Veggies for dessert

Red Velvet Cupcake from Sweet Elizabeth's Cakes, Manayunk, gets its color and sweetness from beets. That's a candied beet on top.
Red Velvet Cupcake from Sweet Elizabeth's Cakes, Manayunk, gets its color and sweetness from beets. That's a candied beet on top. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 11, 2013

Usually vegetables and desserts are opposed in an either/or kind of way - as in eat the former or you won't get the latter. These days, however, pastry chefs are digging deep for inspiration and whipping up dishes that are definitively both.

Take Peter Scarola at R2L, who has manipulated fennel, endive, parsnip, and squash to do his sweet bidding. "Vegetables can make dessert a bit lighter but also more adventuresome," he says. "Used in the right way, they can also be a nice alternative to what we think of as classic recipes and create a surprise element."

In terms of pure culinary exploration, veggie desserts bring usually underappreciated flavors such as parsnip, rutabaga, and fennel to the forefront. At the same time, less-sweet desserts are becoming a thing on restaurant menus. (South Street's Serpico has a whole category devoted to them.) And of course there's seasonality: Carrot cake truffles are a decadent way of threading the farm-to-table ethos through the last course of the meal, especially during the fruit-scarce days of winter.

Though vegetable desserts seem fresh and interesting, it's not as though there's no precedent to draw from: Summer vegetables have traditionally found their way into dishes such as green tomato pie, corn crepes and ice cream, and zucchini bread. Fall's bounty arguably has more versatility, with all of its naturally sweet, appealingly starchy roots and tubers. Here again, there are plenty of classics, like carrot cake, sweet potato pie, and pumpkin everything. (Note to nitpickers: For the purposes of this article, we are counting savory "fruits" like pumpkin and tomato as vegetables.)

"Beets are probably the easiest to work with - after all, that's the way we get most of our sugar in this country," says Vedge's Kate Jacoby, who has been known to make fudge and pot de crème with them. A natural pairing for beets is cocoa (see red velvet), which offsets their earthiness, while the beets reciprocate by lending moisture to chocolate cakes, brownies, and cookies. Beets can also be blended with vanilla in ice cream or panna cotta for a treat that would not be unheard of in certain kitchens.

The densest, starchiest vegetables deliver the creamiest texture when pureed that can obviate the need for dairy. Butternut squash's nutty mellowness is the basis for Scarola's surprising sorbet, which he keeps in the restaurant rotation in fall. Orange and lemon juices sweeten and acidify the base, producing a vibrant looking and tasting confection.

Pastry chef Sara May is a fan of using familiar savory dishes as a jumping off point. At Little Nonna's, she has done a seasonal heirloom tomato water ice that riffs on caprese salad. "You could make a lovely custard with beets and goat cheese, taking a classic pairing and bringing out its sweeter overtones," she says. Jacoby likewise features a sweet potato turnover with sweet cabbage "kraut" on the menu.

Vegetable desserts don't have to be avant garde, though - they can just as easily be rich and homey. Any sweet root can be pureed with milk or cream, whipped with eggs and sugar, and baked into a custard. Pumpkin bread pudding and sweet potato cheesecake are familiar comforts.

Just as carrot is the unquestioned basis for a spiced cake, so too can its paler counterpart the parsnip be shredded and enveloped in batter. "That's my favorite way to use a parsnip," Scarola says. "They're sweet but also subtle. You can swap out the carrot in your favorite recipe and keep the usual spices like cinnamon and nutmeg."

Sweet squashes are a nice substitute for pumpkin; in fact most canned "pumpkin" purees are made with true squash. In the Kabocha Squash Pie from The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook (Rodale, 2013), the flavor is noticeably lighter, the texture richer, silkier.

Even the finishing touch can be vegetable: Elizabeth Paradiso of Sweet Elizabeth's Cakes in Manayunk not only makes her red velvet cupcakes with pureed beets, she also crowns them with candied beet. May, meanwhile, likes to use candied fennel, carrot, or parsnip as a garnish for cookies, pies, and cakes.

