Desserts are supposed to be sweet, but they need to be more than that as well. Too often, though, you taste nothing but the sugar. One way to overcome this is to incorporate some savory elements into your dessert recipes.

It’s not really as odd as it sounds. After all, chefs on the savory side of the kitchen often add fruit and other sweets (honey, sugar, maple syrup) to a dish, especially meat and poultry. Foie gras is frequently served with lightly candied or stewed fruits.

But use a vegetable or some goat cheese in a dessert, and people think you’re nuts even though it makes perfect sense. If cherries are good with duck, then why not put tomatoes in caramel?


As a pastry chef, I love taking risks--making that leap of faith with a dessert combination and hoping it makes as much sense to the person eating it as it does to me. These experiments are explorations in flavor. They’re never done to be shocking or perverse. The only time I think a dessert doesn’t make sense is if it isn’t delicious.

A lot of what we think of as savory has an underlying sweetness to it. For example, fennel tastes like licorice. Not only are tomatoes a fruit botanically, I’ve had some ripe summer heirloom varieties that are definitely as sweet as berries. Even bay leaves, when fresh, have a suave, slightly spicy flavor that is terrific in cream-based desserts. Fresh ones taste nothing like the dry bay leaves people associate with beef stew.

Beyond tasting good, using these elements in unexpected ways makes people think differently about the nature of an ingredient. Why is something as sweet as winter squash so infrequently used in dessert? And if a hunk of triple-cream cheese has a smooth, luxurious texture and a tart, milky taste, why not melt it into vanilla custard to add richness and temper the sweetness? Or add a touch of mild goat cheese to cheesecake to make it more complex?

There’s one key to using these ingredients in sweets: restraint. It’s not about hitting someone over the head with an unexpected flavor, it’s about balance and nuance. I like to think of savory additions almost as if they were secret ingredients--they can add that special something that takes an ordinary dessert and makes it extraordinary. The flavors should be subtle enough reveal themselves slowly. It might take several bites for a person to realize that unusual flavor is a dollop of goat yogurt or a sprig of thyme.

Herbs seem to adapt to desserts more easily than other savory ingredients. Like the adage “what grows together goes together,” summer fruit and fresh herbs are in season at the same time. To me, tossing raspberries with verbena or lemon thyme makes as much sense as pairing tomatoes and basil.

Think of herbs as summer’s counterpart to winter’s earthy spices. For example, basil reminds me of a fresh, lively version of cinnamon. Just as peaches are spiced with cinnamon sticks to preserve them for winter, in the height of summer I sometimes add a scoop of basil ice cream to peach tarte Tatin.

One savory ingredient I use in every season is salt. It serves the same purpose in desserts that it does in savory food: bringing out the flavors and nuances. It also helps temper the flavor of something that is on the verge of cloying. My favorite use for salt in a sweet is sprinkling coarse crystals of it on top of my chocolate caramel tart. The salt highlights the sweetness within and makes the chocolate flavor pop. If this seems strange, think of chocolate-covered pretzels.

Occasionally I take my inspiration from a classic savory combination and adapt it to dessert. In Italy, blood oranges and fennel are mixed to make a refreshing winter salad. But in my kitchen, that pairing becomes a blood orange sorbet served with candied fennel.

In the same vein, a typical savory Thai dish might include coconut milk and cilantro--the vibrancy of the herb cutting through the luscious richness of the coconut. I do the same thing in my coconut tapioca dessert, drizzling cilantro syrup over the pearls in their silky sauce.

Something to keep in mind with this experimentation is that not all savories are adaptable to desserts. Instinctively, I wouldn’t try making dessert from fish or meat. To do that would be to turn it into the entree. After all, dessert should be whimsical and playful; adding meat would make it nothing more than nourishment. And that’s what the rest of the meal is for.


Fleming is pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York. She and Clark are co-authors of “The Last Course” (Random House, $40).


Goat-Cheese Cheesecake

Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

Use the mildest goat cheese you can. Taste a few brands until you find one with a suitably mild, light taste. Avoid an aged cheese, which would be too strong and sharp for this recipe.

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (11 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature

8 ounces fresh goat cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped

1 1/2 cups mascarpone cheese

4 eggs

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Wrap the outside of an 8-inch springform pan with foil and set aside.

Combine the cream cheese, goat cheese, sugar and vanilla pulp in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth and creamy. Add the mascarpone and beat until smooth.

