A Philadelphian’s Guide to Valentine’s Day Desserts

It's time to think beyond those heart-shaped chocolate boxes.


Photography by Stevie Chris

Desserts and Valentine’s Day have long been considered a heart-shaped cliché — but not anymore. That’s because Philly’s top pastry chefs are making sure your final course lingers in your memory far beyond the Hallmark holiday. So dig in to these riffs on savory and sweet classics and more all year.

5 New Desserts To Try Right Now

Vegan cannoli, tiramisu in a squash, and a traditional breakfast turned after-dinner luxury

Maybe love took a hit during the pandemic, what with masking, isolating, and fretting over how to meet that someone special. But now it’s back with a vengeance — ­and so is Philly’s dessert scene, as pastry chefs throughout the city are crafting clever treats for your last course. Here are the ones to order the next time you’re dining out.

Pumpkin-spice tiramisu at Ambra

Pumpkin-spice tiramisu at Ambra
Queen Village

During a recent seating of Ambra’s over-the-top tasting menu, chef Chris D’Ambro presented a whole koginut squash that he’d hollowed out and filled with treasures — ­house-made ladyfingers soaked in coffee and Meletti amaro, pumpkin-and-fall-spiced mascarpone mousse, and a dusting of cocoa powder to top it off. It all presents a challenge to the diner: How full are you, really? Depending on when you belly up to the chef’s counter, you may be offered something different, but it’s sure to be just as creative.

Basque cheesecake at Roxanne
Bella Vista

Tall, dark, and with a squishy-squidgy center, Basque cheesecake has become one of Roxanne’s most popular desserts — and one of the only dishes you can get here to-go. What makes it different from the traditional version? It’s baked at a high temperature, for a slightly charred outer layer and a nearly liquid, molten interior. Chef-owner Alexandra Holt uses all kinds of flavor mix-ins, from chocolate-hazelnut to parsnip to mushroom, which are emblematic of the restaurant’s broader take on dessert: It’s more about completing the experience than offering something classically sweet.

Ube ice cream

Ube ice cream at Tabachoy
Bella Vista

After a hearty meal of pork adobo and garlic rice, you’re probably not still hungry for dessert. Happily, the ube soft-serve here is as refreshing as it is stunning. The deep lavender frozen treat arrives at the table coiled high, sprinkled with crisp rice, and drizzled in coconut caramel. The nutty vanilla flavor of ube is almost reminiscent of white chocolate — so rich and flavorful, you may think you need a second order.

Vegan cannoli at Pietramala
Northern Liberties

Pastry chef Jeremy Hrycko’s cannoli takes everything you know about vegan desserts and turns it on its head. The shell, made with marsala wine and olive oil, is crispy; it’s dipped in chocolate, then filled with a vegetable-based seasonal filling that leans more savory than sweet. A recent version combined Long Island Cheese pumpkin with candied pecans and baby ginger, for a natural, creamy filling.

Concha Rellena at El Chingon
East Passyunk

Conchas are most commonly served at breakfast, dipped in coffee, or snacked on midday, but El Chingon has given its house-baked sweet bun the full-on dessert treatment, filling it with strawberries and Nutella cream that floods over the sides and slowly absorbs into the bun.

Concha Rellena at El Chingon

Ask the Expert: Cathy Peña, pastry chef of Fiore Fine Foods

Personal style: “Italian desserts are special to me    but in that indulgent American style, like a brownie with big globs of caramel.”

Favorite dessert to make: “Our millefoglie. I love laminating dough, and it’s got diplomat cream and apples that are roasted.”

A pastry chef I admire: “My boss at Fiore, Justine MacNeil. She has pushed me beyond belief all while lifting me up.”

Unique and Sweet Giftables

Think beyond those heart-shaped chocolate boxes

Cheesecake Pie from Pie Bird Farm
If you have a sweet-tooth in your life who will not tolerate pink, order a cheesecake pie. It’s made with grass-fed butter and fromage from Haven Farmstead rather than cream cheese. Doylestown.

Heart Stack from Care Package Bakes
Order from this Wynnewood-based home bakery run by Elisa Ludwig. Her cakey almond cookie has chocolate buttercream, berries, rosewater meringues and more. Online only.

Pastéis de Nata Gift Box from Gilda Cafe and Market
The soon-to-open cafe will offer a variety box that you can order online. Expect the traditional egg-custard- filled tart as well as lemon raspberry and dark chocolate. Fishtown.

Bolo de Rolo from Kouklet Brazilian Bakehouse
For the cake lover who is so over cupcakes, order a couple of slices of this buttery rolled cake filled with an ever-changing array of flavors, like passion fruit. East Passyunk.

Peanut Butter Flakely Kakes from Flakely Gluten Free
The peanut butter Flakely Kakes    a take on Tastykake’s PB Kandy Kakes    feel indulgent and are topped with a heart for seasonal GF flair. Manayunk.

Ask the Expert: Alexandra Holt, chef-owner of Roxanne

Personal style: “I like to use my food to make a comment on things happening in the world, and that usually ends up being cheeky.”

Favorite dessert to make: “I’m trying not to do favorites anymore, because I think my excitement shifts from week to week, and I want to make space for that.”

A pastry chef I admire: “Emily Riddell from Machine Shop. She has studied, and it shows.”

Class Time

Illustration by AskMeNow/ DigitalVision Vectors/Getty images

At Sprinkled Sweetness Academy in Society Hill, Tatiana Wingate offers all kinds of baking sessions (prices vary), from a wedding-cake introduction for professional bakers to seasonal cookie-decorating classes for amateurs. In the latter, participants learn about frosting and color and how to create the fine detail work that Wingate shows off on her Instagram. Classes are capped at 12 people, so you get lots of personal help from Wingate.

Every Sunday afternoon in Washington Square West, High Street head baker Delilah Pergola offers baking classes (from $300 to $500) for everyone from first-timers to advanced bakers. The two-hour courses cover all kinds of topics: cookies and quick breads for beginners, pies and brioche for the intermediate set, and layer­ cakes and tarts for the more advanced. Classes allow up to six people.

The last class is, perhaps, the sweetest    ­Valentine’s­ Day desserts­ at Homemade by Bruno­ in Newbold, offered this month only ($100 per person). Owner Janine Bruno will guide participants through the process of making Italian­ wine cookies, a chocolate-­based candy called salame di cioccolato, and the crowning jewel: heart-shaped trays of tiramisu.

Ask the Expert: Zhe Tang, co-owner and pastry chef of Cake & Joe

Personal style: “Minimalism with my personal interpretation of the French style.”

Favorite dessert to make: “The passion-fruit mousse. I am into fruit flavors, and I love the design and texture.”

A pastry chef I admire: “Monica Glass, a gluten-free baking teacher. I love her style, and her pastry always brings people a warm and positive energy, just like her.”

The New Classic: Machine Shop, South Philly

A trio of pastries at Machine Shop

Since opening a brick-and-mortar at the Bok Building in early 2022, Emily Riddell and her team have quickly made Machine Shop one of the city’s most lauded bakeries, specializing in modern French baked goods that already feel essential. We knew the croissants, seasonal tarts and morning buns that fill the case every day till they sell out were something special long before Food & Wine named Riddell a best new chef — get a peek at some of them here.


Published as “Treat Yourself” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.