(This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
In 2018, Pastry Arts reported on the rise in popularity of botanicals in pastry. From trendy elderflower to the more ubiquitous rose, botanicals began to infuse, perfume and shine in desserts across the United States. But for some, a simple floral garnish or sprinkle of basil wasn’t enough to satisfy their curiosity. More and more, flowers, herbs and other edible plants have cropped up on menus to become the kitchen philosophy rather than a trend. From plays on hibiscus to tasty tree tips, chefs are proving there’s big business in botanicals, and the results are surprisingly sweet.
The use of botanicals was already part of Chef Thomas Keller’s vision for The French Laundry in California when Gigi Ramirez joined the pastry team. Now pastry sous chef, she’s responsible for developing and executing to that vision using her own unique takes. For her, botanicals present “something so simple that can give such a bright flavor and different profile to what we do. I think it’s one of those hidden gems that we keep in our back pocket when we do things.” Adding fig leaves to poaching liquid or distilling almond tree blossoms helps concentrate and enhance flavors, simply from using parts of the plant most often overlooked. She also enjoys experimenting with different techniques like dehydrating to create new textures. Her most recent project is a take on a chicharrón but using hibiscus rather than pork. The hibiscus is steeped, mixed with a starch, and dried like a chip before it is fried. The result is an aerated, crispy puff, naturally bright red.
For Michelle Hernández of Le Dix-Sept Pâtisserie in San Francisco, it was her rich cultural heritage that drew her to botanicals. Growing up in Arizona with influences from Mexico, Guam, and the Philippines, she was exposed to ingredients like prickly pear and Mexican oregano and believes in the healing powers of plants. She made a very purposeful decision to emphasize them when she opened her business, which is based on classic French technique, but sets itself apart with botanicals. The bakery uses natural ingredients like beet powder, hibiscus and matcha to color and flavor cakes, pastries, and confections. The fragrant combination of raspberry and rose appears in a love knot pastry as well as a nougatine, and the most popular cookie is hibiscus chia. The key is balance and “getting the essence out without overdoing, so it doesn’t take like potpourri,” she notes. Techniques like candying and steeping can help balance what might be too overpowering when raw.
Il Fiorista in New York takes floral philosophy one step further by being not only a restaurant, but a florist, boutique, and education center all in one. Executive Chef Lesley Rivera and Chef de Cuisine Rae Kramer work closely with their in-house floral team and local farmers to develop a tasting menu where every dish, both savory and sweet, contains a botanical element. Their menu changes as the farmer’s market offerings; for instance, rhubarb season featured a tiramisu with pistachio mascarpone and elderflower. “It’s very much seasonal,” states Kramer, who not only sees the seasons change with her produce, but what the florist introduces as well. “With the flowers being around, we’re very much inspired to change.” Kramer is particularly interested in foraging nearby and spruce tips, the new spring growth on the branches of a spruce tree, became a recent obsession. She describes them as “super tender and citrusy” and can be eaten as is or pickled to preserve them. This season, they made their debut in a yogurt panna cotta with strawberries and chamomile.
Though botanicals are built into their business philosophies, these chefs do see a wider trend in the industry. “I think that people are really appreciating florals and understanding them,” states Kramer. Hernández points to the overall wellness trend in the health and beauty sectors as similar to what’s happening in food. “It’s a return back to natural and a focus on the environment, and I think that goes hand in hand.” Ramirez agrees, noting, “I think it’s something that is going to stay and evolve. It’s very inspiring.”
All the chefs offer the same piece of advice when it comes to experimenting with botanicals. Research other cuisines and cultures and build relationships with those who know best – the local farmers and foragers in your area. Hernández finds joy in the sugarcane her mother cultivates. Kramer discovered incredible chamomile from her potato supplier. Asking questions opens the possibilities to explore what is out there. “That gives us more creative aspects that we never thought of before,” explains Ramirez. And with over 20,000 species of edible plants on earth, we’ve barely scratched the earth’s surface on what’s possible. So, get out there and get botanical!