Years ago when I visited my husband’s homeland of Malaysia for the first time, one of my culinary observations was that their desserts leave a lot to be desired. I’m talking pastries filled with red bean or mung bean paste. (What??) To this day, he explains the odd pairings, and other incongruous combos like ice cream and corn, as “dessert is an afterthought.”
But I choose to believe that they were simply ahead of the curve on what is now a growing American trend… combining sweet and savory in dessert.
Granted, in the U.S., if we’re going to do the combo right, bacon must be involved. Caramel and bacon go together in ice cream and icing. Yet for some folks, sweet and savory needs justification, because overall, the juxtaposition is still a bit startling. I talked to some chefs about this for a sweet+savory article, and they offered some sensibilities that bring some reason to it.
- Some savory items have hints of sweetness built in, lessening the stark contrast. For example, seasonal vegetables actually have sugar. Think spring/sweet onions, or first-of-the-season peas and pea tendrils. And dare I say beets? Combining them with fruits like strawberries or pineapple in sorbet is one introductory way to showcase the seemingly unusual duo.
- Some pairings already work, like carrot cake. So why not substitute in something else for the carrots? A few chefs told me shaved parsnips work well. Rice pudding anyone? Charlie Trotter used to envision other grains that could take the place of rice. Or how about on the salad side… Waldorf salad in which apples and lettuce go together. Why not make a Waldorf salad-type dessert? With that thinking, one chef told me she combined torn pieces of red butter lettuce, candied walnuts, shaved apple slices twisted into a cone, almost like a flower, and local green grapes juiced and turned into a foam. (We are talking high-end restaurants, did I forget to say?)
- Peanut butter and jelly anyone? That’s an example of sweet and savory everyone gets. What about a donut “iced” with cheese and bacon. Hey, if it works on a burger, why not on a donut? Shortbread and blender-blended spices sprinkled on top, like lavender, thyme or sage could be delightful.
Oh, and about that ice cream and corn combo. One chef told me that when visiting Thailand, he was surprised to find that at KFC there, soft-serve ice cream comes with the option of a creamed corn topping—just as popular as chocolate as a topping.
For more insight on sweet and savory dessert, check out my article in the June 2017 issue of The National Culinary Review. You’ll find it off to the right by clicking on Sweet+Savory.
Tell me what you think.