Wild fries dipped in a vanilla custard shake. For me, this was the most exciting part of getting to go off campus at lunch during high school. In case you’re not familiar with wild fries, they are French fries coated in a spicy batter from a local burger chain in my hometown, and they are absolutely addicting. Add in a custard shake to dip them in and it’s a meal that still makes my mouth water. Really it is the sweet and savory combination that make our taste buds go crazy for this. These combinations have been popping up for years in different food groups: like bacon maple donuts, vanilla ice cream with olive oil and sea salt, and prosciutto wrapped melon. They are also becoming increasingly more popular as pizza toppings.
Building a cohesive combination is all about each ingredient complimenting and elevating the others to create an explosive, addictive flavor. While I’ve never really been a fan of the classic Hawaiian pizza, I do have a huge sweet tooth so naturally my own menu features a few different sweet and savory combinations. They are some of my favorite pizzas to create. Our Hot Honey Disco — made with Calabrese salami, spicy honey, mushrooms and basil — is one of our most popular and a constant on the menu. Another one we are currently running is the PB&AJ: prosciutto, burrata, arugula and jam. The concentrated sweetness of the jam combined with the salty prosciutto and spicy arugula are all softened out by the creamy burrata.
But why do chocolate peanut butter pretzels make our mouths water? It’s all about flavor layering. The salt helps to enhance the presence of sugar. Our mouths contain thousands of taste cells with receptors for all five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. They are housed in the tiny bumps all along our tongue, called papillae. Those receptors send a signal to your brain telling it what you are about to consume. Additional sugar receptors were recently found on the tongue’s sweet taste cells that only activate when salt is present. The salt helps to sharpen a flavor while the sugar rounds out the overall effect. In other words, they work together to enhance the overall effect on our taste buds. Consuming sugar releases dopamine, which not only makes us crave more but makes us happy. Salt is one of the most addictive flavors after sugar, so it just makes sense that we would crave them together.
While every pizzeria has its own unique pies, some embrace sweet and savory combinations more than others. PizzaLeah in Windsor, California, always has a few fantastic ones. The number one selling pizza at the shop is The Grey Beard, comprised of red sauce, mozzarella, fontina, Italian sausage, Calabrian peppers, hot honey & orange zest. Owner and executive pizza maker, Leah Scurto, says that she, “originally created that pizza for a competition in December and composed it around candied orange peels to be festive for the holidays. It really hits all the notes. Sweet, savory, spicy and citric.” Another recent one included bacon, apples and blue cheese.
Hot honey is a pizza topping that seems to have exploded in the last five years. And it is popular for a good reason. The initial hit of sweetness followed by the bite of peppery heat is all smoothed out by the salty, creamy mozzarella on the pie. I’ve made my own since I opened my shop by simply combining Calabrian chili peppers with wildflower honey. However, if you don’t want to add another item to your prep list, there are plenty of options out there to buy.
Hot honey first caught my attention when I lived in New York and had it on a pie at Paulie Gee’s in Green Point, but one of the most beautiful pizza’s I’ve seen is created by Justin De Leon of Apollonia’s Pizzeria in L.A.
De Leon’s pepperoni, burrata and hot honey square is eye-catching. It is a pizza that was inspired by his photographic background. Although this is the pie that gets all of the hype at his shop, another sweet and savory pie he offers is the Eastside Classic. I am not personally as attached to the heated debate surrounding pineapple on pizza as I know a lot of people are. For this reason, I loved his take on it because, to me, you should always look at every ingredient’s merit when creating a pizza or any other dish. The name is in reference to the Eastside of L.A. and not the East Coast, De Leon explains. “I do make the geographic reference because of its controversial topping, the pineapple,” he says. “I’ve never been a fan of pineapple on pizza but this combination shatters that taboo. The balance of cup and char pepperoni, spicy jalapeño, garlic, bacon, onion and sweet pineapple never felt so right!”
There are a few things to keep in mind when creating sweet and savory combinations. The first thing is, don’t overdo the sweet. I like to have one key sweet flavor, whether it is fresh or dried fruit, jam, syrup, honey or agave. You want the sweetness to compliment the other flavors, not overpower them. Keep in mind it’s more like a cheese plate than dessert. The same goes for the other elements. You want the salt to enhance and bring out the other ingredients, but you don’t want a mouthful of salt. Always think about the balance of the flavors. Next, don’t be afraid to add a little spice. A kick of chilies or spicy arugula can do wonders for bringing all of the flavors together. Then there is cheese. The creaminess of cheese can round out the sharp edges and there are so many options for every combination. And of course, have fun! Don’t get stuck on one or two ingredients. You can always look at seasonal produce for inspiration. A few ideas to get you started:
- Fresh peaches, jalapeños, prosciutto and ricotta.
- Bacon and nutella
- Brussels sprouts, pancetta and honey.
- Pear, potato and gorgonzola.
- Guanciale, maple roasted butternut squash, serrano chilies and stracciatella.
These all will result in delicious pairings your customers will enjoy. Now I’d like to leave you with a recipe featuring summer peaches and fig. It’s a wonderful combination!