The popularity of plant-based eating is undeniable, but there is one part of the menu that hasn’t really embraced vegetables as much as it could: the desserts.
Pastry chef guru Graham Hornigold says there is room for massive exploration in this area, and it could be an easy sell with consumers, who are not only looking for healthier alternatives but also interesting new creations.
Desserts with sweet potato, aubergine and even Jerusalem artichoke are slowly appearing on restaurant menus. So who are the chefs that are taking vegetable experimentation to a whole new level?
The feast from the East
With desserts like vegetable jelly made with eggplant and azuki beans, wafer sandwiches filled with black sesame, lotus root and sweet potato, and a sponge cake made with mustard spinach and layers of tomato cream, Japan is no stranger to vegetable-based desserts.
At two-Michelin-star Japanese restaurant Umu in Mayfair, London, head pastry chef Tamás Forgács, has created a dessert filled with vegetables that looks more like a solid main than a sweet finish.
It took a month of experimenting with the flavours and textures for Forgács to deliver his dish: adzuki bean curd with matcha mousse, mochi (rice cake), wasanbon (sugar made from Japanese sugar cane) ice cream, kinome (a Japanese vegetable), carrot, radish and their respective leaves.
“It’s interesting and also challenging, because many places are using vegetables and fruits for starters and main course, but not so many people are trying to look behind the vegetables’ main sweetness,” says Forgács.
“I believe vegetables can be a great dessert as well because they are high in sugar content. For example, the beetroot is really high in sugar content and for a long time I can see people are using it, but there are also others that haven’t been discovered as well.”
Forgács started with the adzuki bean, which is a common Japanese ingredient, he didn’t stop there.
“Radish is something very refreshing and a little bit crunchy, so instead of putting a tuile on the dessert, I just use the radish, as it’s very refreshing and also a bit spicy on the very back of the mouth,” he says.
“And it cleans a little bit, as the adzuki curd sticks to the palate; therefore, I wanted something that takes it off a bit and gives it another dimension. Carrot is something crunchy and also very sweet.”
Forgács says the dish is popular among customers – the plates come back clean to the kitchen – and he is keen to bring more vegetables on to the dessert menu.
“It’s raising the type of dessert making, as it creates more challenges. And I believe challenges make the food industry a lot greater,” he says.
While cultural influences played a part for Japanese native Aya Tamura, head pastry chef of The Square, she also wanted to bring in English influences to her vegetable-based desserts. As a result, she is using local British honey and elements like gingerbread.
On the menu is a sweet white potato confit, gardenia, grapefruit and honey ice cream. Tamura says sweet potato, pumpkin and chestnut are commonly used in desserts in Japan.
She experimented with a number of different sweet potatoes, including the orange ones, but decided to use a Japanese sweet potato as it has the texture of chestnuts and doesn’t have too much water content – a challenge when making desserts from veg.
“I was interested to work with vegetables as many British people are gluten-free, dairy-free and some people don’t eat a lot of sugar,” she says.
“I think that at the restaurant it is important as the starters and mains include vegetables, so the dessert should be a continuation.”
Tamura is considering using tomato in her dessert for summer.
But it’s not just high-end restaurants that are putting potatoes on the dessert menu.
New executive chef of Cottons Rum Shack & Restaurant, Collin Brown, has been redesigning the Caribbean chain’s menu and plans to add a sweet-potato pudding.
“It’s one of our staples in Jamaica – my grandmother always makes it. To make this pudding, you use coconut milk and almond milk and blend the potato with it and some cinnamon, vanilla and a bit of rum and raisins, which makes it a bit soft and more runny,” he says.
“You then put it in the mould and put it in to steam and it creates a gooey texture. Just before you finish, you glaze it with onion and it is sweet, tangy and coconut.”
For Brown, it is a no-brainer to put vegetables on the dessert menu, as it offers people a healthier meal, but also opens up the menu to vegetarians and those who need to eat dairy-free.
