We’re living in a world where bigger is no longer just better, it’s a necessity. The bigger the experience, the better the presentation, the more successful it’s going to be. And in Scottsdale, Ariz., restaurateurs, pastry chefs and bakeries are applying this to desserts.
Arizona foodie and Instagram personality, Diana Brandt (@AZfoodie), says, “People respond most to the desserts on my page. The more ooey and gooey, the more engagement.”
In the past decade, Scottsdale’s food scene has blossomed, with more access to fresh fish and produce permitting boutique restaurants like FnB and Marcellino to run the gamut. Now, it is the city’s sweet tooth drawing attention to the dessert.
"All of a sudden desserts are en vogue again," says Brandt, "Designer cupcakes and $5 donuts seem to be replacing coffee shops." And it’s not just coffee shops for a morning sweet or afternoon treat; throughout Scottsdale, entire spaces are dedicated to piñata cakes, designer pastries, over-the-top milkshakes and gelaterias. Here’s the mouthwatering checklist.
Macarons at Ruze Cake House
Fruity Pebble and Lucky Charm macarons at Ruze Cake House — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Talk about en vogue. Macarons are undoubtedly an icon in today’s dessert world. In Old Town Scottsdale, a mother-daughter duo experiment with unique flavors of the bite-sized treats at Ruze Cake House. The minimalist shop, accented with rose gold chairs, wall plants and neon lights reading, "stop and taste the roses," provides an elegant backdrop for the delicately stacked rows of pastel macarons behind the counter.
Famed for their hybrid macarons like cereal-inspired Fruity Pebble and Lucky Charm; or cookies like Oreo and Snickerdoodle, Ruze encourages you to try something new, while also familiar. Though the duo switch up flavor offerings with the season, the popular fries macaron will most likely always have a place at their downtown store.
"We were really jealous of the donut and ice cream industries, and how they were able to play around with fun and whimsical flavors," says owner Jessica Boutwell. "At some point we thought, 'Why can't we do for macarons what they've done for donuts and ice cream?'"
Show Stopper Shake at ZuZu
Peaches and cream Show Stopper Shake at ZuZu — Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
If you peek at Hotel Valley Ho’s Instagram feed, you’ll likely preview the over-the-top – literally overflowing – milkshakes served up at the property’s ZuZu restaurant. Chef Russell LaCasce shares that what began two years ago as a way to elevate the milkshake, which was a popular menu item during the restaurant’s 1956 opening, has now gained a cult following.
"The idea was to take our culinary creativity and funnel it into something over-the-top, delicious and memorable," says chef LaCasce. Now, the shake is here to stay. Flavors change monthly, drawing inspiration from relevant holidays or events, like the peaches and cream shake for July, a homage to the favorite summer stone fruit.
The vanilla and peach-based shake is topped with a peach layered cake, carmellia streusel, a peach macaron, vanilla meringue kiss, a peach Linzer cookie and fresh preserved peaches. The overflowing shake resembles a work of art, presented to you on a tray, which makes it perfect for sharing. Coming soon: boozy shakes.
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Pistachio gelato at Luna Gelateria
Luna gelato paired with a passion fruit scoop at Luna Gelateria — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
It’s not everyday that you find gelato as delectable as the scoops served at Italian street vendors, but Luna’s secret ingredient is their master gelato maker, who works with ingredients imported straight from Sicily. The gelateria churns cream daily, famed for their Luna original, a pistachio gelato that’s decadent on its own or used as a combo with flavors like passion fruit and hazelnut.
To go all out, order the Luna original with one of its complementary flavors on a waffle cone; the lighter citrus of the passion fruit melts into the creamy chocolate chunks swirled into the Luna pistachio for one gooey bite of sweet goodness that will, in fact, have you second-guessing whether you’re in Scottsdale or Siena.
French toast cheesecake at Proof Canteen
French toast cheesecake at Proof Canteen — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Though the satisfying perfect bite of salty pretzels and sweet caramel tantalizes with the chocolate cake offering at Proof, the French toast cheesecake is a pleasant surprise – and distinctly unique to the restaurant. A hearty slice of fluffy cheesecake swirled with maple and cinnamon, topped with whipped cream and candied pecans, this indulgent dessert was created by executive pastry chef Lance Whipple.
Chef Whipple explains how he sought to create a unique style of cheesecake, one that didn’t exist. "I typed 'French toast cheesecake' into Google and nothing came up," he says, adding that the original idea for French toast cheesecake was inspired by the restaurant’s prideful breakfast menu.
"If guests don’t see a dessert that’s unique, they won’t order it. But also, if they don’t recognize the dessert, they won’t order it. So you need to have something they recognize and want, but in an offering that’s unique enough so it encourages them to opt-in for the last course."
Craft chocolate at Zak’s
A variety of Zak's Chocolate truffles made with their 68% dark chocolate blend — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Step into Zak’s Chocolate on any given day and you’ll likely meet owners Jim and Maureen. A bean-to-bar shop and factory, Zak’s began as a hobby by self-taught chocolatier, Maureen. "The hobby got out of control," Maureen jokes and further describes how taking chocolate-making classes turned into seeking out the best beans she could buy to create her own bars, then eventually leading her to open Zak’s four years ago.
"High quality chocolate wasn’t available when we started, organic sourcing and beans wasn’t heard of," says Jim. Since opening Zak’s, not much has changed in mindset or production, with everything done in-house, from storing and sorting the beans, to roasting, melting and resting the chocolates, and even distilling cocoa butter.
