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Savoring Dessert

Sometimes sweetness needs a companion

Savoring Dessert
Photo by Terry Brennan
If the notion of Parmesan cheesecake leaves you perplexed, remember that salt, a defining characteristic of Parmesan, enhances the inherent flavors of almost anything. Southerners know this instinctively: sprinkling salt on watermelon to bring out the sweetness is a tradition as time-honored as mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby. Recently, the idea that salty and savory flavors—those of fragrant cheeses, warm spices, and even smoke—can add complexity to desserts has been gaining broader appeal. And it’s spurring confectioners and pastry chefs to experiment with ingredients usually reserved for entrées.

Chefs have always found that opposites attract—prosciutto and melon, spicy Mexican mole made with chocolate—and increasing cross-pollination in the kitchen is helping drive a trend in savory desserts. High-end restaurants are hiring full-time pastry chefs who not only prep components in advance, but also stick around through the dinner rush to plate their creations. “We collaborate closely with chefs to balance out the menu,” says Khanh Tran, pastry chef at Cosmos in downtown Minneapolis. “We are thinking more like cooks.”

But how many diners will bypass a classic crème brûlée for one seasoned with saffron? “With dessert, some people fall into a comfort zone and crave the familiar,” explains Adrienne Odom, pastry chef at La Belle Vie in Minneapolis. “If I want to try something really adventurous, I put it on the tasting menu or pair it with a dessert everybody wants. I get people to order the curry foam by serving it with the chocolate custard cake.”

Don’t be shy about testing your taste buds with complicated flavor combinations. Here are five favorite sweet/savory pairings from some of the Twin Cities top pastry talents to whet your appetite.


Warm Chocolate Fig Tart with Smoked Hot Chocolate Froth

Khanh Tran, Cosmos

Some of the best inventions are created by accident: Khanh Tran got the idea to smoke chocolate when a chef placed smoked fish near her private chocolate stash and it picked up some of the flavors. Milk chocolate, she notes, is too sweet for many palettes, and the smoke flavor helps ensure that it “isn’t just ‘sweet-sweet,’ but has a more complex flavor.” Paired with a fig tart (spiced with brandy, cinnamon, cloves, anise, and black pepper), vanilla-bean ice cream, and a crumble of salted almond praline, the frothy chocolate was inspired by the thought of a comforting winter warm-up. “I wanted to re-create the feeling of being freezing and tired after skiing, and then drinking really good hot chocolate,” Tran says.

Terry Brennan

Red Wine Poached Pear with Caramelized Endive, Walnuts, and Stilton Cheese

Adrienne Odom, La Belle Vie

Part cheese course, part dessert, this sweet/salty/bitter/creamy creation harkens back to Adrienne Odom’s tenure at the late Aquavit, but a variation of the recipe makes an appearance on La Belle Vie’s tasting menu. On its own, the pear, poached in wine spiked with sugar, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, and lemon and orange peels, is clearly “dessert,” but it takes on a complex savory character when matched with toasted walnuts, pungent Stilton, and endive caramelized in butter and brown sugar. A balsamic-vinegar sorbet sweetened with a touch of the poaching liquid rounds things out. “You have this sweet spiced pear and the sweet and bitter endive,” Odom explains. “The wine is
a little tart and has some sharpness to it, and the Stilton is creamy and salty.” It makes sense to follow one of La Belle Vie’s refined, palate-challenging meals, she says, with a finish that’s equally uncommon. “A regular sweet dessert isn’t necessarily the next step.”

Terry Brennan

Curried Parsnip Milk Shake with Smoked Vanilla Ice Cream and Chocolate Rice Noodles

Liz Matheson, D’Allesantro Italian Market
Click here for the recipe.

Parsnips are perhaps best known for their supporting role to pot roast, but Liz Matheson has expanded the possibilities of the white tuber’s unique flavor. “Parsnips are naturally sweet, but have a little earthiness and a nutmeg taste to them,” she says. In this dessert, diced parsnips are simmered in milk to infuse their flavor into the liquid. The solids are removed and the milk is then teamed with vanilla ice cream made with cold-smoked eggs. “The milk shake is creamy and refreshing but with very deep flavors,” Matheson explains. “They don’t just hit the top of your tongue and disappear, but stay in your mouth the whole time.” Fried rice noodles, a delightfully crunchy vehicle for dark chocolate, and a masala curry foam, rich with deep back-of-the-mouth notes, “lighten the dish and give it that final tweak,” Matheson says.

Terry Brennan

Yuzu-Tofu Cheesecake with Pomegranate Reduction and Almond Crunch

Carrie Summer, Spoonriver

“I served something similar at Cue, and at first, nobody would try it,” says Carrie Summer of her light and silky take on cheesecake. “When I removed the word ‘tofu’ from the description, but left in the ingredient, sales increased dramatically.” Soy milk (the basis of tofu), cream cheese, whipped cream, and Italian meringue are blended with yuzu, an intense, slightly salty Japanese citrus that’s equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. The nutty crunch garnish echoes the flavors found in the almond flour–based, white chocolate–topped crust. Snappy pomegranate, offered as both a garnet red reduction and fresh seeds that shine like jewels next to a glassy spun sugar column, drives home the notion that this dessert is something to be treasured.

Terry Brennan

Rhubarb Tart with Streusel Topping, Fromage Blanc Sorbet, and Rhubarb Mostarda Jam

Christopher Szczeniouwski, Chambers Kitchen

We’re so used to eating rhubarb desserts loaded with sugar that we can sometimes forget that the plant is actually a vegetable, and a rather bitter one. This tart itself is simple enough—sweetened rhubarb, a creamy filling, and a crunchy oatmeal topping. But Christopher Szczeniowski’s riff on the Italian condiment mostarda—a jam of navel and blood oranges, grapefruit, rhubarb, sugar, and mustard powder—takes the tart in unexpected directions. “The mostarda is sour, sweet, spicy, and bitter all at once,” Szczeniowski says. “It will set you off at first—the mustard will open up your nose—but it is balanced out by all the other components.” The dessert’s finishing touch is a cool creamy sorbet, a mellow contrast to the warm tart and feisty mostarda.

Juliet Glass contributes regularly to Minnesota Monthly and Food Arts.

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