Techniques: Plated Desserts

Plated desserts are more common in restaurants, resorts, and dessert cafes than they are in the home.  However, many of the theories, thought processes, techniques, and strategies that are used to develop a successful plated dessert can apply to just about any dessert.  Below is a condensed version of my senior collegiate honors research paper: Creating a More Effective Dessert Presentation.

Sources

The Four Components of a Plated Dessert
-Main Item
-Sauce
-Crunch Component
-Garnish
Flavor
Form and Color
Texture and Temperature
Garnishes
Serving Vessels

The Four Components of A Plated Dessert

A mini fruit tart my team made in school. The tart shell is the crunch component and the fruit tart itself is the main item. The plate has two sauces and the chocolate butterfly as a garnish.

Plated dessert presentations (or simply plated desserts) are desserts that are served by an establishment (such as restaurant, resort, or dessert café) after it is ordered by a guest and enjoyed on site.  Most home bakers don’t make plated desserts because of the time and dedication it can take.  As a home baker you would have to make the sauce and the other components when all you really want to do is eat your cake.  Plated desserts are not meant to be taken home.  True you can put all of the components together in a to-go box but there is still something missing.  Whether it be the actual expression and build of the components (as opposed to being all thrown together in a Styrofoam box) or even something as simple as it needs to be served on a certain plate affects the chef’s true expression of the plated dessert.

It is widely accepted that there are four components of a plated dessert: The main item, the dessert sauces, the crunch component, and the garnish.  A plated dessert should have all of these items, but if it lacks any one of these items (except for the main item) it can still be a plated dessert.  It is also widely believed that all of the components should be edible, and many chefs also believe that each component should be eaten.  That second point is widely debated because many chefs like to create sugar decorations and structures for presentations which are technically edible but are never actually eaten.

Before describing each core component it is important to point out a plated dessert presentation’s purpose.  A plated dessert has three main goals (though it may have more).  The first goal is to satisfy the customer.  This goal emphasizes flavor above all else, though you can argue that the actual visual design of the plate also satisfies a customer.  The second goal is to complement the venue’s theme.  If you are at an Asian restaurant and they serve Tres Leches cake with white chocolate cowboy hats as a garnish, it may look nice but it doesn’t really work well for the restaurant.  This goal emphasizes the visual, and fun and creative expressions of a dessert continue to bring customers back.  The final goal is to make a dessert that is affordable in the terms of the restaurant.  This is in terms of both complexity and price.  A dessert that is too complex will put too much stress on the kitchen staff when it needs to be reproduced and a dessert that is too expensive will never be purchased by the customer.  The price point should make sense though so the restaurant doesn’t lose money if the dessert is priced too cheaply.  A typical price point for plated desserts in a restaurant that’s entrées cost between $15-$25 should be between $7 – $9.

The Main Item

The main item can be anything such as a slice of pie, a mini tart, a cluster of cookies, custard. Here the main item is a slice of turtle pie.

The main item of a plated dessert is the actual dessert itself.  The main item as a finished product should weigh between three and five ounces but it is not unusual for it to weigh as much as 8 ounces.  The main item should never be so large that is overwhelming.  If served in a restaurant for example it should be a nice sweet ending.  However, if served in a dessert café it is expected to be on the larger side, since that will be the only meal a guest will have there.

The main item should be the main focal point of the dessert presentation.  This reassures the guest’s choice and prevents the customer from being distracted from all the other components of the plated dessert.  In other words, the slice of cake (or whatever the dessert is) is the most important part of the dessert and should not be over whelmed or lost among the other components.  The main item should have taken longer to prepare than any other component in the presentation.  It should also be the main source of flavor for the presentation while the other components contrast and complement it.

The other components should be used with just as much care as the main item.  They should be purposeful and well thought out.  An intelligent customer can easily figure out which parts are necessary and which were just used as fillers and could be offended at the professionalism and integrity the venue lacks.  In other words, don’t just throw caramel sauce or a cookie into the dessert because a plated dessert should have a sauce and a crunch component.  The other components have a purpose and should be used in that manner.  They should also be visually appealing and help guide the guest’s eyes to the main item, though flavor is always the most important role of any of the components.

The Sauce

Plated linzer tart slice made by a team in one of my classes. The two sauces here are creme anglais and raspberry sauce. Notice that raspberries are used to help identify the secondary sauce. Also notice that the plate is flooded, which is accepted for very dry desserts like a linzer tart.

A plated dessert should have up to two sauces but if tastefully approached more can be used.  Overall the sauces should not weigh more than one to two ounces with the exception of a flooded design.  Sauce is very important for dry items like pies and cakes but a sauce can add to any dessert.  If you’ve read the section on common dessert sauces then you know sauce is a complicated category in itself.  Since there are so many different kinds of sauces the combination of flavors, colors, and textures is almost endless – but as emphasized before each of these should be expressed tastefully and they should make sense to the dessert.  If you are serving a flan, a kiwi puree may not be a good way to go even if it does add color to the dessert.  If you are serving a sticky gooey dessert, a rich caramel sauce may not be a good direction – a smooth sauce may help balance out the stickiness.

The sauces used should be about the same consistency.  This is so the sauces don’t run into each other.  This effect is called bleeding.  The sauces should be able to sit next to each, and even inside one another, and hold their own shape.  This allows for dessert sauces to be manipulated like paint and create fun designs.

Some dessert presentations may lack a sauce depending on what vessel it is served in, though these desserts should be very moist in nature.  Some have the sauce poured right on top – as in the case of an ice cream sundae for example.  Some desserts even make their own sauce such as flan.

