Ambrosial Desserts with Botanical Flavors

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Elderflowers were a hot topic this spring, as the flavor-of-choice for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s buzzed about wedding cake. But many pastry pros were already on trend, featuring ambrosial desserts with floral and herbal accents. While edible flower garnishes remain popular, it’s flavor and texture that are luring top toques to focus on botanical creations – from aromatic rose to zesty basil and bay leaf. These are some of the favorites of executive pastry chefs in New York, and, where noted, other parts of the country.

The sweet, delicate, elderflower is ideal for gelees, according to Richard Capizzi at Lincoln Ristorante, who serves it with an almond panna cotta, cornmeal meringue, macerated raspberry, and moscato sorbet. At Restaurant Daniel, Ghaya Oliviera’s strawberry tart with elderberry flower gelee/berry vinaigrette, is accompanied by fennel-yuzu confit sorbet; while Cronut king Dominique Ansel layers elderflower strawberry jam in a strawberry vanilla crème tart, topped with honeycomb and creme fraiche.

Ansel also favors the rose, which remains premier in the pantheon of flowers. Revered by the ancient Persians, the scent was famously re-imagined by the legendary Pierre Hermé in his rose-lychee-raspberry Ispahan and other variations. Ansel’s mango rose religieuse is a double decker cream puff with rose ganache and mango jam. Rose also pairs well with panna cotta. At Mirabelle in Washington, D.C., Aggie Chin’s Fleur a La Neige combines a rosewater meringue piped in the shape of a rose, with labna panna cotta, black sesame sablé and strawberry sorbet. “The rose and strawberry complement each other nicely,” she notes, “both being so aromatic, but I wanted to add the black sesame as a nutty, grounding component for a nice caramelized crunch.”

Diane Yang at Minneapolis’s Spoon & Stable accompanies her rose panna cotta with buckwheat chiffon, and raspberry champagne sorbet, while Geoffrey Koo at Riverpark embellishes his rose panna cotta with champagne mango, cherries, rhubarb prosecco, and jasmine kisses.

Panna cotta also works well with fragrant, citrusy lemon verbena. Herbal, but still on the sweet side, the dish starts to skew savory at db Bistro Moderne with Tyler Verbiak’s tomato-strawberry verrine with lemon verbena panna cotta, basil sorbet and pine nut sable. “I’ve always been a big fan of lemon verbena,” Verbiak explains,” and I typically pair it with berries. This dessert takes a new direction – the lemon pairs well with the tomatoes and berries separately, but also together.”

Basil reaches beyond sorbet at Locanda Verde, where Deborah Racicot incorporates it in a shortcrust for an apricot robiolina cheese cake with honey-balsamic agrodolce. For a basil olive oil cake, Thea Habjanic at La Serena blends a bunch of blanched basil into olive oil along with lemon zest, juice and limoncello to create “an incredibly moist, spongy cake with a gorgeous light green color that is as olive-oily as it is basil-y.” Habjanic notes, “I always have at least one item on the menu that has an herb flavor profile, and all the desserts have some kind of matching edible flower.” For bay leaf panna cotta, she steeps fresh leaves with cream, milk, and sugar, and serves the dish with a cherry balsamic compote, honey whipped cream, lemon curd, and cherry caviar.

Last summer, seeking something new for the inaugural menu at Miami’s Stubborn Seed, Dallas Wynne was inspired by sweet fresh corn which she usually boils at home with a bay leaf in the water. When a local farmer brought “some beautiful fresh bay leaves, I played around,” she recalls, “ground the leaves with sugar and made a meringue.” The result – corn pavlova with bay leaf meringue, berries and butter gelato – has never left the menu.

A plethora of other botanicals are popping up, aloe vera to tarragon and rosemary; and mint, of course, remains an all-time stalwart. Even multi-herbal bittersweet amaras are entering the dessert realm. Habjanic’s budino di ciccolati with a Fernet Branca caramel elevates a rich chocolate pudding into an adult interpretation of a childhood favorite. Cookies also make the cut in California-based baker Lori Stern’s colorful shortbreads with floral and herbal flavors baked into each bite.