Easter can be all about sweet treats and growing up in the seventies sweets were a proper treat and desserts consisted of my mother’s homemade apple tart, the odd sherry trifle and instant supermarket concoctions like Bird’s Angel Delight. There were buns and biscuits too but generally dessert was a rarity. There was a strange tasting concoction still around today called cooking chocolate, wobbly jelly and HB ice cream which was the nation’s favourite. You can imagine my shock then stepping into a Parisian patisserie on a school trip, it was like being teleported to a futuristic sugary outer space.
These days we take all the fancy French cakes as common and I also enjoyed working with desserts back in the day but it tends to get left behind when one moves up the ranks to running kitchens and the pastry is designated to other staff. My sweet tooth has never diminished though and I make sure I have a stash of my favourites in the freezer even when I have to produce them myself if they are not available to buy.
In the annals of food history it was the Arab world that first started finishing meals with a sweet touch, the Greeks and Romans liked fruit, honey and nuts, then the French followed suit and they got completely out of control when sugar became widespread with large setpieces and sculptures made from it adorning tables laden with an array of goodies for the aristocratic tables of the eighteenth century.
The word dessert comes from the French verb to clear away the dishes as back then everything was served at once in one big course then a massive clear down for the fruit and sweetmeats as they were called. So really up until then dinner was just two courses, the savoury and the sweet. It was the Russians who were the first to eat their meals in a line of separate courses and the French emulated this.
Dessert can be called the sweet or pudding course too as the English would term it and one of the great mysteries of gastronomy is how the English managed to enjoy their cheese course after their pudding while the rest of the world prefers savoury before sweet.
In modern high end cooking we also have the pre dessert to get your sweet teeth up to speed and if that was not enough the petits fours or mignardises can be another whole sugar rush with your tea and coffee. I once counted over twenty different types of petits fours in a posh restaurant coming out on a silver high tea stand to great pomp and ceremony.
Desserts should be light and not so heavy especially if you have had a substantial meal. Places will serve tasting menus of a dozen courses so your desserts on these will be mere mouthfuls. You should select a dessert that will vary your texture and tastes of the previous courses. You do not want to repeat say fruit, pastry or creaminess for dessert after you have had one of those elements on the main course. We call this menu clashing so when you see a quiche starter, then beef wellington and a fruit pie, you know they do not know what they are at with a pastry on each course.
The most important thing about dessert is that it has to be good; it is the end of the meal, the finale that sends you off with a memory of a great meal. Chefs tend to focus on the main course but when I see a big effort on dessert then I know the kitchen is on its game. When you tuck into your chocolate eggs this weekend and that sugar rush sends you spinning it’s a feeling that mankind has been addicted to all down the ages.