Crunch Component

Here is a slice of white chocolate mousse cake made by my team in school. Note that white chocolate mousse cake is very soft and even though it has a cake (flour) component it still needs a crunch component. Here we used almond lace cookies to provide that crunch. Notice too that the sauce on the plate matches the sauce on the top of the cake, and the second sauce was used to pipe chocolate dots on top of the cake which mirrors the cake layer.

A crunch component is exactly how it sounds.  It is an added component that adds a crunch to the dessert.  This is especially important to soft desserts like custard and ice cream.  It is most commonly used when the main item lacks flour though it can be used to enhance any dish whether it has flour or not.  The main idea behind a crunch component is to add contrasting texture to a dessert.  Consider being in room with flowers.  Eventually you stop smelling the flowers because your nose gets used to the smell.  The same feeling can happen with a dessert which is why contrasting components are just as important as complimentary ones.  A nice crunch here and there awakens the mouth so the dessert can be enjoyed at its max – from first bite to last bite.

Crunch components are usually a dry decorative cookie, such as a tuille or biscotti, but anything can be used such as nougat.  Tuille is a very popular crunch component because it is easy to make, its flavor is easy altered, and it can be shaped into various shapes – even three dimensional shapes.  When it comes out of the oven and is still hot it is pliable and can be molded into a variety of shapes.

Garnish

This almond tart has several garnishes including fruit peel, mint leaves, chantilly cream, and a chocolate butterfly. The tuille flower is a crunch component but because the main item has crunchy toasted almonds it may be considered more of a garnish in this instance.

The garnish is the final component of a plated dessert.  This broad category can be just about anything.  Common garnishes include fresh mint leaves, powdered sugar, chocolate piping, fruit, chocolate and sugar work, and sorbet.  Since the garnish category is so broad in nature, it allows the chef to add to the depth and complexity of the dessert.  However, a garnish should be used with restraint just as much as it should be used tastefully.  A garnish that is over used loses its effect and can ruin a dessert.  The most commonly over used garnish is the mint leaf.  Yes it has a refreshing flavor and adds a bright green to desserts but anybody can use a mint leaf.  A pastry chef should push his boundaries and use his creativity to find a garnish that works better than a mint leaf.  The garnish component is explored more further down on this page.

Flavor

“The most important role of the components is to satisfy a total flavor experience by either complementing or contrasting the main item’s flavor without masking or overcomplicating each other’s flavor.”

Flavor is a huge category and encompasses more than one would think.  Flavor includes seasonal flavors, unique and uncommon essences (especially for the region), flavor combinations (how flavors taste together), and even texture and temperature influence flavor.  Flavor is very tricky though.  Many customers prefer traditional desserts and usually avoid unique desserts.  For example: Almost all establishments that serve dessert will have a chocolate cake.  That’s because chocolate cake is a classic dessert.  Many people will order a chocolate cake instead of trying something new like a ginger and lychee flan.  Though a pastry chef may become frustrated and bored with making the same chocolate cake over and over again, he also knows that it is important to respect that traditional desserts are highly desired.  Think of it this way: The traditional desserts will always bring in money, giving you the resources to branch out and experiment with another dessert.  A menu can have varied options of course, so you can provide a chocolate cake for the traditionalists and a ginger and lychee flan for the adventurous.

Flavor at its most basic level is made up of three sensations, as pointed out in Figoni’s How Baking Works.  The three sensations are: the basic tastes, smell, and chemical feeling factors.  To these sensations I would add texture and temperature though you could argue that those fall into the chemical feeling factors category.

Basic Tastes

Recall the four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.  A fifth flavor called umami has been accepted by the culinary and scientific communities.  Umami is a savory flavor and is usually associated with soy sauce and MSG.  Anyway, these basic tastes were once limited to just being on the tongue but research has shown that taste buds exist all over the mouth.  However, taste buds can only pick up those basic flavors.  Smell is what allows us to perceive peppermint and distinguish different flavors of candy.  To test this theory, try this experiment.  Open a bag of skittles or starburst and close your eyes and pinch your nose shut.  Pick up a random skittle or starburst and taste it.  What flavor is it?  All you can taste is sweet.  Now unpinch your nose – and now you can taste the entire flavor.

UPDATE: All basic tastes are water soluble. So if your tongue is dry and has no saliva you will have a harder time detecting these basic tastes. July 22, 2013 END UPDATE

Aroma

Smell, or aroma, is the more sophisticated component of flavor.  It is what allows us to distinguish between thousands upon thousands of flavors.  There are some limitations to aroma.  Aroma must be able to float into the nose so the molecules must be small and light.  Aroma is also highly complicated and contains many different kinds of molecules, which is why someone is able to taste the difference between a real strawberry flavor and an artificial strawberry flavor.  The natural strawberry has a more complex aroma profile than say a strawberry candy that was artificially flavored.  In order to create the strawberry’s flavor perfectly one would have to recreate every single molecule involved in aroma which is very expensive.

Artificial Flavors vs. Natural Flavors

Natural flavors don’t necessarily mean the source itself. Oils and extracts can be considered natural as they are derived from a natural source. Artificial flavorings can be found in oils, extracts, and alcohol so don’t assume that because it is an oil or extract that it is natural.

Most chefs are against using artificial flavors.  After all flavor already exists in nature it’s just a matter of extracting in order to use it.  There are some benefits to using artificial flavor:

For one, it’s easy.  Adding in pistachio compound to make a pistachio cake is a lot easier than pulverizing pistachios.

