An Earthy Sweetness

Redefining vegetables for desserts

Opposite: The alabaster meringue nest (see Magic Meringues) is made from beaten liquid from canned chickpeas instead of egg whites. It is filled with fresh berries; a dollop of whipped cream can be added too.

Photography by Jeff Amberg / Food Styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP

The popular adage, “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first!” could be the motto for picky eaters faced with a dinner plate filled with vegetables. But whether people are avowed veggie haters or passionate veggie lovers, few deny the appeal of dessert — including those that camouflage vegetables as a main ingredient. 

Why add vegetables to desserts? Well, why not? Rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber, vegetables are vital to maintaining good health. Besides tasting delicious all on their own, they add flavor, texture, an earthy sweetness and visual interest. 

In recent years, chefs have been leading the charge into the vegetable patch to gather a cornucopia of ingredients that have been striking a sweet cord. These unique sweets are a win-win for everyone; for those who already love veggies and for those who prefer for them to be disguised. 

Adding vegetables to a dessert is an unexpected and pleasurable way to bump up its nutritional value. Nearly everyone is familiar with at least one or two mainstream desserts or baked goods that include vegetables; e.g., zucchini bread, carrot cake and sweet potato pie. Less familiar vegetables should be appreciated for the surprising new flavors and textures they can bring to the dessert table. While some have nuanced flavors, others have more distinct tastes. Some of the new-style veggie desserts tone down the sugar-sweetness in favor of the complex flavors and textures. 

Kids seem to “take the cake” when it comes to picky eating and vegetables. The mild beet flavor in Chocolate Beetroot Cupcakes (recipe on might not seem as off-putting as a serving of beets. A slice of Cucumber-Kiwi Cake is more in line with the ethereal Asian-style cakes that are frosted with whipped cream. 

The United Nations declared 2016 the “year of the bean.” Low-fat, dried beans and legumes — high in nutrients and fiber — are commonly used in Asian desserts. Halo-halo, a Filipino shaved ice snack, includes fruits, ice cream and chickpeas or white beans preserved in syrup. Small, red adzuki beans are used to make a thick, sweetened paste for Japanese confectionery. Pureed black beans are an excellent substitute for the flour and part of the fat in the recipe for Black Bean Walnut Brownies

Baked goods and candies made with chickpeas might seem unusual at first, but their mild flavor is reminiscent to chestnuts or walnuts. If you love the duo of chocolate and peanut butter, the recipe for Chickpea Truffles is for you. 

Vegetable ice cream isn’t a new idea. Beet-potato ice cream was in the spotlight at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Häagen-Dazs® Japan is releasing two appealing vegetable flavors in May: Tomato Cherry and Carrot Orange. Sweet corn ice cream is a favorite in Malaysia and many Spanish-speaking countries. Try my version, which pairs fresh corn and coconut milk. 

Ordinary vegetables can be turned into extraordinary desserts. Parsnip pudding or cauliflower crisp is the last place you might expect to find vegetables, but ideas like this are unlimited and worth exploring. The recipes included are meant to inspire you and increase your appreciation for vegetables along with your daily intake. Imperial London College scientific researchers found that a small amount of glucose-rich foods eaten at the beginning of a meal can assist the brain in curbing the appetite. It’s an interesting theory; perhaps one day it will be commonplace to eat dessert first, and at the end of the meal too! 

Black Bean Walnut Brownies

After baking numerous batches of this unusual black bean brownie recipe, I came up with this version, which is moist, with a deep fudgy flavor and not overly sweet. Slightly different in texture from regular brownies, bean brownies offer a boost in protein and fiber and are also gluten-free. Use a quality-brand, 70 percent, extra-bittersweet chocolate bar like Ghirardelli® or Lindt plus unsweetened cocoa. Chocoholics may want to mix in an additional 1/2 cup chocolate chips or sprinkle them on top of the batter. The brownies taste wonderful plain or with a scoop of Corn Ice Cream (recipe included), using tender, fresh white corn. 


