It’s the last thing on the menu, but desserts should leave a sparkling memory, writes Samantha Trenoweth.
Desserts leave lasting impressions—of culinary adventure or of sweet, home-style comfort, breathtaking ingenuity or simple, understated elegance. They follow the main act, but desserts are so much more than an afterthought. They are the finale to the dining experience—a chef’s last opportunity to weave magic with flavour and leave diners with a clear impression of a restaurant’s vision.
Moreover, chefs have a head start with this final course because people want to love dessert. In fact, scientists now believe that we’re programmed to love it. In 2013, researchers from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne published the results of the first randomised, controlled trial to investigate the effects of cocoa polyphenols on mood, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. People like to end their meal with something sweet and cocoa-rich—whether that’s a selection of petits fours or a bowl of chocolate fudge ice-cream—because it lifts their mood. In fact, participants who drank a cocoa-rich concoction daily reported feeling calmer and more content.
It certainly explains why most restaurant dessert menus feature at least one chocolate confection (and you’d be mad to buck the trend) but another bunch of scientists, this time from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, have concluded that the human sweet tooth extends well beyond chocolate, with good reason. We love sweet things because we’re primates and, way back in evolutionary history, out palates learnt to favour sweet, ripe, juicy fruit over dry, bitter, quite possibly toxic plants that grew alongside them in the forest. Indeed, scientists studying chimpanzees in the wild have found that they go to some lengths to find both the sweetest fruits and hives of honey.
Other scientists, such as Susan Bowerman of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition, believe our sweet tooth is all in the mind, born in happy memories and associations from childhood, but a powerful motivator nonetheless. Sarah Mandelson, chief executive officer of Serendipity ice-cream, agrees. “We start eating ice-cream when we’re kids and we often have pleasant memories of it,” she explains. “What’s more, Australians eat a lot of it. We’re usually in second or third place in global studies of per capita consumption of ice-cream.”
Serendipity sells ice-cream in both a retail and wholesale capacity, and Mandelson enjoys working with chefs to find the right ice-cream to complement their menu or a particular dish. “We have a stock range of around 110 flavours at any given time,” she says, “so there’s usually something in our freezer that suits. But we’re regularly asked by chefs and caterers around the country to produce something that isn’t in our freezer, which is great because it inspires us to create new flavours, new desserts.”
Mandelson points out that people like to return to familiar flavours but, she adds, if they’re going to try new things, they’re more likely to do it in a restaurant, so chefs shouldn’t be afraid to experiment. “We came up with a flavour—fig, honey and pistachio—for a restaurant quite some time ago and it sold very well through restaurants but, for some years, it was slow in the retail market. Now it’s one of our best sellers, but initially people were only prepared to try it when they were eating out. Another example is our passionfruit chilli sorbet. That has sold very well through restaurants but people still aren’t prepared to buy half a litre to take home. People are more prepared to be adventurous when they eat out.”
Mandelson believes that, overall, Australians are becoming increasingly adventurous diners, and Mark Best agrees. “Australian tastes have become more sophisticated,” he explains, “and our taste in desserts has become less sweet. Just look at the selection of chocolate available in the supermarket. It used to be Cadbury and that was about it. Now you have a full array of flavours, with Lindt going through to 85 per cent cocoa, which is quite bitter. That indicates that even IGA is recognising a degree of sophistication in the palate of the general public.”
Best isn’t a fan of the ‘death by chocolate’ dessert, so our changing palate suits him well. “Restaurants are a personal expression,” he says, “so our desserts reflect what I like, and what I like are more savoury, more acidic and less sugar-oriented desserts.” These include Marque’s famous honeycomb, which, he says, “we take to the very edge of bitter and serve with our own cultured cream.”
The second is a frozen mandarin curd topped with a mandarin mousse. “Then from the skins,” he adds, “we make a mandarin sherbet. So, we’ve used the entire mandarin. We’ve not thrown away anything except the seeds, and we’ve come up with something that’s all about mandarin and is very sophisticated in terms of the interplay between levels of sweetness, bitterness and acidity. That encapsulates much of my philosophy. It means that when you go from a meat or fish or other savoury course, you’re not immediately hit with a wall of sugar. That’s what I mean when I speak about integrating desserts into the menu.”
To Best, a menu tells a story. “I feel that each of our menus is one entire story from the beginning to the end—not several unrelated chapters.” His advice to novice dessert chefs is to focus on each dish’s role in that unfolding narrative. “Do something that represents your cuisine and your establishment.”
And if there is one factor in a dessert that just has to be right? It would be “deliciousness”, Best says. It’s paramount—more important than aesthetics or theatrics (though they can be incorporated too, once the deliciousness factor is right).