Two, artificial flavors (like compounds) are shelf-stable.  This means you can keep them in the bake shop at room temperature for an indefinite amount of time.  This also means that the product has one less ingredient that can spoil and you may not have to refrigerate the final product.  A cake made with strawberry compound can sit out at room temperature over night but a cake with fresh strawberries throughout may not be able to sit out without spoiling.

Three, natural flavors can be very delicate.  Apple is a good example but I usually like to use lychee as an example.  Lychee has a very quiet delicate flavor – almost like a whisper.  If you were to make a lychee custard the fat in the custard would completely mask the lychee’s flavor.  In order to compensate you would have to use a ton of lychee fruit which could change the consistency and texture of the final product.  A lychee compound would have concentrated flavor so it could be used in smaller amounts.

Fourth, natural flavors are highly inconsistent.  One strawberry might have a fuller flavor than another strawberry.  Strawberries grown in the summer will have a stronger flavor than a strawberry grown in the winter.  Shipping strawberries can also weaken flavor.  The ripeness of each individual strawberry can vary.  For a bake shop that requires full strawberry flavor each time for a popular menu item sometimes fresh is not the way to go.  A strawberry compound  made by a manufacturer will always have  a consistent flavor batch after batch – something a pastry chef can come to rely on.

Finally, using the natural ingredient may have undesirable side effects.  Blackberries are a good example.  You can use blackberries to make a blackberry cake but they also have a ton of seeds.  Strawberries and lychee fruit have a lot of water and can change the consistency of the batter.

Even with all those reasons, I am one of those people who believe that natural flavor should be used as much as possible.  Flavoring oils which are derived from natural sources are gaining popularity.  Oil is a fat which helps deliver flavor in ways that extracts cannot.  Oils are more expensive than compounds but are natural.  Oils are easy to use and are shelf-stable as well.  Delicate flavors can be enhanced through reduction and watery fruits can have water removed – though many fruits can have their flavored changed during the cooking process.  Inconsistent flavors can be balanced out by using a blend of different fruits but many chefs would argue that fruits should be used seasonally anyway.

Chemical Feeling Factors

Chemical feeling factors are the components of flavor that humans perceive as sensations within the mouth.  Figoni explains chemical feeling factors in her book How Baking Works as, “the pungency of ginger, the burn of cinnamon, the cooling of mint, the tingling of carbon dioxide [like in carbonated beverages], and the sting of alcohol.”  The chemical feeling factor most people identify off the top of their heads is spicy.  Unlike aroma which requires evaporation to be sensed, chemical feeling factors are absorbed into the skin.

Texture

Texture is a characteristic of a substance but here I’ll describe it as a component of flavor.  After all when we eat something we don’t only describe how it tastes but how it feels – the total mouth experience.  Texture is the way a product feels; whether it is creamy and smooth or hard and crunchy.  Texture can manipulate flavor.  Hard and thick food is harder to taste because it takes longer for the molecules to be dissolved and be perceived.  For example: Jello that is very gummy has a flavor that’s hard to detect until we start to chew on it and melt the gelatin.  As mentioned before, a dessert that is smooth and creamy can become dull after each bite.  By introducing a new sensation with a crunch component (as well as a flavor different than the dessert) the mouth becomes awake again and can enjoy the creamy dessert at its maximum again.

Temperature

Temperature isn’t necessarily a component of flavor so much as it can influence how flavor is perceived.  For example: Saltiness is perceived less when food is hot while sweetness is perceived less when food is cold.  In addition, aroma molecules move much more slowly when they are cold.  This is why it is important to add extra flavor to iced dessert such as sorbet.  A chef can also use temperature to awaken the mouth by providing contrasts – just like in texture.  A mouth becomes numb when eating lots of ice cream but warm hot fudge can awaken the mouth and taste buds again.  Balance in both texture and temperature as well as flavor is important in creating a memorable plated dessert.  The more effort and thought you put into your dessert presentation the better it will be – and whether your customers realize the effort or not they will appreciate it.

The Importance of Fat

Fat is typically essential to flavor since flavor molecules are usually fat-soluble.  If those molecules cannot dissolve then flavor is not perceived – which is why low-fat and fat-free foods seem to lack flavor.  I’m not suggesting using massive amounts of butter however.  Too much fat can mask flavor by coating the tongue drowning out the flavor – the only flavor you’ll pick up is butter.  Custards, that are typically high in fat from egg yolks, need a little extra flavor since the fat in the custard can coat the tongue.

UPDATE:
I recently took a class in gastronomy and learned that aroma molecules can be water or fat soluble, though it seems that more often than not they are fat soluble. In the case of fruits and vegetables, the aroma molecules are trapped within the cells walls and can only escape through physical means (chewing, water boiling within the cells turn into steam and rupture the cell walls) or chemical means (cellulose is broken down). When those molecules escape they will either migrate toward the medium they are soluble in or avoid the mediums they are not soluble in.

Example: Asparagus’ aroma molecules are mostly water soluble, so to maximize the amount of aroma molecules left inside the asparagus it is best to cook it in oil. Broccoli’s and green beans’ aroma molecules are mostly fat soluble, so to maximize the amount of aroma molecules retained in the respective vegetables after cooking it is best to cook them in water. Keep in mind that since the aroma has been attracted to the medium (oil or water) you now have a flavored medium – can you use it in the final dish? Do you need to?

Also keep in mind that when the aromas dissolve in the mediums they can become volatile and evaporate away – just as you need them to in the mouth in order to detect them.

