Help me assemble Dessert Devastator.
January 19, 2010 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me find principles for dessert making, so that I can make a dessert without following a recipe?

I'm usually pretty good at following recipes but I want to be able to make my own (original as far as I'm concerned) desserts.

Looking through some older Ask.Me posts on baking I've decided that both "Bakingwise" and "I'm just here for more food" seem to be good books for studying the art, science and techniques of baking.

However, I'm looking for something more like a guide to matching flavors and components. Something that might suggest that Creme Anglaise matches well with an almond flavored cake but poorly with a lime custard. (Although, hmm.. that sounds tasty.) I figure, I can scavenge recipes for the components from various cookbooks.

Any suggestions? On-line would be great, but books are good too.
posted by oddman to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend The Flavor Bible. I have it and love it.

There's also the book Ratio that is a standard of ratios involved in baking and quite useful.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:34 AM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I used to own this guy: Culinary Artistry which is by the same people as the flavour bible, and it sounds kinda like what you're looking for. Although since I haven't pawed my way through the flavour bible, I have no idea which of the two is better.
posted by ambilevous at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2010

Nthing The Flavor Bible and Ratio.
posted by Nattie at 11:47 AM on January 19, 2010

My suggestion is to just read a ton of recipes so you can get a feel for which ingredients/flavors usually go well together. And an even more exciting suggestion: eat a lot of different desserts. The Julia Child books are a good place to start for the classic sauces, cakes, etc. This is my favorite cooking techniques book of all time, but it's only available used. It has all of the french cooking techniques for pretty much everything, including desserts, as well as common uses/pairings for most ingredients.
posted by melissasaurus at 11:48 AM on January 19, 2010

The Flavor Bible is great but you'll have to know the flavors in creme anglaise to know if it goes with lime. I'm not discouraging you from getting it, just know that it really only covers flavors, not specific dishes.

Seconding melissasaurus regarding just getting in there and making things to see what happens. The more food you make, the more successes and failures you'll have, and that's how you learn what goes together.
posted by cooker girl at 12:13 PM on January 19, 2010

The flavor bible is amazing. Really useful to anyone who likes thinking about what works and why.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:43 PM on January 19, 2010

When I was in culinary school I took a course in baking failures, meaning a course answering the questions:

- What happens when I add too much or too little of an active ingredient to my mix? What does too much or too little butter, baking powder, or baking soda, look like?

- What happens when I do step 3 before step 2? Salt cuts glutens, sugar softens glutens, what happens to my pretzel?

- What happens when I cook it too long or too short, or too hot or too cold?

- How long should I proof it? What does overproofing look like? What does underproofing look like?

- What happens when you make a soufle in a convection oven? (or, how can you make a soufle in a convection oven?)

The course told me how to look at a result and reverse engineer what *probably* went wrong. Sometimes it was straightforward, sometimes two things went wrong - sometimes it could have been other steps. By making the mistakes and quantifying the degree of error could you effectively plan out what the ratio for success would be. Not surprisingly, a portion of the practical entailed making something to specificaitons without a fixed recipe (fine crumb, sweet, soft crust, etc.)

To answer your question: become a master pâtissier. Cooking is art/engineering, baking is chemistry/science. Find me a master chemist that just throws two tubes together and can record the result in a scientific journal and I'll underline the definition of "short-lived career" for you - same with a baker.

As for flavor combinations: Ratio and the Flavor Bible are excellent starts, I'll add my favorite to that answer.

Oh yeah: Also know the pH of everything you put in and be aware of how that changes with heat or cool applied.

(I took culinary school way too seriously)
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:33 PM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

So, the video on Amazon for the flavor bible seems to focus heavily on foods that would work in dinners (the only remotely dessert-appropriate flavors they mention are blueberry and pumpkin). Does it cover flavors in a way that would apply to desserts?
posted by oddman at 2:39 PM on January 19, 2010

nanuk the idea that I have is that I would take established recipe pieces and combine just before serving. For example, taking Ile Flottantes as a template: You make the creme anglais, the caramel, and the meringue individually following established recipes and combine on the plate.
posted by oddman at 2:45 PM on January 19, 2010

In terms of baking, studying the books of Rose Levy Beranbaum would go a long way toward helping you. They contain elaborate and detailed recipes, of course, which is not what you are asking for, but she also has some of what you are looking for. Her latest is Rose's Heavenly Cakes. Her blog is great too.
posted by gudrun at 4:06 PM on January 19, 2010

Does it cover flavors in a way that would apply to desserts?

