It's hard to pinpoint when, exactly, Sydney's obsession with dessert began.
Was it when the folks at Gelato Messina gently suggested we move on from plain old chocolate and vanilla and try ice-cream in flavours like banana bread and apple crumble?
Was it before that, when cupcakes were (cringe) the height of sweet sophistication?
Was it when Andy Bowdy introduced us to soft serve 2.0, or when Adriano Zumbo taught us all how to say macaron properly – and got us to fall in love with them, too?
Whatever it was that kicked all this off, one thing is clear: Sydney has a sweet, sweet tooth.
From the recent surge in excellent, diverse ice-creameries (Franco Gelato and Pagoto in Marrickville, Hakiki in Enmore, Ciccone & Sons in Redfern and Pompei's in Bondi) to the sudden popularity of doughnuts and hybrid pastries like the cronut (putting places like Smalltown, in Avalon, and Brewtown Newtown squarely on the sugar-lover's map), the going is pretty good when it comes to dessert right now.
And even with so many places serving such great dishes, we still tend to get specific about what we want – not just a lamington, the lamington from Flour + Stone. Not just a cookie – the choc chip and pink salt cookie from West Juliett. Lemon tart? We'll take Bourke Street Bakery's, thanks.
It's a craze that rides the spectrum from the deeply sublime – the reinvented pavlova, structured with the precision of a master architect (that'd be Peter Gilmore) at Bennelong – to the faintly ridiculous, like Foodcraft Espresso's "freakshakes" and the Day-Glo soft-serve at Aqua S.
Yes, there's a real taste for the absurd, like N2's freeze-it-on-the-spot ice-cream and the 'Maltella', a giant ball of fried Nutella ice-cream peddled at Macquarie University cafe Piccolo Me recently – but there's also former MasterChef contestant Reynold Poernomo's excellent dessert bar, Koi. In short, there's something for everyone … except maybe Sarah Wilson.
Join the cult
You've pre-ordered them, waited in line for hours, 'grammed them and hashtagged them: these are the cult desserts Sydney goes nuts for.
1. A cake from Andy Bowdy
It doesn't seem fair to call Andy Bowdy's creations 'cakes'. After all, they're towers of silky mousse and punchy ganache and rich pastry and of course, they're Instagram stars in their own right. Bowdy's cakes (for lack of a better word) were hits from the start when he began serving them at Newtown's Hartsyard. Dripping with ganache, layered with popcorn and torched meringue and edible flowers, Bowdy's cakes are beautiful, but they don't look overly fussy or even perfect. They look like a rock star made them. Last year, it was major food news that Bowdy was leaving Hartsyard to set up his own online bakery, and soon, Sydneysiders were lining up to order the cakes, which start from $220 and must be ordered at least seven days in advance. "The cakes look distinctive," he says, "but people tell me how much they love eating them, and that's the main thing. I'm glad people know what an 'Andy Bowdy' cake is, but it's better that they think it tastes good."
2. Watermelon, rose and strawberry cake from Black Star Pastry
It'd be hard to find a prettier cake than Christopher Thė's signature dessert – a perfectly square stack of layered almond dacquoise, rose-scented cream, pressed watermelon (also macerated with rosewater), strawberries, rose petals and vivid green pistachios. "When I first made it, for a friend's wedding, I knew it had to look romantic and very special. I wanted something red in it, and watermelon seemed like the right idea. It just worked – if you didn't have the watermelon to balance the cream and sugar, it would all be too much." Sydneysiders must agree with Thė, because, between his three stores, he sells about 800 of them on a weekday … and 3000 at the weekend. "It's got a timelessness to it," Thė says. "I still make it for all the birthdays in my family. You can keep eating it forever."
