7 Coastal Bend Desserts and the People Behind Them

7 Coastal Bend Desserts and the People Behind Them

Seven supremely sweet Coastal Bend desserts and the incredibly talented people behind the divine menu items.

Photography by Rachel Benavides | Words by Kylie Cooper and Alexa Rodriguez

Pastry making is unequivocally an art form. It’s also a science, a vehicle for innovation and perhaps more than anything, an act of love. We talked to local pastry chefs and bakers about their standout Coastal Bend desserts to learn the ins and outs of how the perfectly plated final product gets started in the first place. What we learned in the process was that with every inspired idea, flavor combination and seasonal ingredient, a nostalgic memory was at the cornerstone of what these individuals do. Baking (or pretending to bake) with family as a child; paying homage to heritage; watching as mothers or grandmothers baked their hearts away in the kitchen — personal connections define these confections. 

While each bite into any of the featured dessert items is sure to bring a burst of flavor, know that so much more is baked into what you’re eating. Love, familial ties, culture and joy are mixed into the divine desserts found in the Coastal Bend. 

Dark Chocolate and Raspberry Ganache Tart at Water Street Company

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Ganache Tart

with meringue & edible gold flakes

Beneath a layer of divine dark chocolate ganache lies a layer of Valrhona raspberry inspiration. The sweet yet tangy flavored ganache is rounded out by the full-bodied roasted cocoa flavor featured in the dark chocolate. The perfectly golden tart is topped with a simple French meringue and delicate, edible gold flakes. The meringue brings contrast in texture paralleled to the pâte sucrée crust, which is tender, sweet and crisp when baked. 

For Hernandez, this particular confection was truly inspired by simplicity. “I believe less is more,” she shared. “A dessert should excite your palate, but overcomplicating it can be distracting for all the senses.” The idea of seemingly simple ingredients coming together to create something so delectable makes this a standout dessert.

Hernandez grew up surrounded by baked goods. Actually buying dessert, as opposed to scratch baking, was unheard of in her family. Inspired by her affinity for pastries, like her mother’s fresh breads and her aunt’s homemade kolaczkis, she attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin to hone her craft. Life eventually brought Hernandez back to her hometown of Corpus Christi, and after working at various restaurants and operating her own cottage baking business, Richard Lomax approached her to join his Water Street Company team in October 2021. 

Now, Executive Pastry Chef of Water Street Company, Hernandez is responsible for the recipe development and quality control of all desserts and baked goods at Water Street Oyster Bar, Elizabeth’s, event catering and the new Central Kitchen Bakery, opening in the Water Street Market this season. Overseeing the baked goods served at all three establishments means ensuring cohesion and consistency across the board. 

For Hernandez, the recipe development stage always starts with the basics. From there, she adds in layers of creativity to give each menu item unique flair, pulling inspiration from seasons and emotions. “When I’m making anything, I always think about how it is going to make someone feel,” she said. “I look at what is in season, and then I think about how I can kind of match that in a psychological way.” 

Sweet Cream Fruit Tarts at Bien Merité

Sweet Cream Fruit Tarts

with assorted fruit toppings

Some of Bien Mérité’s most popular items, the fruit tarts are as visually appealing as they are delicious. The classic French pastry includes a buttery crust acting as a vessel for a smooth, sweet pastry cream topped with fresh fruit. Claire Harris, one of the bakers behind each of Bien’s tarts, looks at the process of creating the dessert as an art project. If we do indeed eat with our eyes, these are confectionary works of art. 

The popular fruit tart begins with Bien’s owner Michelle Fraedrick Alafghani’s dough recipe. Noriko Salazar, Alondra Ramirez and Harris are the powerhouse baking trio who then take over to bake the shells, fill and decorate each one. One of the best parts about this pastry is the endless possibility for new flavors, decorations and seasonal twists. The team collaborates on flavor combinations they find intriguing and go from there to produce the array of tarts lining the pastry case each morning — results almost too pretty to eat.

When it comes to the pastry making at Bien Mérité, the saying “it takes a village” certainly rings true. Salazar has been with the bakery since it opened in 2019. She dreamed of becoming a baker from a young age, but it wasn’t until she attended culinary school in Japan 15 years ago that the dream even seemed possible. 

Harris’ baking destiny was made evident as a little girl when she began combining many sauces in her kitchen into a bowl, mixing flour into it and serving it to her family. After graduating from the culinary program at Del Mar College, she began her career at Bien Mérité. Three years later, she’s certainly making that little girl with the sauce packets proud. 

