The Modern restaurant in New York City is acclaimed not just for its entrées but also for its mouthwatering desserts, which are known for being upscale yet playful and flavorful. In a city with literally tens of thousands of restaurants, The Modern is one of just 16 that earn two or more Michelin stars.

The Modern Kitchen

We asked Mark Henning, pastry sous-chef at The Modern, how he manages to deliver such impressive flavors time and time again. It turns out that the primary secret to creating memorably flavorful desserts lies not in ­advanced cooking techniques but in savvy ingredient selection—and you can use the same ingredients when you make desserts at home.

Here, Henning’s tips on how to choose ingredients that will lift your desserts out of the ordinary…

Trust your nose—and your local farmers—when you select fruit. People have their pet theories about how to tell when different kinds of fruit are ripe and therefore flavorful, but all you really need is your nose. If a fruit has a lot of scent, it almost certainly has a lot of flavor. If it has little scent, it’s likely to have little flavor.

When possible, shop at farmer’s markets and ask the farmers which fruits are doing especially well this year and which are not. Weather fluctuations dramatically affect the quality of fruit, and farmers know what’s thriving and what’s struggling. Example: Last year, it was tough to find flavorful fresh figs, so at The Modern, we switched over to nuts instead for some of our desserts (see below).

Know which fruits you can trust during the cold months. There are many different delicious fruits to choose among during the warm months, but you must be extremely selective when it’s cold. That’s because markets still might have a wide range of fruits on their shelves, but very few will be at their best. Tip: The most flavorful cold-weather fruit options often include persimmons, Concord grapes, figs and citrus.

Figs

When you can’t find a great fruit, use nuts or even a sweet vegetable. Don’t resort to subpar or past-its-prime fruit when you don’t have great fruit. Instead, flavor your desserts with nuts (available at a high-quality level year-round). Nuts do not last forever, though—taste yours to make sure that they have no hint of rancidity before allowing them into your dessert! Nuts can be frozen, too. My favorite nuts for desserts include hazelnuts (hearty and heavy, ideal for winter desserts—at The Modern they are sometimes candied and served with ice cream)…and macadamias, an excellent choice if you’re looking for a lighter flavor.

Or try sweet potato, a delicious fall vegetable that’s sweet enough to substitute for fruit in desserts—anything from cakes to tarts to pies.

Sweet Potatoes

Change your flour, change your flavor. Try different flours now and then. Graham flour is nutty and sweet like graham crackers, with a wonderful coarse texture, and works wonderfully in crusts…while nut flours (almond, pistachio, hazelnut) not only lend their nutty flavors but also have a high fat content that can make baked goods moister.

Changing the flour you use in a recipe can alter the result in unexpected ways, however, so look for recipes that specifically call for these alternate flours if you do not have the time or inclination to learn how to incorporate them into your current recipes through trial and error. If you do wish to replace the all-purpose flour in your favorite recipe with a different flour, one option is to first replace only a quarter of the flour and gradually increase this percentage in future attempts.

Almond Flour

Fruit Tarts That Don’t Need Summer Fruits

Here’s how to make a tasty tart using fresh ingredients this winter and spring as you wait for the summer fruits. Below, two versions of one of my favorite home dessert recipes.

Winter Version: Hazelnut Frangipane Tart with Whipped Mascarpone and Pears

Tart Shell…

1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon (240 g) butter

½ cup (120 g) sugar

1 egg

1½ cups plus 1 Tablespoon (360 g) all-purpose flour

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg until combined, followed by the flour. Roll to one-eighth-inch thickness, and place in a buttered tart pan.

Hazelnut Frangipane…

7 Tablespoons (100 g) butter

6.6 ounces (100 g) hazelnut flour

¾ cup (100 g) powdered sugar

3 large (60 g) egg yolks

1⅓ Tablespoons (20 g) Poire ­Williams liqueur

Pinch (1 g) salt

Cream the butter, flour and powdered sugar. Slowly add the egg yolks and Poire Williams, scraping the sides of the bowl well. Add the salt. Spread the mixture over the tart dough, and bake at 325˚F until the top is golden brown.

Whipped Mascarpone…

5 ounces (150 g) heavy cream

5 ounces (150 g) mascarpone cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (30 g) sugar

⅔ teaspoon (4 g) salt

Combine in a bowl, and whip to ­medium-stiff peaks.

Poached Pears…

6½ cups (1,300 g) sugar

4⅛ cups (1,000 g) water

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole star anise

1 teaspoon whole allspice

1 teaspoon whole cloves

4 pears, peeled and cut to ½-inch slices

Bring all the ingredients except the pears to a boil. Add the pears, and simmer until the pears feel tender to the touch. Strain out the spices, then store the pears in the liquid and chill.

To serve: Serve a slice of the tart with a dollop of whipped mascarpone, topped with a spoonful of the pears.

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Spring Version:  Almond Frangipane Tart with Whipped Crème Fraîche and Rhubarb

Follow the tart shell recipe above.

Almond Frangipane… 

7 Tablespoons (100 g) butter

6.6 ounces (100 g) almond flour

¾ cup (100 g) powdered sugar

3 large (60 g) egg yolks

1⅓ Tablespoons (20 g) Grand ­Marnier liqueur

Pinch (1 g) salt

Cream the butter, flour and powdered sugar. Slowly add the egg yolks and Grand Marnier, scraping the sides of the bowl well. Add the salt. Spread the mixture over the tart dough, and bake at 325˚F until the top is golden brown.

Whipped Crème Fraîche…

5½ ounces (150 g) heavy cream

5½ ounces (150 g) crème fraîche

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (30 g) sugar

⅔ teaspoon (4 g) salt

Whip everything to medium-stiff peaks.

Poached Rhubarb…

6½ cups (1,300 g) sugar

4⅛ cups (1,000 g) water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon lemon zest

8 rhubarb stalks, sliced to ¼ inch

Bring all the ingredients except the rhubarb to a boil. Put the sliced rhubarb into a bowl. Pour hot liquid over the rhubarb, and cover the bowl with a plate. Let sit until room temperature. Strain.

To serve: Serve a slice of the tart with a dollop of whipped crème fraîche, topped with a spoonful of the rhubarb.