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Gold-Plating Desserts

What could make a fudgy brownie even more delicious? How about a creamy, peanut-butter topping crowned with shaved chocolate? Photo courtesy Priscilla Martel. Operators delight all the senses with sophisticated sauces, thoughtful garnishes and textural surprises

By Priscilla Martel

From a stacked brownie sundae overflowing with salted caramel to a painterly composition of lime dacquoise with fresh cilantro and guava cream, consumers expect distinctive saucing and garnishes on their desserts, whether in fast-casual or fine-dining establishments. Hand-crafting and other contemporary influences are changing the way pastry chefs plate desserts.

“Sauces are a kind of dress-up on the plate,” says chef Candy Argondizza, director of culinary arts at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. They separate home cooking from restaurant service, she notes. And, for a long time, adding a squiggle of raspberry sauce and a sliced strawberry constituted a plated dessert.

But saucing on dessert went from being “necessary” to “overdone,” says Patricia Mitchell, senior executive chef, Kraft Foodservice. “If you’re putting sauce on the plate, [it shouldn’t be] because your plate is empty or your dessert needs to be brightened.”

From the influence of the lighter, juice-based sauces of Jean Georges Vongerichten in the 1980s to the innovative way Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis uses ingredients, chefs are shifting their concept of dessert saucing and finishing. Whether it’s pub food or fine dining, as much thought goes into today’s plated dessert as into a main course.

The “dining experience” trend plays a role in dessert-plating concepts, says Mitchell. “A good example of that is chocolate. Five years ago the consumer didn’t understand percentages in chocolate. Now that we do, people want to experience it more.”

Chocolate, caramel and raspberry top the list of go-to dessert-sauce flavors. But more sauces are in wide use. Smucker’s most recent additions to its PlateScapers line are lime and strawberry. Dulce de Leche, Kahlua, Pumpkin Pie, Cappuccino, Vanilla Bean, White Chocolate, Wild Berry and Superfruit are some of the myriad plating sauces and purees available from such companies as Amoretti, Custom Culinary, Monin and Torani.

“We’ve seen a consistent demand for peanut-butter topping,” notes Lisa Gallagher, director of marketing-foodservice desserts for ConAgra Foods. “Because of its versatility and unique flavor profile, it can be a wonderful addition to a multitude of menu items.

“Quality, hot chocolate-fudge toppings continue to drive demand in dessert toppings,” she adds, emphasizing quality as a key component. “Operators are seeking chocolate fudges that balance the cocoa and sugar notes, drape well, and do not leave any off-flavor notes.”

Although stripes, squirts and squiggles are standard, more pastry chefs are applying sauces with spoons and pastry brushes. The look is more authentic and speaks to naturalism, a trend in artisan food. The deft application of a dessert sauce conveys the flavor message in a powerful way without requiring a total menu revamp.

Chefs also are moving beyond the mint-sprig garnish. These days, a tangle of micro herbs and edible blossoms adds freshness as well as flavor. Executive Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour with  the KNR Restaurant Group uses such varieties as Jamaican mint, micro purple basil and borage grown especially for him.

“The flavor of basil works well in cream,” he says of a sauce he serves with Key lime pie, basil syrup and fresh berries. Basil seeds also find a place in his inventive plates at KNR’s brands in Miami and New York City, including Solea, Quattro and Sosta Pizzeria Enoteca.

“Before, dessert sauces were an afterthought, almost just a color on the plate,” says Vanessa Paz, pastry chef of Michy’s in Miami. She pairs cherry pie with red-wine gastrique and a cherry-vanilla ice cream float. She employs apple cider in a caramel sauce for vanilla-toffee ice cream, which is served with deep-fried apple pie. The tart cider harmonizes with the sweeter apple notes in the pie.

Such a combination exemplifies what Hedy Goldsmith calls “hitting the palate at all different levels.” The pastry chef at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, Goldsmith says that she creates sauces that complement the ingredients without overpowering the dessert. She accomplishes this by incorporating sour with sweet elements, such as caramel made with tart crème fraîche or balsamic vinegar with fruits.

Citrus slices encapsulated in isomalt, a beet-derived sugar substitute, make a stunning garnish, finds Quattro chef Antonio Bachour. Photo courtesy of quattro miami. “I do a lot of pickling — pickled peaches, rhubarb,” Goldsmith says. “Fruit becomes the sauce and the finishing product. If I am doing something with chocolate, I would finish it with a dried-cherry black-mustard-seed chutney — something you really would not expect from chocolate.”

Dotting a dessert plate with something acidic mirrors what students learn on the savory side. “A reduction of vinegar or a gastrique, just a couple of dots on the plate for the acidity, goes with something fatty,” says the French Culinary Institute’s Argondizza.

Salty and sweet combinations continue to be popular dessert finishes. “Salted caramel is still super on-trend,” says Kraft’s Mitchell, adding that “salt itself is being used as a topping.” Goldsmith uses salt to enhance the flavor and add mystery to her desserts.

At Balthazar in New York, as at many restaurants nationwide, profiteroles are served with pitchers of warm chocolate sauce, poured tableside by staff. Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone recently created a dark-chocolate “lipstick” meant to enhance the experience of eating vanilla ice cream. Patrons “apply” the lipstick between bites.

Edible lipstick may be too avant garde for the average diner, but the message is strong: Interactivity has an appeal. Dipping into or pouring on a dessert sauce offers an experience as well as a complement to the dish.

Red velvet cake with milk and ice cream shooters are signatures of Paz’s playful style. “I like to have little shakes on the side,” she says.