Remember that natural aromas are complex. In the above example asparagus’ aroma molecules are mostly water soluble though it may also contain aroma molecules that are fat soluble. This means that the overall flavor of an ingredient can change depending on the medium you cook it in. It also means when you create a infusion (steeping something in liquid over time) that the infusion can taste differently if it is infused in a water-based or lipid-based medium.
July 22, 2013
END UPDATE

Flavor Combinations

My dessert sushi plated dessert is an excellent example of flavor combinations. Wasabi creme anglais, strawberry mango compote, spicy peanut caramel sauce, lemon grass ganache – each sauce is served in a coconut rice cake and is dipped in a black cherry or black currant melba sauce.

Playing with flavor in dessert is as fun as it gets.  I would say that 9 out of 10 chefs will say they enjoy discovering new flavors, pairing it with other flavors, and experimenting with how to get the most of the flavor.  If you watch a lot of food television then you are already aware of this – just recently I saw a cupcake that had wasabi infused in the icing.  With the amount of flavors out there in the world the combinations of flavor is nearly limitless.  Just as it is important to experiment with new flavors to broaden your horizons and learn it’s also important to respect those classic combinations people have come to expect.  These combinations include (but are not limited to!): Chocolate and caramel, chocolate and mint, banana and caramel, cinnamon and nutmeg, cinnamon and apple, chocolate and raspberry, and banana and strawberry.  For inspiration visit restaurants or grocery stores.  Check ice cream and cereal (especially granola and trail mix) and see what they have mixed together.  Visit an international food market and make a promise to yourself to try a new fruit or juice while you are there.  Right now I’m really liking anise and I find that it goes well with vanilla and raspberry.  While experimenting with raspberry reductions I found that when you reduce raspberry sauce with ginger it takes on a bubblegum flavor – though not everybody who tried it agreed : )

Flavor Rules

Most chefs, especially pastry chefs, tend to follow the three flavor rule.  This means that the plate should have no more than three distinct flavors on the plate – including the main item, the crunch component, and the sauces.  If you use too many flavors it may be overwhelming for the customer (too many sensations going on, confusing) and for the chef (lots of preparation).  It’s good to experiment outside of this rule though so try not to let it limit you.  If you want to create a chocolate and raspberry cake that you serve with a lavender-vanilla shortbread cookie – go for it.  Fruit is a good exception to this rule as fruits usually go well with one another, like a fruit salad.

Form and Color

I like to think of form as the “outside-of-the-box” component of dessert.  Let’s face it: we expect the dessert to have flavor.  Yes, we are excited when it tastes great and surprised when the flavors are new.  But when we see a dessert that towers from the two dimensional into the three dimensional we are amazed and taken to a new world.  Even when it’s something as simple as a cake being shaped into a heart for Valentine’s Day the form of a dessert can have as much of an impact on the dessert sensation as flavor can.

Shape

Here is a picture from Pastry’s Best magazine (Nov. 2006) of Alicia Prescott’s coconut creme caramel with pan fried banana bread, mango papya piccalilli, and pistachio lime tuiles. Note that the main item is the flan and everything seems to draw your eye toward it. Also notice all the different shapes she used to give her presentation life and energy.

The three most commonly seen shapes in dessert are circles, triangles, and squares.  The reason for this is that these shapes typically lead to the least amount of waste in the bake shop.  These are also the shapes that just naturally form in the bake shop: spherical ice cream scoops, cookie discs, wedges of pie, and square slices of sheet cake and brownies.  To add to your dessert presentation try incorporating several shapes into one presentation.  Try positioning the component in a different way – stand the cake on its side for example.  You can also try using different shapes other than circles, triangles, and squares.  As mentioned, the biggest pitfall to unique shapes is waste.  Many bake shops don’t have heart shaped pans for cake so they end up cutting a square cake into a heart – resulting in a lot of waste.  These bake shops don’t have these special pans because having lots of different shaped pans consumes lots of space in the bake shop and adds to clutter.  Waste can eat into profits so it’s important to reincorporate waste into a different dessert.  Bread pudding can utilize cake pieces.  You can crush the left over pieces into crumbs and create cake balls.  The cake crumbs can be added into cake batter.  Sample pieces of cake to your customers.  Cake also freezes very well.  As long as you think creatively, you can even put your scraps to good use.

Size

This is from Grand Finales: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Notice the size of the main item (a scoop of sorbet) compared to the rest of the dessert. While unmistakeably stunning the size of the main item is a little underwhelming. In truth, this plate is normally used as an intermezzo (palate refresher) and probably doesn’t take much time to make.

Size is a component of form that we are all familiar with.  Weight of a dessert can influence size.  A hefty flourless chocolate cake will be more filling than an angel food cake.  The actual measurements of the dessert are also size.  If you serve a customer an 11” tall angel food cake that is 8” wide of course it will be more over whelming than a 4” slice of flourless cake.  You can add more to your dessert’s presentation by incorporating components of different weights and dimensions on your plate.  A large slice of cake, fruit salsa with tiny pieces, a long triangle cookie, and small crouton sized pieces of cake can create a whimsical presentation.  Remember that the main item should be your largest component on your plate.  If you have all these fanciful garnishes that are larger than the dessert – especially if the dessert is just a scoop of sorbet – the customer may be unsatisfied if she was expecting more, even if the garnishes are beautiful.

Height

The number one way chefs can add a unique feeling to a dessert presentation is to incorporate height.  Height can be difficult to achieve because many components in dessert are fragile.  However, a plate that incorporates height has an amazing artistic feeling.  To achieve height try standing a round main component on its side (which adds a unique appearance in itself), or use long garnishes like sugar sticks, chocolate cigarettes, and tuille piped in squiggles.

