What do you do when 2,000 people are coming over for dessert?
That was the challenge facing Chef Mark Bennison when he was asked to prepare the sweet ending to Zoobilee, the annual fundraiser for the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I.Food from two dozen local restaurants was offered to the massive crowd that came to "feast with the beasts." But it was Chef Bennison's 4,000 mini-pastries and 40 cakes that dazzled the partygoers who meandered through the zoo for a glimpse or two of the elephants and giraffes, monkeys and polar bears.
Bennison is executive pastry chef of the Radisson Airport Hotel, an education facility of Johnson & Wales University. So he has all the space, equipment and manpower needed to accomplish such a daunting task.
"I always look for the `wow' factor," Bennison said. "When people look at one of my desserts, I want them to say `wow' before digging in to eat."
At the Radisson, Bennison's desserts change daily, and three specials are offered every day. Bennison says he gets his dessert ideas from reading about what other pastry chefs are doing and from experimenting.
Bennison's day begins at the hotel at 5 a.m. For the greater part of each day, he works with eight to 12 baking and pastry arts students who are hungry for hands-on experience in the kitchen. "They learn how to make everything from bread to ice cream," he explained.
Plain and simple ice cream is this pastry chef's own favorite dessert, although he produces fancier creations for other people.
"It's a little odd, but I just like to make desserts - I'm not much of a dessert eater except for ice cream," Bennison said.
From Bennison's recipe collection, here are two that feature ice cream and are sure to be a big hit with youngsters of all ages.
ROCKY ROAD BROWNIES
1 pound butter
1 pound unsweetened chocolate or baker's chocolate, chopped
10 whole eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
3 cups cake flour
In a medium-size saucepan, bring the butter to a boil and add the unsweetened chocolate; whisk until smooth. In a mixing bowl, combine the eggs and granulated sugar until the mixture is a pale yellow. Add the butter-chocolate mixture to the egg-sugar mixture; mix until smooth.
Fold in flour until smooth. Pour into baking pan. Bake in a 350 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
1 quart heavy cream
2 pounds semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
Bring the heavy cream to a boil and add the chocolate; whisk until smooth.
14 peanut butter cups, chopped
1 large bag of small, colored chocolate candies
1 bag of small marshmallows
To build Rocky Road Brownies: Cover the brownies with the warm ganache topping, then cover the top with the peanut butter cups, the candies and the marshmallows. Refrigerate for approximately 1 hour, and cut into triangle-shape pieces. Serve with ice cream. Makes 15 brownies.
GRILLED BANANA SPLIT
1 loaf chocolate pound cake
1 pint vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup chocolate sauce
1 cup caramel sauce
1 quart whipped cream
Slice the bananas in half lengthwise. Grill the bananas until lightly brown. Build each dessert plate using a banana slice next to a slice of pound cake, topped with a scoop or two of the vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Have fun and be creative. Makes 6 servings.