Dessert First

Butternut Squash Squares and Pear Spice Cookies at The Café at MIM

For good dessert, a museum is probably the last place you'd think to go. After all, don't they just provide food so that visitors, hungry from walking around, don't have to leave, quickly pick up some fast food, and return to finish touring the exhibitions? That's far from the attitude at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), where Executive Chef Edward Farrow -- formerly of River Café in New York and Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass -- oversees a daily menu that skillfully uses ingredients, at least 75% of which are locally sourced.

See also: - Apple Pie and Butternut Squash Brulee at House at Secret Garden - The Café at MIM Celebrates "Eating Local Challenge."

This lunch spot, open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, is available to everyone, so you don't need to be a museumgoer to take advantage of all the café has to offer. Although keep in mind that "café" is a little misleading since the restaurant is set up like a fancy cafeteria (with great service, I might add). At least while you enjoy lunch options like venison Carpaccio and Panamanian roasted pork shoulder you can look out the tall windows to view the museum's garden. That's all good to know, but what I wanted to find out is whether or not the daily dessert offerings, made in-house, are as buzz-worthy as the lunch menu.

The desserts available at The Café at MIM last weekend were butternut squash squares with mascarpone cheese and a pear-apple cobbler. Both looked pretty appetizing (and just pretty), but I was swayed toward the former since the table eating next to us at lunch seemed to enjoy it. One lady even commented that it tasted similar to pumpkin desserts, but I was hoping it would taste something like the butternut brûlée at The House at Secret Garden. The butternut squash square didn't quite reach that level of awesome, the unique flavor of the squash not nearly as pronounced, but it was still good and disappeared quickly.

The texture of the top layer, the butternut squash, was indeed very similar to pumpkin pie filling. However, it was a little bland and could have used more spice. The middle layer of the square was mascarpone cheese, which wasn't noteworthy on its own but did add a nice creaminess to the dish. The crust on the bottom was very soft and buttery, similar to the bottom of a lemon square but a tad richer. And the little dots on the plate? Blackberry jam -- and not nearly enough of it. Overall, this dessert was pretty good, but I was left wondering how the squash flavor could be brought out more to really steal the show. Despite that, my visit to The Café at MIM was far from a waste of time thanks to the treat I brought home with me.

What really wowed me was not the main dessert. Instead, my palette was floored by a cookie. Yes, a cookie. Not just any cookie -- an inventive masterpiece of a cookie with pieces of baked pear strewn throughout, a hidden layer of mascarpone cheese in the middle, and a generous dollop of spiced pearsauce (y'know, like applesauce, but with pears) on top. Whoever dreamed up this cookie is some kind of pastry genius, and I do not use that term lightly.

At first I wasn't sure how this creation would work out. It appeared that the cookie base -- very similar to that of a standard chocolate chip -- was much too soft, most likely underbaked, because the cookie was really sticky. However, it was lightly browned on the bottom, so the super-softness must have been the intention of the recipe. My original impression was also that the pear pieces scattered throughout were chocolate chips, and I have never been happier to be wrong.

Once I bit into this cookie, I didn't care about anything but enjoying the moment. The pear flavors really popped, producing something uniquely tasty and, for any pear appreciator, really addictive. I had planned to cap off my evening with only half of this cookie, but I ended up going back to slowly savor the other (sadly smaller) piece.

This cookie was extremely soft and also dense, with a texture like a moist shortbread, if that makes any sense. The mascarpone, as with the butternut squash square, didn't have an overt presence, but it sunk into the cookie to make it that much richer. After having a cookie as impressive as this, I wonder what else those bakers will crank out. It could be worth a trip to MIM just to check out the cookie selection -- oh yeah, and the museum's collection is amazing, too.

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Dominique Chatterjee