I am weird about desserts. I don’t really like ice cream and, while I can appreciate the artistry and discipline involved in super fancy desserts, my cravings are much more basic. My favorites are as simple as a slice of peach pie or chocolate layer cake—or anything with caramel, the creamier the better. Caramel is just one of the reasons the Hot Milk Cake at Watershed on Peachtree is my favorite dessert to order from an Atlanta restaurant.
The Hot Milk Cake was initially just an occasional weekend special at the original Watershed location in Decatur, but it didn’t land on the menu until the restaurant opened on Peachtree Road. Chef Zeb Stevenson, who inherited the recipe when he took over the kitchen in January 2015, recalls the first time he ate the cake. “When I first took the position, I came to Watershed and had dinner to check things out,” Stevenson recalls. “When we had the Hot Milk Cake, I immediately texted Ross [Jones, the restaurant’s co-owner] and told her it was a very special dessert. I thought it should always have a place on Watershed’s menu.”
Jones, who co-owns the restaurant with Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, has a handwritten copy of the recipe from her great-grandmother that details the deceptively simple cake recipe, which is executed by longtime pastry chef Laura Mares. The “hot milk” component that the recipe relies on involves pouring a mixture of boiling milk and butter over the sugar, eggs, and flour. The boiled milk gelatinizes the starches in the flour and denatures the proteins, which prevents the cake from toughening.
Traditionally, the cake can be served with chocolate or caramel frosting. Jones’s recipe calls for the rectangle to be enrobed in a thick blanket of creamy caramel icing and finished with a quenelle of soft whipped cream and sea salt. The cake has a slightly spongy texture due to the higher proportion of eggs, and the caramel lends just enough unctuous sweetness, while the cream expertly blends the textures and flavors into the perfect mouthful of dessert. And the pinch of salt adds a sharp contrast that will please savory dessert lovers such as myself.
Stevenson says he has no intention of ever taking the dish—which he considers a defining one—off the menu. Good thing, because for something so simple, it sure is iconic, and a must for your Atlanta food bucket list. 1820 Peachtree Road Northwest, 404-809-3561