By Karen Barr
Losing the sugar, but not the flavour
By Karen Barr
Vegetables have always played a role in baking; the classic carrot cake, zucchini bread and holiday favourites, like pumpkin pie. Yet, the newest vegetable twists within the industry, from homestyle treats to elevated plated desserts is something customers haven’t quite seen before.
Michael Cheese, pastry chef at Ricarda’s Mediterranean Restaurant and Bakery, in Toronto, likes to experiment with vegetables in his plated desserts, for the restaurant and event spaces, as well as take-away items from the bakery.
He has a simple concept about these desserts. “Anything you can make into a salad you can easily turn into dessert. It’s all about experimentation.” Case in point: goat cheese, beetroot cheesecake. “It gets the sweetness and colour from the beetroot. I added a walnut crumble base and caramelized apples.”
A further exploration with this vegetable led to the beetroot raspberry dark chocolate cake. “Customers love cheesecake and chocolate cake. When the menu item is recognizable, they are more apt to try it even if the flavours are somewhat different,” he points out. “It’s a way for me as a pastry chef to be a little more adventurous.”
Keeping this is mind, one of the summer favourites is the lemon cheesecake with a basil, cucumber and lemon sorbet. He also likes to combine fresh tomatoes into sorbet and mousses.
Chef Cheese also offers his icebox no-bake avocado cheesecake. This blends cream cheese with avocado puree, lime juice for a hint of flavour, sugar, cream and some gelatin for stability. It’s served with strawberries and black pepper, “It’s like guacamole, but without the spice. Although, you could add some spices,” he decides. And while one could argue tomatoes and avocados are both botanically from the fruit family, they are generally used in savoury compositions.
At the bakery, a menu standard is the spinach feta Danish. “It’s made with fresh spinach. I use croissant dough because it is a little less sweet. Then I add some salt and pepper to the goat cheese.”
Greens pop up in the flatbreads as well. Arugula forms the base of the Casablanca variety that also contains sundried tomatoes, roasted eggplant, black olives, chirozo, octopus, fior di latte and vincotto glaze. The Firenze also uses arugula combined with cherry tomatoes, taggiasca olives, mozzarella and vincotta.
Michael Sonsmann, the pastry chef at Forage restaurant, in Vancouver, BC, blends the sweet with the savoury seamlessly. “Some customers say, ‘Vegetables with desserts? Really?’” say Sonsmann, “But I work with flavour profiles and components that really match and when they are all put together they meld on their own.” He adds, “We are creating desserts that are healthier by taking a lot of sugar away from the dessert plate.”
Bakers Garden is one of Sonsmann’s desserts that is continually on the menu. “I am inspired by what comes through the kitchens from local farmers who cater to restaurants looking for produce both fresh and unique. They show up at the door with their reusable totes or bicycle trunks carrying the day’s harvest,” he says with admiration.
An example of Bakers Garden’s menu may include: A round of herbed hazelnut olive oil cake with beet white chocolate custard and carrot chocolate cream, topped with a decorative net of dehydrated spaghetti squash, purple vegan beet meringues and a pickled pear ball. He makes locally forged quince jam with 20 kilos of quinces he took off a friend’s tree, and hand-makes potato chips topped with beet powder and salt as well as a raspberry, yellow pepper sorbet. It’s all set on a plate of ‘chocolate soil’ which is a gluten- free chocolate cake that’s baked, dried and then crumbled to look like earth.
He will also use vegetables just to provide the right note for interesting garnishes.
“Fluid gels like cucumber give the perfect green colour, as well as texture and a refreshing hint of sweet,” observes the pastry chef.
He has also created butternut squash papers. The vegetables are dehydrated, with a hint of sugar. “I placed the paper over top of the plates. They are very fragile. Then, by clapping, I break it and it shatters all overt the plates,” he enthuses.
Birgit Devroye, pastry chef at Le Boulevardier restaurant in Le Germain Hotel Montreal, is a recent addition to the restaurant team, but has already been working with vegetables in desserts over the past couple years. “Vegetables are starting to be featured on plated dessert menus, in my opinion, because it opens up more possibilities in the sweet world,” says Devroye. “Vegetables, especially when cooked, have a different type of warmth and sweetness to them.” Then, she adds, “More people are looking for desserts that just aren’t as sweet and vegetables are a great option. Dessert should not be only for the diehard sweet-toothed people out there!”
Devroye says geography also plays into the dessert creations. “In Quebec, fruit seasons are often short and limited, so bringing in other fresh produce again opens up possibilities.” As an example, she suggests, “Winter. Parsnip mochi cake, served with a dark chocolate and vinegar mousse, a clementine marmalade and parsnip chips.” And she can’t wait to work with mushrooms in her desserts, “Autumn: Mushroom financiers, dusted with mushroom powder. Shitake, chanterelle, or maple lactaire,” she contemplates, “served with squash pastry cream, spots of apple butter and marinated green apple brunoise.”
Bakers and pastry chefs should view baking with vegetables as a way to broaden their menus and possibly broaden their customer base, to include those whose palates run a little more toward savoury than sweet.
Karen Barr writes about arts, culture and cuisine. She is a graduate of George Brown College and is a Red Seal pastry chef. She was a former Government-appointed member of the Industry Committee for Baker-Pâtissier for Ontario.