As soon as the cold nights give way to warmer days, nature begins her vibrant show of purple blossoms. They often start before the first day of spring and continue into midsummer. This year, rosemary blossoms have come quite early, to be followed by a parade of purple lilac and chive blossoms in April, borage, thyme and gentian sage in May, then anise hyssop and lavender in early summer.
In these last days of winter, I like to use them to bring a little color to my cooking. I decided years ago to bring savory herbs and vegetables into my desserts rather than use tropical fruits. This way, I can stay local and the dishes offer more than just sweetness at the end of a meal. I like them to offer a little reflection on the flavors used throughout the meal. At the moment, Park Kitchen serves a rosemary infused panna cotta, with a sweet and sour huckleberry sauce, and garnished with salted pine nuts and rosemary blossoms. The blossoms bring more than just a pretty color. It has a slight earthiness and of course, a bittersweet floral note. It creates a nice bridge between the herbal cream infusion and the rich sweetness of the huckleberry puree.
The chef who first inspired me toward this idea of savory ingredients being used in the final course was Pierre Herme. I remember the revelation of his desserts in 1996, particularly a cake accompanied by strawberries, red beets and a black peppercorn syrup. I had been thinking about a dessert of chocolate and red beets ever since. This year, it finally came onto the menu with a rich chocolate cake covered by a beet flavored ganache and beet chips, and served with pistachios and a pistachio puree. Okay, so beets aren't exactly purple.
Part of the pleasure of tasting these flavors in a sweet context is that they create entirely new associations for our taste buds. By adding the earthiness of beets to the bittersweet chocolate, you taste something unexpected, like a hint of coconut or berries. In the panna cotta, the rosemary and salty pine nuts make the cream taste sweeter against the huckleberry. I've never had a sweet tooth, so I had to find a way to make dessert more exciting for myself as well as the guests.