Black Star Pastry, 277 Australia Street, Newtown (also at Books Kinokuniya in the Galeries Victoria and C1 85-113 Dunning Avenue, Rosebery)
3. Soft-serve and chips from Devon on Danks
"The idea was pretty simple," says Zacharay Tan, head chef at Devon on Danks. "I used to love going to Macca's for soft-serve and fries. When we got the soft-serve machine, we knew we had to try it." And so, a classic was reinvented for the Instagram age – Tan's ever-changing soft-serve menu features flavours like jasmine and blue pea flower, Thai milk tea, salted caramel with black salt sea flakes and pandan and coconut (in other words, about as far from McDonald's soft-serve as you can get). And nestled next to the cup of creamy smooth ice-cream is a heap of hot chips, fresh from the fryer. It's the sweet and salty thing, it's the throwback to being a teenager, it's the quality of both dishes that makes this just work.
Devon on Danks, 2 Danks Street, Waterloo
4. Dessert arancini & the brioche gelato burger from Cremeria de Luca
Wedged on a quiet corner in Five Dock, the ladies at Cremeria de Luca stick to what they're good (excellent) at – making damn fine desserts. There's an almost fudgy hot chocolate, a sweet arancini, and of course, the brioche gelato burger – these are the ones that'll get people queueing round the corner on a Saturday night. The arancini - though not strictly Sicilian - is such a clever idea, it's unbelievable it hasn't been copied yet. Sweet rice (the kind you'd find in a pudding or custard) surrounds a generous blob of Nutella. The whole thing is deep-fried to a crisp and doused in sugar. Enjoy it on its own, or (preferably) with a scoop of Cremeria's homemade gelato. It's everything you need in a dessert - a balance of textures (crisp and smooth) and flavours (rich and sweet). But it's definitely (definitely) a sometimes food. The brioche is a little crispier than the French-style, and that's a good thing – you need a bit of structure to hang on to the slick of whipped cream, the dollop of Nutella and the cricket ball of gelato inside. This is an eat-with-your-hands, BYO-bib, never-on-a-first-date kind of treat. And it's really bloody good.
Cremeria de Luca, 84 Ramsay Road, Five Dock
5. Petits fours at Rockpool Bar and Grill
This is the kind of place that should feel intimidating and imposing, with its giant columns and barges of wine glasses, but it's so noisy and convivial and packed with bankers slapping each other on the back that it actually feels pretty comfortable. Here, they serve the very best versions of old favourites, and that extends to the dessert menu, too. Once you're done with your rib-eye or lobster, settle back with a Laphroaig and a little pot of individually wrapped salted caramels. The salt hits you first, then the butter, and finally you're in for a hit of sweet caramel. Then it's time for a smoky sip of whisky – and you're right back to the start again. Pro tip: order your own serve of caramels. There is a time and place for sharing, and this is not it.
Rockpool Bar and Grill, 66 Hunter Street, Sydney
6. Ice-cream at Gelato Messina
Messina is a bit like Madonna in the '80s – provocative, mononymic and wildly popular. What began as a quest to get back to good old-fashioned Italian gelato has become a true phenomenon, with seven Sydney stores, three in Melbourne, one in Queensland, and now, there's even one in Las Vegas. The marketing is good – with flavours that touch on pop culture (the "David Bao-wy", released after the singer's passing) and politics ("Malcolm's Malted Milk", on special during the #libspill week) – but the ice-cream is even better, and funny names aside ("Elvis, the Fat Years" is a pretty good way to sum up peanut butter, banana and bacon ice-cream), it's taste that brings the crowds back. There are 35 regular flavours, but our pick is always going to be salted caramel. It's wickedly creamy but never leaves you with an oily mouth, and it's got just the right balance of sweet to salt.
Various locations across Sydney. See gelatomessina.com/au
7. Cherry jam lamington at Bennelong
When Peter Gilmore took over the restaurant under the Opera House's sails, nobody could have predicted that its breakout dish would be … a lamington. And yet, the cherry jam lamington – the Gilmore version of it, anyway – is by far the most popular dessert on the menu. Layers of vanilla sponge, coconut cream, cherry jam, chocolate ganache and cherry ice-cream are coated with chocolate glaze. And then things get kind of tricky – as with his famed Snow Egg at Quay, Gilmore uses a little sleight of hand to turn things up a notch. Curls of what appears to be white chocolate circle the lamington – but as you bite into them you realise they are, in fact, some sort of coconut cream. Actually, it's coconut parfait, frozen and shaved over liquid nitrogen. It's genius and it's delicious.
