Spicing up Dessert
Pastry chefs incorporate surprising flavors to enliven after-meal delights.
A group of eight is sharing the sorbet sampler at Technicolor Kitchen, a trendy, eclectic restaurant in Chicago. As the dessert is passed around, a contest ensues to see who can guess the flavors of the seven-sorbet sampler. “Oh, I know this flavor,” says one diner. “It’s, it’s—what is it?” “This one is sweet, no, sour,” says another. “This one tastes like summer,” says a third. Finally the group asks its server to divulge the flavors.
And what a surprise! While some of the flavors are not unexpected (green apple and peach), others call for another taste—champagne, rose petal and sangria. But the final two flavors? Basil sorbet? Green tea sorbet? Who would have thought?
Such guessing games are playing out over dessert at restaurants across the country, where after-dinner menus reveal playfulness among pastry chefs.
Me-too standards—tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake—may still be headliners, but scroll down to the third, fourth or fifth dessert and you’ll likely find unusual flavor combinations: whipped rosemary mascarpone with figs, lavender-scented poached fruit or chocolate oolong tea mousse.
And, as the sampler at Technicolor Kitchen confirms, the sky’s the limit with sorbets and ice creams, which come in such daring flavors as grapefruit-mustard and pineapple-tarragon.
THE CLASSICS, REINVENTED
Using spices and herbs in pastry is hardly new. Cindy Renfrow, writing in Take a Thousand Eggs or More (self-published, 1998), offers a 15th century recipe for poached pears in syrup, with cinnamon, ginger, red wine vinegar and saffron.
The recent craze may stem from the public’s ongoing love affair with big flavors and its growing interest in herbs as alternative remedies or as ingredients in everything from nutrition bars to shampoo. It also might reflect playful pastry chefs’ inclination to innovate and be as creative as their counterparts working the stoves.
“I love to cook” as much as bake, says Donald Russo, executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. “I spend a lot of time in the kitchen behind the line and I see the world of things you can do with spices.” In the pastry kitchen, Russo uses what he sees to create sauces with saffron and banana, and chilled melon soup with jalapeo and mint. For Christmas last year, he fashioned fanciful shapes from rosemary-and-anise-spiced shortbread: “They looked and tasted exactly like pine trees.”
The thinking at Technicolor Kitchen goes way beyond out-of-the-box. “We’re always asking, ‘What happens if we do this?’” says Executive Chef Gil Langlois. What happens is that the menu tantalizes with first-course dishes such as espresso- and ginger-blackened alligator, served in won ton with molasses-rum cream, and finales such as the sorbets and an earthy-flavored ginseng-caramel panna cotta.
Working with spices always has been required at the French Pastry School in Chicago. And interest is growing, says Jacquy Pfeiffer, instructor and pastry chef extraordinaire, whose colleague at the school, Sebastien Canonne, created the spiced pumpkin mousse. “I think [spices and herbs are popular] because people like to go back to the basics,” he says.
Moreover, Pfeiffer believes the trend will last. “People feel good about eating things [such as fresh herbs and spices] that are natural.”
Executive Pastry Chef Stanton Ho, who oversees dessert menus for the 12 restaurants within the Las Vegas Hilton, attributes much of the interest in spices to pastry chefs’ desires to “reinvent the classic [desserts].” In addition, he says, exotic spices are widely available and improved technology has allowed chefs to unleash their creativity.
Working with spices has not been too far a stretch for Ho, who grew up in Hawaii, close to Asian influences. His spice and herb cabinet includes Chinese five-spice powder, ginger, lemon grass, anise, cloves, mint, thyme, white pepper and basil. While Ho favors his refreshing sorbets—banana-mint, lemon-thyme, sweet basil-white peach—his customers muse over the five-spice chocolate mousse with its intriguing undertones of licorice and cinnamon.
Ho points to new, easy-to-operate ice cream machines to underscore technology’s role. “Before [the machines were available],” he says, “we didn’t want to be creative because it was too difficult.” Now, using advanced machines, making spice- or herb-infused sorbets and ice creams can be done in three simple steps: boiled infusion, chilled infusion and freezing.
JUST A PINCH FOR INTRIGUE
After a meal of bold flavors, does a cutomer want spice in the mousse, herbs in the sorbet? Some diners might be tempted to say enough already, bring on the crme brlée.
At E&O Trading Company, a Pacific Rim restaurant in San Francisco known for eclectic Asian flavors, customers expect a twist on the classic crme brlée. Indeed, recent menus have featured the custard infused with ginger or lemon grass.