The latter is used to create their white chocolate bars, which Maureen explains should never be a pure white color. "White chocolate is predominantly cocoa butter, which is why it should be a light mocha color. The pure white bars typically are packed with fake sugars," says Maureen.
Regardless of the chocolate you choose at Zak’s, all varieties from truffles to bars to brownies are created with their distinct house blend of 68% dark chocolate. For a taste of local flavor, try the prickly pear truffle, infused with the nectar from the Sonoran desert’s prickly pear cactus.
Churro tree at LON’s
Churro tree at LON's — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Chef Jeremy Pacheco of LON's puts a spin on churros with his presentation of the fluffy rings of fried dough dangling above accoutrements including horchata ice cream, Mexican chocolate and fresh berries.
The emphasis of the dipping sauces in larger bowls reimagines the classic dessert from street food in Spain to something of a fondue experience. And while churros can frequently be over-sugared or too greasy, his light batter proves quite the opposite; it’s difficult to stop dipping these melt-in-your-mouth rings of cinnamon and sugar.
The restaurant itself was designed to exude the cowboy-era charm instilled by the property’s original owner (and roaming cowboy), Alonzo "Lon" Megargee. The space was since taken over and restored for the ultimate terraced dining experience. While the restaurant is part of the 43-room Hermosa Inn, its ranking among locals is undeniable.
"Before the addition of our reception and extra casitas, we used to joke that Hermosa Inn was a restaurant with rooms," says Keeley Ast, the property’s PR manager. Local farmers grow goods like squash blossoms especially for chef Pacheco, so you can count on a seasonally-influenced menu, which in summer includes another must-try dessert with sweet peaches layered atop flaky pastry.
Gluten-free donuts at Sweet Dee’s Bakeshop
Gluten-free donuts at Sweet Dee's — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Opened in 2018 by self-taught pastry chef, Danielle O’Day and her mother, Lynda, Sweet Dee’s Bakeshop exudes the essence of a modern breakfast bakery, with daily pastries like giant cinnamon buns, 24-hour brioche donuts and cruffins (croissant muffins).
"I started baking when I was young, 10 or 12," says O’Day. "I just liked being in the kitchen. Then I fell in love with the restaurant industry – cooking, baking, serving – so I asked my mom to be my business partner to open Sweet Dee’s."
Arguably one of their most popular items, Dee’s nuts are mini gluten- and dairy-free donuts, just one of the allergy-friendly offerings O’Day prepares daily.
“My mom was extremely sensitive to dairy and gluten. I was making birthday cakes for my family all the time and I liked being challenged so I made a blueberry-chocolate, gluten- and dairy-free cake for my mom," says the 24-year-old on her inspiration to offer these alternative desserts. "I was shocked at how good it tasted, I was like there’s no way this is made with almond flour and coconut milk!"
O'Day now plays around with her alternative offerings, including gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, spumoni mousse cake, lemon bars, as well as vegan offerings, like her orange and olive oil cake. But ask her for a favorite and she’ll tell you cheesecake is her weakness, especially the no-bake Reese's cheesecake.
John and Yoko cake at Super Chunk
John and Yoko cake at Super Chunk — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
This milk and honey dessert found at Super Chunk is inspired by the textures of the desert, with its name borrowed from the Milk and Honey album by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. A spongy honey cake layered with mascarpone cream and cinnamon tres leches, topped with honeycomb crumbles, provides a combo of textures and flavors that blend together for a satisfyingly smooth, yet crunchy bite.
Owned by husband and wife, Sergio and Country Velador, the motif of marriage and couplings are factored into their desserts with flavors and textures that complement one another. "At New Wave Market we have a wall of couples. That’s also why the Yoko and John dessert made sense for us," says Sergio.
Gondolino creme brûlée at Alto
The Gondolino dessert at Alto — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
A menu item since the Gainey Ranch resort opened in 1987, the Gondolino is an ode to the property’s commitment to presenting an authentic Italian restaurant. The hotel even had four gondolas handcrafted in Italy, which are still in use today.
A base of perfectly caramelized creme brûlée is topped with an almond-crusted pastry gondola and filled with local berries when available. "The flour we use is locally raised 40 miles south and milled to order," says pastry chef Martin Nakatsu. "It’s the original white Sonora wheat which was introduced to this region of Arizona."
The dessert’s production requires many hands, involving a stencil for the gondola pastry, refrigeration, formation, and binding the boat to its water – or in this case, the creme brûlée. "This is done with chocolate," says Nakatsu. "It took about two hours today to make 200 of them."
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Butterscotch pudding at FnB
Butterscotch pudding at FnB — Photo courtesy of Jillian Dara
Recognized for her work with vegetables (think Swiss chard root fries), Charleen Badman, chef and co-owner of FnB. changes something on her menu daily, allowing her to consistently innovate with seasonal availability. Yet, when Badman tried to swap her butterscotch pudding for chocolate pudding ten years ago, there was so much uproar that she brought it back to stay.
The velvety base of butterscotch pudding is cut by freshly whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg, both of which also play up the textures and temperatures of the multi-level dessert. "The butterscotch pudding reads on the menu as 'old-fashioned,' but truly it’s a classic and will forever be the one item that will always be on our menu," says Badman.