Rounding out the dynamic trio is Ramirez, the newest addition to the tart baking team. She is actively continuing her pastry education and just over a year after joining the team, her love for making others smile with good flavors is seen in each tart she produces. 

Corn Husk Meringue at Yola Cocina Mexicana

Corn Husk Meringue

with sweet corn mousse

Corn might not be the first ingredient that comes to mind when thinking about decadent desserts, but the produce takes center stage in this innovative treat on YOLA’s menu. An ode to not just a staple in Mexico, but one of the primary bases of daily meals in the country, this dessert is all parts corn — from grain to husk. 

The textures found within every bite make for a blissful experience. The meringue, which includes tiny particles of corn husk, provides a perfect outer crisp encapsulating the smooth whipped cream infused with a Mexican corn liquor featuring notes of toasted sweet corn and hints of vanilla. The last piece of the delicious puzzle is a mousse made with fresh sweet young corn — which has more of a creamy, milky pulp not found in mature corn — and mascarpone, making this dessert a genius marriage of flavors and texture.

Ramirez and YOLA owner Ryan Rios connected while Rios was enrolled in Del Mar College’s Culinary Arts Program. In addition to her contributions at YOLA, Ramirez is an adjunct chef instructor at the college. Rios was inspired by Ramirez’s fierce passion for the artistry behind pastry making and knew she was the perfect person to help develop YOLA’s dessert menu. “What Chef Liz does takes so much time, attention and detail, and is truly hard work,” Rios said. “[She is dedicated] to sharing her talents with students that want to learn and continue to keep the profession alive.”

When it comes to recipe development for a new dessert item on YOLA’s menu, Ramirez of course pulls inspiration from the season, but is also inspired by her roots. Originally from Mexico City, Ramirez’s culture and childhood greatly influence her innovative ideas and flavor combinations. Fond memories of baking with her grandmother; regional fruits such as guava, mamey and aguacate; and the nostalgia associated with flavors from her childhood seep into each new delicacy added to the menu. 

Turtle Cheesecake at Hester’s Cafe

Turtle Cheesecake

with chocolate chip cookie crust

Pretty much everyone loves cheesecake, but not all cheesecakes are created equal. At Hester’s Cafe, otherwise ordinary cheesecakes have become stars due to genius creativity and quality ingredients. 

The genius derives, in part, from the resourceful repurposing of house-made cookies for the cheesecake crusts. For the lemon blueberry flavor, the sand dune cookie forms the crust. The vanilla cheesecake is then swirled with a homemade blueberry sauce and tangy lemon cream. The turtle cheesecake starts with the chocolate chip cookie for the crust, then covers vanilla cheesecake in a turtle mix and finishes with homemade bittersweet ganache and caramel sauce.

These are just a fraction of the thoughtfully prepared, meticulously baked, sky-high and mouthwatering cheesecakes available on any given day at Hester’s. The unique spin on ordinary ingredients is what makes these cheesecake flavors so special and leaves locals wanting more.

“It’s strange to think I was baptized into the pastry world as a young girl, growing up with grandmothers who loved to bake, and a mom too,” recalled Hester Rodriguez. However, it wasn’t until Hester’s Cafe opened that she realized how passionate she was about baking. When Hester’s began to grow, she experimented and began to learn more about the pastry world. “I owe a lot of credit to our Hester’s fans for requesting things, sharing recipes, cheering me on and the other bakers who came alongside me as we grew into this space,” she said. 

As for her process for making desserts, she said, “I read cookbooks like books, and then I sit and imagine how it would fit into what we currently do at the cafe. Then I get to work.” Over the years, she has revisited recipes to make them better, and has created unique takes on classic desserts along the way. 

After all these years of learning, growing and tasting every dessert, Rodriguez has solidified her place in Corpus Christi as a master of her craft — baking delicious, innovative and unique treats that bring comfort upon eating.

Traditional Tiramisu at Bellino Ristorante Italiano

Traditional Tiramisu

with a dusting of cocoa

Its concept is as simple as it is decadent with layers of espresso-soaked ladyfingers and creamy sweet mascarpone — then, just when you think it can’t get any better, a dusting of cocoa on top. The bitterness from the espresso contrasts the intense sweetness from the custard to strike a perfect balance. Despite its rich chemistry, the finished product manages to maintain an airy, almost mousse-like texture that practically evaporates upon eating. 

The specifics of this popular Italian dessert vary based on region and/or family recipes. Depending on the number of layers and the richness of the custard, the end result can be either creamy or cakey. Regardless, this is the dessert to end all desserts. It’s what you want after an indulgent plate of pasta or pizza … or really anything on the menu at Bellino Ristorante.