Color

Here is another dessert from Grand Finales: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Notice the chocolate squiggles that give lots of height to an otherwise flat dessert. Also notice how the colors play off of each other so well but do not overwhelm one another. They work together to make the plate look appetizing.

Color is very important to dessert.  It can make a presentation appetizing, bland, or frightening.  There are certain rules, methods, and standards for manipulating color when creating a dessert presentation.  Color plays a major role when it comes to representing your dessert.  Humans link specific colors to specific flavors.  When you think of watermelon candy what color do you think of?  Most people will say pink.  Did you know that lifesavers has watermelon lifesavers colored green?  What if I gave you a blue cake and it tasted like lemon?  It would probably be startling.  You would begin to question the dessert and yourself, “Did this really taste like lemon?  I thought it would taste… I don’t know… blue!  Like blueberry or raspberry or something.”  If you do not color your food properly customers may misinterpret flavors.  If you prepare a pistachio icing with yellow food coloring the customer may never realize the icing is pistachio because he is too busy trying to figure out a yellow food that tastes like your icing.  If the icing is green then the customer doesn’t get lost in his thoughts and instead gets lost in your dessert.

Artificial and Natural Coloring

It is generally more respectable when a pastry chef uses natural means to color her desserts.  Typically, most chefs follow this route anyway since it is very easy.  It is actually more difficult to make artificial colors look appetizing and appealing since many times artificial colors can take on an unnatural feeling.  If you use too much the color looks radioactive.  If you use too little it will look bland and boring.

Here is a picture of Chef Thomas Lui’s Spring plated dessert from Pastry’s Best magazine (Nov. 2005). A very satuated green is typically unexceptable in plated desserts, especially when it is artificial, because green can be off putting especially in desserts. However, because the dessert is flavored green tea (which also contains a red bean filling and lychee compote) it works. It also helps the customer identify the flavor. Some green teas, like matcha powder, have a very deep green tint already so it isn’t clear how the green coloring was incorporated into dessert.

However, food coloring does have its place in the bake shop and should not be avoided just because it is artificial – unless you are running an all natural operation.  Food coloring adds color to custards, icings, and gels effortlessly without adding additional moisture or components like fruit seeds or unwanted flavor.  Let’s go back to the pistachio example.  It is difficult to make a naturally green icing using real pistachios.  Pistachios may make your icing gritty and will impart hardly any green color.

Try to avoid using colors that are not commonly found naturally in foods: blue, pink, jet black, purple, and odd shades of green.  These colors can have cartoony or childish effect.  In the case of black it could have a very off-putting effect.  Always use a light touch when coloring your food.  Too much color and your food will look radioactive (it bears repeating).  A pastel purple to denote a lavender pastry cream is more appropriate than a very bright purple cream.  In addition, bright colors are very “loud” and the customer will assume the flavor will be just as loud – making him hesitant to try it.

Incorporate Lots of Color

To make desserts compelling and appetizing, use lots of color.  Consider fruit salad: it is more interesting when it is bright and colorful and it draws your eye more when there are lots of different colors.  To easily add color to your dessert use fresh fruit or fruit sorbet.  Balance though is also important.  Don’t just add as many colors as you can because you want your dessert to be engaging.  Too many colors and it could become circus-like.  Also, if your dessert is a dark chocolate cake and you serve it on a dark plate and you pipe a rosette or white whipped cream on top – where is your eye drawn?  To the whipped cream.  This can be very awkward for your customer.  However, don’t be afraid to experiment with bright and dark colors.  If you implement them correctly you can give your presentation a unique effect.

Monochromatic

This is Chef Jim Graham’s White Coffee Ice Cream taken from Grand Finales: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. I just love this dessert. It is so simple and complex at the same time. It features a simple style and a random arrangement but most of all it is monochromatic. It isn’t all white but shades of white and the result is a beautiful layer of depth.

Monochromatic schemes have their place in dessert presentation.  Sometimes limiting yourself to two colors is actually more challenging than using lots of color – especially if you’re trying to make a whimsical design.  There is a school of thought that focuses less on color and more on design to attempt to create a more subtle beauty.  Plates that focus on chocolate, height, and simplicity (small plates with few components or haphazardly arranged components) all benefit from monochromatic schemes.

Many customers who crave a chocolate dessert sometimes crave the most chocolate tasting thing they can find.  A plate that includes a chocolate cake with many brilliant fruit sauces may not be as appealing to these customers as a plate that follows a dark caramel and dark chocolate color scheme.  Remember though that plates that lack color variety can be perceived as bland.  Just remember: as long as reason, sensibility, and the customer’s appetite are kept in mind, success in the color component is always within reach.

Texture and Temperature

Recall that texture and temperature are two ways to add contrasts to your dessert.  It helps reawaken a bored mouth by exciting it with a new sensation.  Each new sensation helps the customer enjoy each bite like it was the first bite.

Texture

Texture is all around.  It is the jiggle and resilience of gelatin, the smoothness of custard and panna cotta, the crispness of a cookie, the airiness of meringue and Chantilly cream, the frothiness of foam, the sponginess of cake, and the effervescence of champagne – and this list is hardly inclusive.  To create a contrast in your dessert presentation, you should try to incorporate different textures.  The most common texture contrast in plated dessert presentations is soft versus hard or delicate versus crisp.  The most classic combination is a soft cake and a crisp tuille.  An even more stark contrast would be custard and peanut brittle.

