Welcome to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love. Today, the sweetness of honey.
We love to eat and cook with honey—a product so pure, so historically and medicinally wondrous that we're dedicating a whole miniseries to exploring it. We love the diversity of its flavors, its ability to melt into many preparations, and the depth it adds to dishes on top of its natural sweetness. And while a spoonful in some tea or drizzled on ice cream is divine, we checked in with six chefs around the country to scope out more complex ways they let honey shine.
Make Honeycomb Candy
Alex Figura worked at Vetri Ristorante, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, El Cellar de can Roca and Frasca Food & Wine before becoming chef/partner of Lower48, a Denver restaurant with "Best New Restaurant" accolades from 5280 magazine and Denver Westword.
We're working on a peach and basil dessert with "honeycomb". We cook 3/4 cup of honey with 1 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a pan until it hits 300 degrees. Then we stir in 1 tablespoon of baking soda, which makes the candy rise, and spread the goo onto non-stick baking mats like Silpats. When the candy cools, it sets up in a layered brittle that looks like honeycomb, It adds sweet, caramelized flavor and crunchy texture.
Round Out a Sauce
Chicago's Chef Jonathan Zaragoza makes classic Mexican cuisine that we can't get enough of. He's big into the local gardening scene, too, growing massive amounts of fresh produce that make it directly into the kitchens of Birrieria Zaragoza and Masa Azul.
If a sauce is too astringent or bitter we'll add honey to round it out a bit.
Pipían is essentially a green mole or tomatillo salsa with extra ingredients, and it can be made in a variety of different ways with any green you can find in Mexico. We do ours with roasted tomatillos, roasted garlic, arbol chili powder, blanched kale, and toasted sesame seeds. The flavors are aggressive, with the earthiness and funk of the kale, the super savory garlic, and the acidity from the tomatillos, and even though you cook everything down, it doesn't get that sweet. Honey rounds the sauce out and ties everything together, making you taste more flavors that would otherwise be overlooked. Honey is full of sweet astringency. It has warmth to it, and it ties itself to a lot of different ingredients that you wouldn't think would make sense.
If you just put granulated sugar in a cool sauce, you risk having those grains not melt completely, and you compromise texture and taste if you heat the sauce up to dissolve it all. Honey dissolves better, and has a nice flavor on its own—it's both a flavor and a sweetener, versus sugar just being a sweetener. We're all about building flavor here, building dimension.
Infuse it with Herbs
Chef Jonathan Benno worked in high positions at such esteemed restaurants as Daniel, Craft, The French Laundry, and Per Se before opening Lincoln Ristorante in the heart of New York's Lincoln Center, where his Italian cuisine is familiar and comforting, yet highly refined and inventive.
We've done a million different infusions of honey. We use it as a garnish for cheese, since you can perfume honey with almost any spice. You toast the spices, get the honey warm, blend the two together, and let it sit overnight. And then you can either strain out the spice or, if it's fine enough, leave it in.
We've done honey with coarsely ground black peppercorn in it. Or vanilla—that's an easy one. Fennel seeds or pollen, too. We've done saffron as well, which is really cool. You make a saffron tea out of threads and water until it's syrupy, then add it the honey and blend it down. Don't be alarmed if you try to make blended honey and wind up with a cloudy liquid. The air turns the honey opaque, but after you let it rest it'll go back to almost its original translucent color.
Glaze Summer Fruit
I love Bartlett pears, and once they're in season we'll peel and quarter them, and then heat up a little bit of oil in a pan, put the pears in, get a little color on them, and then add honey to the pan. And once the honey starts to caramelize and glaze the pears, we'll add rosemary, and then before the rosemary overcooks we'll deglaze the pan with Williams pear liqueur. Once you have that, you can do anything with it: serve with panna cotta or with a scoop of ice cream on top, nice and simple.
Make a Sweet-Savory Honey Mousse
I roast carrots with honey, purée them, add a little sugar, lemon juice, and a combination of firm and soft tofu, and blend it all into a sort of mousse. With only mild-flavored tofu and no dairy, the honey flavor shines through, and it's gluten and dairy free so everyone can eat it. I serve the mousse as an amuse with an anise granite, and since it's borderline sweet and savory it's kind of a palate cleanser, a bridge between the savory and dessert.
And Don't Forget Granulated Honey
We actually very often use honey powder. I saw it while I was waiting in line one day at the Asian market—they had these big vats of honey powder and I was like, "That's cool!" It's like granulated honey. We use it stirred in our yogurt, so that you get the flavor of honey without changing it into a goopy texture, and if you eat it fast enough you get a little crunch from the granules. We sell a ton of yogurt parfaits and people always ask why the taste so good; the answer is honey powder and Greek yogurt!