If you thought that the deepest and most irreconcilable divide among cooks around the world exists between those who use butter and those who use olive oil, or maybe those who bathe their barbecue in sauce and those who use a dry rub, or perhaps even those who eat salad before the main course and those who eat it after, you’re wrong. In fact, the biggest culinary divide is far more fundamental. In fact it’s so fundamental that many of you reading this may have never even noticed there is a divide. Basically, it all comes down to this: do you like salt in your desserts, or don’t you?
Growing up in the US, which tends to be rather salt-heavy in its sweet things (just try to find recipes for brownies, chocolate chip cookies or pecan pie that don’t call for salt), I’ve always taken for granted that desserts of all kinds benefit from a pinch of salt. A pinch of salt in ice cream, a pinch of salt in custards, and a big pinch in cakes, cookies, and crusts; a small amount seems to deepen and round out flavors without making them actually taste of salt. Of course there are desserts that everyone agrees shouldn’t have salt, mostly fruit-based desserts that rely on the delicate interplay between sweet and sour for their appeal, but anytime things like cream, chocolate, nuts or caramel are concerned, I reach for the salt even without thinking. It was when I found myself altering nearly every non-American recipe I came across to include that crucial pinch of salt that I started realizing not everyone sees dessert through a curtain of savory undertones, and I began to think about where my persistent preference for slightly salty sweets comes from.
What it really boils down to, I realized, is simple cultural conditioning. In many European countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and the UK, people are accustomed to nothing interfering with the pure, sweet taste of sugar. Many cakes, custards, and pastries are made without any added salt at all, and can take some getting used to for us saltophiles. I’ve heard many Americans complain that they just don’t like European-style cakes and confections that much; to incite normally rational people to make such sweeping generalizations about the combined sugary output of an entire continent, I’m guessing it must be the influence of the insidious salt divide at work. Looking further afield, however, you realize it’s not just the Europeans who eschew salt in their sweets. Just about everybody from the shores of North Africa through the deserts of the Middle East and beyond would never dream of salting their sugary creations. And apparently, for people unaccustomed to salt in their sweets, the flavor can be just as jarring as a lack of salt is for me. I deeply offended a Middle Eastern friend of mine once by altering a semolina cake recipe he had given me to include my customary pinch of salt. He very nearly couldn’t eat the results, shaking his head and muttering that it tasted nothing like it should. Likewise, I’ll never forget the near-collapse my dessert ego suffered the day Manuel confessed to me that his mother, an accomplished cook herself, had complained about a sugary confection I had made for her in Germany. "Why does she make her desserts so salty?" she asked him. This was highly disconcerting indeed, that something I believed to be so delicious could be perceived so differently by other people. And naturally the fact that sweet things represent the category of food we hold most dear in terms of comfort and memory doesn’t help to bridge that gap – everybody thinks their way is the right way. To this day I still worry before serving a non-American something sweet I have made (unless of course they’re Norwegian, in which case I worry I haven’t made it salty enough!).
But thankfully tastes are fluid, and the tides may be turning in my favor. Salt is actually appearing as a flavor in its own right on sophisticated European dessert menus, though naturally under more glamorous noms de plume than just ‘salt’, and there seems to be one guise it’s showing up in more than any other. My informants tell me that caramel au beurre salé (which for those of you who studied Spanish in high school, means caramel with salted butter) is one of the hottest phrases in Parisian dessert circles right now, and the mere mention of it in everything from macarons to glace guarantees a best-seller. Obviously to Europeans this salty-sweet sauce is quite a revelation, which does make me wonder what else they might like if only given the chance. Though it’s clearly still too early to say whether this love affair with salted caramel is indicative of a comprehensive change in dessert mentality, it is, from my perspective, a most welcome beginning.
And what about you? If you’re unsure where you stand on the salt issue, just conduct a little experiment. Make this luscious salted caramel tart from the famed Parisian chocolate house La Maison du Chocolat, and see how many pieces you go back for. I’m not promising that I’ll win you over to my way of thinking (though I wouldn’t be surprised if I did), but at least you’ll know for yourself which side of the salted-dessert divide you fall on. In the meantime, you’ll find me here trying to retrain my tastebuds to appreciate all those desserts with less salt, you know, just to be fair.
Which I’ll get back to after just one more slice of tart.
Chocolate and Salted Caramel Tart
Notes: I discovered that rock salts vary considerably in their ‘saltiness’, so to avoid over-salting the caramel mixture I recommend starting with the smaller amount and adding more only after tasting. Also, I tested the recipe with whipping cream (as opposed to double cream) since many people do not have access to the latter and discovered that it results in a slightly more liquid caramel (which you can see oozing out the sides of the tart in the above photo!). If you don’t have access to double cream (a very thick cream with 48% butterfat) and want your caramel more solid, I would recommend reducing the cream by maybe 3 tablespoons and substituting it with a couple tablespoons of additional butter.
For the crust:
2 3/4 cups/350g all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/75g powdered sugar, unsifted
1 stick/125g unsalted butter, cold
For the caramel:
3 tablespoons/50g glucose or corn syrup
1 1/2 cups/275g superfine/caster sugar
2/3 cup/150ml double or heavy cream
3/4 – 1 teaspoon (level) rock salt or coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons/25g unsalted butter, diced
For the ganache:
1 1/2 cups/350ml double or heavy cream
4 tablespoons honey (I used a little more)
10 oz/300g bitt
ersweet chocolate, chopped
1 stick/125g unsalted butter, diced
For the crust, sift together the flour, powdered sugar and salt and cut the butter into chunks. Place in a food processor and process, adding the eggs at the end, until a dough has formed. Roll out the dough into a circle and fit into an 11-inch (29cm) removable bottom tart pan. Chill for at least half an hour. Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Blind-bake the crust by lining it with baking parchment, filling it with baking beans and baking for about 15-20 minutes. Remove the beans and paper and continue to cook the case for a further 10 minutes or until it is a light golden color. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
To make the caramel, pour the glucose syrup into a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. Gradually add the sugar, stir and continue to cook until the sugar has started to caramelize and turn golden brown. At the same time, in a separate saucepan, bring the cream and salt to a boil. Remove the caramel from the heat and very carefully add the cream – be careful as the mixture can rise rapidly in the pan. Stir carefully over a low heat with a wooden spoon until smooth. Remove from the heat, add the diced butter, and stir again until smooth. Pour into the cooled crust and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
To make the ganache, bring the cream and honey just to a boil and pour over the chopped chocolate. Let it sit for a minute or two then stir until everything is smooth. Add more honey if it is too bitter. Once the mixture has cooled a little add the butter and stir gently until the mixture is smooth. Pour in an even layer on top of the cooled caramel, return to the refrigerator, and chill for 4-6 hours before eating.