Customers love desserts, but not all customers will order them. In most restaurants, perhaps 50% of the customers, at most, will have dessert. A majority of diners are simply too full to order a traditional full, large dessert, but they would welcome something a little sweet or something to share. Most customers who don’t order dessert might be interested if something light, refreshing, and intriguing were offered. Therefore, when planning for variety, don’t forget to include simpler, lighter options that will appeal to diners with smaller appetites. Having a cheese platter or perhaps a savoury dessert are popular options too.
There are two stages to the art of the baker or pastry chef: first, making and baking all the doughs, batters, fillings, creams, and sauces (with the correct techniques); and second, assembling these components into finished desserts and pastries. The same principle is applied to plating dessert presentations. A plated dessert is an arrangement of one or more components. For most desserts, all the components are prepared well in advance. A plated dessert itself, however, is assembled (at the last minute). All the components needed—including mousses, meringues, ice creams and sorbets, cookies, dough, cake layers, pastry cream, and dessert sauces—are used to make a presentation that is more than the sum of its parts.
When planning for a plated dessert, there are five characteristics that should be considered. Three apply to mouth feel and flavour, and are the most important:
The other two are visual:
Flavours should enhance or complement each other, such as a caramel sauce served with roasted fruit, or offer a pleasing contrast, as a tart flavour (lemon) paired with a sauce that is sweetened. To achieve this, taste the components separately and then together to evaluate and make sure they work together.
Plan for pleasing combinations of texture and temperature. If the main item is soft, such as a mousse or ice cream, add a crisp or crunchy component such as small cookies or nuts for a texture contrast. Temperature contrasts are also pleasing, such as a scoop of ice cream with a warm fruit tart.
Visually, a variety of colours and shapes can be attractive, but be careful not to include too much or the result will come across as a jumble. The plate needs to be visually appealing. Through the balanced use of colour and shape, you can present a dessert simply and elegantly. Let the food speak for itself. Brown is a good colour, and a well-prepared dessert with a few shades of brown can look very appealing. A traditional tarte tatin, for example, needs little or no garnish to make it look appealing if the apples have been caramelized properly.
All of these elements together create a palette from which an infinite number of combinations affect you differently whenever you put food on your table. Chefs and, now more than ever, pastry chefs are always trying to push the senses to the limits in never-before-thought-of ways, but the underlying principles that make food taste good are unchanged. Here is a short summary:
- Variety and diversity in textures and the elements of taste make for interesting food; avoid monotony.
- Contrast is as important as harmony, but avoid extremes and imbalance.
- Food that comes from the same place (time/season or location) usually works together.
- Fresh and ripe rules every time.
Let’s now walk through the process of deciding on and preparing a finished dish.
Step 1: Visualize
When deciding what to make, you need to draw on what you have to work with. Consider the following:
- Available ingredients: what do I have, or what can I get now?
- Past experiences: what worked, what didn’t, likes, dislikes, etc.
- Olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) memory: picture in your mind how something will taste or smell.
- Sensory triggers: what catches your eye, or what smell, sound, or feel of a raw ingredient gets you thinking of an idea?
Step 2: Flavour profile
Once you have the basic idea or main ingredients in mind, think of the flavour profile.
There are a number of elements making up all of the things you taste, depending on your cultural background, but essentially there are only a handful of elements that compose all of the taste profiles. Western definitions traditionally break taste into four major elements:
Asian cultures have added the following to the list:
- Umami (literally, “pleasant savoury taste”)
Step 3: Introduce the other senses
The other senses contribute to the overall experience in a variety of ways. Imagine if food didn’t have the following attributes, which in many cases provide our first impressions, lasting memories, and overall like or dislike of a certain dish or dining experience:
- Temperature: both real and perceived (such as mint as a cooling sensation or spice as heat)
- Colour: use a wide palette
- Shape: create visual interest
- Texture: some of each creates contrast
- Mouth feel: dry, fat, rich
- Smells: avoid overpowering or distracting
- Sound: noisy, difficult foods may spoil a mood or setting
And always try to remember a few guidelines as you go along:
- Think outside the box; try new things.
- Too much of anything is never a good idea.
- Great dishes hit on multiple senses in a variety of ways.
- Look to classic combinations for inspiration, then make logical leaps. If flavours work together in one context, they will do so in another. A great example of this is the recent trend of bringing savoury pantry items into desserts.
Items prepared to order.
Process that occurs when sugar reaches a certain temperature and starts to brown, at approximately 170°C (340°F).