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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Chef shares his secrets for pastry with panache

 •  A crème brûlée ménage à trois

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Pastry chef Ron Viloria's recipes appear dramatic, but this cookie-sorbet concoction can be made at home.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

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What can a pastry chef give the home cook?

Tips on tools, for one. And advice on staples — that is, items and concoctions that are kept on hand at all times to use in building a show-stopping dessert.

Ronald Viloria, 33, the energetic pastry chef at the new Tiki's Grill & Bar at the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, wears an instant-read thermometer in a pocket on the sleeve of his chef's whites. He keeps a granite floor tile in the ice-cream freezer. He lines his ovens with unglazed, unleaded ceramic tiles. He's got an arsenal of miniature ice-cream scoops, ladles, squeeze bottles, sharp little knives, graters and parers, spoons and whisks, long flexible spatulas and about a mile of parchment paper. He even has his own butane torch for caramelizing sugar.

His staples include candied fruits, fresh sorbets, good quality chocolate, fragrant vanilla beans buried in sugar and steeped in rum or brandy, bottles of various fruit purees, crisp little cookies called tuiles (too-eels) and pastry rounds.

"I just love standing there in front of the fridge and looking in and thinking, 'What can I do with this today?' " he said.

None of these things is mysterious, none unavailable to the home cook, none prohibitively expensive, he points out. And though he doesn't say it, you can buy high-quality versions of some of this stuff (sorbets, for instance) or make do with shortcut versions (jam melted with a little water or liquor can take the place of a fresh fruit puree).

An investment in time

The greatest cost is in the time it takes to learn your way around these tools and ingredients. Yet in the course of a morning's visit, Viloria shows off some lighting-quick desserts that will hardly tax the home cook's skills, but have the potential to wow a dinner party.

Viloria has been a pastry chef for more than a dozen years, having trained in the Hilton Hotels system in his native Guam, and later in Japan. He is fully capable of producing the most elaborate confections.

But he'd rather make an intensely flavored fruit sorbet and serve it with a perfect, thin, crisp cookie, some fresh fruit and a sugary homemade meringue. He'd rather present a trio of variously flavored cream puddings, each garnished differently with some of his pantry staples.

"You have to think about flavors," he says. "The most important factor is knowing the ingredients and knowing the flavors you're going for, knowing how to build on that."

His pastry menu for the new restaurant begins with homey ideas: a brownie, cheesecake, sorbets, chocolate cake. But then he starts to talk garnishes, and you know you've left the home planet.

The brownie has a macadamia crust, and it's wrapped in a tuile nest. The chocolate cake is drizzled with red wine jelly infused with vanilla, cinnamon and lemon and served with a Chambord anglaise sauce. The cheesecake involves a lemon lilikoi curd, a topping of oven-dried pineapple, a sweet basil syrup and lemon sauce.

The accumulation of recipes and preparations can sound pretty intimidating to the home chef.

But a home cook can learn to oven-dry or candy fruit, and keep some in the refrigerator. We can make a cheesecake or custard. We can puree fruit and fill a few squeeze bottles. We can melt chocolate and make a chocolate collar or bow. (Yes, you can, we'll show you!)

To cheat or not to cheat?

Now here's a harsh truth: A lot of pastry chefs cheat. They use canned glazes, mixes that mock whipped cream but will stay frothy until the next ice age and many other commercial products.

Viloria won't have it. "It's not necessary," he said. He doesn't even use artificial vanilla: "You might as well just pour grain alcohol into your cake. I forbid it," he added excitedly.

He gets excited a lot. "That's what keeps me here 16 hours a day," said Viloria, who, when he was serving his three-year apprenticeship at the Guam Hilton, used to clock out and then go back in the kitchen to hang with his mentor, the pastry chef, and learn more.

Although he insists on the real thing, Viloria is parsimonious with ingredients. He stores whole vanilla pods in crocks of sugar to flavor the sweetener, then recycles the vanilla to use for an infusion and may even recycle it again after that, scraping the seeds into a custard. He pares the skins from citrus and candies them, and uses the juice for flavoring and the pulp in macerated fruit mixtures.

He's also parsimonious with time, taking the most direct route he can. In making a custard sauce, for example, he dispenses with the double boiler and makes the sauce directly on the stove top in five minutes. He can do this because he knows to keep the heat low, to stir constantly with a paddle and to be patient. He doesn't bother to temper chocolate most of the time, just using a good-quality 65 percent cocoa butter chocolate and melting it gently before using.

Viloria tells his staff that studies have shown that, in any performance — and a meal can be considered a performance — people remember what came first and what what came last.

Since his group makes all the breads that are put on the table first, and the desserts that come last, they have a considerable responsibility.

The young chef got into cooking because he always loved food preparation — would spend the days indoors with his grandmother cooking instead of out playing. He wishes she were here now to see him. But also because he loved art (his hobby is airbrushing paintings on cars), and pastry allowed him to be creative in a visual way.

"You can really blow people's minds with desserts — the presentation and the flavors," he said. "I like that."