The Product: Pastry-gone-Savory Gets a Subtler Squeeze of Mustard

by Emily Bell
Shannon Sturgis
November 2012

Mustard: Members of the Brassicaceae Cruciferae family with edible leaves and seeds that are ground, toasted, pickled, and otherwise incorporated as a seasoning staple in global cuisine.

Three most common varieties are brown, black, and white, known for varying levels of bright pungency and heat upon preparation (cracking the seed and mixing with liquid).

Condiment Variety: Myriad spreadable (and squeezable) mustards exist beyond Grey Poupon, French’s, and even the venerable Colman’s. 5400-plus varieties of mustard can be viewed, if not consumed, at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Savory isn’t new to pastry , and mustard isn’t new to dessert, in professional or home kitchens. There are blogs; there are e-gullet forums (to be fair, begun by a pastry student looking for some e-assistance). Even our own Rising Star (not to mention ICC Presenter and flavor maven extraordinaire) Plinio Sandalio paired mustard ice cream with his haute carnie upgrade of the corn dog. But even if mustard isn’t new, it does tend to remain an outlier, making bold cameo appearances as pastry chefs studiously keep one foot in the savory walk-in. And while we’re always happy to encounter a well-played outré mustard accent—and all the statement-making and menu-bending interpretation that involves—we’re just as excited to taste dishes that integrate mustard with a subtler approach.

We recently tasted two such dishes, and they come, unsurprisingly, from pastry chefs who possess intrepid palates combined with restraint in application: Angela Pinkerton of Eleven Madison Park and Stephanie Prida of Manresa. Prida and Pinkerton both play confidently with sweet and savory flavors, using ingredients from either side of the (disappearing) kitchen divide as if they were always meant to be together. Thus diners arrive at desserts like Malted Peanut Sorbet, Mustard Panna Cotta, and Pretzel Crisps (Pinkerton) and Mustard, Chocolate, Figs, and Tomato-Honey Ice Cream (Prida). The idea this time isn’t making the mustard stand out, but letting it fit in.

Malted Peanut Sorbet, Mustard Panna Cotta, and Pretzel Crisps
Malted Peanut Sorbet, Mustard Panna Cotta, and Pretzel Crisps

“I didn’t use mustard to be daring,” says Pinkerton. “The use of mustard in the dish came out of a necessity, as a seasoning,” in this case to spike barley malt syrup and white chocolate panna cotta, the base of the “Mustard Panna Cotta” in her final dish. “I added a little crème fraïche, but there wasn’t enough acidity. I could have just added lactic acid, but I thought ‘that’s cheating.’” (If the well-stocked "molecular" pantry of the modern pastry chef makes flavor manipulations simpler, chefs like Pinkerton still look for native flavor, with some dimension of its own.) Instead, she thought, “How can I bring acidity to this dish with something that makes sense? And then it hit me: mustard.”

One look at the dish’s components: pretzel, malt, more malt, peanut butter, and integrated salt, and mustard doesn’t seem at all far off the mark. “I really just thought it made sense: pretzels, malt, and mustard,” Pinkerton says. And it’s not about a heavy hand. “I only use enough mustard so that I get the acidity and brightness. I want to take away the cloying sweetness of the white chocolate and syrup.” In fact, “mustard” panna cotta may be a misnomer, since the Dijon in Pinkerton’s panna cotta weighs in at 11 modest grams. “I chose Dijon because it has a sophisticated mustard flavor,” says Pinkerton. “Slightly sweet but still sassy, [and] not too forward.” Without it, that balance is lost; with it, diners get the intrigue of looking for mustard flavor, and actually (miraculously) savoring a subtle application. “You really have to think about it to know that’s it’s in there,” says Pinkerton. Once you find it, you relish it. So to speak.

Mustard may be the titular forerunner in Prida’s Mustard, Chocolate, Figs, and Tomato-Honey Ice Cream, but again, the idea is integration, from the toasted mustard genoise to the final grace of mustard seeds atop Prida’s chocolate ganache pasta. Like Pinkerton, Prida integrates mustard into a composition of bold flavors: chocolate’s earth and fruit notes are a more than adequate match for anything the mustard seed has to offer; the deep, concentrated sweetness of fig paste; and the nectar sweetness of fresh fig tossed in lime salt—tickling the natural heat of the mustard seed. Unlike Pinkerton, Prida found she had to add more mustard than expected. "I've notice you have to add a lot of mustard to really get the the flavor, way more than I thought. So you have to adjust the rest of your recipe to work with the large amount of mustard being added to it."

Mustard, Chocolate, Figs, and Tomato-Honey Ice Cream
Mustard, Chocolate, Figs, and Tomato-Honey Ice Cream

But the dessert nimbly avoids marquee mustard status. The main inspiration was tomato (no stranger to mustard). “Every year we do a tomato dinner,” says Prida. “I wanted to do tomatoes and mustard really badly, but I wanted to make it a dessert.” The mustard in question is French. "I like using Maille, old-style French grain mustard. I think it has the most sour-like flavor and more actual mustard seeds in it," important because here "the mustard in this dish kind of acts as your acid." Prida's tomato component comes in a tomato-honey ice cream. Confirming their proven sandwich-board compatibility with mustard, the tomato and honey offer up concentrated fruit, florals, and subtle sweetness (not to mention creamy richness) to balance the bite of the mustard.

Bear in mind Prida and Pinkerton aren’t going for squeeze bottles, necessarily. They approach mustard much the same way a savory chef would, looking to its uses in all forms, as toasted seed, whole grain paste, pickled, and perhaps even ground into a bright, tangy, indomitably zesty yellow. Pastry chefs who want to unfurl the flavors of the tiny seed can take cues from global cuisine. Start with mostarda, that lively Italian meat-loving balance of sweet preserved fruit with fiery mustard seeds. Or look to India, with its tadka (oil tempering) methods that bring out the exotic aromas of white, black, and brown mustard varieties; then, of course, there’s France, where mustard is a religion and Dijon the unofficial holy headquarters. Although French mustard worship tends to remain on the traditional, savory side of things, there's probably something to learn from the level of veneration itself.

Pinkerton and Prida aren’t done exploring the possibilities. “I’ll use it again if it makes sense,” says Pinkerton. “Say you make a sweet mayonnaise, who knows. Maybe mustard would be a great compliment. I’ve actually thought of using dill recently—maybe I can sneak a in little mustard or make a sweet tomato dish this summer; maybe a little mustard would taste right with it?” The point isn’t using mustard for novelty (“that’s just mindless cooking,” says Pinkerton) but variety (read: freedom!), part of the ever-expanding universe of the pastry chef. Next up? Miracle Whip. (Just kidding. Probably.)