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).