Kansas City’s barbecue dessert game is pushing into new territory

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

At Chef J BBQ in the West Bottoms, pitmaster-owner Justin Easterwood is “always looking for creative ways to use the flavor of fire.”

Easterwood likes a kiss of smoke in everything—including dessert. That led him away from the traditional banana pudding he had on the menu when we named him the second-best pit in the city last year and to a new smoked cheesecake.

“We end up cold-smoking the cream cheese up to four hours to get a real good smoke flavor,” Easterwood says.

That cream cheese is whipped with heavy cream, vanilla bean and sugar, then put into three-inch cake pans with Graham cracker crust and set. It’s topped with a sauce made from fresh strawberries that are macerated in their own sugars overnight and cooked down with chipotle peppers.

“People have responded very well,” Easterwood says. “It’s been our most popular dessert the last month and gets a lot of compliments.”

It’s part of a trend in KC where pitmasters are moving beyond the banana and into creative desserts that often use pieces and parts from the rest of the menu. At the Harp Barbecue pop-up, owner Tyler Harp makes chocolate chip cookies with the tallow that cooks off his brisket. At Plowboys in Blue Springs, Todd Michael Johns is making caramel corn with brisket tallow. A recent batch featured a salty version spiked with Jameson and a cinnamon version made with Fireball.

Photography by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

So far, the only barbecue operation with a pastry chef is Fox & Pearl, which does Sunday barbecue brunches branded as Night Goat Barbecue. Pastry chef Nadine Donovan, a recent Denver transplant with an impressive resume, has worked to use the byproducts of the snout-to-tail approach taken by chef Vaughn Good, who broke into the business as a butcher. The restaurant buys half-hogs to make into sausages, hams and smoked pork belly, which was the standout on our recent visit.

“When you butcher in-house, which we do, we have a lot of excess lard to use up—which is awesome for pastries,” Donovan says. 

For the Night Goat menu, which has some overlap with the regular Fox & Pearl menu, she’s made a “real” banana pudding with banana bread chunks, salted caramel and vanilla bean whipped cream. She’s also done spiced oatmeal cream pies with marshmallow fluff and chili lime churros with dulce de leche.

This brings us to the Night Goat exclusive Pop-Tart, which is filled with date jam and topped with house-cured bacon bits and maple frosting.

“A fun thing to do with barbecue desserts is to sort of play into that sense of nostalgia—giving an adult a Pop-Tart,” Donovan says.

While the dish starts with pastry dough made from lard rendered in-house, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“Mirroring eating with your hands and being a little bit messy is important to carry through into the desserts,” she says. “You don’t want to chow down on barbecue and then have a dessert that’s really fussy.”

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