- Written by Robert Wemischner
From miso to lemongrass, cutting-edge pastry chefs are finding dessert inspiration in Asian ingredients.
Do you want to add spark and intrigue to your dessert menu? Then get onboard with a number of cutting edge pastry chefs across the country who are raiding the pantries of Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India and points in between to celebrate pan-Asian flavors in seamless and memorable cross-cultural desserts. Whether accenting a panna cotta, flavoring a macaron or adding that je ne sais quoi to a cheesecake, a diverse array of innovative leaders in the field are calling upon Asian staples such as yuzu, miso and black sesame to take their desserts into new directions, in not only Asian-inflected restaurants but also in tasting menu meccas, bistros and gastropubs, whether American, French or multi-ethnic in intention.
The back and forth among cultures, particularly, Japanese, Chinese and European, is nothing new. In fact, the terms Japonisme and Chinoiserie were coined back in the late 18th century to mark the intense interest by Westerners in the then-exotic worlds of art and culture found far away from continental Europe. In fact, late 19th to early 20th century French artists such as Monet and Matisse, and even an American like Whistler, were being influenced by Japanese art and style, and these influences showed up in their painterly compositions and even subject matter.
Whether this cross-cultural borrowing extended to the culinary arts at that time or not, now, more than a century later, chefs seem to be continuing that early West-East infatuation. Whatever the origins, the trend for incorporating Asian ingredients and even Asian style into plate presentations is gaining ground from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. Understandably, large ethnic populations in these urban centers demand the foods of back home. This leads to a flourishing ethnic food scene with groceries and markets offering easy access to Asian ingredients of all kinds, places for curious chefs who like to browse and prowl.
One such chef is Chicago-based Matthias Merges, whose menu at Yusho offers a roster of Japanese street food and ends with Japanese-inspired desserts such as tofu doughnuts flavored with ginger or green tea, and a soft serve ice cream in flavors as various as cocoa, sushi rice, and quince, a cross-cultural mashup if there ever was one. “I am devoted to making a seamless transition from savory to sweet. Even though I am not Japanese by birth, from my first trip to Japan in 1995, it became clear to me that what I was seeing and eating there would influence my culinary career from that point forward.”
Working in a fine dining setting at Chicago’s Takashi, “a mainly-French-with-Japanese influences kind of place” according to pastry chef Courtney Joseph, leads diners at the end of a meal on a culinary journey. To accomplish this, she incorporates pastry classics like genoise and panna cotta into her desserts, but nudges them in an Asian direction by using a number of Japanese staples.
Here’s an example of multicultural riffing in a sweet vein. Her Sesame Panna Cotta with Cherry Cacao Nib Ice Cream dessert features sesame in a dual role: first in paste form, as a flavoring for the panna cotta; and then secondly, it becomes a dust on the plate by adding maltodextrin to the sesame paste and then processing it into a fine powder. To further intensify the Japanese-ness of this dessert, cherries, another item long favored by the Japanese, are pickled in a yuzu juice, white wine and white balsamic vinegar brine. Joseph comments, “To consume all of the components together is the way to experience this dessert. Therefore, I serve it in a bowl and position all of the elements in close proximity to each other.” As a final touch, lending crunch and an exclamation point to the whole ensemble is a dollop of sizzling rice, just out of the fryer, and cacao nibs.
Gearing up for spring, when cherry blossoms are the object of adulation among tradition-bound Japanese, pastry chef Patrick Fahy draws inspiration from the Far East to create a delicate cherry blossom-based dessert. With a wink to something as American as apples, Fahy chooses the Pink Pearl apple with its conical shape and bright, pink flesh to flavor his cherry blossom and apple sorbet.
Creating desserts for a Chinese New Year’s tea menu is the perfect medium for incorporating ingredients from the Asian pantry. Executive pastry chef Deden Putra of The Peninsula New York honors his Indonesian heritage with an apple cake flavored with a South Asian blend of spices called ‘’Spekuk.” Lemongrass flavors a coconut financier; turmeric adds its bright yellow color and slight bitterness to a macaron filled with a mandarin-accented white chocolate ganache. Tamarind turns up in a chocolate ganache for a pecan tuile (pecans stand in for peanuts, which are often paired with the tart tropical pods in south Asian cooking). Ginger is the underlying flavor in his panna cotta, which is sent out garnished with logs of crisp Thai basil-flavored meringue. One final quasi-Asian touch: Putra sends each of the guests home with a fortune cookie.
