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Smoke has always been a signal of impending disaster in the sweet kitchen. The smell might trigger images of burnt cookies, dark and crispy cakes, and brownies turned to ash. I’ll be honest, the battery in my kitchen’s smoke detector died a long time ago and I haven’t fixed it—because I burn a lot of things.
And some of time it’s on purpose. It turns out that smoke and sweet are actually natural partners. Savory cooks know this, of course: sweet and smoky ribs, chicken, brisket, pulled pork, charred vegetables, you name it. The bitterness of wood smoke is absolutely delicious when paired with something sweet.
The combination has been creeping in under the radar in the pastry kitchen for generations. The term "brûlée" means burnt, and the contrast between the bitter-burnt caramel and the creamy-sweet custard of a classic crème brûlée is the apotheosis of smoky-sweet desserts—and that recipe is from the 1600s. Similarly, the smoky undertones of whiskey, a product of the way that barley is dried over a peat fire, enhances its sweetness. The same is true of Indian black cardamom and Lapsang Souchong tea, both of which are also dried over fire.
But the most simple desserts of summer often feature the scent of smoke, too. Think burnt marshmallows smushed between two graham crackers and eaten by the fire. Or the char of a peach cooked on the grill and served with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's the campfire or grill that are the most familiar sources of that smoky-sweet combo, and that’s why the flavor can inspire such nostalgia. And I'd say that it's the general trend towards nostalgia in desserts—towards reinventing classic childhood favorites in the dessert kitchen—that has led to the use of smoke as a flavor accent more and more frequently.
Smoked vanilla ice cream was a favorite with the judges on a recent episode on Australian MasterChef. In her book Simply Nigella, Ms. Lawson herself features a smoky caramel sauce, which she drizzles over a five-spice ginger Bundt cake. Portland ice cream geniuses Salt and Straw scoop a smoked cherry and bone marrow ice cream, and one of the most classic flavors from Jeni’s Splendid ice creams is "Gravel Road," a combination of salted caramel and smoked almonds. Aussie chef Gregory Llewellyn shares his recipe for smoked maple syrup, served at the famous Sydney institution Hartsyard, in his book Fried Chicken and Friends.
Truly this is a trans-Pacific trend.
To take advantage of the bitter-but-rounded notes that only smoke can bring and the abundance of beautiful fresh fruit that is available at this time of year (strawberries are a winter crop here in Queensland, Australia), I did the logical thing and threw a doughnut on the grill.
The results? Unmitigated success.
The doughnuts take on a crisp, brûléed shell of burnt sugar, and even these two-day-old specimens were brought back to stunning life. Add to that some bursting sweet strawberries tossed with a little sugar and a dollop of rich, unsweetened whipped cream and with as little effort as that, sweet-smokiness is yours to savor.