Varieties such as purple carrots and golden beets add still more nuance and pops of color, while fruit and herbs (which are, yes, also technically vegetables) contribute another layer of flavor. Some harmonious combinations: pear and parsnip; apple and rutabaga or squash; cranberry and pumpkin.

In the end, balance is the key - even with a delicious calorie bomb. "No matter what vegetables you're using, the result should make you feel slightly guilty," Jacoby says. "Dessert should be dessert."

Winter Kabocha Squash Pie

Makes 8 servings

For basic pie dough:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spooned into a cup and leveled off)

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

2 cups kabocha squash puree (from about 2 pounds of roasted squash chunks)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

2/3 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup milk

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons bourbon or Scotch

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1. To begin making the dough, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and with a pastry blender or 2 knives used scissor-fashion, cut in the butter until large pea-size bits are formed. Add just enough ice water so the mixture holds together when pinched between 2 fingers. Shape into a disk, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap, and refrigerate 1 hour or up to 2 days.

2. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to a 12-inch round. Roll the dough around the rolling pin and then fit it into a 9-inch pie plate without stretching it, pressing it into the bottom and against the sides of the pan. With scissors or a paring knife, trim the dough to leave a 1-inch overhang around the edge. Fold the overhang in over the rim to make a double layer of dough and, with your fingers, crimp it all around. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before baking (this helps relax the dough and prevents it from shrinking once baked).

3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, whisk together the kabocha puree, the granulated and brown sugars, cream, milk, eggs, and bourbon. Stir in the flour, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

4. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and bake 45 minutes, or until the pie is set with a slightly wobbly center. Cool on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

- From The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook

by Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Sandy Gluck

Per serving : 392 calories; 6 grams protein; 54 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams sugar; 17 grams fat; 92 milligrams cholesterol; 194 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

Butternut Squash Sorbet

Makes 4 servings

2 pounds butternut squash

1 1/4 cups simple syrup

1/4 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. To make the butternut squash puree: Preheat oven to 350° F. Cut squash in half lengthwise and place on a baking tray, cut-side down. Pour about 1/2 inch of water in the tray and bake until the squash is fork tender, about an hour. (Keep an eye on the water: If it evaporates during baking, add some more.) Remove the squash from the oven and set aside to cool.

2. Once squash is cool, scoop out the flesh from the skin and puree in a blender.

3. To make the sorbet: Blend 2 cups of squash puree with simple syrup and lemon and orange juices until smooth.

4. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions. Store in the freezer.

- From Peter Scarola of R2L

Per serving: 398 calories; 2 grams protein; 111 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams sugar; trace fat; no cholesterol; 80 milligrams sodium; 5 grams dietary fiber.

Parsnip Spice Cupcakes With Maple Frosting

Makes about 15 cupcakes

4 to 6 parsnips

1 cup vegetable oil

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt

For the frosting:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

5 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1/4 cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B

1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Line two cupcake pans with 15 paper liners.

2. Grate the parsnips with a box grater by holding each peeled parsnip upside down and rubbing the sides against the large holes of the grater. The central core of some parsnips can be woody and tough. In that case, just grate one side until you hit the core (you will feel more resistance), then rotate and repeat on the remaining sides. Discard the cores. You should have about 2 cups of grated parsnips.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, melted butter, and vanilla. Whisk in eggs, one at a time. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt. Stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients until combined. Fold in grated parsnips. Spoon batter into 15 muffin cups just shy of the rims. Bake cupcakes for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the centers have set. Remove the pans from the oven and let the cupcakes cool completely.

4.For the frosting: In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and cream cheese until smooth. Sift the confectioners' sugar on top of the butter mixture and continue to beat until no lumps remain. Add the maple syrup and whip well. Frost the cupcakes and sprinkle them with chopped walnuts, if desired. The cupcakes can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.

- From Wintersweet by Tammy Donroe Inman

Per cupcake: 436 calories; 4 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams sugar; 28 grams fat; 70 milligrams cholesterol; 226 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.

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