Nostalgia fuels Francis Ang’s desserts at The Fifth Floor in San Francisco. “Growing up in the Philippines provided many food memories including eating corn ice cream which led me to create the Corn Cremeux dessert.” Mixing Asian and American with the flavors of Italy and Southeast Asia, this dessert flies under many flags for the ultimate multinational melange. Parmesan ice cream pairs with the cremeux along with a huckleberry or blueberry compote, some shredded hazelnut crumble and crispy filo threads. Bringing back the Asian flair, Ang garnishes the dessert with cilantro in two forms, microleaves and dehydrated as a powder.
At WP 24, Wolfgang Puck’s Asian dinner-only concept in downtown Los Angeles, pastry chef Michael Aguilar takes his cues from the Sinocentric menu and creates five “Sweet Finale” desserts each day, several of which have a clear Asian correlative. In his hands, modern technique meets classical pastry making. Following the trend of mixing sweet with savory, his Miso Butterscotch dessert features a caramel braised apple and justout- of-the-fryer spiced apple donuts, set off with a quenelle of refreshing cider sorbet. Flexible butterscotch ribbons the plate and unites all of the elements with its creamy salty-sweet personality. For visual punch, a round of paper-thin oven dried apple tops things off. “Working in concert with the chef, I like to create my desserts to end the meal on a mellow, comforting note as a perfect follow-up to the savory menu which features some spice-forward dishes. There are always desserts on the changing menu of sweets which include ingredients from the broader pan- Asian pantry – spices, ginger and jasmine rice, for example – to echo what has come before.”
Working with Laurent Gras at the now-closed L2O in Chicago where Asian ingredients were part of the everyday pantry, pastry chef Shawn Gawle at Saison in San Francisco found that using Asian ingredients adds brightness to his desserts. “These flavors sparkle in a sweet context. My mantra: Use very little to get a lot of flavor. I gravitate to yuzu, Japanese lime, black sesame and use these to give a richer and more elegant depth of flavor to the in-house-made gelatos that are the crowning touch of my plated desserts. On the pastry side, I like to use soba flour as a constituent in some of my doughs. Its nuttiness and deep intense flavor comes through nicely as a base for a dessert.” Gawle notes that Saison’s chef Josh Skenes continues the Asian thread by serving a roasted green tea after his many-course tasting menu. “It’s meant to be a calming digestive,” in Gawle’s words. Moving his focus to South Asia, Gawle fashions a dessert in a bowl using a mix of spices prominent in Indian cuisine, resulting in a Chai tea-flavored gelato hidden under a thin disc of tempered dark chocolate. As in Aguilar’s dessert, apples are featured here too, but to totally different effect.
A broad and complexly flavored pantry of Asian ingredients is there for the taking. Each of the intrepid pastry chefs featured offer this advice on the best way to add Asian touches to the sweet menu: Prowl the ethnic markets in your city or town (or browse the internet sources if the pickings are slim in your area for ethnic ingredients). Pull something which seems inscrutable or promising off the shelf, real or virtual, and experiment. Use your palate and then your imagination. Therein lies the satisfaction whether the first attempt is a success or not. In another context, Mao said “Let a hundred flowers bloom.”
He may not have been referring to the ethnic food scene in the U.S., but hundreds of Asian stores, specialty markets, internet sources and specialized suppliers to chefs have opened nationwide resulting in many paths of inspiration available to inquisitive and innovative pastry chefs everywhere. Take a close look at what’s on your dessert menu now and you may discover that, with only minor tweaking, a substitution of flavor here, or an addition of sesame paste to a cake there, that you may arrive at a new classic, one that guests demand you leave on the menu.
Robert Wemischner is the author, most recently, of The Dessert Architect. He has taught baking and pastry for many years at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and is currently at work on a fifth book.
Pictured, above - Cherry Blossom Pink Pearl Apple with Apple Sorbet, Cherry Blossom Jam.
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