meet in your kitchen| A Greek dessert creation by the Grand Hyatt’s Pastry Chef
by eat in my kitchen
This young man is a sweet genius in the kitchen! His creations open the door to new culinary experiences, but with such respect and care for the single ingredients that besides its spectacular visual effect, the result tastes as comforting as your favourite cake. Benjamin Donath is the Grand Hyatt Berlin’s executive pastry chef and furthermore, he’s responsible for the dessert creations for German chancellor Angela Merkel and her guests. If that weren’t enough, he managed to make me fall in love with a dessert made with Retsina. The Greek resinated wine is rather difficult to appreciate, at least for my taste, but when we met in the Hyatt’s kitchen Ben turned it into a fantastic composition called Griechischer Wein. Apart from being a quote from a famous German pop song in the 70s, this means Greek Wine and describes a complex composition which Ben created for eat in my kitchen: fluffy retsina honey sorbet, buttery almond financier, sour apple terrine, light yoghurt espuma, crunchy yoghurt meringue and caramelised amaranth pops. It tasted as impressive as it sounds!
I first met Ben at a Christmas event in December, he helped me to decorate a gingerbread house. The result was so satisfying that it even got a place of honour under my Christmas tree. The chef’s patience combined with a determined sense for perfection fascinated me, and I must admit, being the pastry chef of an internationally renowned hotel dedicated to savouring on the highest level made me curious. Ben is the kind of person who follows a goal with a passion once it’s in his head. Although he seems too down-to-earth to be obsessed, he is extremely focussed. He won an award as the pastry chef of the German Culinary Team and gathered experiences abroad before he was asked to become Hyatt‘s executive pastry chef back in 2010. Ben is honest, he admits that he had to learn a lot in the beginning, creatively but also logistically. The responsibility given to him was quite a challenge but he grew into this new position with time and through the trust he received from his team. If you cater to 1500 people and present a selection of dessert creations to the chancellor for her official dinners, you simply have to believe in yourself and that’s what Ben does. When he talks about his sweet creations, about contrasting flavours, combining dishes of different textures and temperatures, you can easily hear his dedication, and when you look into his eyes you can see the artist’s passion and love for the ingredients he uses to bring his visions to life.
Ben says that he found his own style over the years, his signature, but that’s an ongoing journey for him, one that leads him to work ever more minimally. He wants to work with less ingredients and concentrate on maybe four nuances, simple and pure. His creations speak for his creativity and he has many ideas for the future. He would love to involve more herbs in his desserts, so maybe one day he’ll take over part of the hotel’s roof garden in the name of sweet savouring and turn it into Ben’s herbal oasis, we’ll see!
Greek Wine by Benjamin Donath
For 4-6 people you need
For the Retsina honey sorbet
water 190 g / 7 ounces
Retsina wine 320g / 11 ounces
glucose syrup 40g / 1 1/2 ounces
sugar 50g / 1 3/4 ounces
pectin (pectagel rose) 3 1/2g / 1/10 ounce
chestnut honey 50g / 1 3/4 ounces
a pinch of salt
Combine the sugar and pectin.
In a large pot, bring all the ingredients with 125g / 4.5 ounces of the Retsina wine to the boil, cook for 2 minutes. Take off the heat and mix in the remaining Retsina wine. Purée in a blender, filter through a cloth strainer and freeze in an ice cream machine.
For the almond financier
sugar 80g / 2 3/4 ounces
egg white 75g / 2 1/2 ounces
ground almonds, roasted, 30g /1 ounce
plain flour 300g / 10.5 ounces
beurre noisette (brown butter), melted and cool, 80g / 2 3/4 ounces
honey 1/4 teaspoon
a pinch of salt
Set the oven to 160°C / 320°F (fan-assisted oven).
Combine the flour and almonds.
Beat the egg white and salt until stiff, adding the sugar gradually. Gently stir in the honey and lemon zest and fold in the flour-almond mixture. Let the beurre noisette drop slowly into the dough and mix carefully. Pour the dough into a baking dish lined with parchment paper, it should come up to 1 1/2 cm / 1/2″. Bake the financier until golden on top and baked through, it should stay juicy inside.
