At the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, chef Gary Danko infuses fresh basil and mint in a custard sauce, imparting cool sweetness and brilliant jade-green color. At Maui's Grand Hyatt Wailea, Kathleen Daelemans moistens an artful arrangement of blood oranges and strawberries with a light syrup perked up with fragrant rosemary needles. At his namesake restaurant in Chicago, Charlie Trotter adds an elusive touch of bay leaf to creme brulee. And as long as five years ago, here in Los Angeles, Angeli Trattoria was serving a rosemary-lemon ice.
Desserts perfumed with fresh herbs have been around longer than you'd think. Back in ancient Rome, Apicius sketched a recipe for honey-nut cakes spiced with pepper, wine and rue, a slightly bitter herb once used for a variety of cooking and medicinal purposes and still employed in Italy as a flavoring for grappa.
In the Veneto region of Italy, cloves and bay leaves are standard ingredients in fruit compotes, a reflection of Venice's former key position in the spice trade with the East. Lidia Bastianich, owner of Felidia Ristorante in New York City, grew up in the Veneto area and remembers her grandmother drying figs with bay leaves.
"We would thread the figs on strings with a bay leaf between them--a crown of figs and laurel," Bastianich says. "We'd hang this from the ceiling in the fall and enjoy dried figs all winter long."
Today the idea of partnering fruit with fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, lemon thyme and basil may be a surprise to many, albeit a welcome one. Together, fruits and herbs send the palate a subtle wake-up call, the herbs enhancing the sweetness of late summer's ripe fruits while softly interjecting their own piney, menthol or woodsy aromas.
Summer fruits offer a prime opportunity to ally desserts with fresh herbs. A sprig or two of lemon thyme or sage adds zest to wine syrup for a luscious compote of mixed summer fruits and berries. Cubes of chilled ripe honeydew and cantaloupe melon brighten when tossed with a few mint leaves (or, if you are lucky enough to have your own herb garden, the hard-to-find anise hyssop) and dabbed with lime juice.
If you preserve your own fruits, tuck a sprig of fresh thyme, rosemary or sage, or a single rose-geranium leaf, into each canning jar. Suspended in translucent syrup or jelly, herb leaves not only add flavor but also a lovely visual accent.
Whatever the melding, subtlety is the key--a little can tantalize, too much can bully.
"Fresh fruit should have no more than a wisp of any flavoring other than itself," maintains Elizabeth Schneider, exotic-fruit maven and author of "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" (HarperCollins). "I like herbs for scenting a syrup," she continues, "but you don't want a mouthful of leaves. They work especially well with berries, where herb-touched syrups underscore the fruit rather than blast it off the plate."
Such subtlety is evident at the Sea Grill in New York City, where chef Seppi Renggli serves an herb-topped tropical-fruit kebab as an accompaniment to a chicken or lobster salad. A skewer of grilled pineapple, kiwi, mango, blood orange and melon alternating with lemon thyme and tiny fresh sage leaves, the kebab exemplifies Renggli's skill at combining unexpected ingredients--not for the sake of self-conscious innovation but for the enhancement of each other.
Renggli, formerly of the Four Seasons in New York City, says he is also keen on a compote of peaches tinged with lime leaves, lemon-grass or basil stems. "The flavors are terrific together," he says.
In Danko's suave custard sauce, basil and mint unite in a sort of herbal alchemy. "Mint makes the basil sing," the San Francisco chef explains. "And it livens up the other flavors."
His inspiration? "Green Chartreuse liqueur, which is made with 140 mountain herbs. I flavor the custard with the liqueur, then fortify it with blanched fresh herbs."
Danko serves this sauce with chocolate mousse cake, but it also does wonderful things when drizzled over a cool bowl of whatever summer fruits are at their peak.
Of all herbal desserts, ice cream and sorbet are the most refreshing. Because cold temperatures mute flavors, the herbs come through gently, without overpowering. Inventive chefs are scenting homemade ice cream with honey and lavender or rose geranium--a soothing summer treat, especially when topped with ripe berries.
I'll never forget the bracing pleasure of the rosemary sorbet that Renggli devised at the Four Seasons. Placed in a tall Champagne flute and then crowned with a sugar-frosted rosemary sprig, this delectable creation went down icy and smooth--a knockout that summed up this old/new culinary concept.
This late-harvest wine syrup is a basic; you can use it for any combination of fresh fruits in season. Serve the compote with shortbread or buttery sugar cookies.