4 tablespoons chilled, unsalted butter 

1 (3.5-ounce) bar quality, dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons natural, unsweetened cocoa

1 (15-ounce) can OR 1 1/2 cups low-sodium, black beans, well rinsed, drained well in a sieve 

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar (for slightly less sweet brownies use 1/4 cup)

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon EACH baking powder and baking soda 

3 large eggs

1/2 cup walnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small glass bowl, add chocolate pieces then top with butter. Microwave 30 seconds. Let the mixture sit for 3 minutes then, if the chocolate isn’t completely soft, microwave again 30 seconds. After 2 or 3 minutes, stir until smooth. Whisk in cocoa until blended. Set aside. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process beans with both sugars until pureed. Add vanilla, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Process a few seconds. Add butter and chocolate mixture; blend in with on and off bursts of power. Scrape sides of bowl 1 or 2 times. By hand, stir in nuts and chocolate chips, if used. Line an 8-inch baking pan with foil; coat with vegetable spray. Pour in batter. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until the top puffs slightly and a cake tester comes out with no batter clinging to it. Don’t over bake to prevent drying. Cool completely before cutting. Refrigerate or freeze in an airtight container. Makes 16 large or 25 small squares. 


Chickpea Truffles

The flavor and appearance of this candy is reminiscent of buckeyes, but this version has nutritional benefits. Chickpeas are fiber-rich legumes that contribute protein, calcium and iron. (Before you rinse the bean liquid down the drain, check out the recipe, Magic Meringues.) Peanut butter is nutrition-packed with protein and antioxidants. Choose a natural brand, which is less oily when blended and contains less sugar. Chopped dried dates, raisins or shredded coconut could be mixed into the candy base. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, which, in moderation, can be beneficial to your health. The truffles are coated with chocolate but can be rolled in Dutch-processed unsweetened cocoa or even peanut flour. 


1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas, drained, rinsed

(1 1/2 cups)

1/3 rounded cup natural peanut butter 

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Pinch fine sea salt

1 1/2 cups bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips OR 12 ounces Ghirardelli® Dark Melting Wafers 

1 1/2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening or coconut oil

Pat chickpeas completely dry with paper towels. Process all ingredients, except chocolate and butter, in a food processor with steel blade until smooth. Don’t over process. Scrape down sides once or twice. Remove candy dough from the bowl. Divide mixture into about 30 portions; shape into balls. Chill 1/2 hour before dipping, or refrigerate in an airtight container overnight. Candy can be dipped in melted dark chocolate or compound chocolate. If using chocolate chips, place in a large microwave-safe bowl. Microwave with shortening in 15-second intervals. When chocolate seems to soften, gently stir. Repeat until smooth, reheating as necessary. Using a toothpick, dip a piece of candy into melted chocolate to coat 3/4 of the ball. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let candies set until firm. Refrigerate candies in an airtight container. 

Tip: If using melting wafers, follow the package directions. Most candy coating wafers hold their shape until stirred; don’t overheat. Stir until smooth.

Heating variation: Chocolate or candy wafers can be melted in the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl over water that is barely simmering. Stir occasionally until smooth. Avoid adding even a drop of liquid to the pan or the chocolate and candy will seize. 


Peanut Butter Surprise Cookies 

These soft chewy cookies feature a trio of peanut butter, chocolate and chickpeas — which replaces the flour. They are delicious warm or cold and can be frozen. (Save the bean liquid for the recipe, Magic Meringues.)


1 cup canned chickpeas or white beans, drained, rinsed 

1 cup natural peanut butter 

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar 

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 large egg

1/2 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

1/4 cup roasted peanuts, chopped, if desired 

Pat chickpeas completely dry with paper towels; put into the work bowl of the food processor. With the steel blade, process until finely ground. Add the peanut butter, sugars, baking soda, salt, vanilla and egg; process with quick bursts of power just until well blended. Remove dough from bowl; stir in chocolate chips and peanuts. Chill dough airtight at least 1 hour or overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With a measuring tablespoon, divide dough into 18 to 20 portions; shape into balls. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet spaced about 3 inches apart. Lightly press with a fork to about 2-inches in diameter. Bake 10 minutes or until set. Cool 5 minutes then remove from baking sheet. Eat at once or cool and store in an airtight container. Cookies can be frozen. Makes about 20 cookies. 


