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Sweet meets salty in lots of Chicago treats

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Updated: January 5, 2014 6:08AM



The world of sweets is getting a salt lick this holiday season. Or is the world of salt getting a sweet lick?

Either way, salty-meets-sweet is everywhere you turn: Pringles is making pecan pie potato chips, Lay’s is dipping wavy potato chips in milk chocolate, Häagen-Dazs has released a limited edition salted caramel truffle ice cream, Pepperidge Farm introduced salted pretzel Milano slices and just about anyone who values both their salty and sweet tastebuds has discovered that “sea salt” and “chocolate” go together like “get in” and “my belly.”

You don’t have to go to a grocery store to find the intersection of Sweet Street and Savory Boulevard. Across Chicago, chefs, bakers and toffee makers have long embraced the complexity that a little bit of NaCl can add to a sweet.

For Terry Opalek, the holidays are a time to reflect on the salty-sweet winter tradition he learned from his grandmother: making toffee. Opalek, who, along with his life partner and business partner, Michael Frontier, owns Terry’s Toffee, commemorates his grandmother with his McCall’s Classic toffee, which captures that flavor combination he learned from her, with its California slivered almonds, sweet milk chocolate and salty Georgia pecans.

Over the years, Opalek has taken his grandmother’s toffee recipe and enhanced it, playing with other complex flavor combinations, like Mazel Toffee, which reveals a slightly salty piece of matzo inside, and the Asian Accent, which combines chocolate with Australian ginger, punctuated by wasabi peas.

As his customers take in the unexpected flavors of salt, sweet and spice, Opalek loves taking in their reactions, which, he says, plays out the same way, day after day. Generally, it starts with a pause. “And then they usually make some kind of noise, moans and groans or oohs and ahs,” he says. “And I just look at them, and I go, ‘Right?’ And they go, ‘Yeah. This is so good.’ ”

At Cookie Bar, a gluten-free bakery in Ravenswood, co-owners Joe Bova and Jeff Steinberg have a list of what they call the “wow” cookies, which sums up the surprised response of customers after taking a bite. The potato chip chocolate chip cookie is one of those. “People think it’s a really interesting flavor combination,” says Bova. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

Other “wow” cookies at Cookie Bar include the jalapeno chocolate chip, the chile mango macadamia nut and the “kitchen sink” cookie, which includes coconut, potato chips, peanut butter, chocolate chips, cookie bits, peanut butter cup bits and potato chips. “Each bite you’re getting a different sensory experience and all kinds of different flavors, as well,” says Steinberg.

The salty-sweet combination has even made its way onto cocktail menus. Mercadito Chicago serves a Pepino el Pyu, which is spice-filled, salty and sweet at the same time. It’s made with Hornitos Blanco tequila, cucumber, lemon and hoja santa (a Mexican herb) simple syrup, and is garnished with a cumin salt to complement the sweetness.

The salty-sweet one-two-punch truly steals the stage on restaurant menus, from appetizers to desserts. Zoe Schor, who is chef and general manager at Ada Street, says that when she’s planning a menu, it all comes down to one thing: balance. “When you have a balanced menu item, there’s got to be something a little bit sweet in every dish,” she says. “Maybe not quite to the point of Pecan Pie Pringles, but it all depends on what you consider sweet.”

Schor plays with that balance throughout the menu at Ada Street: There’s the fried Manchego cheese with red pepper sauce and wildflower honey for an appetizer, the thick-cut Nueske bacon with chile maple syrup for brunch and the pretzel bread pudding with maple whipped cream for dessert. Schor says that she, personally, isn’t a fan of super sweet items, so the savory side helps cut through and add a layer of complexity.

When asked about some examples of her favorite sweet-and-savory treats outside of Ada Street, Schor points to a Chicago favorite that is, quite frankly, the poster child for salty-meets-sweet perfection: the Chicago Mix from Garrett Popcorn.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten,” she says. “I thought it would be so weird, with the caramel and the cheese mixed together, but it’s so good. It was so surprising.”



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