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Sweet & Easy Desserts With Herbs

Simple, homey desserts become sublime with the addition of herbs.
By Susan Belsinger
February/March 2006
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Some of these are traditional dessert recipes, variations on a theme, or an old family favorite; others are new and innovative, or perhaps to some, downright peculiar. All of them are made delicious by the addition of herbs.
Photo by Dawna Edward
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I have been gardening and cooking my way through a life filled with herbs for about 30 years now. Essential to my kitchen, they sweeten each day with their fragrance and flavor. I use herbs in all parts of a meal—from soups and savories to salads and baked goods—not just desserts. Using herbs to flavor any food, whether sweet or savory, will elevate it to another level. Herbs can complement, accentuate or intensify a dish. Bold or subtle, herbs can make a ho-hum recipe outstanding.

8 Desserts With Herbs: 

Buttermilk Chocolate Cake with Peppermint & Minted Chocolate Buttercream
Pears Poached with Rosemary & Chestnut Whipped Cream
Drop Scones with Rose Petals & Pistachios
Chocolate Ice Cream with Anise-flavored Herbs
Blondies with Monarda & Apricots
Luscious Lemon Cream
Chewy Chocolate Cookies with Rosemary, Pine Nuts and Dried Cherries
Three-seed Cookies with Citrus-flavored Herbs 

The sweet herbal recipes herein are simple, homey, comfort desserts. Some are traditional dessert recipes, variations on a theme, or an old family favorite; others are new and innovative, or perhaps to some, downright peculiar. All of them are made delicious by the addition of herbs.

Herbs add another dimension to our lives, especially in the kitchen. Hopefully these sweet herbal recipes will inspire you to experiment with and add more herbs to your cooking. Think of this as one big, sweet, herbal adventure.

Herbs That Play Well With Desserts

Angelica. These stems have a slightly woody, bitter, resinous flavor with a hint of fruit, and usually are candied for a garnish to decorate desserts; the aromatic leaves are good chopped for fruit salads, with citrus and rhubarb.

Basil. Lemon and cinnamon basil add a citrus or cinnamon flavor to summer fruit salads, sorbets and pear conserves. Genoa green and spice basil work well with citrus and tomato in preserves.
Bay. A fresh leaf lends citrus and balsam-like flavor with a hint of vanilla and nutmeg to custards, baked fruit and sweet bread dough with dried fruits.

Bergamot. A favorite herb for the stone fruits of summer, like apricots, peaches and plums, as well as apples and berries; this herb has a perfumey, tea-like flavor. Use in fruit salads, in stewed or poached fruit, and in making jellies or preserves. The red flower blossoms are a tasty garnish with the same perfume.

Borage. The delicate star-shaped flowers, with their clean cucumber taste, are used fresh and candied for garnishing desserts, punches and wine.

Chervil. This mild, anise-flavored herb with a hint of citrus is best used fresh with mild-flavored fruits, such as melons, apricots, plums, peaches, papaya, kiwi and fruit salads.

Coriander. The nutty and highly citrus-flavored seed is used in baked goods, with apples, bananas, pears, cherries, apricots and peaches. The cilantro leaf, which has grassy and resinous taste with a hint of citrus, goes best with citrus fruits, and complements coconut and pomegranate.

Fennel. The anise-flavored seed can be baked in fruit desserts made with apples, pears and rhubarb. The sweet, feathery leaves can be used with fresh fruit.

Geraniums.  These distinct and unique leaves range in fragrance and flavor from rose and nutmeg to lemon and peppermint. They are used to flavor cakes, tarts and jellies made with apricots, every type of berry, currants and apples, and in citrus sorbets. The leaves and flowers make fragrant garnishes.

Lavender. Use only the blossoms in the kitchen—do not use the foliage of this highly perfumed, flowery herb. It goes well with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, currants and peaches. Its flavor is more delicate when used with dairy products, such as in cream sauces, custards and ice creams.

Lemon balm and lemon verbena. Both of these highly aromatic, lemon-flavored herbs add sweet and citrus tastes to desserts. Verbena is stronger in citrus oil and therefore has more concentrated flavor than balm, so adjust accordingly in a recipe. Use in custards, pies, cakes and jellies. Chopped fresh, it is good in fruit salads, sorbets and berry fools.

Mint. There are many mints—apple, orange, pineapple, spearmint and peppermint—all culinary favorites. Choose peppermint if you want more menthol, spearmint if you prefer it sweeter, and orange mint if you want that flavor of Earl Grey tea. Mint is good with any fruit, and is a good companion to all of the berries, grapes, melons, peaches and plums. It adds a refreshing tingle to fruit salads, sorbets, pies, fools and jellies. It also works well when baked with apples and pears.

Rose. The unmistakable perfume of roses can lend an exotic quality to desserts, however no two roses taste alike and some are downright bitter or sour, so be sure to taste before using. Rose petals, rosehips and rosewater are used in making candy, cookies, syrups, jellies and frostings; they should be used with mild-flavored or citrus fruits in order to savor their delicate scent.

Rosemary. Since this herb has such a strong resinous and piney flavor, it should not be used with mild-tasting fruits. It is an herb that is great with red wine—use it for poaching or macerating apples, pears, oranges, cranberries and dried fruits. It adds good flavor to mulled wine, tea and cider.

Thyme. This well-rounded herb has a flavor that is sweet and savory and is tasty with apples and pears, or baked, stewed or macerated in compote. It also is tasty in grape and cranberry jelly. Lemon thyme and orange thyme have citrus flavors and are less savory, and can be added to fruit salad; but they tend to lose some of their citrus dimension when cooked.

Sage. Use cold-weather fruits like apples and pears with this earthy, musky, slightly camphorus-tasting herb—stewed, in a sauce or fritters, or baked in bread or cake.

Sweet cicely. The leaves and flowers of this anise-flavored herb are best used fresh in fruit salads, although they are also good stewed with pears or apples.

Sweet woodruff.  This traditional herb of spring goes best with seasonal fruits—strawberries and rhubarb. Its delicate scent of hay-and-vanilla goes well with most berries and is delicious used in infusions and macerations with white and sparkling wines. The tiny white blossoms are a lovely garnish on desserts and in the punch bowl.

When experimenting with herbs in a recipe, pause for a minute, think about the aroma and taste of the herb or herbs, and how it will work with the other ingredients in the recipe, then experiment courageously. If you don’t have anise hyssop, for example, use another herb that you might like the flavor of and substitute it. If a recipe calls for lemon balm, you can replace it with a different lemon-flavored herb, such as lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon thyme or lemon basil. The idea is to be inventive, and to use herbs to give new flavor and fun to your desserts.


Susan Belsinger is the author of Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes (Paul’s Printing, 2005). 


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