Magic Meringues

This bonus recipe is one of the most innovative culinary discoveries of the decade. Instead of discarding the bland-tasting liquid from a can of chickpeas, why not turn it into meringue cookies or topping for pie? Called “aquafaba” Latin for bean water, the protein-rich bean liquid can be whipped into stable foam-like egg white meringue. With the addition of sugar, the meringue texture is crisp and tender, and it won’t taste like beans. The revolutionary technique was discovered by a French chef and advanced by an American software engineer. Inventive cooks use whipped aquafaba for icing, pavlova, marshmallows, ice cream and macaroons. The meringue can be a bit temperamental so follow a few basic rules. Use a grease-free mixing bowl and balloon beater. Some brands of bean liquid work better; other canned bean varieties work, too. If the liquid seems watery, simmer to reduce by half to the consistency of egg whites. It will taste slightly caramelized. Amounts of bean liquid and sugar should be close to equal. Cream of tartar is an important stabilizer. A handheld mixer works well for whipping 1/2 cup bean liquid; if doubled, try a stand mixer. Bean liquid must be whipped longer than egg whites, from 10 to 15 minutes. Finally, don’t be afraid to break the rules and experiment. Here is a basic recipe for meringues.


Liquid from 1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas (about 1/2 cup), room temperature

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

8 to 10 tablespoons granulated sugar or powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla, almond or peppermint extract, to taste

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Add chickpea liquid to a mixing bowl. Beat with the wire whip of an electric mixer 2 to 3 minutes until soft peaks form. Add cream of tarter. Slowly sprinkle in sugar, continuing to beat into meringue. Add flavoring of choice; beat until stiff peaks form. Fit a large, sturdy pastry bag with a large decorating tip. Fold down the bag top a couple of inches and place into a tall, wide jar to hold steady. Fill half-full with meringue. Fold up and twist the bag top. Pipe meringue shapes onto a parchment-lined, heavy baking pan. (Or shape with a spoon.) Wash and dry bag and tube before refilling. Bake from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, or longer, depending on meringue size, until crisp and dry. You can turn off the oven and dry large meringues overnight. Cool completely before removing from parchment paper. Store in an airtight container several days 

Meringue nests: Draw 3-inch circles on the parchment paper and pipe round meringue nests. Dry in the oven about 3 hours then turn off the heat and continue to dry overnight. Top with fresh fruit, whipped cream, lemon curd or ice cream; serve immediately.

Tip: Substitute 3 tablespoons garbanzo bean liquid for each egg in muffin recipes.


Pecan and Pinto Bean Pie-Bars

These appealing pie-bars showcase three favorite Southern ingredients: pinto beans, pecans and sorghum. Pinto beans, the surprise ingredient, bumps up the recipe’s nutritional profile adding protein, antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber. The National Pecan Shellers Association has declared April national pecan month. According to the USDA Antioxidant Nutrient Database, there is evidence pecans are the most antioxidant-rich tree nut. South Carolina pecans are said to taste richer because of their high oil content. Sorghum, an important cereal crop, was domesticated in sub-Saharan Africa. The thick, bronze syrup is unique to this country and made from boiled-down juice pressed from sorghum stalks. Besides carbs and calories, it is a good source of iron, calcium, potassium and other nutrients. It’s available locally, and if you can find Joe Trapp’s excellent product, it works well in these pie-bars.


Unbaked pastry for 1 single crust fitted into an 8-inch pie pan (homemade, store bought or using pie crust mix)

3/4 cup canned pinto beans, drained, rinsed, processed in a food processor

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup sorghum, molasses, cane syrup or corn syrup

3 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

4 tablespoons melted butter

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Grated rind 1 orange, if desired

1 rounded cup pecans halves

Prepare pastry shell; refrigerate. Process beans in a food processor with the steel blade until smooth. In a large bowl, combine processed beans, sugar, sorghum, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, butter, lemon juice, pecans and orange rind. Pour mixture into pastry shell. Place pie on a heavy baking sheet lined with foil then on the lower rack of the oven. Bake 30 minutes then move pie to the middle rack. Bake 10 additional minutes or until the filling puffs slightly and the pastry is golden brown. If the pie browns too quickly, cover with a foil sheet. The cooking time may vary with different ovens. To serve as bars, cool pie completely, cover and refrigerate overnight. Slip pie from pan onto a cutting surface. Cut into bars or squares. To serve as a pie, cool for 1/2 hour before slicing. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container.


Cucumber-Kiwi Cake

The long, narrow European (English) cucumber is best suited for this delicate cake. Grown in a hothouse, it isn’t pollinated so it has a smaller seed mass and is dryer than a garden cucumber. The thin, tender skin is a good source of fiber, beta-carotene and Vitamin K. Hothouse cucumbers are wrapped in plastic to preserve texture and moisture, and to eliminate the need for waxing. Frost the cake with sweetened whipped cream flavored with vanilla or almond extract, or a little rosewater, or 1 or 2 tablespoons of St. Germain, an artisanal French liqueur made with starry, white elderberry flowers that bloom in the spring. 


