In her sunny Oakland kitchen, Yamina Merzoug Castro pulls out a metal funnel and an array of rubber molds containing tiny, round-edged square cavities. Soon, she'll pour a sweet, gooey substance into the funnel and hand-fill the squares, one by one. But it's not chocolate or fudge she's being precious and precise with—it's pâte de fruit. After a cool-down and a roll in sugar, the delicious morsels find their way into expertly branded bags with the logo of Castro's new endeavor, Yami Yami, dedicated solely to pâte de fruit.
Pâte de fruit, the traditional French confection of dense, chewy, usually cubed fruit paste, is finally getting the love it has always deserved. A frequent component on the dessert petit fours plate served at French restaurants, and a Christmastime novelty at high-end pâtisseries, the fruit jellies have been, for decades, an old-school treat, rarely taking the spotlight. When writing about it in 2014, Michael Liaskonis, the Creative Director of New York City's Institute of Culinary Education, didn't hesitate to call it "boring."
But, due to the pandemic, which left many out-of-work chefs with excess time (and a public craving comforting sweets), pâte de fruit is becoming exciting in America all of a sudden—exciting enough to be offered as a mystery "surprise me" addition to the chocolate boxes that high-end chocolatier andSons sends its customers, hip enough to be infused with CBD, and eclectic enough to be flavored with mezcal.
"The packaging and branding of pâte de fruit has always been fancy and expensive-looking, but for me, it's about fun and enjoyment," says Castro. She fell in love with pâte de fruit while obtaining a certificate in Pastry Arts at the San Francisco Cooking School. She perfected her skills at Craftsman and Wolves, a popular local pastry chain, and remembers pâte de fruit being a holiday hit among customers. Half a year ago, Castro decided to channel her love for the confection into a small, homemade brand. Yami Yami's seasonal gems are a departure from the straightforward flavors of European pâte de fruit; current standouts are grapefruit and mezcal, chai masala, persimmon, and blood orange, all of them offering a satisfying bite with lingering, complex flavors.
When newcomers to the brand raise an eyebrow, Castro tells them pâte de fruit is "like a vegan gummy bear." Phil Covitz, the co-owner of L.A.'s andSons Chocolatiers, a high-end chocolate store, feels like veganism is a partial reason pâte de fruit is becoming so popular right now.
RECIPE: Kumquat-Reisling Gummies
"People like gummy bears and sour things, and pâte de fruit checks all these boxes," he says, noting that, unlike gelatin gummies, pâte de fruit gets its texture from pectin and glucose. AndSons has been using pâte de fruit as a layer inside their chocolate pralines for a while, but recently started working on stand-alone pâte de fruit varieties, layering flavors for a visual effect. A recent "surprise me" offering (customers can add an unknown sweet to their shopping basket, to be revealed at home) was flavored with yuzu, and flavors currently in production, soon to be available on the website, include apricot and raspberry, strawberry and yuzu, mango and passion fruit, and cassis and pear. "There is the balance in the pairings," says Covitz. "Pâte de fruit is more modern that way—today, people are looking for interesting combinations."
The pandemic year-plus has been a prime time for snacking as people shelter at home, and sweet-lovers have been searching for novelty, Covit says. In Madison, Wisconsin, Clare and Matt Stoner Fehsenfeld, the husband and wife duo behind Modern Candy Co., saw this firsthand with a "huge uptick" in sales with all of their products. But it was their newest offering—mango, passionfruit, and raspberry-flavored pâte de fruit packaged in whimsical jars—that took home the prestigious Good Food Award in the Confections category last year.
That came as a surprise. Originally, says Clare, "when the CBD boom came, we thought pâte de fruit will make a great vehicle for it." But soon after launching their CBD pâte de fruit line, around the 2020 holiday season, the couple added a non-CBD version, and it took off. "The flavor of pâte de fruit is very nice, it's grown-up, not too sweet, and people seem to really enjoy the texture," she says.
RECIPE: Apricot Pâte de Fruit
With spring already here, pâte de fruit is poised to become a delivery star—it travels better and lasts longer than chocolate and baked goods. It might also win over a certain clientele that shuns cloyingly sweet candy and mass-market sweets. "It's still a treat, but it feels healthier than a gummy," says Castro.
And, as Clare Stoner Fehsenfeld puts it, "People need things that keep themselves sane." Why not make it a classic, old-school confectionery that's new again?