Likewise, at Patria in New York, customers flock for a taste of its exotic Nuevo Latino cuisine. When it comes time for dessert, choices include tropical fruit soup infused with Muscat wine, star anise, cinnamon, cloves and crystallized lemon thyme; and chocolate ginger natillas, a luscious pudding served over chocolate biscocho, a dense coffee-flavored cake, with roasted-banana ice cream.
But even here, the flavors are carefully proportioned for impact, not overloaded. “I go for a blast of flavor in the mouth,” says Patria’s Pastry Chef Alex Asteinza. “It’s just enough [spice] to intrigue the tongue, but not too much.”
“There is no rule of thumb” when it comes to working with exotic flavors in the pastry kitchen, says Naples, Fla.-based Norman Love, corporate pastry chef for The Ritz-Carlton. “You learn through experience and working with the recipes.”
Love does offer some tips, however. Most important, he says, “you want the spice to be an accompaniment, never the entire flavor.” A favorite summer dessert at the Ritz is sautéed fruit such as peaches or apricots perfumed with “small quantities” of lavender. “The lavender should enhance the fruit,” Love says. “You use enough to coax a very pleasant taste. You want to taste all the flavors equally.”
As the chef in charge of 36 Ritz-Carlton pastry kitchens around the world, Love gets to travel the globe and experiment with spices and flavors that seem exotic back home. In addition to star anise, green cardamom, saffron and pepper, Love uses pandan, a roasted coconut-almond flavored Malaysian spice, in syrups, mousse and sorbets; oolong, green and jasmine teas to infuse flan, crme brlée and soufflés; and vervene, a lemony-mint spice, in ice cream.
Chris Boberg, executive pastry chef for New York’s four-star Lespinasse, frequently experiments with exotic herbs and spices in the kitchen—he once made sorbet with strawberries, champagne and sweet woodruff. He encourages others to do the same.
“It’s great to expand your palette of flavors,” says Boberg, who likes to experiment with new herbs and essences.
He tempers enthusiasm with a cautionary note, telling colleagues to thoroughly research any herbs they use and be aware of any side effects they might cause. Licorice, for example, which Boberg uses to flavor roasted pears, can cause arrhythmia if consumed in large doses.
“You don’t want to be surprised by someone having palpitations in your dining room.”
Boberg’s final word? “I recommend that chefs consult a handbook” before playing with unfamiliar herbs and spices.
Green Tea Sorbet
Chocolate Oolong Tea Mousse with Spiced Caramel Sauce
To Menu, or Not To Menu
When experiments in the pastry kitchen turn out desserts with such ingredients as jalapeo and mint, should such information be divulged on the menu?
At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the dessert menu boldly includes jalapeo and mint in its description of chilled melon soup. “Californians are OK with chiles in just about anything,” says Executive Pastry Chef Donald Russo. That’s not to say Russo always reveals the flavors in a dessert. “It’s not always good to say everything,” he say. Do so, and customers “begin to form an opinion about how [the dessert] should taste.”
Norman Love, corporate pastry chef for The Ritz-Carlton, takes the opposite view. Love, who perfumes desserts with such flavors as star anise, green cardamom and jasmine tea, says it’s important that customers know exactly what they’re eating. Not only does listing every ingredient avoid allergic reactions and displeasure over unexpected flavors, it also “adds a certain mystique to the menu,” Love says. At the very least, he adds, “it makes for interesting menu reading.”
Classic to Contemporary
Adding spice to crme brlée is easy for Executive Chef Glen Wielo at E&O Trading Company in San Francisco. Is the same true for Wielo’s spiced bread pudding? “That’s still on the drawing board,” he admits. It’s tempting, in a fit of creativity, for pastry chefs to add their mark to a classic dessert with a dash of spice, a handful of herbs. But as Wielo and other pastry chefs have discovered, turning classic desserts into modern interpretations requires a solid understanding of the flavors—and lots of experimentation.
For crme brlée, Wielo uses a classic recipe and simply adds enough ginger, lemon grass or other spice to give a pleasant taste. His idea for bread pudding includes garam masala, a “warm” Indian blend that combines up to 12 spices, including cinnamon, pepper, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and fennel. For all his attempts, Wielo fears the spice is “too unusual” for bread pudding.
Earlier this year, the “lab” at Technicolor Kitchen in Chicago tested the results of reduced rice wine vinegar, which was thought would make a good sauce. It had an earthy, porcini mushroom flavor, reports the restaurant’s chef, Gil Langlois, but a “huge, sour back end.” A bit of clover honey balanced the sweet-sour taste. Experiments continue for a dessert that can showcase the exotic syrup.