A tiny little black seed is taking the pastry world by storm. Flavor of the month? Absolutely not -- for pastry chefs from Paris to Tokyo, from Los Angeles to New York and over to Spain, it’s the flavor of the year.
Black sesame seeds -- earthy and nutty, distinctively bitter, with a smoky, almost peppery flavor -- are appearing in tuiles and macarons, ice creams and eclairs, cakes and panna cottas and doughnuts.
This is no mere trendy garnish. “It’s a staple,” says Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York City. “It isn’t overly sweet or cloying so it helps maintain the integrity of other ingredients in a dessert.” Iuzzini uses black sesame seeds in the ganache for his chocolates. Other New York and Los Angeles chefs are using them in ice cream and creme brulee; at the new Patisserie Chantilly in Lomita, Keiko Nojima is featuring them in cream puffs and atop white sesame blancmange, a cooked pudding.
At El Bulli north of Barcelona, pastry chef Albert Adria has fallen for the seeds. With a handful or two, he has fashioned the spiral, a hypnotic swirl of black sesame crunch, dehydrated raspberries and lime gelatin, with a quenelle of coconut ice cream. Another dessert, gran creu negra, an outsize cross of smeared black sesame paste with chocolate-lime sorbet and chocolate cake, is Adria’s homage to abstract-expressionist Catalan painter Antoni Tapies.
At all-dessert restaurant Espai Sucre in nearby Barcelona, chef Jordi Butron is known for a lapsang souchong tea cream with chocolate cake, black sesame tuile and yogurt.
Even in Paris, black sesame seeds are making a showing. At the very chic Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, the black sesame macarons and black sesame eclairs are among the most popular pastries, says spokeswoman Sandra Bourdier. Pastry chef Aoki also uses black sesame in chocolate bars, ice cream and truffles.
They’ve long been a traditional ingredient in Asian sweets. So what is it about the little seeds that’s now captivating Western chefs? “It reminds me of toasted sunflower seeds that I ate in my childhood that in Spain are colloquially called pipas,” says Adria, brother and partner of chef Ferran Adria.
An edgier sweetness
MAYBE it isn’t used as frequently as, say, vanilla or cinnamon, but “it’s a flavor that I keep coming back to,” says Ron Mendoza, pastry chef at Sona in West Hollywood, who has a black sesame ice cream and a black sesame brittle in rotation on the menu. Mendoza is experimenting with black sesame seeds in his Pacojet, a high-tech machine for making ice cream, sauces and purees. He says “with summer coming up,” a black sesame caramel sauce might be “paired with fruits like peaches and nectarines.”
As more pastry chefs rethink the concept of dessert, a transition from purely sweet toward more salty, sour, spicy and bitter is accelerating. Chefs are using ingredients such as vinegar, chiles, herbs, spices, fleur de sel and coarse black pepper in their desserts.
“Black sesame can center a dish,” Mendoza says, “so that you have a more natural combination of flavors, not as sweet. I definitely like more bitter components.”
At cutting-edge restaurant wd-50 in New York, pastry chef Sam Mason makes a black sesame ice cream with a pink grapefruit gelee, tarragon meringue and warm grapefruit confit. “It’s not easy to harness the flavor of black sesame,” Mason says, “but there’s nothing else like it.”
Another innovator, Josh DeChellis, chef at Sumile and Jovia in New York, was looking for an alternative to chocolate for the dessert menu at Sumile. He says black sesame when sweetened is “vaguely reminiscent of the flavor profile of bittersweet chocolate.” Inspired by the flavor, he came up with “black sesame dice,” Japanese black sesame paste whisked into a sugar solution with a little lemon juice and gelatin. When set, it is cut into cubes, piled on a plate and served with raspberries or cherries, whatever fruit is in season. “I will never ever ever take it off the menu,” he says.
In Los Angeles, customers at Kiriko have been known to come in just for the black sesame ice cream that sushi chef Ken Namba makes. (Namba says he has to turn them away because he barely has enough space to accommodate his sushi patrons.) He uses black sesame paste and black sesame seeds that he toasts, then grinds in a food processor as well as by hand in a mortar and pestle, “for extra aroma. When you eat it, the smell of sesame should be strong.”
American chefs have been using black sesame since about the mid-'80s in sauces and to encrust fillets of meat and fish. Chef Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York, says he has been incorporating black sesame into his menus since 1984. One of his current signature dishes is a black sesame “cornet” of salmon tartare with creme fraiche. But black sesame seems to have come into its own in desserts, where the strong flavor can be balanced with some sugar. Keller has had a dessert of mango sorbet, yuzu-scented genoise, sesame nougatine and black sesame coulis on his menus.