Born in Sicily, Chef Francesco Inguaggiato grew up learning the art of cooking, specifically Sicilian cooking, while working with his mother in his grandfather’s trattoria in Palermo. “My first and still my main inspiration is my mother,” he said. “The time we spent together in the kitchen is where my love of cooking came from. That’s why I named my restaurant Bellino, as it was her maiden name.” 

As for the tiramisu, he’s taken his “Mamma Lina’s” southern Italian tiramisu recipe, taught to him by his sister, Maria Rita, and perfected it for the Bellino menu. His family recipe is traditionally southern Italian and yields a creamier consistency than its northern counterpart, which tends to be more cakey. Though a local favorite, the tiramisu isn’t the only dessert he’s mastered. Chef Francesco’s home of Palermo, Sicily, just so happens to be the birthplace of the cannolo. “It’s one of my favorites, and takes me back to being a kid in Palermo,” Inguaggiato said. Rest assured, all the desserts from Chef Francesco are traditional, tried and truly Italian.

Honey Cookies at Cookie & Crumb

Honey Cookies

impressed with bee & honeycomb stamps

Cookies come in hundreds of different shapes, sizes and flavors, and from the beloved chocolate chip to playful iced cookies, they all usually have one thing in common: sugar. Specifically, granulated sugar. 

However, the Honey Cookies at Cookie & Crumb Bake Shop manage to achieve the sweetness you expect, without the conventional use of sugar. As the name suggests, they’re sweetened using only honey — not that you would ever know upon tasting. The cookies manage to maintain their structural integrity with the slightest crisp on the edge and a softer interior, plus a surprisingly mellow sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm. The balance between sweet and savory is what makes these cookies so special, and a perfect pairing for tea or coffee, or as a little afternoon sweet treat.

Becoming a baker wasn’t necessarily something Katherine Nicholson planned, but rather something that happened to her. “I got started in the pastry world almost by accident,” she said. “In 2007, I began studying at Del Mar Culinary and the French Culinary Institute in order to become a bread baker. I wanted to make baked goods for the family business, Hamlin Pharmacy.” Since then, she’s become a master at bread, but has made desserts her specialty. 

Her process for recipe development, she said, is “a collaborative effort. Someone comes up with an idea and we all tweak it to make it perfect for the bakery. Inspiration comes from seasonal flavors, product availability and customers. Customers will definitely tell you what they want.” 

Between her culinary education and collaboration with her colleagues, Nicholson continues to bring innovative sweet treats to the Coastal Bend community, and has made Cookie & Crumb Bake Shop a premier destination for all things desserts. 

Pistachio Butter Cake at The Lookout at Bluff’s Landing

Pistachio Butter Cake

with roasted pumpkin & eggnog gelato

Butter Cake is a blank canvas for a multitude of flavor combinations and possibilities. Think pound cake, but level up the richness. Traditionally, butter cakes come together using simple ingredients such as eggs, flour, some sort of leavening agent and of course, butter. However, the pistachio butter cake at The Lookout has taken this concept and transformed it into an innovative, gluten-free delight that doesn’t skimp on flavor. 

The pistachio cake itself combines the comforting aroma of pistachios with notes of pumpkin and allspice. It is then topped with locally sourced, roasted pumpkin and eggnog gelato. As for the chemistry behind creating a gluten-free cake, a specialty crafted blend of all-natural starches and binders is used to mimic the gluten networks, creating a cake you would never know is gluten-free upon tasting. This quintessential American pastry is almost unrecognizable as simply a butter cake, but is transformed into an innovative, technical and delicious celebration of the fall season.

Baking is a science, and for Chef Cody Fitzpatrick, the science behind baking is where he got his start. Having grown up in kitchens helping his father, Fitzpatrick recalled “always baking something or trying to understand the science behind it.” Since becoming the pastry chef at The Lookout, desserts with multiple components and techniques have become his specialty. Specifically, gluten-free desserts that taste delicious. 

In recipe development, Fitzpatrick begins with research and then “I draw exactly how I want it to look and what I need to achieve the consistency.” When it comes to gluten-free desserts, he emphasizes that “proper technique for gluten-free desserts is a must. It’s a crazy balance of numbers and science. You need to be just right every single time.” 

As for his specialty dessert at The Lookout, “butter cakes in general hold a special place in my heart. They were one of the first cakes I learned how to make,” said Fitzpatrick. Drawing inspiration from his father and the ever-changing seasons, he has managed to create upscale, classy desserts that “remind you of home through each bite.”

Looking for more Features? Check out HER 2022 or 30 Moments that Defined Corpus Christi History.