Other vegetable-based dessert creations
- Ella Canta: a cake made with corn and huitlacoche, a type of fungus that grows on corn plants that is sometimes called ‘corn truffle.’ The sweet sponge cake is served with violets and a chamomile ‘mystic’ sauce
- Radici: chocolate aubergine cake
- La Gelateria: porcini chocolate ice cream; watercress and lime ice cream
- Primrose Bakery: courgette and ginger loaf
- Crosstown Doughnuts: pink beetroot doughnut with blood-orange glaze and pistachio crumble
Beyond pumpkin pie
Having something risqué on the menu is always part of the plan at Social Eating House. This includes a pumpkin crème brûlée with homemade yoghurt, white chocolate and nutmeg ice cream.
Executive chef Paul Hood says they have previously offered a pumpkin crème caramel, as the vegetable lends itself to sweet and savoury. The current dish took a while to get right due to the high water content of pumpkin, which would leak into the base and split it.
“It’s a pumpkin puree set with egg sugar like brûlée custard, and you cook for 45 minutes in a low oven in a water bath,” he says.
There is also a granola mix with oats, nuts, broken-down cornflakes and white chocolate ganache, he adds.
"The homemade yoghurt is infused with vanilla and apricot coulis, and there is nutmeg ice cream and a few little herbs.”
Hood says it’s nice to see people’s reactions at the chef’s tables when they try the dish – one of surprise that it’s actually palatable.
“Not everyone is bored with fruit, but a lot of it has already been done, so if you start playing with vegetables and putting them into desserts it’s a bit different and opens eyes,” he says.
“There is a lot more out there than your fruit brûlées or plain brûlées or vegetable-based soufflés, as long as the vegetable lends itself to being sweet or savoury. So probably broccoli in desserts isn’t going to work, but it depends what you’re doing.
“Things like your Jerusalem artichokes will work and more like your root vegetables like carrots, and parsnips is a good one to go in ice cream.”
Not for shock but seasonal
Jerusalem artichoke is something Paul Lobban has put in his dessert at Fera at Claridge’s, but the senior sous chef is adamant that it’s not for the shock factor; it’s all about flavour and aroma.
The current menu includes a final course of Jerusalem artichoke, toffee apple and salted caramel. There’s also a carrot sorbet with coffee and caramelised oats.
“The Jerusalem artichoke is a no-brainer. It has quite a high starch content to it. We roast it in the oven; it caramelises like a sugar and it becomes a sweet, earthy flavour that goes quite well with apples and caramel,” he says.
“If you have a Jerusalem artichoke masked with garlic, salt and thyme, then you never get the true flavour. We literally wash the artichokes so there’s no dirt, scrub really hard, slice it up, put it in the oven and just allow those natural sugars to caramelise.”
According to Lobban, it’s about moving past the psychological association of a vegetable as savoury.
“It’s probably one of the most well-received desserts we have actually. I think we do it because it’s delicious and I think the guests maybe order it because it’s unusual,” he remarks.
Fera is also about seasonality, continues Lobban, which drives the innovation in the dessert menu. He says they won’t order berries if they are not in season, so rather than using a passionfruit they might use a potato or preserved vegetables, as they can’t have five chocolate desserts on the menu.
In the past, they have featured a beetroot and a mushroom dish with caramelised white chocolate.
So is Sparkie feeling the vegetable-based dessert vibe?
Around the world, using vegetables in desserts is quite common. Parts of Asia use sweet corn as a dessert topping as well as red beans in many different forms. Yam, sweet potato and other root vegetables are common too, depending on where you look.
The more you look into it, the absolute separation seems to be a UK ideal – even America makes use of pumpkin regularly for pies and other desserts during the autumn when they are in abundance.
With the ‘healthier’ perception vegetables offer, there is definitely room for growth amongst food service groups who closely follow the food trends, but I think retail would need some serious convincing to innovate in this area beyond a handful of niche authentic foods.