Leigh Omilinsky, pastry chef at Cafe des Architectes, was introduced to chia seeds at a young age—she had a hedgehog Chia Pet when she was in elementary school. The seeds of the chia plant (part of the mint family) are trendy now for their health benefits; they're high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Anna Shovers (the Publican), who challenged Omilinsky to create a dish with chia seeds, eats them every day for breakfast.
The nutritional value of chia seeds isn't a recent discovery, though: there's evidence that they've been consumed since 3,500 BC, and they were a staple food for the Aztecs, who ground them to make flour and ate the whole seeds mixed with water. The chia plant nearly disappeared in South America after Spanish colonists banned the cultivation of local crops, but it survived in isolated areas; in the early 90s a team from the University of Arizona, researching alternative crops for Argentine farmers, rediscovered the nutrient value of chia seeds.
"It was fun to take something superhealthy and make it superunhealthy," Omilinsky said. And it's not the first time the seeds have made it into a dessert at Cafe des Architectes: according to Omilinsky, when Patrick Fahy was the restaurant's head pastry chef he used them as a garnish for one "because he thought they looked like little dinosaur eggs. Which they do."
The tiny gray seeds are extremely hydrophilic, and can absorb 12 times their weight in water. "When they're hydrated, they've still got the little crunchy on the inside, but they're slimy little goobers on the outside," Omilinsky said. That sliminess—combined with the fact that chia seeds don't taste like anything—made them challenging to work with, she said.
Omilinsky used the seeds several ways: in a cake, a sorbet, a citrus salad, a sugar tuille, and a streusel. "They looked a lot like poppy seeds, and I was like, well, lemon poppy-seed cake. Lemon chia-seed cake," she said. "And it worked exactly the same way. They have the same crunch that poppy seeds do. They get stuck in your teeth the same way too." Because it's citrus season, she made a salad with orange, clementine, and pink grapefruit segments tossed with a little honey and chia seeds hydrated in the citrus juice.
The sugar tuille was made with isomalt, a sugar substitute that doesn't crystallize or get tacky the way sugar does. Omilinsky melted it and stirred in toasted chia seeds, then spread the mixture onto a silicone sheet until it cooled enough to allow her to stretch it into thin glasslike sheets. More toasted chia seeds went into a streusel with butter, sugar, flour, and feuilletine (crispy flakes of very thin wafers). In the blood-orange sorbet, Omilinsky said, the seeds hydrated a little, thickening the mixture—which worried her at first, but the sorbet came out just fine.
The centerpiece of the dish, a Meyer lemon panna cotta, was the only major element without chia seeds in it. "I figured there were enough weird textures going on," Omilinsky said. Garnishes included dots of passion-fruit curd, orange "pearls" (orange juice set with agar), and microgreens.
The dessert, Omilinsky said, tastes like citrus. The chia seeds add texture, but don't taste like anything. Still, she said she'd "definitely" work with them again. "I like crunchy. Crunchy is my favorite flavor."
Meg Galus of NoMi Kitchen, working with century eggs, which are eggs preserved for weeks or months in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls. Omilinsky hasn't tried the Chinese delicacy, and said, "I'm a little freaked out by it, actually." But she says that Galus "likes a challenge . . . I think she'll have a blast with it."