This is from the Peach Bellini epsiode. Notice the many different textures found in just one dessert. The smooth creaminess of panna cotta, the resilience of the champagne gel, and the crunchiness of the almond lace cookie. A successful plated dessert should try to incoporate lots of texture without the feeling of being forced.

Tuille is the most often used crunch component.  It is easy to prepare, can be molded into various shapes, the batter lasts a long time in the refrigerator, and is easy to flavor.  However, you shouldn’t rely too much on tuille cookies to create texture contrasts.  It is important to challenge yourself and try different things – even if it’s just a different kind of cookie.  Almond lace cookies (used in the peach bellini episode) are even crisper than tuille is and can also be differently shaped.  Other cookies that are useful in dessert presentations include biscotti, gingersnaps, and even chocolate chip cookies.  Each familiar cookie provides texture contrast and brings a sense of nostalgia to the plate.

Cookies aren’t the only way to provide textural contrast.  Baked meringue is much lighter than cookies and has a unique delicate crispness.  In fact, you can incorporate meringue as a layer in a cake as I did in the vanilla chiffon genoise cake as a Japonaise layer.  Nuts, caramelized, candied, or toasted, also give a great bite to any dessert and can be easily added by stirring them into a batter or crushing them and sprinkling them on top of a dessert.  Edible herbs and flowers can be transformed to a delightful crispness by brushing a thin layer of light beaten egg and then sprinkling sugar over them.  This frosting technique works great with fruit like strawberries, grapes, and cherries.  Keep in mind though this technique does not cook the egg white.

Fruits are also great for texture.  Berries are great to contrast very soft custards and gels.  Apples and pears are especially useful as they have a strong bite to them.  In addition, thin apple and pear slices make excellent crunch components when lightly baked in an oven.  Slice the apple or pear very thinly (a mandoline helps).  On a sheet pan prepared with a silpat, sprinkle powdered sugar over the silpat and place the fruit slices on top.  Sprinkle powered sugar on top of the fruit slices.  Bake pear slices at 200 degrees until they are caramelized, dry, and crisp.  Pear chips are especially great because they have a very elegant shape to them.

Experiment with all kinds of textures!  Fried noodles shaped into bowls and then dusted with sugar and spice.  Or try toasted coconut.  Cooking a thinned pancake batter in a lacy design can create a very elegant look and accompany soft desserts, fruity desserts, and iced desserts very well.

Garnishes also provide great textural balance.  Caramel and sugar work are not only visually pleasing but are very stiff giving any soft dessert, like custard or cake, an excellent snap component.  Caramel cages, nut sticks, caramel lattice, and caramel spirals are excellent examples of garnishes that provide both crispness and elegance.  Chocolate garnishes also work well especially dark chocolate which has the best snap out of all the chocolates.  Chocolate lattice, chocolate squiggles, chocolate butterflies, and chocolate cigarettes provide a softer crispness than caramel does and goes well with tough desserts like pies and tarts just as well as chocolate work goes with soft desserts like custards.  Chocolate decorations may not be enough of a contrast for many cakes however – at least in a texture sense.

Temperature

Here is Chef Keith Jeanminette’s Bittersweet Chocolate Marjolaine with Cocoa Meringue, Caramelized Bananas, and Pecan Crust from Grand Finale’s: A Neoclassic View of Plated Desserts. This dessert has a very classic feel and incorporates lots of different elements of plated desserts. Notice that he is incorporating a temperature contrast by using a scoop of strawberry sorbet – which is a garnish not the main item.

Temperature is another important area to provide contrast in your dessert.  It is not as difficult to provide temperature contrasts as one might think.  Temperature contrasts are as simple as warming up sauce in the microwave or scooping ice cream.  The trick to temperature contrasts is making sure they arrive to the customer at the desired temperature.  A scoop of sorbet begins melting the moment it is placed on a plate so it must be served quickly to prevent ruining its appearance.  Try placing the scoop on top of a cookie or piece of chocolate instead of placing it on the plate directly, or chill the plate ahead of time to prevent the sorbet from melting so quickly.  Hot sauces must be served just as quickly as they will lose their heat quickly or can cause other components to melt.

To add a cool contrast to your presentation try using a scoop of an iced dessert or a chilled fruit sauce.  Iced desserts like ice cream, sorbet, and granita have huge flavor and color potential as well so these components can powerfully transform your dessert in several ways.  Refrigerate a fruit sauce to cool it down before serving.  Just like iced desserts, fruit sauces can provide lots of flavor and color potential.

To add a warm contrast to your presentation try to use warm sauces or heating components just prior to serving.  Caramel sauce and chocolate sauce are two sauces that are easy and safe to warm up in the microwave.  Remember that egg based sauces like crème anglais can curdle if they are heated too high – so it’s best to save these sauces for a cool contrast.  Plates with a cookie crunch component can have the cookie warmed in the oven right before service.  Be careful if you use a tuille.  Heat will cause tuille to lose its shape and tuille can quickly burn or darken.  Another fun way to add a warm contrast (as well as a crisp caramel bite) is to brulee banana slices.  Simply cut banana on a bias and sprinkle a layer of sugar on top and brulee the sugar using a brulee torch like you would on a crème brulee – just don’t brulee on paper!  If you’re feeling adventurous, try using chili powder to create a fiery sensation in the mouth.  A classic combination is chocolate and chili powder which is said to be the way ancient Aztecs and Mayas used to enjoy chocolate.

