We're a sweet-toothed nation so good dessert menus are extremely important. But what if you haven't got a dedicated pastry chef on your team? Joanna Wood reports.
If you're not a specialist pastry chef, writing a dessert menu can be daunting. It shouldn't be, though. As with main menu planning, there are certain basic rules that you can use to kick-off from, the most important being, never offer anything on your menu that you and your team are not capable of putting out at a consistently high standard - and that is pertinent at whatever level of the market you operate in.
"The worst mistake is to try and do something you can't," says Marlow-based chocolatier-pâtissier Damian Allsop - ex-London restaurants Aubergine and Locanda Locatelli, and Spain's El Celler de Can Roca.
His fellow pâtissier William Curley adds: "If you're a simple establishment, keep simple desserts. Do a really good chocolate mousse, for example, but do it well - nice and clinical, clean on the palate."
Curley owns a renowned chocolaterie-pâtisserie in Richmond, Surrey, and has impeccable credentials, with classical French pâtisserie training at places like Oxford's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, London's La Tante Claire and Savoy hotel, and under Marc Meneau at L'Esperance in France.
Another of our leading pastry gurus, Claire Clark, who has just returned from four years as head pastry chef at California's legendary French Laundry to set up her own business in London, underlines Curley's point. "Better to have a fantastic crème caramel than a brûlée, caramel and chocolate fondant all made to a lesser standard," she says.
All three of these master pâtissiers also agree on some other basic principles of dessert menu construction. Firstly, it is better to have a small dessert menu than one that takes all evening to read. "If it was a question of five rather than six, I'd always go for five," says Allsop.
Having decided on the number of desserts to offer, there are certain boxes to tick. Always have a chocolate option - the UK's collective sweet tooth tends to the chocoholic side of things so chocolate tarts, mousses, soufflés or the like will always sell.
"I'd always put on a hot dessert, even in summer, just a lighter one, and a cold dessert even in winter. Plus a pastry-based option, something with fruit and some kind of iced option - ice-cream, sorbet or parfait," says Curley.
You can combine some of these elements in one dish, of course. For instance, a classic tart tatin - hot, pastry and fruit - with a vanilla ice-cream - cold. This could also tick a seasonal box if you adapt the fruit element to whatever is around at any given time - apples all year depending on variety, but mainly in autumn, apricots or peaches in summer, figs in late summer and autumn.
Clark favours the inclusion of a custard-based dessert as a menu staple, too. A brûlée for instance or panna cotta, which you can adapt to the seasons by adding fruit or flavouring with nuts. These type of desserts, although dairy-based, slip down quite easily at the end of a meal and don't sit on the stomach, so tempt diners to try them. Consider including a lighter, less artery-clogging option as well, advises Clark, particularly in summer.
"Something to tempt the people who want a dessert... but don't, if you see what I mean," she laughs. "Something that's low in sugar, healthy and is little more than a fruit salad."
The seasons should always play a part in the desserts that you offer, although this may be in tweaking elements in a dish rather than changing it totally. As with the main menu, offering specials when there is a glut of fresh produce is a good way of keeping interest for regular customers, enticing reluctant pud eaters to order a dessert and responding to good market prices.
Think of the berries that come through in the summer. A plate of strawberries and clotted cream is the easiest and most cost-effective way to put this particular fruit on the menu, but you could be more inventive and try something along the lines of strawberry soufflé with poached strawberries like Tom Kerridge has done at Marlow's Hand and Flowers. Or you could follow Mark Dodson's lead at the Mason's Arms in Knowstone, Devon, and give added interest by serving strawberries with a white chocolate cheesecake and clotted cream ice-cream.
Summer is also a good time to increase your sorbet and ice-cream offering, of course. A palate of seasonal fruit sorbets will always sell in hot weather. With modern kit like the Pacojet you can make very small amounts to order and keep wastage at minimum. Investing in good equipment, although initially expensive, can increase your scope in the type of dessert offering on a menu. Besides a good ice-cream machine, a Vac Pac is worth considering as using it to poach fruit, for instance, can really intensify flavour.
In recent years, from fine-dining establishments to gastropubs and blue-chip contracts, there has been a resurgence in putting traditional British puds back on the menu and this shows no signs of abating.
Comfort puds, like rice or bread and butter puddings, fools, possets and treacle tarts are either given a simple, classic treatment or deconstructed - or modernised by the addition of a contemporary garnish. An unusual granité, sorbet or ice-cream - licquorice, basil or hibiscus for instance - or dried and ground fruits, even a sugar crust on a soft textured main element, all of these things can broaden the textural context of a dessert.
And if you want to be bang on trend, then think about using vegetables in your desserts, especially naturally sweet produce like beetroot - great for sorbets, even cake-based puds - or parsnip. Caramelised fennel, too, says Clark, is worth investigating.
Asian spices and fruit - like star anise and yuzu - are creeping in to desserts with more regularity too, at least in those listed at some of our top restaurants. However, these types of ingredients must be used with knowledge, and not just for the sake of being in fashion. And they shouldn't be used at all if the desserts of which they are a component don't fit in with the main menu.
At the end of the day, the key word for any menu is balance. Balance between starters, mains and desserts, between hot and cold, variety of ingredients. It's not exactly rocket science, but many restaurants still get it wrong.
"You should always tailor your desserts to the style of your restaurant," says Allsop. "It's no good having foie gras ice-creams and Campari foam when the rest of the menu is vichyssoise and pork terrine - the best thing is to actually sit down and eat a main course off your menu, then ask yourself, 'now, what would I like after that?' If you're a modern restaurant, then go modern - if you're in the classical camp you need to stick with that."
And if you want a pointer as to the desserts that give you the best profit margins, look no further than the soufflé and other egg-based dishes of the same ilk. "If you can sell air and water, which is what essentially soufflés are, you'll always make money," jokes Curley.
DESSERT MENU CHECKLIST
DESSERTS - FOR A HELPIUNG HAND FROM SUPPLIERS
Alveston Kitchens from Heinz Foodservice offers a 49-strong range of desserts including gâteaux, cheesecakes, trifles, meringues, apple pies and speciality trifles and profiteroles. The hand-finished sweets are conveniently supplied frozen and pre-portioned. Popular choices include a Vienna Apple Pie with cinnamon, Blackforest Meringue Roulade with blackberries and raspberries and real British cream and a Toffee Apple Sinsation Cheesecake.
3663 First for Foodservice
Traditional favourites are the speciality of 3663 First for Foodservice, from bread and butter pudding, cheesecake and apple pie to profiteroles, tarts, crumbles and gâteaux. Chef's Smart Choice is a division that offers desserts at a competitive price while premium brand Whites desserts can be personalised to customer tastes. The company's mini dessert classics can also be served for customers to share and include chocolate truffle brownies and citrus lemon cheesecake.
Premier Foods offer an iconic range of classic British desserts. McDougalls flour-based mixes have been inspiring caterers for over 50 years - incredibly versatile, one mix can create a variety of great tasting recipes, from cupcakes, sponges, to melt-in-the-mouth chocolate puddings. Bird's custard, invented by Alfred Bird in 1837, is known as "the original" custard powder, a staple across many British menus. Angel Delight offers caterers a quick, easy, versatile dessert that can be made up with milk and fruit to create a healthy option ideal for schools.
For a round up of ready-made desserts, see Buy It! on 28 August