A tiny little black seed is taking the pastry world by storm. Flavor of the month? Absolutely not -- for pastry chefs from Paris to Tokyo, from Los Angeles to New York and over to Spain, it's the flavor of the year.
Black sesame seeds -- earthy and nutty, distinctively bitter, with a smoky, almost peppery flavor -- are appearing in tuiles and macarons, ice creams and eclairs, cakes and panna cottas and doughnuts.
This is no mere trendy garnish. "It's a staple," says Johnny Iuzzini, pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York City. "It isn't overly sweet or cloying so it helps maintain the integrity of other ingredients in a dessert." Iuzzini uses black sesame seeds in the ganache for his chocolates. Other New York and Los Angeles chefs are using them in ice cream and creme brulee; at the new Patisserie Chantilly in Lomita, Keiko Nojima is featuring them in cream puffs and atop white sesame blancmange, a cooked pudding.
At El Bulli north of Barcelona, pastry chef Albert Adria has fallen for the seeds. With a handful or two, he has fashioned the spiral, a hypnotic swirl of black sesame crunch, dehydrated raspberries and lime gelatin, with a quenelle of coconut ice cream. Another dessert, \o7gran creu negra\f7, an outsize cross of smeared black sesame paste with chocolate-lime sorbet and chocolate cake, is Adria's homage to abstract-expressionist Catalan painter Antoni Tapies.
At all-dessert restaurant Espai Sucre in nearby Barcelona, chef Jordi Butron is known for a lapsang souchong tea cream with chocolate cake, black sesame tuile and yogurt.
Even in Paris, black sesame seeds are making a showing. At the very chic Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, the black sesame \o7macarons\f7 and black sesame eclairs are among the most popular pastries, says spokeswoman Sandra Bourdier. Pastry chef Aoki also uses black sesame in chocolate bars, ice cream and truffles.
They've long been a traditional ingredient in Asian sweets. So what is it about the little seeds that's now captivating Western chefs? "It reminds me of toasted sunflower seeds that I ate in my childhood that in Spain are colloquially called \o7pipas\f7," says Adria, brother and partner of chef Ferran Adria.
An edgier sweetness
MAYBE it isn't used as frequently as, say, vanilla or cinnamon, but "it's a flavor that I keep coming back to," says Ron Mendoza, pastry chef at Sona in West Hollywood, who has a black sesame ice cream and a black sesame brittle in rotation on the menu. Mendoza is experimenting with black sesame seeds in his Pacojet, a high-tech machine for making ice cream, sauces and purees. He says "with summer coming up," a black sesame caramel sauce might be "paired with fruits like peaches and nectarines."
As more pastry chefs rethink the concept of dessert, a transition from purely sweet toward more salty, sour, spicy and bitter is accelerating. Chefs are using ingredients such as vinegar, chiles, herbs, spices, \o7fleur de sel\f7 and coarse black pepper in their desserts.
"Black sesame can center a dish," Mendoza says, "so that you have a more natural combination of flavors, not as sweet. I definitely like more bitter components."
At cutting-edge restaurant wd-50 in New York, pastry chef Sam Mason makes a black sesame ice cream with a pink grapefruit gelee, tarragon meringue and warm grapefruit confit. "It's not easy to harness the flavor of black sesame," Mason says, "but there's nothing else like it."
Another innovator, Josh DeChellis, chef at Sumile and Jovia in New York, was looking for an alternative to chocolate for the dessert menu at Sumile. He says black sesame when sweetened is "vaguely reminiscent of the flavor profile of bittersweet chocolate." Inspired by the flavor, he came up with "black sesame dice," Japanese black sesame paste whisked into a sugar solution with a little lemon juice and gelatin. When set, it is cut into cubes, piled on a plate and served with raspberries or cherries, whatever fruit is in season. "I will never ever ever take it off the menu," he says.
In Los Angeles, customers at Kiriko have been known to come in just for the black sesame ice cream that sushi chef Ken Namba makes. (Namba says he has to turn them away because he barely has enough space to accommodate his sushi patrons.) He uses black sesame paste and black sesame seeds that he toasts, then grinds in a food processor as well as by hand in a mortar and pestle, "for extra aroma. When you eat it, the smell of sesame should be strong."