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Tampa Bay chefs share holiday memories, dessert recipes to die for

By Laura Reiley

Times Food Critic

Before chefs and restaurateurs were chefs and restaurateurs, they were eaters like the rest of us, coming to the table after Mom or Grandma called everyone in from hours of football watching or Turkey Day games and relaxation. We asked some of Tampa Bay's culinary heavy hitters about their sweet memories of childhood holiday desserts.

For Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation family member and president of Columbia Restaurant Group, food was always serious business, the family's flagship Ybor City restaurant long established as one of Tampa's major draws. The classic grand finale for the Gonzmart Thanksgiving was "Brazo de Gitano" — Spanish for "gypsy's arm." The dessert is a light and spongy cake, similar to a Swiss roll, usually filled with buttercream, custard or dulce de leche.

"It's a recipe from my great-grandfather, Casimiro Hernandez Sr., the founder of the Columbia Restaurant, and a dessert my family has enjoyed during the holidays since I was born," Gonzmart says. "My mom used to make it for special occasions and holidays. She was famous for it."

What Adela Hernandez Gonzmart did to make it a showstopper was to take the traditional Spanish jelly roll and add a delicate meringue outer layer to it. Well, and then top it with strawberries and light it on boozy fire.

Gonzmart made some variations on the recipe for the Columbia Restaurant's 100th anniversary, celebrated back in 2005. "We take fresh strawberries and slice them up to make a glaze to pour over the cake, then flambé it with cherry brandy. It's baked Alaska meets strawberry shortcake."

Zack Gross, chef-owner of St. Petersburg's Z Grille, grew up in Southern California, a half hour outside of Los Angeles. His mother was from a big Mexican family and, as Gross remembers it, food was central to family gatherings.

"You'd go for a snack at my grandparents' and they'd put out a whole chicken with tortillas for you to eat. For the holidays, a lot of what we did was tamales."

For Gross's nuclear family, though, Thanksgiving morning meant big chorizo and egg burritos (so Zack and his two brothers would stay out of the kitchen until late afternoon) and dessert meant one thing: Mom's pumpkin cookies.

"She found the recipe sometime around when I was in fifth or sixth grade. It was from one of those cookbooks the schools do. What makes the recipe different is that they are super moist, like a cake, so they last for a few days."

Although his mom, Connie, doesn't cook much anymore and Gross has taken over the Thanksgiving cooking duties, she still makes her pumpkin cookies around Halloween as well as for birthdays.

"If we're on good speaking terms, she'll make them for me."

For Kim Yelvington, executive pastry chef of Bern's Steak House, Thanksgivings growing up in Louisville, Ky., and North Florida near the Panhandle meant a big Southern buffet of cakes, pies, puddings and so forth, the feast a collaborative effort of her grandmother, mom Vera and aunts, all solid bakers according to Tampa's most celebrated pastry pro (whose brother razzed her by calling her Betty Crocker while they were growing up).

She shares one of her favorite memories: "My mom made a coconut cream pie one year for Thanksgiving at my grandmother's. My grandmother thought my mother had forgotten to brown a meringue and promptly put the pie in the oven. By the time my mom realized her fragile creation was melting in the oven, it was a little too late!"

Her mom's coconut cream pie didn't fare too well, but it made for an oft-retold family tale.

For Jason Fernandez, owner of Bernini, Carne Chophouse and the new Tequila, all in Ybor City where he grew up, the holidays meant equal parts family and Ybor.

"We spent every Christmas Eve/Buena Noche at my Abuela Eugenia's, my mother's mom. We never missed a year until she passed. My abuela (grandmother) had 12 brothers and sisters, and my Abuelo Palmiro (grandfather) had 12 brothers and sisters — to say there was a large gathering is an understatement."

The party started early and went until late, with eating and telling stories all day and all night, opening presents the grand finale. Fernandez remembers the stories getting better every year, accompanied by traditional Latin/Spanish fare like roasted pork leg, Aunt Corrine's black beans and rice, empanadas, tortillas, yuca, sweet potatoes, his mom's green bean almondine and Aunt Cookie's cassata. He says that as time wore on the feast became a bit more Americanized, with red snapper, ham and turkey added into the mix.

Fernandez's mother, Vivian, has presided over recent years' festivities, culminating in her show-stopping spin on English trifle.

"I could go on with this for hours. The most important thing was that we were all together and passing on traditions to the next generation."

Laura Reiley can be reached at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.


Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup pumpkin

1 cup sugar

½ cup oil

1 egg

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 teaspoon milk

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips or pieces

½ cup nuts (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine pumpkin, sugar, oil and egg. Stir together flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt; add pumpkin mixture along with dissolved soda and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips, nuts and vanilla. Drop by teaspoon on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

Source: Zack Gross, Z Grille


Raspberry Trifle

1 orange pound cake (recipe follows)

1 cup good raspberry jam

2 half pints raspberries

Orange cream (recipe follows)

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

For the orange cream:

1 ½ cups milk

1 teaspoon orange zest

5 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons sifted cornstarch

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon Grand Marnier liqueur

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon heavy cream

For the orange pound cake:

2 sticks butter, at room temperature

2 ½ cups sugar, divided

4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1/3 cup grated orange zest, from about 6 oranges

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking power

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

¾ cup orange juice, divided

¾ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the orange cream: Combine milk and orange zest in medium stainless-steel saucepan over medium heat and bring almost to a boil. Remove from heat. Beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until pale and thick, about five minutes. With the mixer on low speed, sprinkle in the cornstarch. Beat on medium-low speed until combined, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. Pour the mixture back into the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes. Immediately pour the mixture through a fine sieve and into a large bowl. Stir in the vanilla, Grand Marnier, butter and heavy cream. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the custard and refrigerate until cold.

Make the orange pound cake: Cream the butter and 2 cups of sugar in an electric mixer. Add eggs one at a time and add zest. Sift the flour, baking power, baking soda and salt. Slowly add the flour, ¼ cup orange juice and buttermilk to the egg mixture. Pour into a greased and floured Bundt pan and bake in a 350-degree preheated oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until a tester comes out clean. While the cake bakes, combine the remaining ½ cup sugar with the remaining ½ cup orange juice in a small saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. When the cake is done, let it cool for 10 minutes and then pour the syrup over the cake.

Make the trifle: Cut the pound cake into slices and spread with raspberry jam. Place a layer of cake, jam side up, in the bottom of a three-quart serving bowl, cutting the pieces to fit. Top with a layer of the raspberries and orange cream. Repeat the layers of cake, raspberries and orange cream, ending with a third layer of cake, jam side down and raspberries. At this point, make sweet whipped cream and decorate the top of the trifle.

Serves 8-10.

Source: Jason Fernandez,

Bernini and Carne Chophouse


Brazo de Gitano "Cien Años"

15 eggs, separated

1 ¼ cups granulated sugar

1 ¼ cups cake flour

4 cups Crema Catalana (recipe follows)

3 cups syrup (recipe follows)

Strawberry jam or preserves

Meringue (recipe follows)

3 pounds fresh strawberries

¾ cup Kirschwasser, or any other cherry brandy

¾ cup grain alcohol

For the syrup:

2 cups water

2 cups granulated sugar

1 strip of lemon peel

1 cup dry Spanish sherry

For the meringue:

5 egg whites

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup granulated sugar

For the crema catalana:

4 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

2 cups milk

½ teaspoon salt

1 strip of lemon peel

1 strip of orange peel

1 cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Make the syrup: Boil water, sugar, and lemon peel for 10 minutes. Add sherry and remove lemon peel.

Make the meringue: Combine egg whites and cream of tartar. Beat with electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add sugar very gradually and beat until stiff.

Make the Crema Catalana: Beat egg yolks lightly in stainless steel or any nonstick saucepan. Add sugar; beat well with wire whisk. Add cornstarch and milk; mix thoroughly. Add salt, lemon peel, orange peel, and cinnamon stick. Blend well and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When custard thickens, cook for 1 minute, stirring. Remove from heat; add vanilla extract; remove cinnamon stick and orange peel; and cool (in individual ovenproof ramekins or ovenproof serving dish). Sprinkle with sugar and place directly under broiler until sugar caramelizes.

Make the cake: In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer at high speed for 2 minutes. Add egg yolks one at a time. Then add sugar slowly. On low speed, gradually add flour. Bake in wax-paper-lined 11- by 16-inch jelly-roll pan at 400 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes. Sprinkle cloth kitchen towel with sugar. When cake is done, immediately invert on towel. Remove wax paper. Evenly spread cake with Crema Catalana filling. Roll up lengthwise like a jelly roll. Place on an ovenproof serving tray. Soak cake slowly with syrup. Cover completely with meringue and bake at 425 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes or until meringue is lightly browned.

To prepare the strawberries, remove hulls and cut large berries in quarters and small berries in half. Coat strawberries with strawberry jam and place to the side until ready to serve. Combine Kirschwasser and grain alcohol in a small fire-safe pitcher. When ready to serve, pour strawberries evenly over cake. Light alcohol mixture on fire and pour evenly over cake and strawberries. Once flames dissipate, cut cake crosswise as you would a jelly roll.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Richard Gonzmart,

the Columbia Restaurant


Coconut Cream Pie

4 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon butter

½ cup sweetened coconut flakes

1 pie crust, cooked

For the whipped cream:

16 ounces heavy cream

¼ cup sugar

Combine yolks, sugar, flour and milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened into a custard, then add vanilla, butter and coconut. Stir until combined, cool slightly and pour into your choice of cooked pie crust.

Make the whipped cream: Whip ingredients to soft fluffy peaks and spread on top of cooled pie.

Serves 8.

Source: Kim Yelvington,

Bern's Steak House

Tampa Bay chefs share holiday memories, dessert recipes to die for 11/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 6:10pm]
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