A family outing. A long day of hiking. A chilly evening of telling scary stories around the campfire. And to top it all off, the sweet and smoky taste of s’mores that completely melt into gooey, long-lasting memories with the first delectable bite. For many people, the taste of smoke-infused marshmallows is synonymous with treasured moments of childhood — and in recent years, chefs are capitalizing on this combination of smoky and sweet to bring desserts to a new, yet familiar, level.
“The term ‘smoke’ — and variations like smoked, smoky, smoking — is up nearly 40 percent on dessert menus in the past four years,” says Mike Kostyo, Trendologist at Datassential. “One of the factors that is driving the trend forward is that now there are a lot more products that can be used on the dessert menu to add that smoky flavor, like smoked salts, smoky beers and spirits, smoked nuts, smoked chocolate, and of course smoking guns. A restaurant can also smoke desserts in-house, even tableside for that Instagram factor, often taking inspiration from the cocktail menu.”
A Return to Comfort
When creating her Nutella on Bourbon Street Martini cocktail — a drink that combines Averna Amaro, Evan Williams Bourbon, Nutella, and milk chocolate with a hint of smoke —Andrea Williams, Executive Chef at ZED451 in Chicago, gets her inspiration from comfort foods, which has been driving the smoky dessert trend in recent years.
“About five years ago, there was a return to comfort foods and that kind of followed the recession a little bit — where it was kind of back to basics, back to comfort, back to home,” she says. “A lot of that also came with smoked meat, and the popularity of bacon surging again.”
This popularity is something that Mike Castaneda, a freelance chef who was named one of the top ten cooks in America by the Food Network, has also observed when he does demonstrations for Grilla Grills, which specializes in wood pellet and kamado grills and smokers.
“Barbecue is really taking off; it’s something that people have done for a long time, but I feel like chefs and even barbecue pitmasters now are kind of like the rock stars of the field,” he says. “I think with the fact that barbecue has taken off so well, people are starting to see how it can be implemented into everything other than just smoking meat.”
And Castaneda is doing his part to drive that trend by demonstrating how consumers can use their grills in innovative ways that move beyond the meats they’re so accustomed to grilling. From cupcakes to peaches for cobblers to bread pudding, he uses the flavors people know well and infuses smoke into them, so they realize that the possibilities for what they can do with their grills are virtually limitless.
“It’s my personal goal to get people doing more with their grills than they thought. I definitely want people to see the potential and that it’s not just a meat instrument,” he says.
Savor the Smoky Flavor
For those who fondly remember the love they had for the smoky-sweet combination of the s’mores they had in childhood, it’s a logical progression to move on to other smoky desserts in order to enjoy the contrast—much like the contrast people experience when the combine spicy and sweet. But it’s important to remember that people can have too much of a good thing. Just as adding too much spice to a dessert recipe can ruin it, Alex Benes, Culinary Director of Southern-California based Wood Ranch, warns amateurs and professionals alike to be judicious when adding smoke to any dessert.
“You can introduce smoke to very accessible and understood foods and it’s really a small thing, and if you do it right, you don’t overwhelm that thing with smoke,” he says. “Smoke really is best when it’s used as another ingredient for flavor, not an end in and of itself.”
This is a mistake that Benes says he sometimes sees at barbecue restaurants that smoke every piece of meat heavily to the point where the only way someone can differentiate the chicken from the brisket from the ribs is by their texture because they all taste like nothing but smoke—when really chefs should be letting the flavors of the meat shine.
“I think that’s even more important with desserts because smoke can really overwhelm them,” he adds.
Similarly, people making smoky desserts should also avoid smoking too many ingredients in the dish, says Cory Hoekstra, Executive Chef at Michael Jordan’s Steak House in Ridgefield, Washington.
“You want to smoke one or two ingredients because you still want some of the things to shine. For example, if you’re making ice cream, just smoke the cream and then keep your peaches separate so that the peaches are still vibrant and still alive, but you still get that undertone of smoke,” says Hoekstra. “You don’t want to smoke your sugar and your peaches and your cream and your eggs and your everything; it’s just going to overwhelm it, you’re not going taste anything except for smoke and then it’s just not going to be an enjoyable dish.”