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How Sweet It Is

Mainstream America has developed an insatiable craving for desserts from Latin America

By Anne Valdespino - Orange County Register
Published on LatinoLA: June 5, 2008

How Sweet It Is

Look on the dessert menus in your favorite restaurants. At Sapphire Laguna it's dulce de leche ice cream, rum caramel sauce and mango coulis. At Tommy Bahama's there's pi??a colada cake. The Cheesecake Factory has Kahlua cocoa coffee cheesecake.

Check out the sweets in the grocery stores: H?ñagen-Dazs offers dulce de leche ice cream in regular and light versions, and at Costco there are gigantic Key lime cheesecakes.

Stroll through the treat booths at county fairs, amusement parks and sports stadiums and you're sure to see churros, plain or with caramel sauce.

How sweet it is: Mainstream America has developed an insatiable craving for desserts from Latin America.

"It started back in the '80s, in New York," said Chef Gabbi Patrick of Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen in Orange. "Douglas Rodriguez (of New York's Patria) was the inspiration with his Latin Fusion cuisine. I definitely see a lot of that influence."

Chefs are putting a 21st century twist on old favorites, Patrick said. "Some of the desserts from Mexico, like arroz con leche (rice pudding) (pictured) and capirotada (bread pudding), are really comforting. Churros are the No. 1 selling desert in our restaurant."

That's because the general public is beginning to understand more about Mexican and Latin American regional cuisine, said Laura Diaz-Brown, aka Chef LaLa, a Los Angeles cookbook author ("Latin Lover Lite" and "Best Loved Mexican") who in a recent guest spot showed Martha Stewart how to make tres leches cake.

"At first there was a lot of misunderstanding," Brown said. "Everyone thought that Tex-Mex was Latin cuisine. They thought just because Cubans, Mexicans and Spaniards spoke the same language we ate the same. But we are separated by regional differences."

These two savvy chefs make their living bringing more refined versions of their Mexican soul food to the world. And now, with better access to global ingredients, their palates aren't restricted to Mexico. They have incorporated foods from South America, the Caribbean and other regions into their recipes.

The result is something for everyone. Patrick's desserts, blending French classical techniques with Latin ingredients such as Venezuelan cocoa powder, go gourmet. Diaz-Brown creates treats using fresh tropical fruits, low-fat and nonfat milk products and zero-calorie sweeteners, addressing the issue of Hispanics' genetic predisposition to heart disease and diabetes.

Both chefs grew up in ideal circumstances ÔÇô their parents owned traditional Mexican restaurants. As children they enjoyed the bold flavors of Latin sweets.

"I love flan and Mexican wedding cookies and caf?® de olla (cinnamon flavored coffee)," Diaz-Brown said.

"Cajeta (dulce de leche made with goat's milk) is one of my favorite indulgences. It has to be made from goat's milk. I remember my grandma giving it to me on toast and the creaminess of it," she said.

"I always loved Mexican chocolate," Patrick said.

Both chefs make Mexican chocolate truffles. Patrick uses pressed bars of chocolate, sugar and cinnamon, typically meant for a hot drink, into truffles, which she uses to top a chocolate ganache tart. Diaz-Brown adds cayenne to the chocolate and cinnamon and coats her truffles in cajeta and nuts.

Both make a version of tres leches (three milks) cake, a dessert popular from South America to Cuba and Mexico. Patrick adds coconut milk and coats hers with coconut. Diaz-Brown uses nonfat milk products and tops hers with whipped topping and fresh fruit.

Each chef has her own way of making capirotada, a bread pudding traditionally served during Lent in Mexico. Patrick gives hers a twist by using artisanal sourdough bread instead of the common bolillo, a soft French roll. "It's too soft and there's no texture," Patrick said. "It becomes mush after you bake it."

Diaz-Brown and Patrick are part of a new breed of chefs. Diaz-Brown is a certified nutritionist; Patrick attended culinary school in Napa. Each can tell you about the origins of Latin ingredients, especially those of their ancestors. Two of the most important dessert ingredients in the world are indigenous to Mexico: chocolate and vanilla.

"The Aztecs and Mayans drank chocolate but it wasn't sweet," Patrick said. "It was made with chili. The sugar was added when the Spaniards came, and that's the beauty of chocolate now."

Diaz-Brown can tell you about how the natural sweetener Stevia was used for years in the Andes and the differences between Mexican limes, lemons and Key Limes.

Both chefs are trend watchers, and both said the appetite for Latin desserts will continue to grow.

What's the next big thing? Patrick said that as summer rolls around we'll see more tropical fruits in desserts: guava, mango, pineapple and banana. And as for trendy new flavors she's betting on tamarindo (tamarind), an important ingredient in condiments such as Worcestershire sauce and Indian chutneys, which will be new to mainstream palates on its own.

"I'm a huge fan of tamarindo," Patrick said. "I would definitely do a tamarindo gelato. And Rompope is going to be my winter thing. Rompope is like our eggnog."

Diaz-Brown is another tamarind enthusiast ÔÇô she chews the flavorful pods to stave off snacking. She had no specific prediction for the next big flavor, but she'll tell you the trend toward Latin cuisines of all kinds will continue.

"We used to get beat up by the other kids when we spoke Spanish in school," Diaz-Brown said.

"Now estamos de la moda (we're fashionable) ÔÇô anything that has a Latino essence is cool."

About Anne Valdespino - Orange County Register:
Originally published in the <a href="">Orange County Register</a>

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