A sweet feast: Local chefs show holiday desserts can be a piece of cake

Jennifer Parezo

Teresa Taylor

One year, Enan and Jennifer Parezo laid out a traditional Thanksgiving feast -- in the heat of August.

The two chefs knew they would be working on the actual holiday and didn't want to miss the experience. So they advanced the calendar and invited their friends over.

The running joke in Eileen Ferri's family is the irony that, on holidays, there may be no dessert from the family's bakery at the family gathering.

"Usually we make something special for us, but if someone wants to buy it ... I might sell it," says Ferri, matriarch of Ashley Bakery west of the Ashley.

That's the way it goes in the business, especially around the holidays. Bakers are so busy making sweet things for other people that they often have to sacrifice their own desires.

But we asked four of them locally what dessert they would envision making for a Thanksgiving dinner at home, gathered with those they are thankful for.

And one way or another, all will make that happen.



'Truly love what I do'

Jennifer Parezo is the pastry chef at Twenty Six Divine, which is not an address but a tiny, charming cafe and bakery at 682 King St. She and her chef husband, Enan, initially opened a catering business there in 2010, only two weeks after getting married.

The name represents both the couple and their food. Both were born on the 26th of different months, and they got married on the 26th. "Divine" represents the frequent response they get to their food.

Jennifer's love of baking was sparked by time with her grandmother on her Minnesota farm.

"She would teach me how to roll out doughs, bake breads, make jams and different things. I really loved spending time with her and always had lots of fond memories based around baking, which I suppose is how I chose this as a career. I feel lucky because I truly love what I do."



Early influences

Michelle Diminich aspired to be a chef as a young girl growing up in Atlanta, and her family was very supportive. She took her cooking cues from both Nathalie Dupree on television and taking hands-on classes with Janet Gaffney. (Both Dupree and Gaffney now live in the Charleston area.)

"I remember a class devoted exclusively to French baguettes and breads. In the late '80s, these classes weren't as common as they are today, so they were very special," says Diminich, who bakes for Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery and has a custom-order business at dolcebakerycharleston.com.

Another fond memory is her great-grandmother making popcorn balls for the Thanksgiving gathering. "They were a gooey mess of molasses, raisins and peanuts. There would be a huge tin of them at the beginning of the weekend, and by the end, we were fighting over the last few."



Sweet on nostalgia

Desserts that seem to wow people the most have nostalgic qualities, says Emily Cookson, pastry chef at Charleston Grill. "Things that remind us of our childhood. I like to take those and elevate them and that nostalgia. I also really enjoy when a dessert hits all the spots -- sweet, salty, tart, crunchy, soft, cold, warm."

Cookson herself has hit a few spots in her 11 years in Charleston. She started in pastry at Charleston Grill as a Johnson & Wales University student, then moved to the Woodlands Inn in Summerville. She returned downtown as a full-fledged pastry chef at Circa 1886 and then back to the Grill, where she has been the past 3 1/2 years.

Her family is rooted in western Pennsylvania, where English, German and Amish influences prevail. Both of her grandmothers are/were excellent bakers, says Cookson.

"Holidays and summer visits were always filled with hard candies, caramels, cakes, pies, cookies. My paternal grandmother's family started making candy and roasting nuts during the Depression. Her brother continued into the '70s. I have his marble and metal candy bars. I use them at work."

For Thanksgiving, she says, "The one unusual family addition is my grandma's 24-Hour Salad. It's a very '40s, '50s kind of dish. It's red grapes, pineapple, maraschino cherries, marshmallows in whipped cream. We love it!"



Family affair

Eileen and Bernard Ferri bought Ashley Bakery in 1988. The bakery has developed a niche in wedding and occasion cakes and bakes signature breads for a number of restaurants.

A Charleston native, Eileen Ferri was in the restaurant business before turning to baking and once owned Calder's with her sister and nephew. She was a caterer before that.

"A lot of the sweets we used were family recipes. I just brought it to the bakery and we do it on a much larger scale. Most definitely, baking is more of an exact science than cooking. I just think it's more rewarding. Everything you do in a bakery is for a happy occasion."

Ferri was a registered nurse at one time, and is not always sure why she changed professions. But "the bakery is something as a family we're able to do. Over the years, all four daughters have worked here."

For Thanksgiving, she'll have her daughters and their families over, her in-laws, and perhaps a few friends -- about two dozen people in all. "We all bring something. It's worked out well over the years."



Pumpkin Spice Cake With Brown Sugar Buttercream

Makes one 8-inch layer cake

"I love any dessert with pumpkin and you don't really see a lot of layer cakes at Thanksgiving meals, but I think this one makes a great addition to the dessert table. The brown sugar buttercream has a lovely caramel flavor and goes well with many other cakes." -- Michelle Diminich, dolcebakerycharleston.com and Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery


3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 1/4 teaspoons allspice

1/4 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup light brown sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated orange zest


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray an 8-inch cake pan with cooking spray and line bottom with parchment paper. Sift first 8 ingredients together and set aside. Beat sugars and oil until light, 2-3 minutes, in mixer with paddle. Add eggs one at a time while mixing.

Add pumpkin, vanilla and orange zest and mix well. Add sifted dry ingredients and mix just until combined. Pour into cake pan and bake for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool 30 minutes in pan then turn out onto a cooling rack and cool completely.



Brown Sugar Buttercream

5 egg whites

1 3/4 cups light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 pound unsalted butter (room temperature)


Whisk whites, sugar and salt in a metal bowl over simmering water until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Whip with mixer on high speed until whites are glossy and mixture starts to cool. Reduce speed and add butter a little at a time. Beat until light and fluffy.

To assemble: Cut cake horizontally into three equal layers. Spread a layer of buttercream on the bottom layer and place the second layer on top. Spread a layer of buttercream on the second layer and top with the last layer of cake. Ice top and sides of cake with remaining buttercream. Garnish with rosettes of buttercream.

Optional: Diminich garnished the cake with mini, leaf-shaped sugar cookies; something similar can be used or not at all.

Chocolate Toffee Torte

From Ferri, this no-bake torte can be made well in advance and kept chilled until serving.

For crust:

2 1/2 cups chopped pecans

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup melted butter

For ganache:

1 1/3 cups heavy cream

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

For filling:

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup of toffee bits

3 cups whipping cream

1/4 cup coffee liqueur

For garnish: toasted chopped pecans


For crust: In a bowl, mix all ingredients well. Press into the bottom of a parchment-lined, 10-inch springform pan. Chill until the pecans are set.

For ganache: Heat the cream in the microwave for 3 to 5 minutes, until very hot but not boiling. Add the chocolate, whisking to totally combine. Set aside to cool slightly.

Pour a thin layer of ganache over the pecan mixture in the pan. Refrigerate leftover ganache to drizzle over completed torte.

For filling and assembly: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave, a minute at a time, stirring after time, until the chocolate is melted. Add to the cream cheese mixture. Stir to fully combine. Fold in the toffee bits.

In a large bowl, whip the whipping cream to soft peaks. Add the coffee liqueur. Fold the whipped cream mixture into the cream cheese mixture. Spoon over the pecan and ganache crust in the springform pan and chill until very cold, preferably overnight.

Reheat the leftover ganache in the microwave until melted. Drizzle or spread over torte. Top with toasted pecans.



