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Herbs : Herbs for Dessert

June 17, 1993|RICHARD SAX | New York-based writer Sax writes frequently about food. A version of this article originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar. and

At the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, chef Gary Danko infuses fresh basil and mint in a custard sauce, imparting cool sweetness and brilliant jade-green color. At Maui's Grand Hyatt Wailea, Kathleen Daelemans moistens an artful arrangement of blood oranges and strawberries with a light syrup perked up with fragrant rosemary needles. At his namesake restaurant in Chicago, Charlie Trotter adds an elusive touch of bay leaf to creme brulee. And as long as five years ago, here in Los Angeles, Angeli Trattoria was serving a rosemary-lemon ice.

Desserts perfumed with fresh herbs have been around longer than you'd think. Back in ancient Rome, Apicius sketched a recipe for honey-nut cakes spiced with pepper, wine and rue, a slightly bitter herb once used for a variety of cooking and medicinal purposes and still employed in Italy as a flavoring for grappa.

In the Veneto region of Italy, cloves and bay leaves are standard ingredients in fruit compotes, a reflection of Venice's former key position in the spice trade with the East. Lidia Bastianich, owner of Felidia Ristorante in New York City, grew up in the Veneto area and remembers her grandmother drying figs with bay leaves.

"We would thread the figs on strings with a bay leaf between them--a crown of figs and laurel," Bastianich says. "We'd hang this from the ceiling in the fall and enjoy dried figs all winter long."

Today the idea of partnering fruit with fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, lemon thyme and basil may be a surprise to many, albeit a welcome one. Together, fruits and herbs send the palate a subtle wake-up call, the herbs enhancing the sweetness of late summer's ripe fruits while softly interjecting their own piney, menthol or woodsy aromas.

Summer fruits offer a prime opportunity to ally desserts with fresh herbs. A sprig or two of lemon thyme or sage adds zest to wine syrup for a luscious compote of mixed summer fruits and berries. Cubes of chilled ripe honeydew and cantaloupe melon brighten when tossed with a few mint leaves (or, if you are lucky enough to have your own herb garden, the hard-to-find anise hyssop) and dabbed with lime juice.

If you preserve your own fruits, tuck a sprig of fresh thyme, rosemary or sage, or a single rose-geranium leaf, into each canning jar. Suspended in translucent syrup or jelly, herb leaves not only add flavor but also a lovely visual accent.

Whatever the melding, subtlety is the key--a little can tantalize, too much can bully.

"Fresh fruit should have no more than a wisp of any flavoring other than itself," maintains Elizabeth Schneider, exotic-fruit maven and author of "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" (HarperCollins). "I like herbs for scenting a syrup," she continues, "but you don't want a mouthful of leaves. They work especially well with berries, where herb-touched syrups underscore the fruit rather than blast it off the plate."

Such subtlety is evident at the Sea Grill in New York City, where chef Seppi Renggli serves an herb-topped tropical-fruit kebab as an accompaniment to a chicken or lobster salad. A skewer of grilled pineapple, kiwi, mango, blood orange and melon alternating with lemon thyme and tiny fresh sage leaves, the kebab exemplifies Renggli's skill at combining unexpected ingredients--not for the sake of self-conscious innovation but for the enhancement of each other.

Renggli, formerly of the Four Seasons in New York City, says he is also keen on a compote of peaches tinged with lime leaves, lemon-grass or basil stems. "The flavors are terrific together," he says.

In Danko's suave custard sauce, basil and mint unite in a sort of herbal alchemy. "Mint makes the basil sing," the San Francisco chef explains. "And it livens up the other flavors."

His inspiration? "Green Chartreuse liqueur, which is made with 140 mountain herbs. I flavor the custard with the liqueur, then fortify it with blanched fresh herbs."

Danko serves this sauce with chocolate mousse cake, but it also does wonderful things when drizzled over a cool bowl of whatever summer fruits are at their peak.

Of all herbal desserts, ice cream and sorbet are the most refreshing. Because cold temperatures mute flavors, the herbs come through gently, without overpowering. Inventive chefs are scenting homemade ice cream with honey and lavender or rose geranium--a soothing summer treat, especially when topped with ripe berries.

I'll never forget the bracing pleasure of the rosemary sorbet that Renggli devised at the Four Seasons. Placed in a tall Champagne flute and then crowned with a sugar-frosted rosemary sprig, this delectable creation went down icy and smooth--a knockout that summed up this old/new culinary concept.

*

\o7 This late-harvest wine syrup is a basic; you can use it for any combination of fresh fruits in season. Serve the compote with shortbread or buttery sugar cookies.

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