On the 4th day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a pate de fruits that is perfectly sweet.
Sweet! We ask for something sweet to finish off a good meal. We exclaim it (‘sweeeeeet!!’) when something great impresses us or makes us happy. We reserve it as a treat or even (not that we are supposed to) as a reward, beginning as very young children & spanning into old age. Sweet is arguably the most treasured of all the flavor components that make up our tasting palettes.
Over the next 5 days, we are going to explore taste! There are 5 main flavors in life & we will dive into a new one with each day. A quick synopsis on these 5 flavors before we start.
The diagram below shows where our taste buds most intensely sense each flavor. It is a fun experiment to try a food within which each of these flavors are the star & observe how true this is for you. Some are a little easier to sense than others.
- Sweet – Everything from sugar, honey & maple syrup to fruit & fruit juices. It can counteract the intensity of both sour & bitterness. It can also cut the heat in dishes.
- Sour – Citrus & Vinegar. It brings food to life. Adds a punch that can open up every other flavor. Often when we are searching for what a dish needs, it is lacking in a little bit of something sour. It is beneficial in counteracting sweetness & heat.
- Salty – Salt enhances every other flavor. The right amount of salt is the key to a successful plate of food. It dulls bitterness, almost softens it when it needs to be toned down. It lets sweetness shine, like on a slice of melon or in a salted caramel.
- Bitter – Although not a favorite among flavors, a very important component to include in dishes, nonetheless. It is unmatched in cutting richness. You can serve a radicchio salad with the richest of dressings and creamiest of cheese because the bitterness balances it. A hoppy beer can be the perfect pairing to a heavy meal, or a very sweet dessert, as it’s opposing taste can completely balance the flavors.
- Umami – The trickiest flavor to achieve. It is a bit elusive & even difficult to describe. Often defined as the ‘savory’ element. Think mushrooms, soy sauce, miso, other fermented items, a lot of Asian food. I feel that another way to describe it is by thinking of a reduction. Whether it is a soup that you simmer for hours, or a sauce that you reduce by half. Think of the difference in the depth of that flavor before and after it takes the time on the stove. That depth that you create is umami. And that is a perfect flavor test. If you hold a spoonful of homemade soup on your tongue a moment, you will gravitate towards the flavors of sweet & salty, maybe even bitter. Cook that soup on low for 2 more hours and do the same thing. It will wash right over the center of your taste buds and hit all of those umami notes before falling into the sweet, salty & bitter zones to finish. It’s a lovely & satisfying achievement!
Knowing about each taste is just the beginning. Learning how to pair them together well is the next job! From there we have other obstacles while perfecting our favorite recipes…such as, not every brand of soy sauce has the same amount of saltiness. Not every bottle of horseradish holds the same level of heat. 1 type of radish may be significantly more bitter than another. I may sense umami on my palette stronger than the person next to me. Etc etc. But that is part of what makes this fun! I will say that if you find a certain brand of a product you like, there’s no use in straying from it. Or if you, for instance, use a particular varietal of produce, include the name of it in any recipes you create or share in order to maintain continuity.
Back to our flavor of the day, sweet! Sweet is a very versatile flavor. It has so many variances that it pairs & balances with each of the other flavors, but can also lend neutrality. (This is fun, it feels like I’m describing the 5 zodiacs of taste!!) Basically, it plays well with others! It gives a neutral launchpad for each of the other flavors. Instead of competing with them it actually accentuates each one very well.
While there are plenty of old familiars when it comes to imparting sweetness, there are also several surprising ingredients that bring an element of sweetness to a dish. Vanilla extract or vanilla bean is one of them. Though often used in sweet dishes, it is certainly not sweet on its own. Although when added to certain recipes, it does still bring a sweet flavor. Another example would be butter or ghee. When serving many savory dishes, the sweet element comes from this particular fat. Think of a rice dish finished with a pat of butter, or even something that is fried in butter. The sweetness from the cream along with the richness of the fat becomes the sweet element that balances out an otherwise savory dish.
In your package today is a classic little morsel called Pate de Fruits. It is a ‘jelly’ made with natural fruit juice (in this case pomegranate), sugar, liquid pectin & a little citrus juice. Once set, it is cut and coated in sugar. I mean, it doesn’t get much sweeter than that!! I chose pomegranate as the flavor for a few reasons. Winter is the time when it is in season and it is often associated with being a holiday flavor…plus that beautiful deep red color! But I also chose it because it is not solely a sweet flavor on its own. It has bold sour notes and small undertones of bitterness as well. The seeds get pressed to produce the juice, therefore you cannot completely remove their bitter flavor. It all balances well with the simple straightforward sweetness of white sugar. When you bite into this, try to note the timing of each flavor. You should immediately taste straight sweetness (thanks, sugar coating!) Then all of a sudden, a punch of sour & hint of bitterness, finishing with the true pomegranate flavor & another quick note of super sweet from that sugar coating. To me its exciting & even a little surprising. If it leaves you wanting more, the recipe is below! Enjoy!