I ate a delicious dessert on a recent trip to New York: a sundae with salted caramel ice cream, bittersweet chocolate sauce and candied nuts and popcorn, served at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen. Although it was a great mix of flavours and textures, it was a little too sweet. We thought it would have been better if the popcorn had been lightly salted instead of sugar-glazed.
Using salt to balance sweet dishes (and vice versa) is nothing new, although some cultures use it more than others. With cheese, you'll see it in pairings of manchego with quince paste; pecorino or parmesan with spicy-sweet mostarda fruits; and stilton and other pungent blue cheeses with grapes, raisins and dried apricots. In Chinese cuisine, salted preserved kumquats are used in drinks to soothe sore throats; and wah mui (sweet-salty preserved plums) are also popular.
Using salt in pastry isn't new but it's becoming bolder. Almost all pastry, cake and cookie recipes use a bit of salt to en- hance flavour. When used prominently in desserts, salt balances the sweetness.
I love the sweet-salty combination, most notably in salted caramel, which is used in ice cream, confectionary and macarons. New (to me) pairings include cheese popcorn with caramel popcorn (now available in Hong Kong with the opening of the Garrett Popcorn shop in IFC Mall, Central), bacon chocolate (not my favourite) and maple syrup-glazed bacon (sublime).
To create your own sweet-salty (or salty-sweet) dishes, think with your tongue as well as your mind. The flavours must be balanced and need to complement each other (unlike the bacon chocolate). Just as there's a fine line between too sweet and just right, the dessert shouldn't be too salty - just more delicious than it would have been without the salt.