Add the eggs and mix well, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Strain the mixture into a bowl.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and place it in the center of a larger baking pan. Pour enough very hot water into the baking pan to reach two-thirds of the way up the side of the springform pan. Cover the entire baking dish with foil. Pierce the foil in several places with a knife. Bake the cake for 1 hour, then lift off a corner of the foil to allow the steam to escape. Recover the pan and bake until the cake looks rather wet and is still very slightly jiggly in the center, but the edges are set, 40 to 45 minutes longer.

Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool completely before serving. The cake can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator.

8 servings. Each serving: 476 calories; 420 mg sodium; 216 mg cholesterol; 40 grams fat; 25 grams saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0 fiber.


Black Pepper Ice Cream

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 50 minutes plus 4 hours chilling

This unusual ice cream works because the pepper cuts through the richness of the cream, and its sharpness and slight heat give it a lot of sophistication. It’s a versatile ice cream that pairs wonderfully with summer fruits such as berries and peaches.

3 cups milk

1 cup whipping cream

1 1/4 cups sugar, divided

12 egg yolks

1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns

Dash salt

Combine the milk, cream and 1 cup of the sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, whisk together the egg yolks and the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar.

Remove the milk mixture from the heat and add a little to the egg yolk mixture to warm it, whisking constantly to keep the yolks from curdling. Pour the yolk mixture into the hot milk mixture, whisking the milk constantly as you pour.

Return the custard to the stove and cook it over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat and strain into a bowl. Stir in the crushed peppercorns and the salt. Chill the custard until it’s thoroughly cold, at least 4 hours.

Strain again and freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

8 (1/2-cup) servings. Each serving: 320 calories; 98 mg sodium; 345 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.21 gram fiber.


Guinness Stout Ginger Cake

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 1/2 hours

In this recipe, stout is substituted for the water or coffee used in most gingerbread recipes. Stout is a dark brown beer that is heavier and sweeter than a porter, another dark beer. I find it adds a lot of richness and underscores the spices. Since it is made with oil, this cake will stay moist for several days. Dress it up or simply enjoy it on its own, with coffee, tea or a beer!

1 cup stout, preferably Guinness

1 cup molasses

1/2 tablespoon baking soda

3 eggs

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed

3/4 cup grapeseed or vegetable oil

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9x5-inch loaf pan, line the bottom and sides with parchment and grease the parchment. (Alternatively, butter and flour a 6-cup bundt pan.)

Combine the stout and molasses in a large saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the baking soda. Allow to sit until the foam dissipates.

Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs and the granulated and brown sugars in a bowl. Whisk in the oil.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom.

Combine the stout mixture with the egg mixture, then whisk this liquid into the flour mixture, half at a time. Add the grated ginger and stir to combine.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake until the top springs back when gently pressed, 1 hour. Do not open the oven until the gingerbread is almost done or the center may fall slightly. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

8 servings. Each serving: 556 calories; 353 mg sodium; 77 mg cholesterol; 23 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 81 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.19 grams fiber.


Lavender-Lemon Poundcake

Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

In this rich, buttery poundcake, the vibrancy of lemon accents and tempers the musky floral qualities of lavender. The flavors harmonize beautifully and make for a cake that manages to be at once plain and simple, as poundcakes are, but also more interesting. Dried lavender is available at gourmet markets and some farmers markets.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/4 cup dried lavender, divided

5 eggs

1 1/2 cups sugar, divided

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup strained lemon juice

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9x5-inch loaf pan.

Melt the butter with 1 tablespoon of the lavender in a small saucepan. Let the mixture steep 10 minutes, then strain, discarding the lavender. Set aside to cool.

Beat the eggs and 1 cup of the sugar in the bowl of a mixer until thick and pale, about 5 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt into a bowl. Using a whisk, fold the lemon zest and one-third of the flour mixture into the eggs until thoroughly combined. Fold in the rest of the flour in 2 batches. In a separate bowl, whisk 1 cup of the batter with the melted butter and the vanilla. Add this to the remaining batter and fold to combine. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. If the top of the cake seems to be getting overly browned before the center is set, cover with foil and continue baking.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, the lemon juice, 1/4 cup of water and the remaining 3 tablespoons of lavender in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.

Transfer the cake to a wire rack. Using a cake tester or skewer, poke the cake all over. Brush the loaf with half of the syrup and let cool for 10 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack, remove the pan and brush the syrup over the bottom and sides of the cake. Turn the cake back over and brush with the remaining syrup. Let cool completely.

8 servings. Each serving: 498 calories; 116 mg sodium; 191 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 60 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.60 gram fiber.