It used to be I could eat an entire slice of seven-layer chocolate cake, with ice cream and, oh, hell, a squirt of Redi-Whip, without blinking. I wholly enjoyed a can of Coke (or two), or a jumbo bag of Haribo gummi bears. I saw nothing remotely wrong with Yodels. Give me sticky, sticky sweet. Right into my late twenties, I had the palate of a seven-year old boy, at least when it came to sweets.
Somewhere in the last three years I became an adult with an adult palate. I think it occurred when I drank my first Manhattan and didn’t make an Ewwww! face; to my surprise I realized I rather enjoyed chilled bourbon and that subtle hint of sweet vermouth. I immediately called my mother to tell her the good news (a long, long time ago, we were sitting at a bar together and I asked for a sip of her cocktail; she acquiesced and after barely swallowing I responded with the Ewwww! face, it was then she wisely said I would one day be mature enough to appreciate a Manhattan.) Like many other things, it was a right of passage. The evolution was fast and furious: soon after I realized a cheese course really was an appropriate ending to a meal, rather than a beginning. On a flight to Paris a year later, I ordered a scotch on the rocks (like my father) and was doubly shocked to find that sipping such an abrasive cocktail was actually quite enjoyable and ultimately soothing. More interesting was the increasing distance I was putting between myself and those sugary treats of my younger years. Now, it would be crazy for me to give them all up entirely: I still go for a bag of M&M’s, I just need to eat them with a bag of pretzels (another problem in and of itself). No, what satisfies me now are nuanced, complex flavors that require slow eating (or sipping). Give me smoky, savory, salty.
My first encounter with salt in dessert was an accident: one of my best friends, an avid baker who never follows rules, measurements and who is easily distracted by almost everything (phones ringing, birds flying, the television, you get the picture) somehow added what can only be surmised as a shit-ton of Hawaiian sea salt to these bars she was making. The bar itself was a chocolate-oatmeal sort of thing. Well, the salt was a bit much (we told her they were fine) but for me it was a subtle revelation: sweet and salty things could be really, really good.
Now let me be clear: not any salt will do. In the last two weeks I have had two desserts that set the standard of perfection in sweet-salty goodness. Both use sea salt, and it seems the coarser, the better. The first was at Marlow and Sons (you may read my post here) where they take a ridiculously rich, dense caramel/dark chocolate torte and sprinkle grey sea salt on top, effectively cutting all the “this-is-way-too-much” sweetness and creating something entirely new. It’s so divine my friend Lucy (a regular foodie consultant on this blog), upon hearing my rhapsodies on this salty dessert, brought me a chocolate caramel brownie from Baked, an adorable bakery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s a rich, moist brownie, its center filled with gooey caramel, and embedded on the crusty top are crystals of fleur de sel. I have savored it for two days, marveling all the goodness. A thing of such beauty is worth a trip to Red Hook.
I do realize these desserts play on the lovely pairing of caramel, chocolate and salt. But is it crazy to think I might add a sprinkle of salt to all of my desserts? The interplay between sugar and salt is delightful.It doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Baked, 359 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, NY. If you can’t make it out, at least check out their website (they do wedding cakes and all sorts of pretty things!) and maybe even order online! And I hate to admit this, but Oprah’s already a big fan of these brownies.
Marlow and Sons, read my post (and get all the info) here.