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Finesse to the Finish

A frozen-yogurt pie, drizzled with caramel and topped with a slice of grilled peach, delights with contrasting temperatures and textures. Photo courtesy of national pork board. A signature drizzle or topping makes dessert memorable by juxtaposing flavor, texture and visual cues

By Priscilla Martel

Saucing and finishing desserts is a critical step in the execution of a signature menu item. These final touches help reinforce a culinary commitment menu-wide, and deliver those all-important artisan and freshly made cues. Here are some tricks to create a dessert that engages the visual and taste senses and creates a lasting and craveable flavor memory.

This term from the musical and visual worlds is a striking way to think of composing a dessert plate, as a riff on the same ingredients. First comes “syncopation,” or putting the emphasis on an unexpected beat; then, from the visual artist’s vocabulary, comes “series,” implying some sort of repetition. An unexpected series stimulates the senses.

A simple example would be a bowl containing three scoops of citrus sorbet — blood orange, lemon and lime. To add syncopation, drizzle one with melted bittersweet chocolate. Or add a textural element; serve the lemon sorbet between two wafer cookies. Infuse a simple syrup with citrus zest to use as a plate garnish. Combining the same ingredient or flavor in complementary ways with contrasting textures is the goal here.

Fruit desserts lend themselves to flavor syncopation. Instead of pie and ice cream, pair a fruit dessert with sorbet made from the same fruit. Peach or plum sorbets are terrific garnishes for fruit tarts made with the same fruit base. Garnish the plate with a piece of the fruit, perhaps in an alternate form — fresh, baked, stewed, dried or frozen.

Chocolate is another dessert that works in this manner. Use one or more types of chocolate on the same plate. Then add light or dark chocolate sauce, cocoa nibs, shaved white or milk chocolate, chocolate sprinkles or chocolate-coated nuts as garnishes.

And you want to pay attention to the look of the forms. Play with verticality: Stand a wedge of cake on its end and support it with complementary flavors of ice cream. Position two bar cookies like building blocks on the plate.

On the Menu
• Chocolate Ecstasy Cake, Coco sprinkles, chocolate sauce — Coco500, San Francisco
• Theo Chocolate Ganache Cake, chocolate cookie, cocoa cream, sea salt— Tilth, Seattle
• Lemon Passion Cake: Citrus cake soaked in sweet cream, then topped with lemon mousse and whipped cream— Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Dallas-based

An unanticipated flavor makes us pause to identify what’s new. The unexpected can range from the out-of-this-world — wasabi and white-chocolate ice cream — to a pleasant surprise like salted caramel sauce.

Experiment with culinary spices; black pepper in strawberry syrup or ground fennel in dark-chocolate sauce will burst with flavor. Crushed pink peppercorns have a pastel color and resinous flavor. Scatter a few on top of whipped cream or meringue toppings.

Menu whipped cream that is flavored with spices or cocoa powder. Use a regional distiller’s spirits in the cream. Or add a squirt of flavored syrup — there are so many from which to choose, from the floral notes of lavender and orange blossom to the warm flavors of hazelnut or espresso.

This year, cherries are a breakout flavor. Enliven a red berry puree with their tart notes. Or add dried cherries to a sweet port-wine syrup. These combinations are unexpected without being offputting. And the cherries add a pleasant, chewy texture, which contrasts nicely with custards and ice creams.

On the Menu
• Almond Tapioca with basil, passion fruit, espresso and apricot-pit sherbet — Blackbird, Chicago
• Red Velvet Bread Pudding with strawberry-cheesecake ice cream— Blossom, Charleston, S.C.
• Warm Truffle Almond Strawberries with pepper ice cream— Graffiti, New York City

Crunchy nuts and chunks of fruit add textural interest and flavor to a creamy dessert base. Photo courtesy of almond board of california. DYNAMIC CONTRAST
The surprise of something crunchy or spicy or an unexpected burst of hot or cold stimulates the senses. In fact, most dessert menus capitalize on the appeal of hot and cold in fudge-topped sundaes and pie à la mode. But there are more ways of exploring dynamic contrast.

Change up the batter for fruit fritters with seasonings such as allspice or ground ginger. Try five-spice power or ground star anise for an Asian appeal. Dredge batter-coated banana or apple wedges in panko flakes or crushed puffed-rice cereal to add a deeper crunch after frying.

Chunks of banana, mango, kiwi and strawberries lend themselves to freezing. Serve the frozen nuggets as a garnish with warm fruit desserts; these dense fruits develop a creamy texture when frozen, mimicking sorbet.

Sweet and sour notes on the same plate add dynamic contrast by stimulating the palate and prompting salivation. Spike sour cream or yogurt with tart yuzu juice as a simple garnish for baked stone fruits or chocolate soufflé. Using sour cream as a topping on pound cake plays off the sourness in any fruit garnish.

On the Menu
• Banana Spring Rolls: Six warm, crispy bites with coconut-pineapple ice cream, drizzled with caramel and vanilla sauces— P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
• Warm Toffee Cake with lemon-buttermilk ice cream— 112 Eatery, Minneapolis
• Deep-Fried Oreos, espresso chip ice cream, coffee shake shot— Cafeteria, New York City

Fruit adds a healthy, home-grown halo to desserts. Market research confirms that consumers perceive even jelly beans as healthful when they are called “fruit chews.” But you can make any dessert more healthful simply by altering the balance of garnishes on a plate.

