At the end of an impromtu dinner party, my friend Josh served a chocolate cake with herbes-of-Provence salt his wife Ellen had made. To accompany it, he had whipped some extraordinary bio-dynamic cream from a farmer friend, and I popped a spoonful in my mouth, sans cake, to savor it. Perhaps it was the bowl of sea salt in my sight lines, or the conversation we’d had earlier about using an herb salt instead of regular salt in the cake that gave me the idea: I sprinkled a few grains of salt onto another spoonful of the whipped cream. And there, in an instant, was a completely “other” notion of whipped cream; the salt brought out the cream’s sweetness and nuance, without being salty, a perfect counterpoint to the rich cake. It was a revelation, and one that I’d use with future desserts.
Throughout my cooking life, this kind of fortuitous collision of two or three unexpected elements has often occurred often in the kitchen and at table.
Sometimes, it is simply when two elements happen to be in my field of vision, like the whipped cream and salt. Or when, during one late night foraging in the fridge for something sweet, I spied organic chunky peanut butter next to a jar of dulce de leche, a thick caramel from Argentina. “Why not mix them together?” I thought, and did, equal parts in a little bowl – just a taste’s worth in case it wasn’t good. But it was DELICIOUS, instant roasted peanut caramel (here again, a few grains of salt was miraculous), just the sweet I was looking for. Later on, it proved to be a perfect filling for a plain or chocolate cake or cookies.
Other times, this kind of culinary kismet occurs when two flavors accidently combine, like the avocado I cut on a cutting board on which I’d previously split and scraped a vanilla bean. Vanilla on ripe avocado turned it instantly toward dessert. I added a sprinkling of sugar and found myself eating a delicate, somewhat esoteric custard.
Not that it was a totally original discovery. There’s an M.F.K Fisher story in which she watches an old man order avocado for his dessert, and sprinkle powdered sugar on it (vanilla sugar would be my take…) and there are certainly mousses and other blended avocado desserts (though in those, the avocado invariably seems lost). But originality doesn’t really matter; discovering delicious and unique flavors does.
Asking “what if…” or “why not…” or just trying something that may not make sense “on paper” is the simple and always available key to finding new connections in flavor, and expanding one’s world.
Related post: essential chocolate cake for improvising