Celery root, sorrel, chestnuts, avocado, mustard, kalamata olives, fennel, parsnip, feta and squash. Sounds like a grocery list for a potentially delicious dinner, but dessert? Sure, if you’re Tim Dahl, a pastry chef who’s made it his mission to ensure Blackbird (619 W Randolph St, 312-715-0708) diners don’t slink into a sugar coma at the end of their meals. “I taste produce at the market and think, How can I use this?” Dahl says. And it doesn’t matter that “this” has rarely appeared on a dessert list before.
His willingness to incorporate traditionally savory ingredients into desserts means Dahl goes through a lot of trial and error. There were the smoked bananas, which slow-cooked over wood chips and ultimately sucked up more smoke than Bob Marley, leading Dahl to retool the method for subtler results. Then there was the mustard ice cream, which ended up in the trash and became a temporarily abandoned project after it was declared “just awful.”
But mostly, the gambles pay off. It helps that Dahl has mastered a few tricks along the way: “Avocado can basically be interchanged [with] butter”; “Soak the brine off olives, dehydrate them, then use the powder in cake batter”; and, simply, “Don’t mess with things that are better eaten fresh.” (The latter is his preferred method for fennel, which is combined with flavors of white chocolate and Meyer lemon for stellar results.)
Recently, Dahl went beyond the vegetable bin and virtually transformed a classic flavor combination from savory to sweet—and not just by adding sugar. “Pretzels, mustard and beer… I just really wanted to make a dessert out of that, so the key to it—and really the key for all of this—is balance,” he explains. So caraway acts as a mintlike refresher to lighten up the soft pretzels; a few extra egg yolks, cream and honey vinegar turn the Dijon into something like a sabayon; hoppy IPA beer replaces some of the milk in ice cream; pickled mustard seeds add acidity and texture; and blackberries, well, “they just bring everything together.”