1 (2 1/2-inch) piece hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped out, cut in small chunks

1 small kiwi, peeled, cut in chunks

1 teaspoon grated lime rind

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon vanilla (preferably clear vanilla)

3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided

1 cup all-purpose flour, like Gold Medal™ 

1 1/8 teaspoons baking powder

3 large egg yolks 

3 large egg whites 

1/4 cup safflower oil

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch, tight-fitting springform pan with a parchment round. Don’t grease the pan, which shouldn’t be nonstick. Put cucumber, kiwi and lime juice in a food processor with the steel blade. Process until completely pureed, scraping down the bowl 1 or 2 times. Scrape mixture into a small bowl; stir in lime peel, salt and vanilla. You need 1/2 cup cucumber mixture; set aside. Reserve 1/4 cup of the sugar; sift remaining sugar with flour and baking powder. Set aside. 

Divide eggs, putting yolks into a medium bowl, and egg whites into a clean, mixing bowl. Whisk oil into the yolks then mix in reserved cucumber mixture. Whisk this mixture into the reserved flour mixture until combined. With a mixer on high, beat egg whites until foamy then sprinkle in cream of tartar. Slowly sprinkle in remaining sugar and beat until whites are stiff but not dry. Fold in 1/3 of the beaten whites to the batter with a rubber spatula to lighten. Fold in remaining whites in two batches. Scrape batter into the pan and smooth top. 

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until cake puffs and is lightly browned on top. When a toothpick is inserted, it should come out dry. Remove cake and cool 15 minutes. It will deflate slightly. Run a long, sharp knife or metal spatula between the pan and the cake. Remove pan ring; cool 15 minutes. Cover cake with a new parchment round and top with a flat plate and invert. Remove baking parchment. Cake can be easily re-inverted onto a serving platter then remove the top parchment layer. Cool then frost with flavored, sweetened whipped cream, as desired. Serve at once or refrigerate airtight and serve within 1 or 2 days. 

Whipped Cream Frosting: Whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream with 3 to 4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar. When soft peaks form, mix in 1 teaspoon flavoring. 


Sweet Corn and Coconut Ice Cream

The popularity of sweet corn ice cream is on the increase throughout South Carolina. Freshly shucked, seasonal, sweet corn works best in this recipe, but you can substitute quality, frozen corn. Don’t use the canned kind. Cut the kernels off the cobs, then scrape to obtain all the sweet milky liquid. The cut-up cobs can be steeped in the hot milky mixture to boost the corn flavor. Add-ins are limited to preserve the fresh corn taste, but you could include fresh basil, chili powder, cinnamon, grated lemon zest or toasted coconut. Serve the ice cream plain or drizzle with warm caramel; place crisp, cornmeal sugar cookies on the side. Even better, top each scoop with a handful of freshly made caramel popcorn or sweet and salty curried popcorn.


2 large ears of very fresh corn or quality frozen corn (at least 2 cups corn)

2 cups half-and-half or whole milk

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup and 1/3 cup granulated sugar

4 large egg yolks (reserve the whites for other recipes)

1 (13.6-ounce) can chilled, light coconut milk

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice

Combine corn, half-and-half, turmeric, salt and 1/2 cup sugar in a heavy, medium saucepan. Place over medium-low heat and stir until hot, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat; set aside and steep for 1/2 hour. Whisk yolks and 1/3 cup sugar in a medium bowl; place near stovetop. Pour corn mixture into a blender; process until smooth. Wash and dry the saucepan. Pour corn mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl then add back to the saucepan. (Discard strained solids.) Reheat over medium-low heat. Rapidly whisk the egg yolks and sugar while slowly pouring in some of the hot corn milk (about 1 cup). Pour tempered yolk mixture back into the saucepan; place over medium-low heat. 

With a wooden spoon, stir custard until it reaches 180 degrees. It should thicken slightly and coat a spoon. Do not cook longer or it will curdle. To rapidly chill, pour into a bowl set into a larger bowl with water and ice cubes; stir often. When cool, mix in chilled coconut milk, vanilla and salt. Freeze in an ice cream machine, following the manufacturers’ instructions. Serve the soft ice cream at once, or ripen in an airtight container in the freezer for several hours until firm. Makes about 1 quart. 

Tips: Use an instant-read thermometer to determine the temperature of the hot custard. The chilled ice cream base can be refrigerated overnight before churning. (Plastic wrap over the custard prevents a skin from forming.)