You don’t have to be an experienced chef to prepare a memorable dessert. With an easy addition or two, you can transform even a commonplace dessert into something distinctive and memorable. One concept to keep in mind is “contrast.” For example, cold ice cream is better with hot fudge sauce. A chef’s master touches…
Make a sauce. Sauces bring creaminess, color and additional flavor to a dessert. A custard sauce is particularly special. To make one, mix one-half cup of sugar and one tablespoon of a flavored extract, such as vanilla extract (or try lemon extract, espresso or any liqueur or spirit, such as Grand Marnier or rum), into two cups of half-and-half. In a saucepan, bring this mixture to a simmer, then remove it from the heat and whisk in five egg yolks. Cook this over low heat, stirring regularly, until the mixture starts to thicken. Do not let it come to a simmer again after the egg yolks have been added. Place the saucepan in a large bowl of ice and cold water to chill. Whisk the custard occasionally until cool. (It will keep about five days in the refrigerator.) This will enhance any cake, cupcake, fruit tart, pie, baked apple or fresh berries.
Sprinkle on crunch. Candied nuts can add sweetness and saltiness as well as crunchiness when sprinkled on a creamy dessert such as ice cream or pudding. To make professional-quality candied nuts, roast two cups of raw nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or almonds, at 275°F for five minutes. Meanwhile, whisk one tablespoon of water with one egg white. While the nuts are still warm, put them in this egg/water mixture, then toss the moistened nuts with three to four tablespoons of brown sugar and one-half teaspoon of salt. (If you’re feeling adventuresome, experiment with other sugar-and-spice combinations, such as white sugar and curry powder.) Spread the nuts on a cookie sheet, and roast for 10 minutes.
Add fruit compote. This brings new flavors, colors and texture to ice cream, custard and angel food cake. You can make fruit compote even when fresh fruit isn’t in season—or when you happen not to have any on hand—because compotes made from dried fruits such as raisins, figs, apricots or pears can be wonderful, too. To make a dried-fruit compote, combine three cups of water with one cup of sugar and bring to a simmer. (You could replace half that water with wine.) Add one to one-and-a-half cups of golden raisins and/or other dried fruits. If you use dried fruits larger than raisins, cut them down to approximately raisin size. Continue simmering until the dried fruit is tender. Serve alongside the dessert.
Try some showmanship. Rather than pour a sauce over your dessert in the kitchen, put your sauce in a gravy boat and pour it over individual servings of the dessert at the table. This introduces a performance element to the dessert that can make it seem like a special event.
Keep it clean. The easiest way to make a dessert look more professional is to serve it on a very clean plate. To do this, wipe away any stray crumbs, bits of icing or any other stray part of the dessert before serving it to your guests.