It was a casual Saturday evening dinner about six months ago. I was preparing a rosemary pork roast with a few dishes on the side when, like a smack in the face, I was hit by a happy accident. Here's what happened: knife chops rosemary for roast, knife left on counter next to rosemary, fresh batch of marshmallow squares is cooling off next to the knife that's next to the rosemary. Lack of self-control drives knife into the corner piece of the marshmallow square. Neck kicks back and senses become a scene from "Fantasia." The soft sweetness of the marshmallow paired with the piney flavor of the rosemary was like nothing I had ever tasted.
Rosemary in a sweet? Or maybe more to the point, rosemary delicious in a sweet? It took a second to absorb what had just happened, but then it occurred to me: If a hint of rosemary could make the squares taste so delectable, then maybe other herbs and spices could enhance the flavors of classic sweets and take them to a new level.
Sure enough, just a hint of a surprising flavor can make even the homiest of desserts — marshmallow squares, shortbreads, brownies, even a simple sugar cookie — taste fresh and new.
But how do you go about finding that perfect note without having it turn out gimmicky or weird? The first step is thinking about what ingredients naturally complement each other in savory dishes. For instance, lime and black pepper is a common combination for seasoning fish or poultry, so it might work well in a dessert too. Maybe more obviously, chile and chocolate are two key ingredients in Mexican mole, and so pairing them in a sweet seems natural.
Sometimes the decision is more intuitive: Think about the mood of a dessert and pair it with an herb or spice that evokes a similar mood. Take the curry shortbread recipe for example. Classic shortbread is a cookie that is buttery and dry and goes perfectly with a hot cup of tea on a wet winter day. I get the same feeling when I think of curry powder. Its aromatic and subtle heat is always warm and comforting. So Scotland meets India, with warm spiced curry powder and buttery shortbread. The curry gives the cookie a rich yellow color and a depth of flavor that is unmistakable.
When introducing an herb or a spice to a recipe it's important to keep in mind how potent its flavor is. A small miscalculation can very easily result in overpowering all the other ingredients. You still want the dish to taste like itself, just with an added touch of something special.
The cayenne brownies offer a perfect example of the challenge in getting the balance right. While the pepper has a fresh lingering heat that should hold up to a bold dessert such as a rich, dense cherry chocolate brownie, the key question is "How much?" I made batches ranging from barely a hint of spice to so much heat that the chocolate and cherry were lost completely. Tapping into my inner Goldilocks, I tried over and over until the balance was just right. And now these rich decadent chocolate brownies, spotted with bright, tart dried cherries, have just enough heat to leave a lovely tingle on your tongue.
Sometimes you need a liaison to bring the flavors together — another ingredient that creates a "bridge" that allows the savory flavor to shine. Adding black pepper to a sugar cookie doesn't work nearly as well as adding the combination of black pepper and lime zest. The fresh lime zest helps the cookie taste complete. With it, the black pepper is fresh and surprising; without it, the pepper is merely peculiar.
The same is true with the pairing of tangerine and thyme in a chocolate chip cookie. The tangerine has a mild and sweet citrus flavor that is not as bright or prominent as lemon or orange zest, so it doesn't overpower the thyme. This gives the cookie a soft balance of chocolate and citrus with the fresh earthiness of the thyme peeking through.
It doesn't take much to make a classic taste new and sophisticated. It just needs a little of the right ingredient and a willingness to embrace life's happy accidents.