While recently thumbing through Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything, I came across a recipe for strawberries with balsamic vinegar. I browsed the list of ingredients—strawberries, sugar, balsamic vinegar, mint, and… black pepper?
It sounded weird but intriguing. I'm a big fan of pepper—I even named my cat Pepper. I'm not much of a dessert person, though, so I love the idea of incorporating savory notes in a sweet dish. To take something sugary and rich and cut through it with a gentle spice sounded delicious, like something you'd see at Michelin-star restaurant.
I did some research and found that adding spices to desserts is a common practice in some cultures. Iceland has cookies similar to gingersnaps called Piparkokur that use black pepper. Mexico has hot chocolate spiked with chili or cayenne pepper. And fruit chaat is a spiced salad from Pakistan and India. But it’s not something I’m too familiar with, so I had to learn more and then try it.
I got in touch with Claire Cheney of Curio Spice Co., a shop in Cambridge, M.A., that specializes in ethically-sourced spices from around the world.
“When we're talking about pairing [peppercorn] with sweets, choosing one that has a particular aromatic profile is going to be especially important,” Cheney told me. She said that you can use whatever peppercorns you have, but to go full-fancy, splurging on a variety that hasn’t sat on a grocery-store shelf for months is going to elevate the experience. “It's like these tiny little peppercorns, smaller than a regular black pepper,” Cheney said. “They go really well with richer desserts because they have some really herbal notes to them.”
I started with a high-quality vanilla ice cream and sprinkled some peppercorn from Madagascar on top. The first thing I noticed was the aroma. It was so much stronger than most store-bought peppercorn, and more nuanced.
The tiny flecks of pepper offered both a delightful crunch and a slight sting that was quickly mellowed by the cold ice cream. It wasn’t a balance of flavors so much as a dance of spice and creamy fat. And then those herb-y, almost floral notes came in, adding a delicate flavor that you almost have to focus on to pick up.
Next up, I had to try Bittman's strawberries. I went with a simple maceration of sugar and berries. After letting them sit for a few minutes, I ground on black peppercorn from Cambodia. It had a spruce-y flavor with some fruitiness. They gave a surprising compliment to the sweet sticky juice oozing out of the strawberries.
“Spiciness can cause salivation that helps with the interaction of taste molecules with the taste cells located in our taste buds,” said Dr. Koushik Adhikari, associate professor at the Food Science & Technology at the University of Georgia. “It is also possible that the heat of spiciness increases the taste sensitivity, in this case the taste sensitivity of sweetness.”
The point is, the opposing flavors in the strawberry dessert worked well together. And now I want to add pepper to so many other desserts—shortbread cookies, a fresh summer fruit tart, and a peach crisp. The possibilities are endless. Pepper is that ingredient you can sneak into a tart at a dinner party to get everyone asking, "What is in this dessert that gives it that edge?"
“Black pepper is familiar," Cheney said, "but in an unfamiliar context, it can add that sparkle, that lift to a dessert.”
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