Deconstruct a banana cream pie. Serve sautéed bananas with a spoon of custard and a garnish of pie-crust crumbs. Or reduce the portion of cream pie, adding more bananas to balance out the plate.

Fruits are a great natural source of texture. Add sliced kumquats or less-common berries, such as huckleberries, to your list of dessert garnishes. Use such dried fruits as diced mango, cranberries or coconut to create a uniquely fruitful flavor profile on a dessert.

The simplicity of a fruit-based dessert lends to its appeal. Plating fresh berries with a spray of cream sauce, then dusting with crushed cookie crumbs, makes an instant fresh-fruit crumble.

On the Menu
• Rhubarb-Grapefruit Pie with white chocolate-crème fraîche ice cream, rhubarb-hawthorn-berry reduction — Farallon, San Francisco
• Banana Split Mexicano: Blueberry-crème fraîche, Mexican chocolate and cookies-and-cream ice creams topped with strawberry-pineapple salsa, piloncillo peanuts, chocolate-espresso sauce, bananas and cinnamon whipped cream — Rosa Mexicano, New York City-based
• Frozen Lemon and Gingersnap Pie: Frozen custard with vanilla and fresh ginger, raspberry-lemon foam sauce — Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Newport Beach, Calif.-based

Sugar, sugar syrups and honey offer myriad ways to finish a dessert with little effort. A dusting of confectioner’s sugar can change the appearance of a dessert, taking it from restrained to rustic.

When dusting a pastry with confectioner’s sugar, use a strainer or fine sieve to shower it with a light mist of sugar. This works well on crisp pastries with little surface moisture. Use a coarse sieve for a rustic, bold blast of white on the dessert and on the plate. A slice of flourless chocolate cake or a piece of shortbread will look more hand-crafted with this fearless dusting. You can also blend cocoa powder or ground cinnamon into the sugar for visual contrast on creams and custards.

Chef Danny Grant at RIA in Chicago delights the eye and palate by stacking peanut butter, chocolate and caramel flavors, finishing with a dollop of banana ice cream. Photo courtesy of grant kessler for ria. Explore different forms of sugar that can be sprinkled on a dessert or its garnish before serving. Raw brown sugar, turbinado sugar and pearl sugar each has a unique color and visual texture. A dab of sour cream topped with crystals of coarse brown sugar will brighten crisps, tarts and fruit pies.

Sugar syrup, house-made or purchased, doubles as a quick sauce. It can be infused with just about anything, from citrus zest, cinnamon sticks and aromatic herbs to Jolly Rancher Candies. Dab, drizzle or brush it on the plate to enhance the dessert’s appearance and taste.

Honey is especially popular as a garnish right now, especially varietal honey or from a local producer. A dab of honey and some toasted almonds on fresh ricotta becomes a sophisticated dessert when the honey, nuts and cheese are sourced locally and menued as such.

On the Menu
• Ricotta pancake with orange syrup — The Breslin, New York City
• Deep-Fried Bread Pudding rolled in cinnamon sugar, served with vanilla ice cream topped with caramel and white-chocolate sauces and whipped cream — The Gulf View Grill, Englewood, Fla.
• Dark-chocolate cream cake, marshmallow cream, pistachio anglaise, lemon confit, candied pistachios — Aura, Boston

The right sauce or garnish can give an identity to your desserts. Carry this out as a theme each time a dessert is served. A garnish of Greek yogurt and honey, for example, identifies the plate’s origins or a restaurant’s theme. If you menu baklava and other Greek pastries, serve the identical garnish on each plate.

Customize a vanilla-custard sauce with a specialty liquor; the hazelnut notes in Frangelico, for example, put an Italian accent on a sweet sauce to serve with a roasted fig or pear. Use this custard sauce on other desserts — tiramisu, cannoli or zeppole.

Black sesame seeds or diced candied ginger speak Asian. Add a drizzle of plum sauce with a fortune cookie on the side for a more unforgettable presentation.

On the Menu
• Greek yogurt parfait, homemade granola, orange blossom honey, and macerated berries — The Bistro at Hilton Orlando, Orlando, Fla.
• Tahitian Vanilla Flan: Orange-cognac caramel, mandarin orange sorbet and cardamom churros — Water Grill, Los Angeles
• Chocolate Terrine with candied hibiscus, avocado pureé and sesame glass — Saucebox, Portland, Ore.

Crunchy textures round out a dessert plate. An item that snaps or splinters when bitten adds a thrill to the dessert experience. This is why fragile tuile and other types of wafer cookies are such popular dessert garnishes. But there are many other simple ways to add that extra bite.

Sugar-coated nuts and seeds and cereal pieces offer instant crisp notes; consider add-ons like peanut brittle and chocolate-coated wafers that can be chopped or broken onto a plate. Readily available phyllo shells are good containers for all sorts of creamy confections. Even sheets of phyllo can be loosely pleated before baking. (First brush the dough with melted butter then sprinkle with granulated sugar.)

Crumbs are one of the easiest ways to add crunch to a dessert plate. Anchor a scoop of ice cream or sorbet to the plate with a spoon of cookie crumbs to add function, texture and taste.

On the Menu
• Banana Split with salted-caramel ice cream and peanut brittle — Bay Wolf, Oakland, Calif.
• Honey and Hyssop Semifreddo with lacy nougatine crisps — 21 Federal, Nantucket, Mass.
• Cherry-Chocolate Linzer Tarte with tangerine granite, orange-blossom liquid and chocolate crumbles — P7 Restaurant, Washington, D.C.


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