Pastry chefs tap into ethnic ingredients to create desserts with intriguing flavor profiles.
Beyond the butter, sugar, eggs, flour and flavorings that are the backbone of the bakeshop, pastry chefs are dipping enthusiastically into ethnic pantries for ingredients from the culinary traditions of the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia and beyond. More and more dessert menus include ethnic entries right alongside last courses that are comforting or nostalgic, juxtaposed with farmers’ market-inspired sweets which focus on one in-season ingredient conjugated in many different ways.
At a time when the dining public seems to be clamoring for the familiar and the old standby, adventurous pastry chefs are nonetheless creating desserts that literally range all over the map, from a delightful Turkish pomegranate-walnut locum to rose- and saffron-scented pots de crème to Indian style kulfi with a contemporary twist. Never content to rest on their bay laurels, some of the best practitioners of the sweet arts are challenging themselves, continually opening up their palates and stocking their pantries with the flavors of Spain, Turkey, India and elsewhere to create desserts that dovetail beautifully into the rest of the restaurant’s menu. In the process they are calling upon a deeply ingrained knowledge of classical (read: French) technique, which underpins all of their ethnic explorations, however far afield geographically they may range from western European dessert traditions.
If you ask Anup Joshi of Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia (NYC) about what he crafts for the end of a meal, he says: “It’s very important for the dessert to be a cohesive part of the menu. Dessert should never feel like an afterthought, or that it’s coming out of left field. It’s the last thing your guests will taste before they leave your restaurant. Their last impression can be even more important than the first!” True to the spirit of a tapas bar or Asturian cidreria, “All of our desserts are simple and easy to like, inspired by traditional Spanish desserts. The idea of sharing a sweet plate or two after a tapas feast is a very traditional way to end a meal.” Pan Borracho, a homey tipsy bread pudding with walnut ice cream and whiskey soaked raisins fits beautifully into the rustic menu that precedes it and might have been made by your Spanish grandmother if she could bake as well.
Unlike Joshi, who looks to the Iberian pantry for inspiration, Craig Harzewski, pastry chef at Naha, is not focused on the cuisine of any one country, and calls his ethnic inspiration ‘pan-Mediterranean.’ “I draw from a number of influences—North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and try to integrate elements of each of these countries into the dessert menu.” The plated dessert with a version of Gateau Basque at its center can claim provenance from the regions of southwest France to Spain. Here Harzewski is confecting a dessert around western Mediterranean flavors and ingredients but the dish could comfortably follow entrees inspired by the eastern Mediterranean traditions as well, both of which Naha includes in its savory menu.
For Rivera, (Los Angeles), John Sedlar’s restaurant that blends ingredients and traditional dishes from Spain, Mexico and all of Latin America, pastry chef Martin Duron takes a freewheeling approach to the ethnic pantry for ideas. Moving from savory to sweet, ancho chiles figure in his chocolate cake garnished with an avocado mousse and a lime pepper sauce. Even the most traditional and ubiquitous sweet ending to a meal with Hispanic influences, his Estudio en Flan, offers three modern variations on the classic dessert. Three squares of creamy contentment—vanilla panna cotta (although not strictly a custard), traditional flan and a condensed milk dulce de leche flan–are arranged on an oversized square plate, each with its own piquant sauce. In a menu sparked by unconventional uses of ingredients commonly found in the pantries of the region, Duron follows Sedlar’s mantra of unexpected combinations that nonetheless work within the freewheeling context of the restaurant.
At Washington DC’s Rasika West End restaurant, the menu relaxes Indian conventions and crosses East with West on both the savory and sweet sides of the menu. Going beyond traditional Indian sweets such a ras malai, gulab jamun and milky rice pudding, pastry chef Shaun McCarty presents Baked Kulfi, his Indian inspired riff on that old classic baked Alaska. “I like to combine the exotic with the familiar. The Indian sweets tradition generally excludes flour and eggs but my version of baked Alaska moves west to include a light chiffon cake and a torched Italian meringue, both of which play nicely against the flavors of the Indian subcontinent and make the dessert accessible to a broader audience.”
Rick Griggs, pastry chef at Abacus in Dallas, TX, has long embraced a broad pantry of ingredients including those of the Middle East. With a restaurant with a cuisine as worldly in its influences as the Stephen Pyles-owned outpost is, it’s not surprising that an internationalist approach to desserts would go hand in hand with the savory offerings. “Abacus was based on the concept of global cuisine and is not constrained to any region or its culinary inspirations.” On his ethnic inspired desserts he says, “I do not claim to be an authority on Middle Eastern or Indian desserts but found that I was entranced by the flavor profiles, i.e. rose, saffron, garam masala, and dried fruits commonly used in the region. Calling upon my classic French training, I enlisted the flavor profiles as a guide. I think if a restaurant is offering an authentic cuisine of a specific region then it should stick with the cultural expectations, from starter through dessert. I tend to use influences as inspiration versus claiming to remain faithful to the actual reproduction of a specific dessert from a particularly country.” Chefs Joshi, Harzewski, Duron, McCarty would all seem to agree with Griggs on this point. Further, a dessert, regardless of its inspiration, need only be delicious and not authentic as long as it is profitable. The diner only has only to enjoy it, not question its specific origins or faithfulness in execution to its source cuisine.
Notes from the Pros
- Introduce ethnic ingredients with a light touch into the dessert menu, leaving room for desserts easily accessible to the less adventurous sectors of your clientele
- Taste flavorings used in the savory kitchen as possible accents in otherwise Western or European desserts
- As in all successful dessert menus, on the ethnic dessert side, creamy, crunchy, fruit based, and chocolate based desserts should all be represented
- Learn about the dessert traditions of the country or region whose cuisine is being served and then analyze how classic Western dessert bases or techniques can be used in cross cultural desserts
- Mix and match flavors from the Western as well as the ethnic non-Western pantries to create a few desserts on the menu that offer unexpected taste experiences
- Give the staff something to talk about in order to sell the guests on the less mainstream desserts
- Develop descriptive phrases about the ethnic-inspired desserts to make them understandable and appealing, giving a context or comparison to something familiar
- Educate the serving staff well about the origins of the desserts and how the dessert menu incorporates the culinary traditions of the restaurant’s main cuisine
Find recipes for Baked Kulfi, Estudio en Flan, “First Date” Rose Tea Pots de Crème, Gateau Basque, and Pan Borracho in the DessertProfessional.com Recipe section or click the links below.
Robert Wemischner is the author of four books including his latest, The Dessert Architect. He is currently at work on his fifth book and teaches professional baking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.