Chocolate, the fallback dessert ingredient for many young chefs, doesn’t fare well in the Lowcountry. “It’s hot down here,” Kelly Wilson, an instructor at Trident Tech’s Culinary Institute of Charleston, this week explained during an American Culinary Federation regional conference session dedicated to regional pastry.
“In terms of climate, that dictates what you can make and what you can store,” Wilson said.
But Wilson urged her audience to think beyond chocolate for other reasons, too: While chocolate has a long central American history (and shorter European history), a bevy of other ingredients are more closely tied to the Native American, African, British and French cultures that are reflected in traditional Charleston foodways. Chefs who reflexively localize their savories sometimes forget about fortified wine, black walnuts, rice, sweet potatoes and coconuts when planning last courses, Wilson suggested.
To demonstrate how recent culinary school grads can put a local stamp on their sweets, Wilson remade a basic coconut cake with a strawberry coulis.
According to Wilson, every dessert has four primary elements: The central pastry, sauce, garnish and “a crunch factor.” On the coconut cake, the cake is the pastry; the coulis is the sauce; the garnish is a mint spring and coconut provides crunch.
When Wilson reengineered the dessert to reflect the Lowcountry, she started with “free-form crème brulee,” an agar-agar-enhanced salute to Charleston’s French heritage. “There’s a randomness to this, and I’m still trying to master randomness,” she fretted as she dotted the plate in Modernist style.
Wilson sauced the crème brulee with sweet potato puree, and garnished it with coconut foam and microgreens. For crunch, she added shards of benne brittle to the plate.
The finished dessert was a slightly monstrous clutter of sweets, but Wilson had made her point about localizing plated desserts. “And it’s super-duper tasty,” she added before distributing samples.