Umami in Pastry: Tasting Savory Sweetness in the City of Angels

by Emily Bell
ntoinette Bruno
January 2010

Part of the versatility of pastry is its ability to incorporate unexpected elements from the larger realm of culinary arts. Whether it’s an olive oil and sweet pea ‘sformato prepared by 2009 New York Rising Star Brooks Headley, Leena Hung’s tarragon ice cream with briny olive brittle at The Fifth Floor, or the smoky sweet-bacon brittle from 2008 New York Rising Star Vera Tong, the use of conventionally savory ingredients adds incredible dimension to pastry. But can umami, the so-called “savory” flavor, with its unctuous and undeniable savor, have any place in pastry preparation?

A recent tasting trip to Los Angeles answered this question with a definitive yes. And it’s no surprise that LA pastry chefs are at the forefront of umami-enriched pastry considering the particularly high concentration of pastry chefs in the city and the longstanding influence of Japanese culture in Southern California.

Part of the difficulty of incorporating umami into pastry preparations is that many umami-rich ingredients are definitively savory ingredients. Even the best pastry chef will have a hard time making dessert with prawns and shiitake mushrooms. But some ingredients are slightly more versatile. The tomato, for instance, can lend its seasonal sweetness and simultaneously impart savory umami to a dessert. But because most umami ingredients are typically less flexible, a successful umami-pastry draws heavily on the imaginative resources of the pastry chef.

Parmesan Cheese
Parmesan cheese, one of the highest concentrations of umami (with 1200 to 1600 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams of cheese) seems an unlikely ingredient for a pastry preparation. But pastry chef Jashmine Corpuz of Drago Centro is up to the challenge, serving a Walnut Tart with Grapes, Muscat, Marsala, Parmesan Gelato, and Parmesan Crisp. The Parmesan in the gelato and crisp creates a surprisingly even contrast of sweet and savory; if anything Corpuz is too restrained with the Parmesan, which she pairs against the bold, fruity sweetness of Marsala and Muscat. And the star of the dish, the walnuts, neatly amplifies the meaty nuttiness that characterize this umami-rich dessert.

Green Tea
At Sashi in Manhattan Beach, pastry chef Kei Hasegawa creates pastries that gently incorporate the savory depth of umami without adding too much weight to the finished dish. The umami works naturally in these desserts, characterized as they are by a delicate contrast of flavors and textures. Unlike wa-gashi, or traditional Japanese sweets, which are generally very sweet, “my desserts aren’t too sweet,” says Hasegawa. “I try to make them right in sweetness.” In Japan, wa-gashi are often eaten with a cup of strong green tea to balance the sweetness of the pastry. In the kitchen of Sashi, using umami-rich Japanese ingredients like green tea in the desserts themselves helps Hasegawa attain this same balance.

In one such dessert, the chef harnesses high impact ingredients like orange, dark chocolate, and liqueur in delicate preparations—e.g. as a cream and a foam—and anchors the overall palate with a smooth green tea ice cream. The dessert, Dark Chocolate Orange Cream with Cinnamon Crumble, Green Tea Ice Cream, and Cointreau Foam, has subtle umami from the green tea ice cream—a fairly common feature of the Japanese restaurant dessert table, but here paired unexpectedly with chocolate, orange, spice, and liqueur. The umami in the green tea marries well with the depth of dark chocolate and the spicy, earthy cinnamon, while orange essence and Cointreau foam brightly accentuate that same depth.

Unroasted green tea has a high concentration of glutamate (668 milligrams per 100 grams of tea) and because it’s easily adaptable to sweet preparations it’s a great source of umami for the pastry chef looking for another dimension of flavor. Hasegawa also uses it in his green tea macaroons, which are light, crunchy, and chewy, with an ephemeral sweetness created by the umami element in the green tea. While Hasegawa is “always looking for the next ingredient,” green tea is such a versatile and umami-rich product that it will likely remain in his repertoire.

Soy Beans
Also in that repertoire? The soy bean. In Kinako Cake with Kuromitsu Ice Cream, Hasegawa prepares a cake made with roasted soy bean powder (kinako), which imparts an umami element to the effect of 66mg of glutamate per 100 grams of soy. When roasted, this yields a nutty meatiness not unlike that of peanut butter, which pairs well with the Japanese molasses in the Kuromitsu ice cream. Although kinako is a common Japanese ingredient, it’s less known among Western pastry chefs. “It’s one of the ingredients I really try to use and focus on,” says Hasegawa, who goes for tempered sweetness. The umami factor in ingredients like soy and green tea plays a big part in this essential balance.

Corpuz and Hasegawa are not the only pastry chefs treading on the uncharted ground of umami, and are certainly not the only pastry chefs using other savory elements to highlight or diversify their desserts. And not every pastry preparation that incorporates umami has to rely on parmesan or green tea, nor will umami in desserts always be a success. Pastry is all about managing elements in the context of an exacting preparation and umami is just one such element in the arsenal of the pastry chef.