Warm Spiced Apple-Apricot Walnut Cobbler

Makes 8 individual ramekins or one 9x13-inch baking dish

"The inspiration of the dessert I've created is loosely based around traditional apple pie. During the holidays, I always want to keep the idea of the wonderful comfort foods that we all love, but put a small twist on whatever I'm creating. This dessert is simple goodness. My husband loves whenever I make warm desserts combined with ice cream, so of course he was my taste tester and he approved this dessert!" -- Jennifer Parezo, Twenty Six Divine

For cobbler filling:

8 Granny Smith apples, peeled and large diced

3/4 cup dried, small-diced apricots

5 ounces brown sugar (about 3/4 cup)

3 ounces granulated sugar (about 1/2 cup)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons Amaretto liqueur

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

For topping:

8 ounces butter, cubed (1 cup or 2 sticks)

8 ounces brown sugar (1 cup)

4 ounces granulated sugar ( 1/2 cup)

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3 1/2 cups cake flour

1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

7 ounces heavy cream (about 3/4 cup)

7 ounces walnuts, toasted and chopped (about 3/4 cup)


For cobbler filling: Combine ingredients in large pot on medium heat. Cook for 20 minutes until apples are tender, stirring occasionally. Place in baking dish and set aside.

For topping: Cream butter with both sugars and salt in a mixer with a paddle attachment. Sift in dry ingredients and mix on low speed. While mixing, add cream and nuts. Do not over-mix.

Place topping over filling in baking pan. Bake on sheet pan in a 375-degree oven for 30-45 minutes until golden brown.

Serve warm with caramel ice cream (recipe available at postandcourier.com/food).



Caramel Ice Cream


1 vanilla bean

12 ounces heavy cream (1 1/2 cups)

8 ounces sugar (1 cup)

2 ounces water (2 tablespoons)

8 ounces milk (1 cup)

1 egg

6 egg yolks


Split vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape into saucepan.

In another saucepan add heavy cream and warm on medium-low heat. Add sugar and water to pan with vanilla and stir together. Wash down sides of pan with a brush and water. Cook on high heat to reach amber color. Take off heat and gradually add warm heavy cream in three stages, stirring carefully. Place back onto medium heat and dissolve bits of caramel. Once dissolved, gradually add milk while carefully stirring. Combine egg and yolks and temper caramel mixture into eggs slowly. Place mixture back in pot and cook on low heat until it thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Strain mixture and cool over ice bath. Once mixture is cool, freeze in ice-cream machine and place in freezer to firm.



Pecan Cake

Makes one (3-layer) cake

In the fall and winter, Cookson turns to desserts that are homier and heartier such as this cake, a takeoff on a Southern pecan pie.

For cake:

3 1/4 cups finely ground pecans

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

3 eggs

12 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

12 egg whites

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 1/4 cups cake flour, sifted

3/4 cups butter, melted

For pecan pie "filling":

1/2 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup dark corn syrup

1 1/2 cups half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 egg yolks

1/3 cup cornstarch

3 tablespoons butter

For cream cheese icing:

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

8 ounces butter (1 cup or 2 sticks), at room temperature

1 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Toasted pecans for garnish


For cake: Grease three (8-inch) cake pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, whip powdered ground pecans, sugar, eggs, yolks and vanilla extract until pale yellow.

In a separate bowl, whip egg whites and slowly add granulated sugar. Whip to a glossy medium peak. Fold the whites into the yolk mixture. Fold in sifted cake flour and finally butter. Pour into prepared cake pans. Bake until cake springs back from the touch, 30 to 45 minutes.

For filling: Put first 5 ingredients in pot and bring to a simmer. Whisk yolks and cornstarch together. Slowly temper hot liquid into yolk mixture. Return to pot and whisk over medium heat until mixture thickens and eventually boils. Whisk in butter. Pour filling into container and put plastic wrap directly on top to keep a skin from forming. Chill for several hours or overnight.

For icing: Cream together cheese and butter. Add sifted powdered sugar. Add lemon juice and vanilla. Blend until smooth.

To assemble the cake: Spread a half of the "pie filling" on the bottom layer of the cake. Put on another layer of cake and spread the remaining pie filling. Top with remaining cake layer.

Smooth the cream cheese icing over the sides and top of the cake. Top with toasted pecans.