Definitely. There are entries for many many many possible ingredients. I don't have mine at hand, but I know that I have seen a wide variety of all food types - including lots of fruits, milk products, common dessert ingredients (like vanilla or almond). It's fun to read and dream about what can go together and I've made some interesting crème brulée using its wisdom combined with the Joy of Cooking (which is great at covering basic ideas and throwing complexity into them)

For pumpkin, as you mention, it would cover flavour combinations that it could be made more savoury/dinner-related or more sweet/dessert-like, depending on what flavours you choose to pair it with. It leaves a lot up to instinct as well, but there's a good introduction to the book that helps to put things into perspective.

There's also classifications of flavour combos, where really good ones are capitalized and bolded, good ones are just bolded and things that work together well are in regular type. It's fun to play with.

Actually, I add The Joy of Cooking to my recommendations. I was of it skeptical at first, since I am not a recipe follower by nature, but it is practical enough in how it tells you the technical elements of a type of dish (including desserts - its section on custards was enlightening, as were soufflés) before it offers you recipes. It even talks about the ways that variations might work, so it's good at leaving room for inspiration.
posted by urbanlenny at 6:38 PM on January 19, 2010

Oddman — regarding The Flavor Bible, rather than the video, try using Amazon's "search inside this book" function to look up a flavor or two you're interested in. (I searched for "anglaise" and got 12 results that listed "crème anglaise" as a compatible flavor.)
posted by Lexica at 7:10 PM on January 19, 2010

Ok, so what you are looking at then is making thematically consistent plated deserts?

So some rules of (my) thumb.
Sauce nape (consistency) should depend on your crumb and moisture content: If you have a dense crumb and a moist product, you'll be able to get away with a thinner sauce. If you have a dense crumb and a dry product, use a recipe for the sauce with a thicker consistency to ensure the sauce doesn't soak in before serving.

Creme anglaise goes on anything - and potentially with anything. With carmels you've got probably something bordering on a sticky toffee pudding. With chocolate sauce you've got probably something bordering on a black and white. With citrus - while potentially a tough mix, you've got something that can work like a creamcicle.

If its served on a plate food shouldn't bleed strawberry sauce - the sauce shouldn't spread, food should't require a drywall spatula either so it shouldn't lump - unless the purpose is frosting.

If it is served in a bowl, you are probably talking about something of a looser sauce. If its served cold, cool the bowl, put your focus in the middle, and then pour your sauce on/around. If its served hot, probably go thicker and place your focus in

If you make sweet+sweet, go with a dryer crust or crisp (nuts, soda, etc) - meaning sweet+sweet+smooth results in a over-all stale mouthfeel. sweet+sweet+neutral crisp means that the person eating it has a palate break and they can regain a portion of the initial delight of sweet.

if you make sweet+citrus, you've got a partial palate cleanser in the citrus, but depending on the level of sweet it is, you may need more (hence the frequent chef-love for mint). If you expect the mint to be more than just garnish for everyone then you need to cut it up and mix it in or extract the flavor. (Salad isn't a traditional desert item - although I'm thinking I might make some sort of desert salad now for fun... maybe a mix of mint leaves dipped in citrus and rolled in sugar with candied nuts, fruit and a creme anglaise dressing? )... I digress...

Experiment and fail. Repeat till you find success... Specifically because part of your success you are defining subjectively there is no guide to what you'll like or to overall inventiveness.

In the context you are talking about, you are treating dessert in the same manner that dinner is treated. I peaked to see where you were from - hoping you were from New England so I could reccommend taking a trip to Finale in Boston for some fantastic inspired plated deserts, but hopefully there's something similar to it near you.

Basically - Sweet, savory, crisp/crunch, sour, smooth, hot/cold all still apply to desserts.... make a dish which delights every aspect and chances are people will enjoy it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:52 AM on January 20, 2010

Thanks nanukthedog!

How's about Zabaione over a lemon custard served in individual trifle bowls? I think I'd use a crisp, sweet wine (a good riesling or gewürztraminer) instead of marsala and perhaps sprinkle toasted coconut over the top (wife has vetoed the mint).

I'm totally making this up.
posted by oddman at 9:39 AM on January 21, 2010

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