Hammerbacher’s savory side, including breads – the best focaccia you will ever have – and knish stuffed with everything from mashed potatoes and cheddar to mac ’n cheese. Hammerbacher is located at 40 Boston Ave in Egg Harbor City. Go to HammerbacherKitchen.com.

Knife & Fork Inn: Few spots define dining in Atlantic City more than Knife & Fork Inn, the classic old guard restaurant located on the south edge of town. Many a plate of Lobster Thermidor have been consumed here since the doors opened in 1912, and that dish alone would likely be enough to cement this place into the history books of America’s Playground, but man cannot — and should not — end a meal with an entrée and nothing more. Hence why the folks at Knife & Fork have such an extensive dessert menu featuring a variety of items such as white chocolate cheesecake, vanilla bean crème brulee, a mixed berry Napoleon and a cranberry walnut bread pudding, lifted to new heights with the addition of whipped cream and a rich and delicious vanilla bourbon sauce. A list of coffees, after-dinner drinks and dessert wines round out the menu. Knife & Fork Inn is located at 3600 Atlantic Ave in Atlantic City. Go to KnifeAndForkInn.com.

Borgata Baking Company: While many casinos offer up desserts on the menus of their restaurants, few have an in-house bakery that you can just walk up to and grab a little something. But Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa does. It’s called Borgata Baking Company, and its can’t-miss location just before the entrance to the casino floor makes it a must-stop for anyone on their way to or from the parking garage. The glass case is dazzling, holding an assortment of delicate and decadent treats like cake pops, homemade gelato, whoopee pies and some seriously delicious French macarons. Yes, the line can be on the long side, but that actually comes in handy as it gives you time to mull over exactly what you want, allowing a few minutes for you to change your mind five times. Borgata is located at 1 Borgata Way in Atlantic City. Go to TheBorgata.com.

Bellino’s Market: Bellino’s Market is something of a jack of all trades, as the husband and wife duo of former Smithville Inn Executive Chef Chris Bellino and his wife Suzanne specialize in everything from fresh deli sandwiches to house-ground sausages, prepared foods and a variety of fresh produce, pastas and specialty items. But one of the absolute standouts is the dessert case, a dizzying array of sweet creations dreamt up and baked by Suzanne, a highly skilled chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. What’s in the case varies a bit, but the options are always plentiful. Must-trys include both apple and blueberry crumb cakes, a flourless chocolate torte, lemon bars, bread pudding and a key lime pie that is easily the best in all of South Jersey. Bellino’s Market is located at 45 S. New York Road in Galloway. Go to BellinosMarket.com.

Mino’s Bakery: A favorite in South Jersey for decades, Mino’s is a Greek-owned bakery, which means you can count on their baklava, galaktoboureko and kourambiedes being the real deal, but the one thing everybody seems to go crazy for here is the very American strawberry shortcake, which continues to be their most popular dessert. It can even be purchased as a single slice, should you be curious what all the fuss is about but not ready to pull the trigger on a whole cake just yet. Don’t worry: One bite and you will be. Minos Bakery is located at 106 W. Black Horse Pike in Pleasantville and 4100 Ventnor Avenue in Atlantic City. Go to Facebook.com.

Sugar Factory: From their insane milkshakes and over-the-top sundaes (some of which feature pyrotechnics and pumped-in music), nobody celebrates the concept of desserts quite like Sugar Factory, a combination restaurant/candy store inside Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. This massive space is one of the few overtly kid-friendly options within any casino, and the fun vibe and nearly endless menu means there is always something for everyone to enjoy. Even their drinks — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic — come with a variety of sugary garnishes like candy necklaces, licorice rope, lollipops and other goodies, all dangling from massive goblets, most of which include bubbling, cauldron-like dry ice effects. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is located at 1000 Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Go to SugarFactory.com.

Steve & Cookie’s By the Bay: The gold standard for fine dining in Margate is easily Steve & Cookie’s, a sprawling restaurant that makes for the perfect spot for any special occasion with its classy interior accented with a piano bar and perfectly art-decked walls. Taste comes from all sides here thanks to Owner Cookie Till — yes the same Cookie Till who owns the aforementioned Ventnor. No. 7311 — and that includes the dessert menu, which features a variety of treats. But go for one of the much-beloved fruit pies — apple, blueberry (when in season) or the just-about-perfect Margate Beach Pie, their memorable and luscious take on key lime pie. The peanut butter pie, however, are the thing dreams are made of. Steve & Cookie’s is located at 9700 Amherst Ave. in Margate. Go to SteveAndCookies.com.

Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall: While best known for their long list of craft beers and incredible pub grub, Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall on Atlantic City’s Orange Loop makes one of the best desserts around — a cheesecake empanada — which is the creation of Chef Charles Soreth, the mastermind behind everything that comes out of the kitchen here. The cheesecake empanada starts with a house-made New York-style cheesecake which is wrapped in dough and deep fried, then the whole thing gets paired with macerated strawberries and a graham cracker streussel. It’s damn near perfection. Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall is located at 133 S. Tennessee Ave. in Atlantic City. Go to TenneseeAvenueBeerHall.com.

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