Garnishes

The term garnish’s meaning has diminished over time.  To most a garnish is simply something extra on a plate.  The most commonly seen garnish is that spring of parsley you push off on the side of your plate away from your entrée or burger.  But truly a garnish is so much more and garnishes have so much more potential.  Garnishes can provide contrast to your presentation through flavor, form, color, texture, or temperature.  It can also complement your dessert.  Garnishes are not essential but presentations without any garnish can be seen as dull, boring, or unimaginative.  Luckily, garnishes come in many forms and are extremely easy to work into any presentation.

Since garnish is such a broad term it can encompass much.  I like to break up the garnish component into three categories: sauces/crunch component, conventional, and unconventional.  Since dessert sauces and crunch components are necessary elements to our traditionalist approach to dessert they are already incorporated into our presentation.  These components can also be considered garnishes and should be utilized in such a way.  Presentations with sauces and crunch components do not always need an additional garnish – to help prevent the plate from looking busy and cluttered.  Be sure to read the previous sections for more information on dessert sauces and crunch components or you can learn more about the different types of dessert sauces here.  Conventional garnishes are garnishes that require little skill to make, use, or incorporate and are prominently used in desserts already.  Unconventional garnishes are just the opposite.  They require more skill to handle and are uncommonly seen in dessert presentations at this time.

Conventional Garnishes

There are several elements that compose conventional garnishes.  Powdered ingredients (such as powdered sugar, cocoa powder, colored granulated sugar, and powdered dehydrated fruit), chocolate shavings, Chantilly cream, mint leaves, and pieces of fresh fruit (like fanned strawberries) are included in the conventional garnish category.  These garnishes are suffering from such overuse that upscale establishments shy away from their use.  A roadside diner can serve a slice of apple pie with a Chantilly rosette, mint, and fanned strawberry – a guest should expect an upscale establishment that costs significantly more to provide something more.  They should not be completely avoided however, as they do have their place.  Powdered sugar and cocoa powder, for example, are excellent when used properly to provide depth to a textured pie or to provide color and texture contrast on a plate.

Chantilly Cream

Chantilly cream should be handled with caution.  While piping shell borders can add elegance to a cake they can also be perceived as trite or out of place on a plated dessert.  Even the most common use for whipped cream on a plated dessert, the rosette, should be avoided as well.  Chantilly is a powerful component though and should be continued to be used to lighten heavy desserts.  If one desires to use Chantilly cream try using round tips to pipe different shapes and avoid using star tips to simply pipe the stereotypical rosette.

Mint Leaves

This is Chef Dan Rundell’s Hawaiian Pot de Creme from Grand Finale’s: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Notice that it has a beautiful color scheme and has a whimiscal play on shape, height, and size. Notice the mint leaf. Is it necessary? Does it add or take away from the dessert? I’ll let you decide.

The mint leaf is the single most over used garnish in dessert presentation.  If Chantilly cream should be handled with caution, then the mint leaf should be handled like an explosive.  Before one can simply criticize the poor mint leaf one needs to analyze why mint is so over used.

The mint leaf itself lends a rejuvenating green color component in an edible and appetizing way to desserts that tend to be beige, brown, and white.  Mint leaves on a plate also denote a feeling of freshness, and just having a stem with a few leaves on it makes a plate look less intimidating in size.  The flavor of mint is classic and refreshing and is an instant complement or contrast to just about any flavor palate.  In addition, mint has a huge reputation for aiding digestion, and although a single leaf will never be strong enough to provide this holistic benefit, many people know this fact and will enjoy the leaf all the same.

Now, with all this being said, avoid using the mint leaf as much as possible.   Pastry cooks that are asked to use mint leaves will find it humiliating.  Pastry chefs that use mint leaves will be seen as amateur.  Chefs desire to be challenged and customers crave being exposed to new elements.  To use a mint leaf is an easy way out, uncreative, unadventurous, and simply cliché.  If one must have a mint leaf on the plate then accompany it with more than just a rosette.  A complex tuille, fruit salsa, or bubble sugar pieces will surely keep the mint leaf’s mediocrity in place.

Unconventional Garnishes

This is Chef Alain Roby’s Merlin’s Crystal Fantasy plated dessert from the book Grand Finale’s: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Before I say anything I’d like to point out that the sugar work here is very impressive and ornate and it would take somebody with a certain level of skill to make this. Now with that being said, I find this dessert ridiculous. The actual main item is a brownie inside the ball. The interactivity of having to break the ball to get to the dessert is fun but the over all presentation is just way over the top. While all the sugar work is edible – who is actually going to eat any of that? I strongly believe most, if not all, the components should be eaten by the patron. How do you feel? Do you think that this is acceptable as a way to excite and engage resort guests to create a lasting impression or do you feel that it is too much sugar work and art that detracts from the main principles of dessert?

Unconventional garnishes include cookie garnishes (particularly tuille, almond lace, and dried fruit), fried noodles, edible flowers, sugar and chocolate work, and any other garnish that requires skill to either make or implement properly or both.  Even though the simple nature of conventional garnishes is alluring, everybody should take the time to experiment with more complex garnishes.  This will help challenge your skill and provide you with a creative outlet.  Be aware that these garnishes are truly the epitome of a double-edged sword.  While they may challenge the pastry chef and excite the customer these garnishes may also be expensive, difficult to reproduce, intimidating for some customers, and may not actually be eaten by the customer.

