Auguste Escoffier named his peach-and-ice-cream dessert pêche Melba for Australian soprano Nellie Melba in the early 1890s. Danish meringue cookies probably wouldn't have gained much traction outside of Scandinavia had they not been named for actress Sarah Bernhardt. But none is as internationally famous as the airy Pavlova meringue cake named for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in the 1920s.
Still, none of those ladies had a hand in the creation of their eponymous sweets like Emily Bowen did in one that will be served this Sunday at a 6 p.m. dinner at RDG + Bar Annie. The Houston Ballet demi soloist is one of four dancers participating in this year's "Raising the Barre: A Dinner in Four Acts," a dinner benefitting the company now in its sixth year. This is the fourth year that Fluff Bake Bar owner Rebecca Masson has participated in the event. Each year, four chefs each pair up with a dancer and collaborate on a course of dinner. Other chefs taking part this year are Robert Del Grande of RDG + Bar Annie, Seth Siegel-Gardner of the Pass and Provisions and Underbelly's Chris Shepherd.
But Masson has a special connection to the cause. The pastry chef spent her childhood studying under a teacher who choreographed at Dallas' Texas Ballet Theater. She only gave up her dream of the stage because, "When I was 17, I realized my boobs weren’t getting any smaller," Masson recalls. She might not have been built for lifts, but the opportunity to work with men and women who were destined for the boards appeals to her. Her collaborator from last year, soloist Allison Miller, stops in every week or two at the bakery, Masson says, putting to rest the notion that ballerinas don't eat like the rest of us. In turn, when Masson sees performances a couple of times a year, she gets to go backstage to visit her friends. "It's just a great way to combine two worlds you typically wouldn't think would combine very well," she says of the event.
This year, Bowen's inspiration was the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches her mother would bring for her to munch on the way from school to dance class. "I’m not exactly a dessert, sweets person, so we decided to go in the direction of a more savory dessert," she explains. The result, says Masson, is her take on a Bakewell tart. Typically, the flaky-crusted British tart combines jam and almond frangipane. Masson and Bowen's version will be made from the jelly of the 16 cases of Concord grapes Masson bought last year, with peanuts subbing for almonds.
Bowen will join Masson at the bakery on Saturday to act as her sous-chef, helping to make the tarts as well as a parting gift for guests. Bowen grew up in Harrisburg, Penn., not far from Hersheypark. The transporting smell of the Hershey factory inspired the pair to craft "little mini Hershey bars to send people home with," the dancer says.
Though Masson doesn't plan to pick up her toe shoes anytime soon, already seasoned home cook Bowen says that working with the baker has inspired her to give desserts a chance in her own kitchen. "I've never experimented with baking at all," she admits. "Hopefully it opens up something in me." And who knows? There may someday be a Bowen served right along with a Melba and a Pavlova.