Crossroads: Where Savory Meets Sweet

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(This article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, olives, truffles and artichokes were considered suitable to serve as dessert. At the royal banquets of the day, desserts were often served alongside the savory dishes.

Only in the late 17th century, when sugar became a more common ingredient, did dessert take its place at the end of the meal as a separate sweet course. But everything old is new again, as pastry chefs are exploring a wider pantry of ingredients to produce satisfying endings to the meal that includes savory ingredients.

When you ask Meg Galus, Pastry Chef of Boka and Somerset, both in Chicago, for her thoughts on the expanded pantry, she answers: “I don’t necessarily like to put things into hard categories. I’m not thinking of ingredients as strictly ‘sweet’ or ‘savory.’ Instead, I’m seeking to produce desserts that are balanced. Whether I’m using black sesame in ice cream, or miso in the sauce for sticky toffee pudding to add an element of umami, I’m conscious of the need to create desserts that have dimension and taste good.” Never a proponent of using ingredients in a dessert for shock value, Galus draws upon her experience working on the savory side of the kitchen to season her desserts with ingredients that make sense together on a dessert plate.

Likewise, Shawn Gawle, Executive Pastry Chef for the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group, with a portfolio of varied restaurants in Austin, TX and Aspen, CO, likes to mix things up a bit by using duck fat in his cannoli dough, thyme in a pastry cream and tart lemony sorrel in a granita. He elaborates: “I love to use candied rosemary in my Gateau Basque served with a cream cheese gelato, and miso in small doses goes a long way to complexing a sweet coda to a meal.”

Pastry Chef Meg Galus Using Black Sesame in Ice Cream

Herbal accents aren’t the only instances of borrowing from what were considered part of the savory pantry. John Shields, chef-owner of Smyth, a tasting only restaurant, and the less formal Loyalist, both in Chicago, makes liberal use of vegetables, seaweed, mushrooms and many other boundary-erasing ingredients in his desserts. “I view desserts as a seamless continuation of the dining experience.” Seamless and responsive to what’s coming from the farm at any given moment, without distinguishing savory from sweet.

Rick Griggs, Executive Pastry Chef at Taste Catering, San Francisco, tends to draw frequently from the herb cabinet in his desserts. “Working with a wide variety of clients and at many different types of high-count events, I don’t tend to go out on a limb mixing savory with sweet, but I have often paired apple-based desserts with a rosemary financier, custards with bay leaf and blackberry sorbet with a judicious use of sage.”

Pastry Chef Miro Uskokovic’s Pear, Walnut & Stilton Dessert

Manuela Sanin, Executive Pastry Sous Chef at Eleven Madison Park, NY, also loves using vegetables in her desserts. “Beets, carrots, sweet potato and butternut squash are among my favorites. These can be roasted, poached and pickled or fried into chips, lending a savory accent which pushes the dessert to the next level.” She also likes to infuse white balsamic vinegar with toasted coffee beans or cacao nibs and use it as an ingredient to balance the sweetness in ice creams. Barley, the beer brewer’s favorite, also plays a role in a recent creation. “I toast the grain until it’s dark and then steep it overnight in the milk to make an ice cream base.” She then pairs this with barley malt to make a second ice cream, a crumble and a shortbread, as supporting elements in her minimalist, somewhat architectural sweet presentation.

Miro Uskokovic isn’t afraid to finesse blue cheese, curry and fruity gastriques (caramelized sugar deglazed with vinegar) in his desserts at Gramercy Tavern, NYC. He says with confidence: “I never look at dessert as something that is meant to be one-note sweet. It’s all food. The ingredients that I draw from the savory pantry are used not to make a dessert sound cool or interesting. It’s because they taste good.” A highly balanced example of his philosophy appears on the pear and bleu cheese dessert where red wine poached pears and Stilton ice cream share space. Caramelized walnuts, red wine caramel and crispy chips of pain d’epices (French spice cake) are each supporting players in the ensemble. Black sesame and miso pastes also figure in his desserts, adding an extra level of salty, earthy notes to a pavlova. Thyme, rosemary and sage appear in apple and pear desserts, adding savory notes to desserts where fruit is the star. His green curry ice cream takes advantage of a pantry of aromatics from the savory kitchen: galangal, kaffir lime, basil, among them.

On tables from New York to California and beyond, whether sweet, savory or some of each, desserts are gaining their rightful place as examples of creativity and good taste, encompassing a broader array of ingredients, thoughtfully used.

Photo Credit: Daniel Krieger