Many restaurateurs are playing with dessert side sauces. Red Robin offers cheesecake bites with dipping sauces. Saucebox in Portland, Ore., serves a condensed-milk dipping sauce with its spiced rice-pudding spring rolls. And in Newton, Mass., B Street offers a Pear and Cranberry Turnover with sea salt-caramel dipping sauce.

If a side of sauce suggests whimsy, a scoop of ice cream seals the dessert sale. “Ice cream itself is the top dessert on menus and in many consumers’ hearts — be it in a bowl, cone or cup; topped, blended or left alone,” states Technomic’s 2011 Market Intelligence Report on ice cream.

At Michy’s, a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the signature bread pudding makes a simple dessert a complete dining experience. Paz says there is a “comfort” factor when the customer sees the scoop of ice cream melting on top. But it serves a more practical purpose; with a small staff, ice cream is easy to serve and makes its own sauce on the plate.

Ice cream suppliers’ capabilities are redefining à la mode. At Michy’s, the ice cream is outsourced but flavors like Vanilla Toffee and Dulce de Leche are available. Cold Stone Creamery’s new Plated Desserts line evolved from a search for a new way to present ice cream, says Ray Karam, “taste master” at the company. The four items, which debuted in February, include a funnel cake, churros, a classic brownie and chocolate lava cake. Each dessert is accompanied by specific ice creams, toppings and garnishes.

“Why not take something out of the ordinary and dress it up?” asks Karam, explaining the thought process behind the funnel cake. “We wanted a light, airy feel, whipped topping and strawberry drizzled over it. The red and white jump out at you, and we dust with confectioner’s sugar to stay true to funnel cake.”

But more importantly, each plated dessert has what Karam calls the “handmade, organic” look so appealing to today’s consumer.

While the range of ice cream and sorbet flavors available to today’s operator is rejuvenating dessert finishing, cream chargers are changing the way whipped toppings are served on plated desserts. Cream chargers enable the frothing or foaming of everything from heavy cream to thickened fruit syrups.

Whipped cream, foams and froths “are great for visual appearance, for presentation, and give some sort of lift” to the plate says, Judiaann Woo, executive director for culinary development at iSi North America. Chain restaurants, says Woo, gain efficiency with such flavorings as maple syrup in whipped cream on waffles or pancakes. The flavored cream is made ahead of time but added at the last moment to melt into the dessert.

A new take on à la mode is Cold Stone Creamery’s Churro Caramel Crave, with vanilla ice cream, caramel and whipped topping dressing up cinnamon-dusted churros. Photo courtesy of cold stone creamery.
Dunkin’ Brands’ Christopher Boos says the “texture trail” is what he shoots for when creating a plated dessert. It’s the experience of creamy versus crunchy, sweetness versus acidity, and how the combination hits the tongue and palate. From chopped pecans to shredded shiso, textural elements provide visual and flavor excitement.

Goldsmith uses popcorn as a textural as well as a flavor note. She infuses it into her ice cream base and also adds popped kernels to the plate. For a more dramatic effect, she pairs icy granité with fruit desserts, exploiting the concept of dynamic contrast. Instead of a tuile wafer, a classic crisp element on plated desserts, she prefers brittles, which stand up to the humidity in south Florida, where she works.

“I recreate a tuile in a delicate brittle, an Indian spice brittle that sits on the fence between savory and sweet,” she says.

Isomalt, a sugar alcohol made from beets, is a relatively recent addition to the pastry pantry. It’s easier to work with than cooked cane sugar and facilitates texture on the plate by allowing pastry chefs to prepare brittle and sugar decorations that hold up in humid conditions.

Chefs like Bachour use isomalt to make pulled-sugar decorations for plate garnishes or decorative elements. Bachour traps dried citrus slices in isomalt to use as a striking garnish. When melted between two baking sheets, isomalt forms an irregular bubble pattern that many chefs use for plate décor.

“We always look for ways to disperse texture on a plate,” says Tyler Anderson, executive chef of the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton, Conn. He and his staff employ “granola,” “brittle” and “croutons” on both sweet and savory preparations.

Edible “soil” popularized at Noma in Copenhagen is another contemporary plate finish. Bachour blends tapioca powder with melted chocolate, peanut butter, honey butter or olive oil. This enables him to combine different kinds of textures on the same plate, often with the same ingredient, such as chocolate.

“Nutella and dark-chocolate powder taste like you’re eating chocolate, but in powder form they are very different,” he says. Bachour also favors meringue for its crispy texture, noting also that “you can play with the color.”

On the subject of dessert composition, Kraft’s Mitchell asks whether a garnish will improve the dessert and why. “Is the garnish going to add texture and visual appeal?” she asks. “Do the textures go well and add the right kind of flavor?”

Using this logic, she recently created a molten chocolate cheesecake formula, a technical feat, because cheesecake is normally served chilled. She used Oreo crumbs for the crust and used them again in a Florentine tuile. “You want to try to have as many uses as possible for an ingredient,” she says. Even fast-casual operations can employ this type of thinking she says, citing a mini cup as an example. She describes a reconstructed apple pie, some pieces of pâté brisé or different type of crumbs and apple cooked with calvados as an example of a dessert that could be served in a cup or verrine.

“Garnishes are more like accompaniments that distribute flavor throughout the plate” says chef Anderson of plate finishing. They make plates more visually and texturally interesting.

Now, more pastry chefs and restaurant operators are expanding their view of what constitutes a dessert sauce and garnish, adding a payoff both in flavor and sales.

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