SUMMER FRUIT COMPOTE WITH LEMON THYME-WINE SYRUP 1 1/2 cups dessert wine, such as Muscat, late-harvest Riesling or Gewurztraminer (or substitute 3/4 cup of dry white wine and 3/4 cup of water, plus 1/2 cup sugar) 1/2 cup cold water 1/3 cup sugar 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 4 slices peeled ginger root 1/2 cinnamon stick 1 to 2 small sprigs lemon thyme, plus more for garnish 3 ripe nectarines 3 ripe peaches 12 Italian prune plums, rinsed, halved, stemmed and pitted 1/2 pint raspberries, picked over 1/2 pint blackberries, picked over 1 lemon, thinly sliced Lemon juice
Place wine, water and sugar in non-aluminum saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Tie vanilla bean, ginger root, cinnamon stick and lemon thyme sprig in piece of cheesecloth and add to wine. Simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes.
With slotted spoon, dip nectarines and peaches into boiling water, about 20 seconds. Refresh under cold water. Peel fruit, then halve, remove pits and cut halves into thick slices.
Add prune plums to wine syrup. Cover and simmer gently, about 5 minutes, turning plums over once or twice. Plums should be tender but not mushy. Remove from heat. Gently stir in nectarines, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, lemon slices and dash lemon juice. Cool. Discard cheesecloth bag.
Transfer compote to glass serving dish. Cover and chill. When ready to serve, garnish compote with sprigs of lemon thyme. Makes 6 servings.
Rosemary is used to make an infusion, which is then stirred into a simple sugar syrup.
SEPPI RENGGLI'S FRESH ROSEMARY SORBET 2 cups cold water 4 to 5 rosemary sprigs (4 to 5 inches long), plus more for garnish 1 cup sugar 2 tablespoons tequila or light rum Lemon juice Sugar, preferably superfine, to frost Bring 1 cup water and rosemary sprigs to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat. Cover and cool. Then refrigerate overnight or at least 4 hours. Strain infusion and discard rosemary. Set liquid aside.
Bring remaining 1 cup water and sugar to boil in saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil syrup uncovered 7 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Gradually stir in reserved liquid and tequila. Cool completely.
Freeze mixture in ice cream machine, following manufacturer's instructions. When frozen, place container of sorbet in freezer until serving time.
For garnish, break off 8 sprigs rosemary, each about 1 1/2 inches long. Dip each in lemon juice, then in sugar until lightly coated. Place on sheet of wax paper (leave at room temperature, if not using immediately). Serve sorbet in Champagne flutes or wine glasses, topped with frosted rosemary sprigs. Makes about 8 servings.
Note : If you don't own ice cream machine, pour cooled mixture into cake pan and place uncovered in freezer. When edges are frozen, break them up, combining firm and liquid portions. Return to freezer. Repeat process 2 to 3 times until mixture is uniformly frozen. This will not produce as smooth a sorbet as made in machine.
This is a classic creme anglaise, infused with fresh basil and mint. Serve the sauce in a glass pitcher with summer fruits. Use any combination of the following: pitted cherries and red currants; strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries; plum, peach and nectarine sections; various melons. Sprinkle with superfine sugar and toss gently. Let stand at least 30 minutes to form a light, natural syrup. Serve the fruit cold, drizzling each portion with some of the custard sauce.
GARY DANKO'S BASIL-MINT CUSTARD SAUCE 2 cups half and half 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 8 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar Dash salt 18 large basil leaves 8 large mint leaves 2 to 3 tablespoons green Chartreuse liqueur
Place half and half in heavy, non-aluminum saucepan and set over medium heat. Scrape vanilla seeds into liquid. Add vanilla pod and bring to boil.
Whisk together egg yolks (save egg whites for another use), sugar and salt in mixing bowl until combined. Very gradually whisk hot liquid into egg yolk mixture. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until custard lightly coats back of spoon, 5 to 8 minutes. Do not allow to boil. Remove mixture from heat and strain. Let custard cool.
Bring small pan of water to boil. Add basil and mint leaves and blanch 30 seconds. Drain and immediately plunge herbs into bowl of ice water and gently press out excess water.
Place cooled custard and herbs in blender and puree. Mix in Chartreuse to taste. Transfer custard to glass pitcher, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes 2 1/3 cups or 6 to 8 servings.