(This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Many pastry chefs hold the plated dessert as the highest form of the craft. While I can’t say whether or not I agree with that sentiment, it would be hard to deny the appeal of creating them. They’re an incredible opportunity to be creative and showcase your skills, and can be comically simple to strikingly complex and everything in between. The volume of possibilities when creating a plated dessert lends itself, unfortunately, to lots and lots of potential paths to disaster. To try and help anyone with interest in the topic, I’ve put together a few thoughts I have on the subject.
In terms of straightforward definition, Chef Francisco Migoya (a name you should absolutely know – the dude is pretty brilliant) put it well in his book, Elements of Dessert, defining a plated dessert as having some type of à la minute component. Whether hot or cold or crunchy or foamy or whatever, for many chefs a plated dessert incorporates an element that has to be created just before the dessert is served, and has a very limited lifespan in its ideal state.
I think it’s important to have a solid definition of a plated dessert in mind when setting out to create one, but I would caution against using the definition as a hard and fast rule. Rules sometimes have to be broken for innovation to occur. In truth, a plated dessert can be anything you want within reasonable expectation of your guest (don’t send out a spare rib for a dessert course and expect to be considered the Picasso of pastry). I tend to think of desserts in a slightly different manner.
I have a degree in graphic design, and one thing that has always stuck with me through my training in that field is to tackle every creative project from the angle of function. Whatever you might be making, what is that creation’s function? What is it meant to do? Be comfortable to wear? Attract attention to a new product you want to sell? Simply be beautiful for the sake of beauty? Every object has a function. I dare you to think of one that doesn’t.
So from the mind of a designer, the first and last thing I focus on when it comes to a plated dessert is its main function, which I see simply as: something to offer at the end of a meal to complete it. Let me say that one more time: above all other things a dessert is an offering at the end of a meal to complete it. I emphasize this point because nearly every bad dessert I’ve ever served or been served has forgotten to hold true to this foundation. Sometimes (actually a lot of times) as pastry chefs we get lost in the presentation of the dessert by focusing on some flashy technique, or just generally showing off. Exciting presentation and techniques can be components to great plated desserts, but only when they fall in line with the function.
So when you create your own plated dessert, think of the occasion, the setting, the time of year. What’s being served for dinner? What are your guests’ expectations? The answers should drive your plate. A heavy meal might mean a lighter dessert that refreshes your guests instead of weighing them down further. A formal occasion means a little more finesse in presentation. Don’t serve strawberries in January (Seriously. Stop.). You get the idea.
With all of the function of the dessert firmly in mind, it’s time for the creative process to begin. A lot of that process depends on who you are as a cook. If you’re just starting a journey in creating plated desserts, as a professional or amateur, you won’t have a clear idea of your style or preferences, but that’s ok. It means you can start in any direction at all and learn from it. You’ll make something you either like or don’t like, and both outcomes will help define your cooking style. #winning.
My own personal inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. I get asked the question a lot – “what inspires you?” – so I’ve formulated a decent answer. I’m most often inspired by one of three starting points: 1. an ingredient/flavor; 2. a technique; or 3. a presentation style. I’ll have an idea I’d like to work with in one of those three categories, and the other two categories fall in line with the original seed. Because I think it’s a direction a lot of people start in, let’s talk about working from an ingredient/flavor.
Again, I’m going to come at this from a function angle. A dessert should taste good (duh, but we still need to go through the motion), and a little less obviously needs to be easy to “read” for the diner. With just a few exceptions, your guest shouldn’t have to guess what they’re eating or guess what flavor is the star of the show. I cringe typing that analogy, because it’s been used to a pulp, but there we go. What’s the star of your dessert? That’s a good place to start. From that point on, every other flavor has its own new function: support the star of the dessert. It can do that by contrasting the star flavor or highlighting it or both, but it needs to support that star flavor and not fight it.
A very common mistake by young cooks when trying to conceptualize a dessert is going too big, too fast. Too many strong flavors that will just get in each others’ way and make the water muddy. It takes a lot of skill and finesse to balance many bold choices on one plate. It makes me think of a music teacher I had when I was a kid. I played the drums, and my teacher told me to start by just playing the snare drum on my kit. That’s it. Play that snare until I was bored to death of it. Then add the base drum, or a cymbal. But just one. All of a sudden your creative world has doubled in size. Get bored. Add. Repeat. Working with flavors is the same way. Start with one flavor. Explore that flavor and all its possibilities and forms. Then add a second flavor. Practice in that manner and you’ll work into more complex flavor combinations with ease.
