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Anatomy of a Dessert: Make Sure It's Simple

Many kitchen desserts today consist of a slice of cake, pie or tart on a plate finished with whipped cream, a lone berry and perhaps a mint leaf. But there’s far more to a complete dessert. Just as chefs spend time thinking about the individual components of their appetizer and entree presentations, so should they devote thought to desserts.

A dessert needs to have the same variety and balance of textures, flavors, temperatures, colors, shapes and heights as any other dish. To achieve this, dessert presentations benefit from these five elements:

  • Base: typically crispy or cake-like
  • Filling: creamy element or ripe fruit
  • Sauce: complementary to enhance the colors, textures and flavors of the other components
  • Textural component: such as a crispy cookie or dried fruit chip
  • Garnishes: edible and functional

The base and filling

The base of a plated dessert can range from toasted lemon pound cake to almond genoise imbued with hazelnut-flavored syrup to a crispy sugar cookie base. Think of the base as an edible container to hold the main feature of the dessert: the graham cracker crust of a cheesecake, the flaky crust of an apple tart or the moist tender biscuit of a strawberry shortcake. The base should be flavorful but should not overpower the other components of the dish.

The main body or filling of a dessert oftentimes features creamy elements such as a mousse, pastry cream, ganache or Bavarian cream. These generic cream bases, like classical savory grand sauces, can be flavored and finished to make a limitless number of distinctive fillings or main components for your dessert. A simple pastry cream, as with a béchamel sauce, can be made in bulk to be used in a number of ways to enhance desserts: lightened with whipped cream, colored with fruit puree or thinned with additional liquids to make a sauce. Chocolate ganache laced with liquors or cordials, and mousses made from pureed fruits or nuts are enticing possibilities. Here too, remember to think carefully about flavor combinations.

Fillings may also be fruit-based, using flavorful ripe fruit that is in season. Many fruits benefit from “macerating” or flavoring with small amounts of sugar and any other flavors, such as fresh strawberries with vanilla and lemon and orange zests. Other fruits benefit from cooking prior to use in desserts. Grill pineapple, poach pears or sauté apples to give them more interesting flavors, colors and textures. Remember that the techniques of roasting, grilling, poaching, etc., are done essentially the same way for fruits as they are for proteins. There is little you would do differently when grilling a pineapple than when grilling a steak.

Sauces

Sauces in the dessert world also share some common themes with the grand sauces of the savory world. As mentioned earlier, pastry cream would be the dessert equivalent of béchamel, a starch-thickened sauce of milk and eggs that can be used also as a binder or filling. The crème anglaise would be like the dessert hollandaise, a sauce thickened primarily with eggs. While caramel sauce is not thickened with roux as a savory brown sauce might be, it shares deep rich full-bodied flavor as a reduction demi-glace or jus lié. Beurre blanc sauces can be very easily made sweeter for use in dessert applications, and there is very little difference between savory and sweet coulis sauces. Finally, there are chocolate sauces, which may also fit the description of a beurre blanc as a fat-thickened emulsion.

Whatever your sauce base, it is just as easy to adapt grand sauces to your desserts as it is in the savory world. Crème anglaise can be flavored with coffee beans, cinnamon sticks or star anise in much the same way a hollandaise is flavored with tarragon to make a béarnaise. Caramel sauce can be finished with cordials. A demi glace can be finished with Madeira. Coulis can be seasoned or flavored in the same manner as tomato sauces.

When choosing a dessert sauce, apply the same thought process as when choosing a sauce for savory items. First and foremost is the flavor impact. What flavor is the sauce adding to the dish? The next considerations should be color and texture. Sauces need to play those functional roles in the dish, and there needs to be enough if it. A good portion size for dessert sauce is between 1/2 ounce and 1 1/2 ounces. Too many times chefs “garnish” the plate with three or five small drops of sauce amounting to less than one teaspoonful, not nearly enough to affect the flavor or texture of the dish.

Textures and garnishes

Many desserts consist of soft and creamy components. Mousses, ganaches, ripe cooked fruit and tender moist cakes are all soft. Crispy elements will help to excite the palate by offering variety of texture, which can come from the base of the dessert itself. It may also be a garnish, such as a thin tuile cut or molded into an attractive shape, or a toasted flavored nut or grain. Textural elements also need to be flavorful. Add toasted spices to the tuile batter or cookie dough to give it interest and distinction and make it a better match to the dish.

Another avenue for texture on the dessert plate is fruit chips. Slice fruits such as apples, pears or pineapples very thin. Coat lightly with flavored simple syrup and bake on a silpat or parchment paper in a low (250º F) oven until they are dry and crisp.

Other garnishes can be included on the plate as long as they are functional. When considering garnishes, ask yourself, “What do I expect my guest to do with this? Do I expect them to eat this as part of the dish? Will it make the dish taste better or will it take away from it? If the guest didn’t eat the garnish as part of the dish, would that change it?” All too often desserts are garnished with edible but non-functional garnishes. Do you really expect that the guest will eat the entire mint leaf, edible flower or dusting of cocoa powder or powdered sugar around the rim of the plate? Garnishes need to enhance the flavor, texture and temperature of a dish as well as its color and appearance.

To garnish simply to add color to a dish serves little purpose.

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