Chef’s Dish: D’Amico Pastry Chef Leah Henderson
Longtime D’Amico pastry chef Leah Henderson continues creating desserts that change with the seasons.
As the pastry chef for D’Amico and Partners, Leah Henderson is responsible for creating desserts to feature in the company’s numerous restaurants across both the Twin Cities and Naples, Florida.
“You want everything to be as fresh as the apple I picked at my parents’ orchard,” Henderson says. Her attitude toward cooking is simple and straightforward, but her job is far from either.
For Henderson, creating sweet treats involves change as constant as the seasons.
“As the seasons change, I’m probably inspired the most,” Henderson says. “I just start with simple ingredients and work those into different restaurants and their themes.”
Themes broad and vibrant enough to keep Henderson engaged in the kitchen. At first glance one can underestimate the breadth of factors Henderson deals in.
“It’s ever-changing,” Henderson says. From the Italian staples at D’Amico & Sons to dynamic options such as the monthly tasting menu dubbed “Voyage,” at Lurcat, Henderson stays on her toes.
“We have so many restaurants and it keeps changing,” Henderson says. “[At Lurcat] we’re doing modern India, it’s something I’ve never even done but it’s opened up a new way I had never explored before.”
There’s joy to be found in developing every new dish, whether that’s in creating a wedding cake for a catering gig, building the D’Amico and Partners pie program or keeping each restaurant on trend. Visit each of the six D’Amico and Partners restaurant concepts and you’ll be greeted with the full gamut of dessert takes.
While Henderson keeps her focus on D’Amico and Partners restaurants and catering in Minnesota and Florida, it’s evident where her major well of inspiration lies: her home state. One line on Henderson’s resume will tell you that she once made a birthday cake for Prince. When this topic is broached, Henderson laughs, “I’m not sure if Prince ever actually saw it but at the time it was my claim to fame. I’m very proud of that cake.”
Like many proud Minnesotan chefs I’ve spoken with, Henderson hails from a family farm, a piece of her identity that’s remains engrained in her work ethic. She credits her “get a gun” attitude from the farm for her drive to create in the kitchen.
Being in Minnesota, “I have access to ingredients I grew up with and a lot of my inspiration still comes from dishes my mother made,” Henderson says. “My mom taught me how to cook and bake in the kitchen as a kid.”
In many ways, it’s a kitchen built out of memories for Henderson. Studying nutrition, Henderson planned on being a teacher until discovering it wasn’t for her. Still, she had a small fortune of culinary skills she had collected from an early age. She became a chef, and the rest is best told on the plate.
It’s clear that neither cooking nor baking are something Henderson will tire of quickly, but a career that she’s in for the journey. As far as the choice between sweet and savory desserts, Henderson is a self-described traditionalist.
“Sweet,” Henderson answers. “I like bold flavors.”
Pavlova with key lime crema, fresh berries and hibiscus syrup
4 egg whites, room temp
1/4 tsp salt
7 ounces granulated sugar
.25 grams cornstarch
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Line sheet pan with a piece of parchment paper.
Beat whites and salt to soft peaks. Slowly add sugar in a steady stream. Continue to beat to a stiff glossy meringue. Remove from mixer, sift cornstarch over meringue and fold to combine. Add vinegar and vanilla. Transfer meringue to center of parchment, spreading meringue to an 8-inch round. Bake at 225 degrees for about one hour. Should be crisp on the outside and soft like a marshmallow on the inside.
3 cups water, warm
2 hibiscus tea bags
7 ounces granulated sugar
1/4 cup lime juice
2 gelatin sheets, hydrate in cold water
Pour water over tea bags to infuse, strain. Reduce tea by half. Remove from heat and add sugar, gelatin and juice. Refrigerate until chilled.
Key Line Crema
10 Tbsp lime juice
10 egg yolks
4 ounces granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 ounces butter
Zest of 2 limes.
8 ounces mascarpone
Combine juice, eggs, sugar and salt. Whisk over water bath until thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in butter. Cool, strain and add zest of 2 limes. Add mascarpone and whisk until smooth. Mound on top of cooled pavlova. Top with fresh berries tossed in hibiscus syrup.