Personally, I tend to keep to more traditional flavor combinations. I’m not a chef that steps into brave new territory with flavors, and I’m ok with that. I lean toward simple flavors and like to sneak that flavor in little places when I can find it. If I’m using grapefruit as my main flavor component, then maybe I’ll see where I can use grapefruit juice in place of water in my recipes for that dessert. When the flavor is simple, the other facets of the dessert need to be more intriguing in order to win over your diner. In that sense I try to highlight my flavors in many different interpretations on one plate. A lot of that interpretation comes from texture.
Obviously, the composition of flavors in your dessert is of serious importance, but the texture is what I obsess over. There’s some science to back that obsession up. I won’t get into details here, but there is serious anthropological study around our deeply developed interpretation and response to various textures. A texture can attract or repulse someone as strongly, if not more so, than a flavor. I don’t care what my dessert tastes like, if there isn’t textural balance and contrast, I’m not done with the process.
I. love. crunch. All about that crunch. A crunchy element does so much to create contrast to sweet and fatty elements (which are pretty prevalent in a dessert) and create interest. If at all possible, I make sure to incorporate an element in my dessert that provides crispiness or crunch. Aside from being pleasant in its own right, that crunch allows me to add other elements that are much sweeter or richer than I could get away with without it. Knowing your audience is especially important when it comes to texture. The most notable differences in preference are Eastern and Western diners. Eastern (as in Asian and Pan-Asian countries) are much more comfortable with jelly and gel texture than most Westerners. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Temperature is the other big player in creating exciting contrast in your dessert. But more than just experiencing the obvious temperatures of the components, the flavors of those components will be affected as well. Very cold components will diminish sweetness and flavor while warm or hot temperature will increase it. A warm component will taste saltier than a cold component. Room temperature will accentuate delicate flavors. Experiment with your components and see how the flavor changes when you heat or cool them.
Some personal no-no’s
Earlier I said that to innovate, sometimes rules have to be broken. Still true. And really all of this is just my own philosophy anyway, nothing that has been agreed upon by a universal council of pastry elders. (I don’t get invited to those meetings.) But there are some pretty solid things I don’t do when it comes to plated desserts:
- Do not incorporate chocolate or chocolate decoration when it doesn’t belong in the profile of the plated dessert. It’s tempting. Chocolate can look pretty sexy. It works with so many other flavors. Just about everyone loves it. And yet – sorry not sorry – it has no business being a part of so many plated desserts I encounter. If a chocolate component isn’t a very intentional element to the overall flavor profile of the dessert you’re creating, leave that curl or shard or stick of chocolate off the plate. If not for the sake of how the dessert will eat, then for the sake of dragging plating styles firmly out of the late 90’s. The decade called and wants its chocolate cigarettes back.
- Do not incorporate micro herbs, greens or flowers when it doesn’t belong in the profile of the plated dessert. This particular plated dessert sin is so prevalent these days that I should really make this number 1. There are a few popular chefs that are partly to blame, along with the photogenic qualities of beautiful little plants and our desire to share everything we touch with social media. Any time one of my cooks asks or tries to put a micro something on a dessert, I ask them to try and >gasp< eat it first and see if it would work as a flavor. Almost always the answer is no. You’d be surprised how infrequently even very talented chefs fail to taste the little bits of nature they put on their plates.
- Do not incorporate anything at all as a decoration or element in the dessert that isn’t intended to be eaten. Cinnamon sticks. Wedges of lemons. The leaves attached to strawberries. Scraped vanilla beans. If someone has to physically remove or eat around a component to get to the dessert, that component shouldn’t be there. The exception to this is an element of the serviceware, like a dome that must be lifted. Even then, be careful not to turn your work into a gimmick.
What should be clear from my ‘don’t do’ list is that it all goes back to honoring the function of the dessert. Serve your guests a dish at the end of their meal so as to complete it, in harmony with the experience they’ve already had up to that moment. Stay true to that and you can’t lose.