For the yoghurt espuma
You will need a cream whipper for the espuma.
milk 25g / 1 ounce
Greek yoghurt 50g / 2 ounce
sugar 2 teaspoons
chestnut honey 1 teaspoon
a pinch of salt
lemon juice 1 teaspoon
egg white, beaten, of 1/2 egg
gelatine 1/3 sheet
Soak the gelatin in cold water and dissolve in a little yoghurt. Mix with the other ingredients and fill 2/3 of a cream whipper with the mixture. Screw on the cream charger and let the espuma soak overnight.
For the yoghurt meringue
egg white 1
sugar 25g /1 ounce
icing sugar, sieved, 25g /1 ounce
Greek yoghurt 20g / 1 ounce
lemon juice 1 teaspoon
Beat the egg white and salt until stiff, adding the sugar gradually. Fold in the icing sugar, yoghurt and lemon juice and stir gently until combined. Spread on parchment paper (about 4mm / 1/4″ thick) and let it dry in the 40 – 50°C / 105 – 120°F warm oven.
For the Retsina syrup
apple juice 25g / 1 ounce
water 25g / 1 ounce
Retsina wine 75g / 2 1/2 ounces
lemon juice 1 teaspoon
sugar 3 teaspoons
chestnut honey 2 teaspoons
In a sauce pan, bring the apple juice, water, half the Retsina wine, lemon juice and zest, sugar and honey to the boil and cook on low temperature (simmering) for 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool to 70°C / 160°F, stir in the remaining Retsina wine and filter through a cloth strainer.
For the apple terrine
sugar 40g / 1.5 ounces
water 2 teaspoons
baking apples, peeled, cored, quartered and cut into 1/2cm / 1/4″ slices, 250g / 9 ounces
a pinch of salt
calvados 1 teaspoon
cinnamon stick 1/4
In a wide sauce pan, bring the sugar and water to the boil. When it turns into a golden caramel add the apple slices, salt, lemon zest and cinnamon. Close with a lid and cook for 5 minutes on medium heat, turn the apples once every minute. Take the apples out with a slotted ladle and set aside. Keep the juices in the pan, add the calvados and bring to the boil. Cook down to a thick sauce and gently mix with the apple slices. Line a baking sheet with cling film, pile the apples on the cling film (a few centimetres / inches high), cover with cling film and a second baking sheet. Press together with weights for 10 minutes. Put the compressed apples wrapped in cling film in the freezer. When they are frozen, cut out circles with a round 5 cm / 2″ cookie cutter (or cut into 5 x 5cm / 2 x 2″ squares). They should be at room temperature when served.
For the yoghurt sauce
Greek yoghurt 25g / 1 ounce
Whisk the yoghurt and season with salt, sugar and lemon juice to taste.
For the caramelised amaranth
popped amaranth 50g / 2 ounces
icing sugar 30g / 1 ounce
butter 1 teaspoon
In a sauce pan, warm up the amaranth with 1/3 of the icing sugar on medium heat. When it starts to caramelise, slowly add the remaining sugar (the amaranth will turn glossy). Add the salt and butter and spread on parchment paper. Crumble into small pieces.
The Greek Wine
Spread the yoghurt sauce on a large plate, place the apple terrine in the middle and top with a scoop of Retsina honey sorbet. Spray the yoghurt espuma on top of the sorbet and sprinkle with amaranth pops. Arrange the broken meringue and financier around it and pour some of the Retsina syrup on the plate.
You have been the Head Pastry Chef at the Grand Hyatt in Berlin since 2010. What are the differences between working in the kitchen of a hotel, a restaurant or a confectionery and why did you choose to work at a hotel?
The difference is clearly the size of the operation as well as the versatility of the daily business. Here you need a mix of skills like being creative, being organized and being focused on leading a team and controlling costs. All this is on a bigger scale than it is in an à la carte kitchen. Even though my heart still beats for restaurants, I rather see myself in a company like Hyatt.
Before you settled in Berlin, you also worked in Australia, Mexico and Malta. How important is traveling for your culinary inspiration and what did you learn from the experiences abroad?
