Eat Your Feelings

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
February 2015

Do the bright skies and yellow leaves of fall have a flavor? How does one encapsulate the snug comfort of a warm sweater in the winter? These visceral sensations are savored in the moment, but how does a chef recreate them out of context—as food? Contrary to conventional self-help wisdom, Pastry Chef Mina Pizarro wants you to go ahead and eat your feelings. Through her desserts at Shaun Hergatt’s Juni, in New York City, she seeks to recreate sensory experiences, whether it’s a walk through the farmers market or a stroll in Central Park.

“I wanted to capture the early fall feeling, when yellow leaves are on the ground,” says Pizarro, for whom this kind of aesthetic impression is fundamental to the conception and development of a new dessert. The challenge lies in fleshing out such an intangible idea on the plate. “When I create a dish it’s about balance. The beauty is really important, but more importantly it has to have textures … elements of bitterness, acid, sweetness, saltiness.” To conjure the brisk coziness of autumn, Pizarro turned to a warming combination of coffee and caramel in a few different formats, such as coffee-toffee ice cream, buttercrunch, and coffee toffee itself. Pear milk foam and dehydrated pears bring a crisp freshness, while sage ties it all together with a familiar herbal undertone.

Once fall had truly set in, a trip to the farmers market inspired Pizarro to highlight delicata squash in a velvety soup paired with a tart local huckleberry gelée. Brightly acidic pickled ginger ice cream adds a refreshing zing like a brisk autumn breeze. “My train of thought is about flavor combinations, seasonality, but it goes farther than that. The items on my menu are also trying to balance sugar consumption by incorporating things that are fermented, or from older traditions.” The vinegar in the ice cream offsets the sugar and leaves the palate refreshed. “I’m looking at food as something that has to lend some kind of vitality,” she says. Pizarro brings flavorful life to the usually scrapped squash skins by dehydrating and transforming them into tuiles that are incorporated into a buttery sable.

As pumpkin-spice invaded our coffees, sweets, and even our beer, Pizarro stepped in and reclaimed squash by renouncing the typical flavor combinations. “Pumpkin is overused with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I wanted to make something a little surprising, not mainstream.” Coriander and cumin breathe new life into a smooth pumpkin custard topped by a sprinkle of dukkah, an Egyptian mixture of herbs, nuts, and spices. “Traditional flavors give pumpkin a warm fuzzy feeling, but I wanted to make it lighter, more floral.” Irregular fragments of black sesame sponge, gnarled strands of candied pumpkin skin, and a quenelle of Arbequina olive oil ice cream come together like old friends in this modern celebration of America’s favorite gourd—with only the slightest nod to grandma’s pie.

“Every time we enter a new season we hit the ground running, trying not to duplicate what we’ve done in the past.” As the colder months eased in, she developed a dessert inspired by (and composed to resemble) the forest floor: chocolate, lovage, and oats—another “warm and fuzzy” ingredient. She intensified this impression by combining toasted oats with oatmeal stout in the ice cream, and by fermenting oats in yogurt (chosen for its gut soothing qualities) for a tangy lactic kick. Combining creamy milk chocolate and the herbaceous lovage meringue adds an unexpectedly complex impact, while coming off as cozy and approachable.

Pizarro and her team are currently experimenting with rice for another wintry dessert. And when it comes time to create the scene on the plate, Pizarro, a trained ceramicist, is ready. She’s been spending time outside the kitchen fabricating a collection of ceramics that will be sliding into the pass this spring. Desserts at Juni are carefully crafted experiences, fully articulated thoughts and feelings—right down to the plate.