(This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Once you know the unmistakable golden color of turmeric, you can’t help but notice it everywhere. From golden milk to dietary supplements, it’s practically in everything these days, including sweets. And while it’s perhaps still easier to find in more traditional, regional desserts, turmeric is now adding shine to a wide array of more unexpected treats. From cinnamon rolls and ice cream to macarons and mousse, the dessert world’s decision to use turmeric is becoming as good as gold.
Tracing the use of turmeric in desserts is like traveling back in time to the ancient spice routes throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Its strong connection to particular regions makes it a natural fit in even more modern kitchens. Take Sababa in Washington D.C., for instance, an Israeli restaurant whose fine-tuned menu mixing regional flavors has landed it on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list for several years running. Among its desserts, you will find the Golden Mahalabia, a twist on a traditional sweet milk pudding with turmeric, saffron syrup, candied ginger, oranges and pecans.
Similarly, Sofra Bakery and Café in Cambridge, MA, plays with flavors of Turkey, Lebanon and Greece for a more modern Middle Eastern menu. One of its most popular items is a date cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting. While the date filling is the star, which “tastes like candy” after an extensive process, Chef Maureen Kilpatrick added a distinctive yellow cast to the rolls by adding turmeric to the dough. As she developed the recipe, the decision to add turmeric was almost an accident. “We just decided to try it,” she recalls, adding she knew “it was going to work.” And it did, becoming a sellout with the brunch crowd.
Perhaps more unexpectedly, turmeric is also making its way into ice cream. At Sugar Hill Creamery in New York, “touching on different cultures and pairing things that might be interesting together” is at the heart of how they develop their unique flavors, explains co-owner Petrushka Bazin Larson. The summer menu offers a popular flavor called Tuma Buna, inspired by local Harlem music influencer Tuma Basa and the coffee-making ceremony called buna in Ethiopia. The base of coffee ice cream gets a kick of crunch with turmeric and ginger candy. “The flavor is quite exceptional, and people really enjoy it,” notes Larson.
In many cases, turmeric is a complementary flavor rather than the star of the show. Kilpatrick notes that while dates in her rolls are at the forefront of the dessert, the turmeric is a mild touch. “You almost don’t know that you’re tasting it,” she notes, but adds, “I wouldn’t make them without it.” And Sugar Hill co-owner Nick Larson explains, “the turmeric makes the flavor profile rounder,” against the zing of the ginger and strong coffee base.
It’s the subtly that provides another use to turmeric that is growing in popularity: as a colorant. With the recent news of luster dust being potentially toxic, customer demand for all-natural colors in baked goods is on the rise with no signs of slowing down. Using turmeric as a natural coloring agent is a no-brainer, given its vibrant hue and the added benefit of it potentially being in your supply closet already.
Where previously it was a substitute for a powdered or gel color in, quite literally, a pinch, it is now becoming standard practice. And a little is a lot; it can be added to batters and doughs in very small quantities for color without overpowering the other flavors of the dish. Plant-based chef and Instagram star Mei Yee makes everything from delicate safflower macarons to lemon coconut mousse cake using just a touch of turmeric to punch up the color. The spice’s vibrancy lends itself quite naturally to lemon, mango and passion fruit.
Of course, not all turmeric is created equal. It varies in color and quality, just like most ingredients and spices. Kilpatrick uses a local supplier called Curio Spice Co. for her supplies, noting that finding a trusted source “makes a huge difference” in finding a brighter and more flavorful spice. And Bazin Larson suggests looking towards brands who pride themselves in single origin spices who have relationships with the regional farmers, like Diaspora Co. “The result is obviously way more flavorful!”
So, whether you work in traditional or modern establishments or somewhere in between, experimenting with turmeric is an easy way to add a unique pop to your plate. Even small quantities will get noticed, whether they simply brighten a dessert with color or add a flavor component to a composed dish. Either way, turmeric has a bright future ahead. It’s time to get sourcing.