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A root for dessert

Come December, many a pastry chef crafts desserts around the fresh apples, pears, and citrus fruits in abundance. But Stephen Collucci, executive pastry chef at Colicchio & Sons in New York City, likes to go off the beaten track a bit. While he doesn’t ignore these more common seasonal fruits, he also turns to vegetables for dessert inspiration.

For the Sweet Potato Bombolini with Pickled Cranberry Jam and Toasted Marshmallow Ice Cream now on the menu, Collucci starts with fresh, giant potatoes, cuts them into chunks and roasts them with butter until they’re really tender. He purees the flesh and uses it as a base for the pastry cream that fills the small yeast-raised doughnuts known as “bombolini.” “The sweet potatoes introduce a savory element to the dessert, plus they add a bright orange color,” says Collucchi. Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in the filling enhance the vegetable flavors. The dessert is a sophisticated riff on the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole we all know so well, he adds. To balance the sweetness of the marshmallow ice cream, Collucci turns to another seasonal favorite—cranberries—prepared in a tart jam with aged vinegar, vanilla bean and bay leaf.

Although sweet potatoes and yams are used interchangeably by most chefs, they are botanically different. Sweet potatoes, grown in the American South, are moister and sweeter; yams are drier and starchier and come from the Caribbean. Decades ago, a group of Louisiana sweet potato growers began to use the term "yam" to market their product and distinguish it from the sweet potato varieties grown in other parts of the country (dry vs. moist; yellow-fleshed vs. orange). Packers and processors are legally required to use the words "sweet potatoes" near the word "yams" when labeling these "false" yams (which are actually sweet potatoes!)

As we get into winter, Collucci will continue to play around with vegetables in his desserts, but will also venture into tropical produce and exotic citrus. Mango, passionfruit, meyer lemons and blood oranges are on his radar.

Also in season:

  • Artichokes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cardoons
  • Chestnuts
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Kohlrabi (pictured right)
  • Parsnips
  • Persimmons
  • Pomegranates
  • Quince
  • Rutabaga
  • Tangerines

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