(This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
“Matcha has taken over the world,” declares acclaimed pastry chef Jason Licker, raving about the vibrant green tea powder that has become popular with chefs as well as with tea sipping connoisseurs. “Every single thing you can image has matcha in it,” Licker continues, “and it’s amazing to bake with.” His enthusiasm resonates with a wide swath of dessert professionals from mainstream chocolatiers like Richard Tango-Lowy of Dancing Lion Chocolate and ice cream maestro Nicholas Morgenstern, to a coterie of young Asian rising stars transitioning from blogs to prize-winning books that feature myriad matcha creations. Even King Arthur Flour weighs in with a recipe for Marbled Matcha Milk Bread.
Licker, whose demo of an Asian-inspired marble cake is showcased on the 2022 Pastry Arts Summit, was an early matcha adopter, falling in love with the earthy, tannic, yet sweet flavor while working at Nobu in Miami in 2000. Author of two best sellers, Lickerland: Asian-Accented Desserts, and Baking With Licker, winner of the World Gourmand Award for the Best Asian Cookbook in 2021, Licker has developed an extensive repertoire of verdant desserts. He often pairs matcha with something sweet and/or acidic like coconut and lime packed into a choux puff, or his signature lava-like molten matcha tart with ceremonial matcha, Valrhona Manjari ice cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate crumble, where “the warm, tannic yet sweet matcha and ice-cold bitter intense chocolate dance on your palate.”
Licker stresses the importance of using the very best quality matcha powder. Highly revered in Japan since the 12th century, the powder, derived from carefully cultivated, shade-grown tea,
is sold in several grades, mainly culinary, ceremonial and organic ceremonial. Licker advises splurging on ceremonial over culinary, which is cheaper but inferior in flavor and color. “High quality matcha should be sweet, smooth, and with none to barely any bitter tones,” he explains. “And color is also important: ceremonial grade matcha that is not organic has a brilliant green color due to extra fertilizer used, which increases the high levels of chlorophyll to give it superfood power.” As to organic ceremonial, Licker notes, “it is also fabulous, though often less vibrant than non-organic, but some ceremonial grade matchas are outrageously expensive, so I often use an organic ceremonial grade.”
Master chocolatier Richard Tango-Lowy concurs that using ceremonial grade matcha is essential in the complex bean-to-bar bonbons he rolls out at Dancing Lion Chocolate, his cafe/store in Manchester, New Hampshire. Tango-Lowy, who also teaches master classes at the prestigious Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, and was named one of the ‘Top Ten Chocolatiers in America’ by Dessert Professional magazine, is as discerning about tea leaves as cocoa beans, whether for drinking or as an ingredient. Patrons at Dancing Lion Chocolate can sip rare teas or a frothy bowl of spicy Mayan chocolate, and select chocolates with complementary or contrasting flavors in delicate or earthy teas.
Working with his chocolate maker and pastry chef, Tango-Lowy makes only about 100 pieces of chocolate a day, and has never repeated a flavor since starting out in 2007. Fruits pair well with matcha in ‘The Essence’, a tea ganache layered over apricot-nectarine ganache, and in ‘Yokoi’, pineapple and local honey stabilized with Madagascar milk chocolate and bourbon and East Guatemalan dark chocolate with matcha.
Marshmallow is also a favorite component. “A beautiful marshmallow is foamy and light, melts in your mouth, and balances sweetness with the matcha,” says Tango-Lowy. “It has a little umami in it, then you bring in a chocolate, say, from Ecuador, Venezuela, or Puerto Rico – you want something not too fruity, but crisp and pretty.” His ‘Spring Tea’ layers matcha peach ganache over cherry vanilla marshmallow, dipped in house-made Ucayali River Peruvian dark chocolate, while ‘Tests of Taste’ contains matcha tea marshmallow inside matcha-infused white chocolate.
The white chocolate-matcha match attracts many chocolatiers: a chocolate bar and a truffle at Manhattan’s MarieBelle, and ‘Matcha Sakura’, cherry blossom infused white chocolate ganache layered on a white chocolate and grand cru matcha ganache with a hint of Tahitian vanilla, at The Chocolate Lab in Calgary, Canada. Brooklyn-based Raaka offers a matcha waffle cone cookie with white chocolate filling, and Royce, the Japanese chocolate company with boutiques across the United States, sells a confection composed of layers of matcha cream and wafers coated with matcha flavored white chocolate.
Pastry chefs in Japanese restaurants also embrace matcha. Kai Hasegawa, pastry chef at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, the flagship restaurant of dozens of Nobu-owned establishments around the world, riffed on the chain’s signature chocolate bento box with a matcha white chocolate version served with vanilla ice cream. Matcha is also on the radar of several young home-trained bakers of Asian descent whose blogs and books reflect their nostalgia for traditional favorites, updated for contemporary tastes. Kristina Cho, whose family owned a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, switched from a career in architecture to writing about culinary culture on her blog EatChoFood. Her first book, Mooncakes and Milkbread (Harper Horizon, 2021), won James Beard Awards in two categories in 2022: ‘Baking and Dessert’, and ‘Emerging Voice, Books’. “Matcha is one of my favorites,” Cho wrote, “for adding to dough or batter to make bright emerald-hued buns and sponge cake layers.” Cho’s recipes include matcha mooncakes, matcha and black sesame marbled milk bread, and a matcha-jasmine Swiss roll that Cho has demonstrated on the Today Show and at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
Kat Lieu, author of Modern Asian Baking (Quarry Books, 2022), also features a version of the Swiss roll, one of over a dozen matcha recipes in the book ranging from Effortless Matcha Chia Pudding to tri-color Japanese-style Matcha Cheesecake. Lieu is the founder of Subtle Asian Baking (SAB), an online community she conceived in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, where both beginners and experienced home bakers can “share, search for and obsess over Asian baking.” Lieu invited friends to join, and within a few months had attracted 61,000 members. Current membership is over 150,000 in a private Facebook group that anyone can join, not only to explore Asian-inspired baking and dessert recipes, but participate in fund raising activities and attend virtual bake-alongs.
Matcha recipes also abound in the just-off-the-press cookbook Mochi, Cakes and Bakes by Chinese-Australian pastry chef and recipe developer Catherine Zhang. Zhang garnered headlines (and $100,000) as Season Two champion of the Netflix series Zumbo’s Just Desserts while she was still a Food and Nutrition Science major at the University of Sydney. In her new book there are Asian-inspired matcha recipes from cookies and brownies to creme brûlée and tiramisù, to chocolates and ice cream.
Matcha or just plain green tea ice cream is also a lure for frozen dessert entrepreneurs like Nicholas Morgenstern, founder of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream in lower Manhattan, who pairs the tea with pistachios, and blends green tea jelly with raspberry ice cream. Further uptown at the Sweets Laboratory, there is a matcha shaved ice sundae with fruit jelly and either matcha pudding or ice cream, topped with whipped cream and matcha drizzle. It’s called ‘Never Too Matcha’, a suitable slogan for the diverse dessert artisans who are turning out a cornucopia of brilliantly colored, subtly flavored sweets.