One trend, three trailblazers

Three ways with: umami in desserts

The fifth taste is making its way from savoury to sweet, as chefs try to add novelty to their sweet treats.

14 March 2019
chefsdessertice creamrestaurantssaltsugar

The trend

  • Restaurateur and author Laura Santtini is sometimes said to have launched the first umami product, Taste No. 5, in 2010. Made from anchovies and porcini mushrooms, it debuted in Waitrose stores.
  • Last year saw a rise in desserts featuring vegetables, including the release of vegetable cheesecakes in retail, as food developers sought to add novelty and healthy halos to vilified sweets.
  • A study by sea salt company Salt of the Earth found that including its Mediterranean Umami product in sauces, condiments and ready meals allowed up to a 45% reduction in sodium and up to a 25% reduction in sugar.

Umami, the so-called fifth taste (following sweet, salty, sour and bitter), is most often associated with savoury dishes.

Considering it’s found in foods rich in glutamate, such as meats, fish, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and soy, that’s perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the growing number of umami-rich ingredients popping up within restaurant desserts.

From miso added to an ice cream sandwich at Tonkotsu, to cep powder dusting a rich chocolate and praline tart at Benedicts in Norwich, there are some unusual yet effective examples appearing on menus.

Terri Mercieca, founder and director of Happy Endings, which makes ice cream sandwiches for Tonkotsu, believes the right amount of umami can elevate a dish.

“We crave umami,” she says. “It makes us want more and it adds saltiness and intensity to desserts, and I think people are more open to it now.”

Dale DeSimone, executive pastry chef at Hakkasan Group, has been experimenting widely with umami-rich ingredients in desserts. Currently, London restaurant Yauatcha has a miso-glazed apple dessert on the menu.

DeSimone notes these ingredients can “create a really unique flavour profile,” though sometimes customers need to be persuaded to try them.

“Umami typically comes from ingredients that are not associated with dessert,” he says. “This causes a challenge on a la carte menus as guests are sometimes reluctant to try some of these ingredients. When they are part of a pre-set menu, the guest is really surprised by the combination, enjoys it, and in turn the dining experience is elevated.”

While adding umami to desserts may seem like a bold step, Jonathan Villar, executive chef at Gamma Gamma points out that it has been present in some recipes for years.

“My favourite dessert growing up in the Philippines was queso sorbetes (cheese ice cream),” he says. “It's both sweet, salty and creamy at the same time.”


The trailblazers

Terri Mercieca, founder and director of Happy Endings, makes The Naughty One, a salted caramel and miso parfait served between fine layers of chocolate Guinness cake and dulche de leche. The dessert is currently on sale at Tonkotsu restaurant sites in London: “I really wanted to create something that was unctuous and added something extra to the dessert, so added miso for that umami bomb factor. We make the dessert with Estate Dairy cream, St Ewe’s free range eggs, white miso paste and Guinness. It's principally a parfait, which is like a light frozen mousse. We make a very dark caramel and add this to the eggs and then fold whipped cream in. This is then frozen before being layered with the chocolate Guinness cake and the dulce de leche. The miso adds a level of complexity and intensity that you wouldn’t get with a straight salted caramel. It's really salty and adds a savoury note which works super-well with caramel and chocolate.”


Richard Allen, executive chef of The Orangery at Rockliffe Hall in County Durham, makes a cep macaron: “I first decided to use cep in a dessert after seeing a savoury canape of white chocolate caviar and duxelles. The mushroom notes sung amongst the chocolate. We serve the cep macaron with a white chocolate cream dusted with dried cep powder. It’s placed on a little pebble we get from the River Tees, which runs through the Rockliffe Hall estate. It’s all part of the ‘outside in’ ethos we have here at The Orangery restaurant. To make it, we start by making a stock from ceps, black truffle and egg white powder called Albumina. We then whip it in a Kitchen Aid until it forms a light meringue and pipe little dome shapes that are dried in a dehydrator. A simple ganache of white chocolate with vanilla cream, scented with the ceps, is piped inside the shells to form the macaron. Just before serving, we dust them with cep and sometimes a grating of black truffle, when available. The cep's unique earthiness works very well with the fats in the white chocolate.”


Jonathan Villar, executive chef at Gamma Gamma in London, describes a dessert of black sesame fondant filled with white chocolate and matcha green tea ganache, accompanied by miso toffee sauce, roasted black figs, Greek yogurt and miso ice cream: “The fondant is made using a normal chocolate fondant recipe with flour substituted for ground black sesame, with white chocolate and matcha tea added to the middle. The miso in the toffee sauce and ice cream is the salt element, which helps bring out the sweetness of the dish. The black sesame adds the nutty flavour and the matcha and white chocolate balance the dish and bring all the flavours together. The yogurt gives a bit of sourness whilst the figs gives the dish a fresh finish. The whole dish is a medley of flavours and textures; each ingredient complements each element to complete the dish. I've been using a lot of umami-rich ingredients in my desserts because it makes it more interesting and challenging. At the moment, I’ve got a wasabi and elderflower sorbet, miso ice cream, miso toffee sauce and aquafaba meringue dessert on the menu too.”

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