It probably all started with those fleur de sel caramels that burst on the confection scene close to 10 years ago. Previously, about the only sweets that offered a nice salty edge were those made with peanut butter, like some candy bars and desserts like peanut butter mousse, peanut pies and peanut butter cookies.
As any experienced pastry chef knows, a touch of salt is usually needed in most baking. Pie or tart crust without it typically has all the flavor of cardboard. Most cake, cookie and even custard recipes include a little salt to enliven the taste and bring the ingredients into focus. But chefs do not broadcast the presence of a little routine salt in a dessert.
When they do, the dessert has a decided saltiness, and it seems that this style has achieved increasing acceptance among diners.
Will Goldfarb, an avant-garde pastry chef in New York, says that salty desserts date back 3,000 years, to China. Maybe so, but on the contemporary dining scene, he also acknowledged caramel with fleur de sel, which the French have been doing for a long time, as a motivating factor for today’s American pastry chef. Claudia Fleming was baking chocolate caramel tarts and sprinkling them with sea salt at Gramercy Tavern back in 2000.
Mr. Goldfarb warns: “It’s also a total fad and can be overdone.”
And these days, who is doing it, and how?
Michael Paley, the chef at Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky., serves a sea-salt-and-caramel gelato alongside his chocolate bread pudding. The gelato also is available without the bread pudding, for an even more intense experience. The marriage of salt and caramel is especially felicitous because salt balances bitterness extremely well and caramel, on its way to being burnt sugar, should have a bitter edge, making the salt all the more welcome.
Chocolate-caramel mousse with salty caramel, crunchy peanuts and coconut sorbet at davidburke & donatella in New York is another good example of this theory put to the test. Even for Thanksgiving at Nice Matin, also in New York, Andy D’Amico tried to tempt customers with salted caramel ice cream alongside the more traditional chocolate pecan pie with bourbon sauce.
Name a restaurant Salt House, and what do you expect? At this operation in San Francisco a slice of chocolate fudge cake comes coated in caramelized peanuts with salty caramel sauce on the side. At the new SPQR, in the city by the bay, a dessert panino is made with caramelized milk, which is dolce de leche to some, shaved chocolate and sea salt.
The chocolate dessert at Fiamma in New York, which has a new team in the kitchen led by Fabio Trabocchi, is a composition of 70 percent chocolate ganache, praline powder, cocoa gel, and fiore di sale—fleur de sel from Sicily. Earlier this month at the James Beard Foundation, there was a tribute to Lydia Shire of Boston by eight chefs who worked for her. And the dessert? Caramel custard demitasse with black-cocoa sorbet on salty shortbread.
Klee Brasserie in New York garnishes its liquid hot-chocolate panna cotta with sea salt pretzel sticks. Five in St. Louis serves a salted caramel mousse with chocolate cookie streusel, fleur de sel and salty peanut ice cream.
Sometimes the salt comes from an ingredient in the dessert, such as the crunchy bacon crumbs garnishing caramelized banana crêpe with frozen maple mousse at Park Avenue Autumn in New York, or the blue cheese crème fraîche adorning the warm roasted pear in a walnut crust with pomegranate sorbet at Willow in Arlington, Va. The classic slab of Cheddar cheese on a wedge of apple pie serves the same purpose.