Carrot cake and cheesecake, walnut bar with coconut sorbet, sorghum syrup butterscotch, toasted quinoa, and micro-cilantro
Carrot cake and cheesecake, walnut bar with coconut sorbet, sorghum syrup butterscotch, toasted quinoa, and micro-cilantro Credit: Julia Thiel

Cary Taylor, chef at the Southern, challenged Hot Chocolate pastry chef and owner Mindy Segal to come up with a recipe using sorghum syrup for this installment of our weekly feature.

Sorghum is usually grown for grain, but some varieties with high sugar content, known as sweet sorghum, are used to make sorghum syrup—which is extracted from the stalk, like sugarcane. While the syrup isn’t the same as molasses, which comes from sugarcane or sugar beets, it’s sometimes referred to as molasses or sorghum molasses.

Mindy Segal describes its taste as a “lighter version of molasses”—though the variety she used, a barrel-aged sorghum syrup (from specialty supplier the Rare Tea Cellar), was amped up by the addition of bourbon and vanilla. In the south it’s “used as an alternative to maple syrup,” she said. But neither was part of her own upbringing: “I come from a childhood of Log Cabin syrup. I’m not even sure what that is, but it was tasty on my Eggo waffle from the freezer.”

Best known for her pastries, Segal admits that she “took the easy way out” by making a dessert with the syrup. “I thought of all the desserts I do that have molasses,” she said, and decided on carrot cake because it’s almost spring, and she always makes that in the spring.

“I deconstructed a carrot cake, and for every stage of everything that I did I put sorghum as an element in it,” she explained. “Carrot cake traditionally is a spice cake with shredded carrots and some kind of nut, coconut, and pineapple.” Instead of using cream cheese frosting she made a cheesecake, holding the layers of the cakes together by using a blowtorch to caramelize the top of the cheesecake. Other elements of the deconstructed dessert included braised pineapple, butterscotch, a walnut and sorghum bar, and a coconut sorbet.

Segal braised the pineapple in sorghum syrup, bourbon, vanilla, and its own juice, and then added some of the braising liquid to the butterscotch—”so the butterscotch is going to have different levels to it. It’s how I roll,” she said. “I put the things on top of the things, so you’re getting two or three flavors on many different levels.”

She browned the butter for the butterscotch to give it a nutty quality and bring out the barrel-aged flavors of the sorghum. As the butter cooked, Segal explained, “Butter goes through stages. You start hearing the sizzle—when it starts getting quiet is when the solids are browning. I’m hearing it, I’m seeing it, but I’m also going to smell it in a minute. And that smell is absolutely one of my favorite smells ever. They should make a perfume with burnt butter.”

The butterscotch went on top of the other elements of the dessert, which Segal finished off with toasted quinoa (for crunch) and micro-cilantro (to go with the Asian flavors of coconut and pineapple). “And a dessert is transformed,” she declared.

Tasting it, she said, “It’s really good. Ooh, the walnut is really good, and the quinoa. Thumbs up.” She’d already decided to put the dessert on the menu, but as she tasted it she kept thinking of ways to tweak it. “Maybe if I could dehydrate sorghum and make it into crystals . . . could I do that?” She also decided to reduce carrot juice and dot the plate with it, and put ginger in the butterscotch.

“This is delicious. This is great,” Segal said. “See how delicate sorghum is? It’s lovely. I love it.”

Who’s Next:

Mark Steuer of the yet-to-open restaurant the Bedford, cooking with bananas. “Part of the challenge for me as a chef is working with ingredients I don’t like,” Segal explained. “Mark hates bananas. So I thought the challenge for him wouldn’t be something so obscure, but something so common.”

What would Segal’s most feared ingredient be? Goat cheese, she said. “That would be a really big challenge for me. Mayonnaise would be another one. It frightens me.”   

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon