Darra Goldstein, editor of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, leads a panel discussion with Nick Morgenstern, Brooks Headley, and Joanne Chang. Photo: Rachel Tepper
At a talk about sweets and sugar at last weekend’s Food Book Fair in Brooklyn, N.Y., three famed dessert mavens made a shocking confession. “I didn’t eat a lot of sweets as a kid,” admitted Brooks Headley, the Del Posto pastry chef whose cookbook, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts, became a food world darling after its release last year.
Astoundingly, neither had Joanne Chang, the pastry chef and owner of the popular Flour bakeries in Boston. She explained that in her parents’ traditional Chinese household, “dessert” meant a handful of orange slices. It wasn’t until at least age 10 that Chang had her first taste of sugared Western treats. “A big slice of chocolate cake,” she recalled more than a bit wistfully.
Nick Morgenstern, the mastermind behind New American ice cream parlor Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, was in a similar boat during his adolescence. “I grew up in San Francisco in the ‘80s,” he said by way of explanation. “There was no sugar there.”
Morgenstern got a laugh, but the irony was palpable. Here were three chefs, firmly perched at the top of the dessert game, each who grew up practically in a sugar void. All, of course, later came around to the sweet stuff. But it seems likely that these early experiences formed their shared attitude toward sugar, which might sound like blasphemy to some: Less is more.
A selection of Morgenstern’s ice cream. Photo: thepumpernickel/Instagram
“I think about sugar the way a savory chef thinks about salt,” Headley explained. “Sugar should be used to enhance the other flavors [in a dish].” For Headley, that means highlighting the sweet notes of a grilled eggplant with a restrained scoop of creamy chocolate chip ricotta ice cream. Perhaps in an effort to silence the skeptics, Headley had presented attendees with a small sample of the dish prior to the start of the talk. Eggplant and chocolate, it seems, are a confoundingly perfect match.
At his ice cream parlor, Morgenstern, too, likes to use sugar sparingly — at least as much as possible for an ice cream operation. The shop’s goal, he said, is to “get our ice creams to taste like the flavor on the board.” Too much sugar can overpower Morgenstern’s more subtle flavors, he said, which include pistachio, cardamom, green tea powder, and even humble salt and pepper. To compensate for less sugar, Morgenstern serves his ice creams at slightly higher-than-normal temperatures. “The warmer the ice cream, the faster the flavor release,” he explained.
Chang’s oatmeal raisin cookies. Photo: Rachel Tepper
Of the three chefs, Chang perhaps most outwardly promotes cutting sugar: Her new book, Baking With Less Sugar, goes on sale April 21. Before the talk, she distributed two different versions of Flour’s classic oatmeal raisin cookie: one made with full sugar, the other with less than half that of the first cookie. The first was certainly sweeter and had a gooier, denser texture, but the second had a cake-like quality worthy of a breakfast table. It didn’t taste like sacrifice.
Perhaps it’s because Chang’s recipes — even those that call on less sugar — emphasis balance. “We use salt in all of our pastries,” she said. “It’s one of the first things we teach our bakers. It heightens the taste of everything.” Including sugar, she noted.
Sweetness has its place, Headley concluded at the panel’s finish. “If something is sweet across the board, it becomes dull on the palate,” he said, and using less sugar more strategically prevents this. But that doesn’t mean he won’t spring for a Take 5 bar or Starburst now and again.
“Sometimes, I’ll involuntarily buy a candy bar and eat it in the street,” he admitted.
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