Horned melon shaved ice, yogurt sorbet, basil shortbread, burnt honey cremeaux, and honey croquant
Horned melon shaved ice, yogurt sorbet, basil shortbread, burnt honey cremeaux, and honey croquant Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Thomas Raquel (Acadia)
The Challenger: Bobby Schaffer (Grace)

The Ingredient: Horned melon

“It’s like this weird martian fruit,” Thomas Raquel said of horned melon, a spiky, bright yellow-orange fruit filled with lime-green pulp and white seeds. “It looks like an alien . . . kind of scary.”

Native to Africa, horned melon is a vine in the cucumber and melon family that’s also called kiwano, jelly melon, African horned cucumber, and hedged gourd. It’s now grown in Australia (where it’s classified as a weed), New Zealand, Chile, and some parts of the U.S.—though it’s never become very popular in this country.

Raquel, pastry chef at Acadia, who was challenged with horned melon by Bobby Schaffer (pastry chef at Grace), says that it has flavors of kiwi, melon, and cucumber. “The flavor is vegetal, slightly sweet,” he said. “I think the riper the fruit is, the sweeter it is, less vegetal. There’s a slight bitterness when you chew on the seeds.”

Raquel said that traditionally the pulp of the fruit is eaten raw, either with seeds or without (some people spit them out)—but that didn’t seem appealing to him because of the fruit’s “weird jellified texture.” He tried juicing it, but that just produced slime. “It’s like a Nickelodeon slime,” Raquel said. “I don’t think that’s enjoyable for anybody.”

Adding lemongrass and lime juice to the horned melon juice enhanced the flavor and made it less slimy, Raquel said. Freezing and then shaving the mixture also tempered its sliminess—so he ended up building his dish around horned melon shaved ice. He also tried making shortbread with horned melon pulp, but the texture wasn’t right and the color was brownish from the oxidized fruit, not the vibrant green he’d imagined. Instead, Raquel made basil shortbread; he also soaked basil seeds in hibiscus and agave syrup because it gave them a “jellified” outside that reminded him of the pulp and seeds of the horned melon.

Other elements of the dish included wisps of honey croquant (made by caramelizing honey and spreading a thin layer on a nonstick baking mat to cool); dots of burnt honey, ginger, and milk chocolate cremeux; and a quenelle of yogurt sorbet.

“The milk chocolate adds a nice richness,” Raquel said. “In this preparation, I think the melon’s a little more floral and has a nice vegetal flavor. The ginger comes out at the end: earthy, refreshing, floral.” He plans to put horned melon on the menu at Acadia next summer, when it’s in season. “I like savory flavors in my desserts, so I think this is a perfect ingredient,” he said.

Who’s next:

Dana Cree, pastry chef at Blackbird, working with pine sap. “I was at Rare Tea Cellar, Rodrick Markus’s warehouse, and he showed me this pine sap and I’m like, that’s so cool,” Raquel said. He’s never worked with it before, but he’s heard of people using it to smoke things.

Horned melon shaved ice

4 horned melons
1 stalk of lemongrass, chopped
50 g lime juice
5 g Maldon sea salt

Juice the melons. Combine the juice with the other ingredients, blend with a hand blender. Pass through a fine sieve, freeze, and shave.