Pushing the boundaries of dessert
by Kate Zimmerman for the Weekend Post

Hungry for a chocolate truffle? Do Dominique and Cindy Duby have a treat for you. Their truffle is not the chocolatey, cocoa-coated lump that’s meant to approximate the real thing. The Duby truffle is the real thing — bits of that precious, smelly fungus beloved of pigs, dogs, Italians and Frenchmen, in this case mixed with cream, rolled in cocoa nut “nibs” and then enrobed in dark chocolate.

This literally funky confection helped win the ground-breaking married couple from Richmond, B.C. gold in the Hong Kong Culinary Classic in 1999 in the dessert category. It was one of four sweets they concocted using mushrooms. Another took advantage of the fact that chanterelles smell like apricots and paired the fungus with the dried fruit in a wonton with tamago (egg) roll and plum sauce.  Their oeuvre has been billed as “Pacific Rim patisserie.”

Now the Dubys, both 42, are about to release a cookbook called Wild Sweets: Exotic Desserts & Wine Pairings (Douglas & McIntyre, $60) and the food world is taking notice. That may be because the handsome tome got the endorsement of Charlie Trotter, the highly-regarded Chicago chef, who wrote the foreword. But what grabbed Trotter’s attention in the first place was the Dubys’ adventurous commingling of traditional — read: sweet — dessert ingredients with those usually confined to the savoury side of the menu.

Like red curry squash flan with gnocchi and coconut curry foam.  Orange-braised belgian endives in pan-fried bread pudding with chicory ice cream. Concord grape clafoutis with sweet Savoy cabbage and warm grapes. Warm chocolate blinis with yellow pepper and mango compote.

“People just don’t think of dessert as being as exciting as it can be,” says Dominique, the Belgian-born half of the duo. “What we try to do is have every sense stimulated. Hot, crunchy, cold ….” 

Dominique, a chemist manqué, credits the way flavours and textures work together to chemistry. But Cindy says the couple’s experimentation — which they do in an atelier at home rather than their kitchen — is crucial to their unusual juxtapositions of ingredients. “It’s a lot of eating and tasting.”

That’s how they figured out that a dish like roasted squash with toasted pumpkin seeds tastes swell with an Okanagan ice wine. Roasted squash is sweet, Cindy notes. So are caramelized onions. Why confine them to the entrée side of the menu? The same philosophy applies when the Dubys make an apple and eggplant croute. The eggplant absorbs the taste of the apple at the same time as it provides the creamy texture we’ve come to expect from desserts.

As Dominique says, if you make a sweet that tastes like onions, nobody wants it. But if you make an onion that tastes like caramel, that’s another story.

The pair met when they were both working for CP hotels, making airline food. Cindy was a pastry chef; Dominique was a chef. They had each hoped the job would provide them with lots of travel. When they discovered it wouldn’t, they quit together and went to Europe, where they eventually studied at two famous pastry schools — Gaston Lenotre  in Paris and Paul Wittamer in Brussels.

“I liked cooking, but it wasn’t my passion,” says Dominique. “Not enough artistry — the art is in pastry.”

Dessert-making is “more exacting,”  Cindy explains.

Dominique’s youthful interest in the world of beakers and Bunsen burners also came in handy. “If you understand science, you understand pastry.”

After their European experience, the pair came back to Canada and opened a pastry shop in North Vancouver when they were still in their 20s. Over the 14 years they ran it, they discovered that they preferred experimenting with dessert flavours to producing the same popular items over and over. So they both got a degree in adult education by correspondence from the University of Alberta, with the goal of teaching pastry-making.

While they studied they trained other chefs in the Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong. That exposure to the Asian approach to cooking and eating also inspired them, although as a Canadian of Japanese descent, Cindy was hardly a newcomer to it.

“I think in Asia there is more demand for something different,” says Dominique. There is also a strong tradition in Asian cuisine of blending sweet and savoury together in desserts  such as Chinese balls filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds.

 Nowadays, Dominique says, “Our approach to pastry contains a lot of the flavours of Asia. We love the flavours of Europe and together they make an incredible marriage.”

Incredible enough that in addition to winning gold and silver medals at a variety of international pastry competitions, the Dubys came fifth out of 18 teams in the World Pastry Cup in Lyons, France — the crème de la crème patissiere-wise. They were also featured in the Food Network’s documentary about that event.

So their star was already on the rise and being billed as “Pacific Rim patisserie,” their travelling cooking school — the DC Duby International School of Food Art and Wine — continues to roll along, and the Dubys are about to launch a virtual chocolate boutique at www.wildsweets.com with a partner who’s a visual artist.

Why the book? “We had lots of recipes we wanted to get rid of,”  Cindy says, laughing.

Dominique feels they’ve found a niche. “If you look at the market for books in general … (there are) lots of pastry books that talk of good recipes but there aren’t many interested in breaking the boundaries of pastry.

“We wanted to make something that nobody really had thought of.”

Certainly Trotter was taken with it, calling it “a masterpiece” and saying in his foreword that it “has inspired me to re-examine all of my cuisine.” Dominique says that when Trotter saw the book in draft form, he was particularly impressed with the wine pairings, wine being one of his passions.

The Dubys, who have worked with the B.C. ice wine producer Inniskillin and encouraged it to promote ice wines as a complement to desserts, feel ice wine is underused. While port and Sauternes have long been recognized accompaniments to sweets as well as to rich dishes like foie gras, ice wines don’t see the same kind of action.

The authors of Wild Sweets hope to change that with the suggested pairings for their desserts and with the ice wine gelees they will sell through their virtual boutique. One gelee, instructions for which appear in the book, is made with coconut milk sabayon and served with a pumpkin seed croquant (crunch).

Daunting though such recipes sound, the Dubys would like to see home cooks try them rather than chefs. While the amateur may be intimidated by the “décor,” as Dominique calls the artistic elements of the presentation in the book, he or she can always simplify the effort by not making one or two elements of the dish.

Also, he points out, dessert sauces tend to improve when made ahead and frozen — if the dessert is made in steps, it doesn’t have to frazzle the host. Save the frisee for the crispy apple pasta on top of the lemon crepes with red lentil confit.

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