It is important to avoid getting carried away – especially a pastry chef in a professional kitchen.  A chef will often times find himself growing bored in the kitchen making the same products day in, day out.  He will begin to seek adventure and will start experimenting.  By all means, experiment!  If one doesn’t experiment one’s borders will never expand.  Remember, though, that ultimately the goal is to sell the dessert to the customer.  Do not get so involved in trying to wow a customer with an elaborate sugar showpiece that is ultimately inedible.  Nothing is more undesirable on a plate than inedible components.  Simple and tasteful sugar and chocolate show pieces work best, especially those that are as functional as they are beautiful.  Keep in mind that elaborate sugar work is typically made with something called isomalt.  Isomalt is sugar and is edible but eating a ton is said to upset your stomach – the same way eating too artificial sweetener can upset your stomach.

Every chef knows that the garnish can be one of the most entertaining components a presentation can contain.  It allows for both contrast and creativity, and is the most flexible component of any plated dessert.  Every chef also knows that the garnish can destroy the plate just as easily as it can enhance it.  Garnishes like a lack luster mint leaf or an over-the-top inedible gold sugar moon can prove fatal to any customer’s experience.  A chef that is constantly aware of herself as much as she is aware of her creations will always create humble but impressive desserts.  In the end a chef seeking challenges will discover it is more challenging to remain humble than to seek glory, and this understanding will always put the customer first and result in the most effective dessert presentations.

Serving Vessels

Here is Chef Christopher Gross’ Chocolate Cigar with Vanilla-Armagnac Ice Cream as seen in Grand Finale’s: The Art of Plated Dessert by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Desserts that resemble something else in life (typically inedible objects) come from the illusionist school of presentation. Here the dessert looks like a cigar. It has a more profound impact because it is served in a crystal ash tray as opposed to a plain white plate.

Finally, the dessert has been completed.  The flavors have been thoughtfully developed, the figures elegantly derived, the colors dance gracefully with one another, the textures are both unique and delightful, the temperatures intermingle carefully together, and the garnishes are subdued yet impressive.  Congratulations!  Now it is time for service.  Don’t you dare slap it on a trite round white plate and hand it to the customer!  With all the effort put into the dessert and its components to simply resort to a plain plate is an insult to all your hard work and to the customer.  Before using such a mediocre canvas to lay the dessert on, analyze the options available.

Serving vessels are the last push to impress the customer.  With that being the case, it is often very easy to overlook them.  Other times, restaurants and resorts both rely on the plain white plate as a flexible and useful vessel to carry all of the foods they produce.  In addition, to carry a wide variety of serving vessels can be costly, a waste of space, and sometimes just not possible.  However, if the serving vessel is as impressive as the dessert the customer will be wowed just that much more and willing to pay just that much more.

Form and Color

Serving vessels follow the same rules as both form and color.  They should contrast or complement the dessert successfully.  A white dessert will look whiter on a black plate than on a white plate.  Also, try to avoid using round plates.  Square plates are growing in popularity and provide an excellent opportunity for shape contrasts.  In addition, there are plates with unique shapes (like waves), plates with subsections divided by raised or sunken areas, and plates with fun textures and designs.  Remember not to choose a plate just because it’s just beautiful.  A plate with an interesting texture or elegant design may be covered up in the end by the sauce and the main item.  Thoughtfully pick out a plate that’s pattern complements the dessert and its components.  A very round main item with many round components can perpetuate a round theme with a round plate with a round pattern.  A plate with many lines drawn across it will contrast the round main item and encourage long garnishes as if to help lift the pattern off of the plate.

Glasses

A huge trend in the pastry world is the use of glasses as a vessel.  This includes martini glasses, cosmopolitan glasses, margarita glasses, champagne flutes, wine goblets, ponies, tumblers, high balls, and really anything in which you can pour a drink.  They add a whole new level of sophistication to the dessert.  Glasses lend themselves as molds for custard and layered desserts with crumbly crunch components and brightly colored sauces.

Potential vessels are all around.  Bowls, ramekins, clean floor tiles, spotless mirrors, chocolate and sugar work, sanitized scrap metal, and literally anything you can safely eat off of can contain a dessert.  With this in mind, remember that restaurants, dessert cafes, and resorts have only so much room to store all these gimmicks.  Choose a variety of vessels that best portray the restaurants overall theme.  A south-western style restaurant will benefit from beer mugs and festive colorful bowls much more than martini glasses and translucent pink plates.  Pick vessels that are flexible enough to be used more than once.  Bowls, plates, and tiles are more likely to be used much more often than huge elaborate pieces (like a sushi boat from a sushi restaurant).  Lastly, keep a few round plates on hand.  Their persistence has been in part thanks to their endearing flexibility.  A flexibility a chef may come to rely on when all her other plates are too incompatible with her current delicacy.

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11 comments on “Techniques: Plated Desserts
  1. peter brenner CEC says:

    Thank You for vour wonderful web page.

  2. Maria says:

    SOOOOOOOO!!! glad I came across your website ….have learned alot
    Thanks

  3. very informative website,keep it up!!

  4. VCC student says:

    THANKS FOR THE INFO!
    Very useful and full of ideas!

  5. chad says:

    very nice garnishes

  6. Melissa Cole says:

    Wow, what amazing information and beautiful pictures! I’m just starting plate desserts in culinary school. Your blog will be my go to, any other suggestions for me!

  7. mahesh reddy says:

    very nice

  8. francis njeru says:

    this is what we call creativity; no joke

  9. riyaz ahmed says:

    Awesome information….I was reading Wayne Gisslein professional baking….but this info is so easy to understand and well elaborated…it helped me a lot…will write all this in my exams

  10. Diane Burton says:

    Very informative! Thank you, well done!

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