Black sesame seeds tend to be more bitter and a little richer than their white counterparts. When roasted, as they often are, the bitter quality of black sesame is intensified. Pastry chefs are enthusiastic not only about their flavor but also their color. Mason of wd-50 infuses his ice cream with a superfine black sesame powder imported from Japan.
“It’s fine like dust and it turns the ice cream a mad gray color,” he says. “I love the battleship gray. It’s gorgeous. It’s super sexy.”
The black sesame urge can be traced to Asia, where it is a common flavor in traditional Chinese and Japanese sweets. Chinese cuisine offers a variety of black sesame desserts, especially in dim sum. Black sesame seeds are sometimes used in Japanese sweets known as wagashi. Middle Eastern and Central Asian sweets known as halva are made with sesame seeds, too, but they are usually white. Aesthetically, the inspiration clearly seems to be coming from the Far East.
Making a splash
EL BULLI’S Adria says he began incorporating black sesame into his desserts in 2004 after a trip to Japan, which is in the throes of a “sesame boom,” according to industry insiders. Japan is the largest single importer of sesame seeds in the world.
There, traditional uses include goma dofu, a sesame “tofu,” and some wagashi. But in the last several years, a new focus on the health benefits -- some proven, some not -- of sesame seeds and “black foods” (black soybeans, black rice, Chinese black tea) have helped popularize black sesame in a variety of products. Black sesame ice cream has been a long-running trend that seems to have picked up steam stateside, on plated desserts and by the scoop, such as at Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York.
Even the doughnut has been to Japan and back. When New York’s popular Doughnut Plant opened branches in Tokyo, black sesame, along with yuzu and shiso, were premier flavors. Owner Mark Isreal brought the black sesame flavor back to his original store in New York, where it is one of his occasional doughnut specials.
“I thought people would be freaked out by a black doughnut,” he says, “but it sold.”
In the U.S., white sesame seeds still are more familiar than the black. Called benne, sesame seeds were brought from Africa to the U.S. in the 17th century. Most of the sesame seeds produced in and imported to the U.S. are still used for hamburger buns, bagels, bread and crackers. Traditionally, very little of it has been used for confection or sweets, although the benne wafer, a cookie made with toasted white sesame seeds, brown sugar and maybe some pecans, is a Low Country specialty.
Sesame seeds are cultivated on a modest scale in the U.S., much of it in Texas. Other than what’s grown in research nurseries, none of it is black, according to Nathan Smith, consultant to Paris, Texas-based sesame seed developer Sesaco Corp. Black sesame seeds are imported mostly from India.
“We’re pretty far behind in terms of what sesame can be ... but we’ve seen the market for sesame grow significantly,” Smith says, and the cultivation of black sesame seeds is being considered as demand increases. “It’s exciting what’s happening for those of us in the sesame industry.”
At Mutual Trading Co. in Los Angeles, a wholesale purveyor to local restaurants and Asian markets, sales of black sesame seeds doubled in 2005 from 2004, according to assistant vice president Atsuko Kanai. Sesame seeds are “up and coming,” she says.
The newest addition to the dessert menu at Beacon in Culver City includes a black sesame creme brulee. Pastry chef Daniel Espindola says he was inspired by a Chinese sweet black sesame soup, called zhi ma wu. The creme brulee is thick and creamy and dark.
Black sesame cream puff is a bestseller at Keiko Nojima’s 10-month-old Patisserie Chantilly in Lomita. Nojima didn’t offer that flavor every day until customers demanded it. She says she was inspired by pastries in Tokyo, where she had served an apprenticeship and where patisserie flavored with black sesame is common. Nojima also makes black sesame tuiles and a white sesame blancmange with black sesame seeds and kinako sauce, made with soy flour. She says she is considering adding more black sesame pastries.
Black sesame seeds may have already found their way into your favorite dessert. “I believe that in the near future their use will become established,” says El Bulli’s Adria. “They’ll be a normal, everyday product.”
Seeds of history
Sesame seeds -- whose colors include black, brown, red, yellow and beige (or white) -- come from the Sesamum indicum plant, a leafy annual that grows 3 to 6 feet tall and that was recorded as a crop in Babylon more than 4,000 years ago. Small, oval pods encase as many as 100 oil-yielding seeds. The pods of some plant strains split open abruptly at maturity, scattering the seeds, which may have inspired the phrase, “Open, sesame.”