Spicy-sweet ingredients are the new bombshells of flavor.
One of the most pivotal memories I’ve had with food was when I worked as a waiter at an exclusive French restaurant in Chicago. One day, as service was winding down, my fellow waiters raided the walk-in and were cutting watermelon and cucumbers they retrieved. They squeezed lemon juice in the bowl and finished this weird combination with cayenne pepper and honey. We all jumped in and ate this concoction and from that first bite, I was hooked. I felt the crispy grassiness and faint saltiness of the cucumber blanketed with the tart lemon, sweet honey and watermelon. It seemed perfect, then the cayenne hit me like a sucker punch to the back of my head. My eyes squinted followed by a trickle of forehead moisture. After a trepidatious second taste, I dove in again, and again, until it was gone. I had no idea what happened to my flavor appetite because I was averse to spicy heat but because of the sweetness, the heat turned into a flavor magnet for my mind.
Sweet and spicy is so alluring because sweet ingredients reduce the sensitivity of heat sensors on the tongue creating a balanced flavor profile. Most complex and delicious pizza flavors result in a combination of tastes and textures. There are seven tastes — sweet, sour, salty, spicy, fat, bitter and umami. All of these can be combined in complimentary tastes and balancing tastes. Here is the difference between the two.
Complimentary tastes: These tastes accentuate one another to create harmony of taste. For example, sweet with fat, spicy and salty or sour with spicy.
Balancing tastes: These tastes oppose each other to create harmony. Some chefs call this a “foil,” or a contrasting flavor that prevents the heavier flavor from taking over a dish. An example of balancing tastes like spice can play down sweetness from becoming too sweet and spiciness can be mellowed out with fat and sweetness.
A perfect example of the combining flavors lies in the delicious ancient Chinese Sweet and Spicy Sesame Sauce. Complimentary flavors like red chilies keep a simple sugar sauce from being too cloying. This is combined with the balancing flavors of salty soy sauce and savory sesame paste.
Maple syrup works well on whole wheat pizzas and can be combined with a powdered spice like cayenne. The maple flavor is not too cloying and partners well with Feta, Gorgonzola, and Gruyere, as well as fresh mozzarella and walnuts. Classic examples of these syrup pairings are with blueberries and lemon, mascarpone and pistachio, caramel and pecan. Good protein pairings are pork belly, duck, bacon, ham and even foie gras. Because maple syrup is thick, it takes longer to macerate fresh-cut chilies for full flavor. Habaneros, Thai and Ancho pair well with maple syrup.
Honey is probably one of the most used sweet/spicy vehicles. Because honey is even thicker than maple syrup, it flows slower when presented on a pizza and mingles well with creamy mozzarella, Asiago, Manchego and even over stracciatella. Spicy honey is best used with berries, cream, almonds, oranges, figs, nuts, fontina cheese, mustard, pistachios and hazelnuts. Sometimes, honey will solidify due to the amount of glucose in the plants that the nectar-loving bees collect. This is remedied by immersing the glass jar in hot water.
Agave Nectar: This is a vegan alternative to hot honey but has a more neutral flavor and is thinner. It is sweeter than table sugar and doesn’t have the bitter aftertaste of some syrups which is why it works well with lemon and hot pepper flakes. I like the thickness and lusciousness of the dark agave nectar with sharp cheeses like Gorgonzola, aged Gouda, Monterey Jack, aged cheddars, and Pecorino Romano. Agave goes well with razor thin slices of Thai, Jalapeño, Serrano, and even Fatali peppers. Good with lime, almonds, cashews, salty pork, and charcuterie.
Getting Jalapeno Business
All types of chilies can be added to sweet sauces to macerate (flavor blend) into the hydration of the sauce if the chilies aren’t too large. This will facilitate the spread of flavor and spice instead of too-spicy “speed bumps” that ruin the flavor profile of any pizza. Some chilies’ powders are mixed with other flavors and labeled “chili powder blend,” or “chili seasoning mix.” Most chili powders are named after the name of the chili itself; others are named after the region where they are grown. Here are some chilies that could add power to your sweet condiments and flavor your pizzas.
Espelette pepper: This pepper was introduced into France in the 16th century and was used in medicine and for the conservation of meats. This chili powder has become a cornerstone condiment in the Northern Basque region, replacing black pepper. I love this spice because it is fruity, bright red and has a fresh smokiness without overpowering other pizza items. I use it in my blueberry duck balls with cumin and cherries and it adds a great red powder to the finish on burrata. (I used it on pizza recipe described at the end.)
Aleppo: This powder has moderate heat with fruitiness and the flavor of light cumin. This is a common condiment in the Mediterranean, Turkey, Syria and into Armenia and is named after the Silk Road spice city in Northern Syria. It is used for its perfumy sweetness like sun-dried tomatoes with an added kick of heat.
Ancho: The name of this powder is from dried poblano peppers that have been ground up. The saying is that Ancho is to Poblano what Chipotle is to Jalapeno. Ancho is hotter than regular chili powder but offers less heat and smokiness than chipotle powder. This pepper powder is famous for mole and chili seasoning. Other items shine with honey, barbeque, soups, mole, turkey, shrimp and pork. The great sweet and spicy vehicles for the Ancho powder are purees of mango, apple, pear, persimmon and orange.
Piri Piri: This hot pepper offers a blast of up to 175,000 Scoville units and is made from the dried Malgueta pepper. Originally cultivated by the colonial Portuguese in southern African territories and brought by them to other territories around the world. Piri Piri sauce has been described as “light, fresh, and herbal” by some chefs who can handle the heat. The bottled sauce is famous for its infusion of the chilies with garlic, citrus peel, onion, bay leaf, paprika, oregano and tarragon. Piri Piri is so hot that the infusion of sweetness as well as fatty meats works well. Bacon, ground pork and lamb as well as chicken with skin and braised fatty beef are nice combinations with sweetened Piri Piri.
Grilled Honey Lemon Chicken
This pizza is a wonder to behold because it has the lusciousness of lemony ricotta with the sour Asiago and melting fresh mozzarella. The grilling introduces a charred flavor and texture to the melt and the addition of the spicy lemon honey adds so much depth and pairs well with the basil and crunch of the sweet yellow peppers.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.