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Photo by Sally Schneider


At the end of an impromtu dinner party, my friend Josh served a chocolate cake with herbes-de-Provence salt his wife Ellen had made. To accompany it, he had whipped some extraordinary bio-dynamic cream from a farmer friend, and I popped a spoonful in my mouth, sans cake, to savor it.

Perhaps it was the bowl of sea salt in my sight lines, or the conversation we'd had earlier about using an herb salt instead of regular salt in the cake that gave me the idea: I sprinkled a few grains of salt onto another spoonful of the whipped cream. And there, in an instant, was a completely "other" notion of whipped cream; the salt brought out the cream's sweetness and nuance, without being salty, a perfect counterpoint to the rich cake. It was a revelation, and one I'd use with future desserts.

Vanilla on ripe avocado turned it instantly toward dessert. I added a sprinkling of sugar and found myself eating a delicate, somewhat esoteric custard.

Throughout my cooking life, this kind of fortuitous collision of two or three unexpected elements has often occurred often in the kitchen and at table. Sometimes, it is simply when two elements happen to be in my field of vision, like the whipped cream and salt. Or when, during one late-night foraging in the fridge for something sweet, I spied organic chunky peanut butter next to a jar of dulce de leche, a thick caramel from Argentina.

"Why not mix them together?" I thought, and did, equal parts in a little bowl--just a taste's worth in case it wasn't good. But it was DELICIOUS, instant roasted peanut caramel (here again, a few grains of salt was miraculous), just the sweet I was looking for. Later on, it proved to be a perfect filling for a plain or chocolate cake or cookies.

Other times, this kind of culinary kismet occurs when two flavors accidentally combine, like the avocado I cut on a cutting board on which I'd previously split and scraped a vanilla bean. Vanilla on ripe avocado turned it instantly toward dessert. I added a sprinkling of sugar and found myself eating a delicate, somewhat esoteric custard.

Not that it was a totally original discovery. There's an M.F.K. Fisher story in which she watches an old man order avocado for his dessert, and sprinkle powdered sugar on it (vanilla sugar, to be sure, would be my take) and there are certainly mousses and other blended avocado desserts. But originality doesn't really matter; discovering delicious and unique flavors does.)

Asking "what if..." or "why not..." or just trying something that may not make sense "on paper" is the simple and always available key to finding new connections in flavor--and expanding one's world.

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.
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