To me, this is where a lot of inspiration comes from. You know when you are away from home or your comfort zone that you want to open your eyes to get along and soak up all the different cultures and influences of a certain place. Even though I often don’t realize it right away, ideas for new dishes evolve from places I´ve been to, may it be a weekend in Vienna or a few months in Asia.
What are your memories of the time you worked at the Intercontinental hotel in Malta? Did you learn something about the island’s traditional cuisine?
I have to admit that a competition brought me there. I went there to support my former colleague, who was a member of the Turkish national culinary team and after the competition, we supported the Intercontinental Malta for its preopening phase. Unfortunately, my stay did not last for too long, but for me, it was a great experience diving into new and unknown international cuisine.
Who or what inspired you to become a pastry chef? Do you have a kitchen idol?
Thats easy to answer. At the age of sixteen, I didn’t have a clue what to do or even where I could see myself in the future. I just knew that I wanted to learn a craft. In the end I decided between two apprenticeships, so it was carpenter vs. pastry chef. You can make an easy guess which decision I made. And what can I say, I am still very happy with my choice and haven’t regretted it since.
The idol thing is something that I can’t really support, there are people by my side for a certain period of time, who I might look up to, but then our ways separate and there will be other people. To be creative in a good team is far better than having idols, in my opinion.
What was the first dish you cooked or baked on your own, what is your first cooking memory?
The first thing I baked was Christmas cookies with my mom. We peeled almonds for it, kneaded the dough and cut it into stars, Christmas trees and all that. I think my first dish was a classic one: spaghetti with tomato-basil sauce. Not my brightest moment, I must admit, but very tasty and simple indeed.
Do you have a sweet tooth or do you prefer to create but not to savour your creations?
I can’t really bring this to a point. I love to create and try afterwards, but I am not a “I always have a bar of chocolate at home” type of guy. Although I would rather go for a good sausage, I still have my sweet moments and when I eat in a restaurant, I often have dessert to try, especially when eating at good places.
How do you develop new recipes? What inspires you?
My recipes are always made to complement each other on the plate. You will always find light sweetness with an acid touch to it, there will be something baked as well as something creamy, something iced and something warm. So all in all it is about textures, temperatures and the main thing: the original taste of a product. My inspiration comes from people who surround me in my daily life, be it colleagues or friends. It can be from travels or eating at different places. Sometimes it happens when I just stroll through a market but there are times when there is just nothing in my head. That is when it is time for a day off.
What are your three favourite baking ingredients?
Herbs, Spirits and Chocolate.
When you bake in your own kitchen, what’s your favourite recipe and why?
I actually don’t bring work home but the last thing I did was gingerbread with the kids. Sometimes we make some ice creams at home, more in summer than at this time of the year. I usually spend more time cooking savoury things.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a pastry chef?
Go ahead and work in many places such as classic pastry shops, restaurants or hotels with different multicultural teams. Be open for anything and don’t be afraid to fail… if you do, try again. Develop your own style after a while.
What are your favourite places to buy and enjoy food in Berlin?
This would be any good weekend market. I love to be outside, taking my time, sip a cup of coffee and decide on what to cook while looking around, so relaxing.
What did you choose to share on eat in my kitchen?
The recipe is called Greek Wine and is made of Retsina wine, honey, Greek yoghurt, apple and almonds.
If you could choose one person to cook a meal for you, who and what would it be?
It would be Luke Burgess from the Garagistes, Hobart and it would be any of his tasting menues. What I really like about his dishes is the simplicity while they still seem to be so well combined.
You’re going to have ten friends over for a spontaneous dinner, what will be on the table?
Mixed starters (olives, dips, veggies, sausage, pita), the main course would contain plain mashed potatoes, red wine shallots, and a big piece of meat, and for dessert I imagine chocolate cake, nuts, toffee and vanilla ice cream.
What was your childhood’s culinary favourite and what is it now?
My mom’s tomato sauce. Today I love any good piece of fish like sea bream, sea bass or cod, combined with risotto, greens and good olive oil. All I need to be happy.
Do you prefer to cook on your own or together with others?
Definitely for others or even better with others.
Thank you Ben!