sepia: into the woods for dessert

Decades after his days running through the English woodlands, Martin Benn’s childhood memories have resurfaced in a dessert that could easily pass for a pile of dirt, twigs and moss. The dish, called “Summer Chocolate Forest,” is on the menu at Sepia, the 37-year-old chef’s Sydney restaurant. Diners spoon through chocolate soil before they see layers of lavender cream, chocolate custard and fennel seeds. It’s a playful reenactment of walking through a forest – leaves, cracking twigs and the fragrant earth under foot.

“It was just me having a bit of fun,” says Mr. Benn, who was named last year’s Chef of the Year by the “Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.” “For me it’s about what lays beneath the surface rather than on top, so I want people to dig into it.”

Never a fan of overly sweet desserts, he attempted to break down a black forest cake, with the flavors and textures intact, but none of the cake. Mr. Benn tells us how it’s done.

Chocolate crumbs: Edible “soil” and crumbs have become trendy in the culinary world lately, but this, which he created in 2009, is one of the pioneers. Mr. Benn freezes cookie dough, finely grates it, then bakes it while it’s still frozen. He sometimes incorporates chestnut flour into the dough. “It’s a new technique,” he says. “Lots of chefs use it now to get that texture into a sweet or savory dish.”

Crystalized fennel seeds: He toasts fennel seeds with sugar, then adds salt and works them through the chocolate mix. “It gives the dish a lovely aniseed flavor, and the salt brings out the sweet,” he says. He then dips fennel fronds in egg white and sugar to form green moss.

Chocolate twigs: Without the knotty twigs, dusted with cocoa and laid on the forest floor, the dessert would not be what it is. Mr. Benn molds piped chocolate into sticks, connects them to create twigs, and the cocoa dust, once it adheres to the twigs, adds texture. The dish may evolve, he adds, perhaps with the addition of bugs.

Cherry jelly cubes: If you look closely at the finished dish, you can see tiny bits of red. To create them, he mixes cherry juice, sugar and gelatin, allows the solution to set, then slices it into cubes. When finger limes are in season in February, he uses their segments in place of the jelly. “The finger limes create a citrusy, crunchy burst when you bite down on them, not unlike the texture of trout roe, but without the fishiness,” he says.

This is an extract of a story published in The Wall Street Journal, Asia, on 13 March 2012. Read the full article