In recent years, our collective sweet tooth has been transformed. No longer do we expect to keep savory away from sweet. As chefs have experimented with the techniques of molecular gastronomy, revolutionizing what you expect to find on your dinner plate, pastry chefs have brought that same element of surprise to the dessert course, adding chili powder to our chocolate, salt to our caramel, and bacon to our ice cream.
In trend-setting Barcelona, Espai Sucre has become world famous for its amazing and creative dessert menus. Recent choices include ginger ale, cucumber, and pineapple-tarragon sherbet along with "Idiazábal" cake with cherry, beet, and black beer. In New York City, Wylie Dufresne's former pastry chef at wd~50, Sam Mason, has branched out on his own with Tailor, a restaurant that specializes in the marriage of sweet and salty. His menu boasts cornbread ice cream with blueberry compote and bacon as well as parmesan ice cream with tarragon cake. Pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, who appeared at 2009's Charleston Wine & Food Festival, is a maestro at whipping up inspired creations like chocolate whiskey sponge cake with pepper powder and purple corn puff. His new cookbook, Dessert Four Play, chronicles his techniques and approach, "pairing cool with hot, crispy with creamy, sweet with spicy, and the expected — chocolate, strawberries, and cinnamon — with the unexpected — chilies, beets, and cocoa puffs." The international embrace of unexpected and boundary-pushing desserts may not be in full swing here, but you can find evidence of its influence throughout Charleston, if you look closely.
Like a modern-day Willy Wonka, Eric Battles uses whimsy and daring as he crafts homemade chocolate confections. In small batches, he produces dipped ganache, rolled truffles, and soft-centered bon bons, using such unexpected ingredients as smoked jalapeños, blue cheese, and bacon.
"The less classical approaches these days tend to stem from the desire to simply push the limit," Battles says. He compares chocolate to craft beers, both of which have received a fresh wave of attention. "It's become as much a vehicle for flavor as a flavor itself."
Lucas Belgian Chocolates in the Market marries crystallized ginger and dark chocolate in their Chocolove bars. The store also blends premium chocolate with ancho and chipotle chilies. As the sweetest type of dried chili pepper, anchos readily lend themselves to chocolate, and not just in bar form.
Over at Baked, a sweet shop on East Bay Street, owners Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito have been using the ancho for years in their spicy brownie.
"We incorporate ancho chili and cinnamon into the brownie," says Lewis. "It has a subtle heat, not too intense. And it goes really well with the chocolate."
The offbeat ingredients don't stop there. The Sweet N' Salty, one of their most popular cakes, combines homemade caramel and fleur de sel. "We went through a couple of different versions until we finally came up with the version that we really loved."
The pair has also experimented with matcha, a high quality powdered green tea in their green tea cake. But they aren't throwing the kitchen sink in the batter in an attempt to garner attention. "We don't like to go too far out there," notes Lewis. "I know some people are incorporating bacon and wasabi. I think those are food trends that have a really short life span."
To be sure, bacon is enjoying a moment in the dessert spotlight, and nowhere does that light beam brighter in Charleston than at Shine. The Line Street restaurant's Chocolate Covered Bacon Sundae (pictured on the cover of this issue) consists of vanilla ice cream drizzled with a bacon-infused chocolate syrup and topped with peanuts and a side of chocolate covered bacon. The reception has been enthusiastic, but some still wonder how long the extreme dessert trend will last.
"What we're doing now is showing that we still have a sense of humor," says Battles. "If it tastes good, why not eat it? Still, I do fear the day when I'll have to hear the words, 'Chocolate Mac 'n' Cheese.'"
At the other end of the spectrum, a new Mt. Pleasant chocolatier is bringing old-world refinement into the mix. Christophe Artisan Chocolatier-Patissier does offer some unusual confections, like Earl Grey chocolates, and there's even an experimental batch of blue cheese bon-bons in the cooler. But proprietors Carly and Christophe Paume are more concerned with creating a French feel in their I'On shop than with shocking local palates.
"We're trying to keep a very European feel," says Mrs. Paume. In that tradition, the dark chocolate bars wear their enhancements on the outside, varietals adorned with macadamia nuts and even sea salt.
The awe-inspiring element unique to Christophe Paume is the craftsmanship of his intricate chocolate sculptures. "They're great as either a present or a cake topper," notes Paume, who's produced everything from chocolate skulls to replica Manolo Blahniks for his clients.
McCrady's pastry chef Winburn Carmack, who has experimented with bacon ice cream and other savory desserts, offers her observation.
"The bottom line, it's got to taste awesome."
In that vein, Carmack has placed outlandish ingredients on the back burner in favor of fresh techniques. Her banana panna cotta is a prime example.
"It's a traditional banana pudding, but the way we make it is not very traditional." Using carrageenan, a gelatinous extract from seaweed, instead of traditional thickening agents like cornstarch and egg yolks, Carmack has produced a banana pudding that offers a more appealing presentation. "It's a little more firm than traditional banana pudding; we can actually cut it to a particular shape."
Cool and classic, but with a slight twist, the dessert has become one of their most popular this summer and proves that dessert doesn't have to be a boring old crème brûlée or molten chocolate cake to please modern palates.