Bennelong Restaurant, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
8. V8 cake from Adriano Zumbo
Sure, Zumbo is the guy who tooled around with macarons and got us to try them in flavours like strawberry balsamic, satay and wasabi and pickled ginger. And yet, it's the V8 cake that has become, for many, his cult signature. Made famous by MasterChef, the V8 is eight layers of vanilla: vanilla cream, vanilla brulee, vanilla gel, vanilla macaron, vanilla almond crunch, vanilla dacquoise, vanilla ganache and vanilla glaze. But for all that vanilla, there's nothing at all basic about this cake. It's deceptive – though it looks like a simple layer cake, there's so much going on here, so many textures and nuances, that you really have to concentrate to keep up. Or you could scoff the lot and be very happy indeed. The cake has become so popular that it has its own (very 2016) spin-off: the Nutella V8.
Various locations across Sydney. See adrianozumbo.com
9. Baked ricotta cheesecake from Pasticceria Papa
The sign out the front says it all: "Papa knows best." And when it comes to cheesecake, Salvatore Papa, who opened his eponymous pasticceria in Haberfield in 1988, really does. His version manages to be both light and rich, flavourful but also almost neutral. It's not too sweet (even with a generous dust of icing sugar) and there's none of that lemon kick often found in baked cheesecakes. It has the texture of a sturdy sort of mousse and tastes of ricotta and cream. But it's not just the cheesecake that transports you to Sicily when you're at Papa's – it's the orderly queue manned by firm-but-fair Italian women, the groups of older men drinking coffee all day at a table out the back, and the fact that it closes at midday on Sundays. How Catholic.
Pasticceria Papa, 145 Ramsay Street, Haberfield (also at 75–79 Hall Street, Bondi Beach, and 95 Queens Road, Five Dock)
10. Homer Simpson doughnut from Woah Nelly
A lovely marriage of sugar and fat, the chocolate-and-sprinkle-covered Homer Simpson doughnut tastes deeply, unmistakably, of America. And while the States sometimes gets a bad rap, food-wise, sometimes all you want in life is a deep-fried disc of pastry dipped in rich chocolate glaze and covered with nostalgic sprinkles. Since launching Woah Nelly in January 2015, owner Janell Smith has been overwhelmed by her doughnuts' popularity with Sydneysiders. "People love all the flavours, but the Homer is by far the most popular. It's just fun," she says. Orders fill weeks in advance – so get in quick.
Sweet spot openings
There's a lot to look forward to in 2016. Here's where the sugar high will take you next:
■ Brisbane franchise Doughnut Time will open in Newtown (you can also find them in Topshop in the CBD and Miranda, and in Central Park).
■ Former Nomad head chef Nathan Sasi is opening Good Times Artisan Ice Cream on Macleay Street, Potts Point, in late February. It'll be all about soft serve here, with handmade waffle cones and innovative flavours.
■ Andy Bowdy will be back on the pass at Kepos Street Kitchen for a week in April. "Michael [Rantissi] gave me my first job in Sydney, so I thought I'd head back and rework some of the desserts we did together," he says.
■ Anna Polyviou's Sweet Street Festival will be back at the Shangri-La later this year. Details are still vague but Polyviou says this year's festival will be "next level, for Sydney's biggest dessert fans". If you can't wait, Polyviou is hosting a dessert degustation at the hotel on March 1.
■ Sydney's first Nutella dessert bar opens on February 29 in Dulwich Hill. Get ready for Nutella-spiked doughnuts, crepes, soft-serve and shakes. And a sugar rush.
■ Gelato Messina is rumoured to be opening a dessert degustation bar later in the year, but don't hold your breath – nothing is confirmed yet.