There are certain ingredients that sound ghastly in dessert – that is, until you give them a try. Bacon, for instance, tastes lovely with brown sugar and maple syrup. Chilies augment chocolate. And believe it or not, tomatoes are delightful when used in sweets too.
I know, I know. Tomato dessert; sounds freaky, right? Let me explain.
Tomatoes, of course, fit right in with salads, sandwiches and pasta, but they're equally gorgeous in pastries, cakes and on ice cream. When plucked off the vine, still firm and green, they resemble underripe strawberries in taste and texture. They're slightly – but not offensively – tart and they aren't overwhelming in tomato flavour either, which make them a tasty filling for green tomato pie, a traditional dessert found in country-style cooking that typically also includes raisins, cinnamon and a hit of lemon. When tomatoes begin to soften and mature, they can also stand in for gooseberries or even grapes or peaches with the help of a little sugar.
Unfortunately, unlike their fellow fruits, tomatoes don't get much love from confectioners. It's time we gave them their due.
Over the years, chef Jeff Van Geest of Miradoro restaurant at Oliver, B.C.'s Tinhorn Creek winery has experimented with all kinds of sweet applications for tomatoes. One of his preferred dessert varieties is sun golds, which are naturally sweet when ripe. He mixes them with peaches, incorporates them with nuts and uses them in sorbets and gelatos. For a recent dinner event, he prepared an olive oil cake, served with a tomato marmalata, a sweet, citrus-scented compote that included heirloom tomatoes and mint.
Tomatoes are, in fact, quite versatile in desserts, Mr. Van Geest says. "A lot of people can't wrap their heads around it, but then when they try it, they love it."
At Ottawa's Atelier Restaurant, chef Marc Lepine occasionally serves tomato soup cake. His version is based on a heritage recipe from leaner times, when confections were considered extravagant and home cooks were required to find creative uses for leftover soup. Mr. Lepine makes fresh batches of tomato soup specifically for this dessert, instead of using the dregs of yesterday's dinner.
"It makes a really delicious cake," he insists, noting the tomato flavour is subtle. "If you tell someone that it's a tomato soup-based cake, then it clicks in, like 'Oh yeah! Now I can taste it!' "
"But if you're not thinking about it, it'd probably be hard to pinpoint exactly what ... it was made from," he says.
Not convinced? Think of it this way: You wouldn't flinch at the thought of carrot cake, rhubarb pie or zucchini bread, would you? Next to these desserts, tomatoes aren't such a stretch.
I'll admit, I was an early convert. I was introduced to tomatoes for dessert as a child, when my mother would enlist my help in tackling the surplus we grew in our backyard.
We'd take juicy, slightly overripe tomatoes and score them with a cross, then briefly plunk them in hot water to loosen their skins. Once we peeled them, we would cut them into coarse pieces, sprinkle them with sugar and toss them in with a few ice cubes in a large, glass bowl. After letting the mixture sit in the refrigerator for an hour or two, it would turn into the most delicious and refreshingly sweet, chilled dessert. Throughout my early childhood, this tomato dish was synonymous with summer.
After my parents upgraded their vegetable patch to a landscaped garden, however, we ceased making it. The pale, astringent tomatoes we bought from the supermarket just didn't taste satisfying enough at the end of a meal, nor did they turn into the desired luxuriously silky texture. I soon forgot all about the tomato's sweet potential.
Then, earlier this year, I stumbled upon a mesmerizing video, posted to the food website Eater that showed celebrated New York pastry chef Michael Laiskonis making a tomato dessert pizza. In it, Mr. Laiskonis is shown spreading stewed raspberry onto a crust made of pâte sucrée. He then tops it with a bed of candied tomatoes, sweetened cream cheese spheres, cubes of bright green, basil almond cake and hydrated basil seeds to create a sweet version of the Margherita pizza. (See it here.)
Watching the video made me drool, and I vowed to get reaquainted with tomatoes for dessert.
I realize I'm in the minority here. Vancouver pastry chef Eleanor Chow said she might have considered making sweet tomato pastries at her new Powell Street shop, Cadeaux Bakery, if only people dared to buy them.
"If I was working in a restaurant, I would definitely put it on the menu because you have those interesting dishes that you can put out there for people to try, those adventurous people," she says, explaining that unfortunately, tomato desserts just don't sell.
Tomatoes can be weirdly divisive, Ms. Chow notes. "It's so funny because I could eat tomatoes, I could bite into them like apples, and I have so many friends who're like, 'That's the most disgusting thing I've ever seen!' [whereas] I'm like, 'It's a tomato. It's delicious.'"
Similarly, chef David McMillan of Montreal's Joe Beef recalls how he and restaurant partner Frédéric Morin once put a tomato dessert, similar to a peach melba, on their menu several years ago. It was a hit among the few who tried it. But for the most part, Mr. McMillan says, "People look at the [menu] board and go, 'Oh, tomato for dessert? That sounds interesting. I'll have the chocolate cake.'"
Still not convinced? That's okay. More tomato dessert for the rest of us.
- courtesy of chef David McMillan of Montreal's Joe Beef
Choose a large beefsteak tomato, preferably organic, that is still a couple days away from fully ripening. You'll want a firm tomato for this recipe because it will soften with heat. A ripe tomato will turn to mush.
Remove the stem, score the bottom with an "X" using a knife, and plunge the tomato in boiling water for about 10 seconds. Gently peel off the skin and cut into four pieces.
Take four teaspoons of brown sugar and four teaspoons of water. Caramelize the sugar and water in a pan until it turns blond. Add tomato pieces to one corner of the pan, and over low heat, use a spoon to continuously coat them with caramel until they're lightly poached. If you'd like, add a few leaves of sweet basil and a bit of sweet marjoram for flavour.
Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream, vanilla yogurt, whipped cream or frozen yogurt into four sundae cups. (The cheesier the cup, the better.) Lay a caramelized piece of tomato on top, and serve.