Restaurant-quality desserts?
March 7, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Part two: How can I make restaurant-quality desserts at home?

I'm a fairly experienced baker and make a lot of desserts. I try to use only highly-rated recipes from respectable sources like Epicurious, and I'm fairly sure I'm avoiding most rookie prep mistakes. Yet I still had a moment of depressing epiphany during dessert (at The Olive Garden, of all places) last week, wherein I realized that not only had I never made a cake as moist and creamy as the one I was eating, I didn't know how to make one that good, even if I tried.

Thus, I am wondering: does anyone have tips on how to take home-made desserts to restaurant-quality levels? I'm especially interested in creams, frostings and fillings, and in regulating the qualities of texture/mouth-feel and intensity. Every single time I've tried pastry cream or custard, for instance, it's had a disappointingly bland eggy flavor without the rich vanilla/creamy finish of commercial versions. Or simple buttercreams will come out with an unpleasantly harsh "raw confectioner's sugar" taste, only to go waxy and unctuous when I add more butter. Or chocolate frostings will end up tasting cocoa-y and lacking the intense chocolate punch of commercial icing.

These are simple recipes, theoretically, so I'm puzzled as to what I could be missing. What does my local Applebee's know about desserts, that I don't?
posted by Bardolph to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I have a feeling that big chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee's may be using some chemically-enhanced ingredients (i.e., their buttercream isn't "just" confectioner's sugar and butter, it may be "buttercream mix #813" or whatever).

Do you also notice a difference between your stuff and smaller, mom-and-pop restaurants?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:15 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and on a practical side: one of the moistest, creamiest cakes I ever made was enhanced by stirring a box of pudding mix in with the dry ingredients. May be worth a try (although, test it at home at first with a cake that you are making just for you, in case you don't like it after all).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:18 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few ideas/tips -

Make sure you know your oven! I find an in-oven thermometer is invaluable for making sure I am not even slightly overbaking/drying out cakes

Are you using the best quality ingredients? To get a luscious vanilla taste, you need to use real vanilla beans, or real vanilla bean paste, not artificial vanilla essence. If you are making a chocolate frosting, make sure to choose one that features both cocoa and real chocolate, or even just real chocolate. Make sure you buy quality chocolate with an appropriate cocoa percentage. Don't use Hershey's chocolate.

I find that the recipe can really make all the difference and I must admit I never use sites like Epicurious for dessert recipes. Do you read food blogs at all? If not, start reading some of the best, and read through the comments on each recipe. You will be able to see what people thought of the recipe, and whether they had problems/suggestions, but you will also know that you have, essentially, a home cook making it from scratch as per the post. smittenkitchen would be a good place to start - she has a lot of dessert recipes on her site.

I have a fantastic bourbon custard recipe that features a generous dollop of butter at the end, which helps gives it a rich, silky mouth feel. If you would like the recipe, feel free to memail me.
posted by unlaced at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with unlaced that one of the most important things is buying high quality ingredients - particularly vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and chocolate. I usually buy Scharffen Berger or something of similar price/value.

You might find the book Bakewise interesting. It describes how different recipes work and what makes them moister/fluffier/more flavorful and how to make those tradeoffs in your own cooking.

I've never had much luck with recipes from Epicurous, but everything I've baked from a Smitten Kitchen recipe has turned out wonderfully, particularly the Chocolate Stout Cake.
posted by asphericalcow at 11:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

The raw confectioner's sugar taste in buttercream is caused by the cornstarch added to some confectioner's sugar. You can buy starch-free confectioner's sugar, or let the icing rest in the top of a double boiler over, not in, hot water until it tastes better, or make a cooked icing so that there's no raw starch.

For a better chocolate icing, don't use cocoa or added sugar, but instead make ganache. Chop 8 ounces of really good bittersweet chocolate or milk chocolate, as dark as you personally like to eat plain, into small fragments, then, in a heavy-bottomed small saucepan, bring 3/4 of a cup of heavy whipping cream to a full boil. When the cream is boiling, remove it from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Stir until it is mostly melted, then cover it and let it stand for ten minutes. Then stir gently until it is very smooth, and, optionally, add one tablespoon of a good liquor. Either pour this over a cake and let it drip down the sides, or wait until it has cooled enough to be spread. (Or just eat it from a bowl with a spoon.)

I've never had a dessert at a restaurant like Olive Garden that was as good as what I make at home. Only the really expensive restaurants can compete with really good homemade. As unlaced says, the quality of your ingredients is key.
posted by Ery at 11:49 AM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Things that have seriously upped my dessert skills (and forgive me if you already do them):

1. European butter instead of American, and the best and most appropriate flour I can get. In general, the best ingredients I can get.
2. Flavored simple syrups on cake layers. This is probably cheating, but I inject cakes with the same syrup.
3. Parchment paper EVERYWHERE.
4. Use a scale to measure, not cups or spoons.
5. Figuring out how to emphasize flavors. Chocolate gets upped with coffee, lemon with a teensy bit of lemon essence, almond with almond extract.

I really, really like Joe Pastry for getting into the science behind pastries and cakes; he's really good at exploring why and how to do things. He's great at answering questions, too.

Oh, and oven thermometer + candy thermometer.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

You use full-fat, full-calorie versions of everything, right? High quality chocolate, real vanilla, good butter, good eggs? This makes the biggest difference. Epicurious recipes from Bon Appetit and recipes from Fine cooking make good desserts.
posted by jeather at 11:53 AM on March 7, 2012

The problem I've run into before is that recipes - even delicious, fancy ones - skip the foundations.

The best investment I ever made to bring my food from "following a recipe and it's pretty good but sometimes comes out like mush" to "people would pay me lots of money for this food!" was in purchasing a culinary textbook and following it. The important thing was that it was light on recipes but heavy on technique. Most cookbooks are all about making this specific-herb-crusted-steak, but culinary textbooks will have an entire chapter on grilling meat. This is important, because if you follow a technique but don't necessarily know why you're using that instead of another, or what exactly whisking those yolks does to its proteins, or realize that X is the wrong consistency before adding Y and how to fix it... then you're going to end up with a sub-par (but possibly still totally delicious) result. You can pick up lots of these while just following recipes and a bit of curiosity, but I've found the textbook approach to be invaluable.

The Professional Pastry Chef is currently on my Amazon wishlist (I haven't bought it yet because I'm months away from working on my baking techniques). There's other books similar to it if you look around.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:05 PM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

For an Xmas based cookie party last year, I made some really simple Alfajores. I went to my local co-op and bought local eggs, nice cornstarch, used a top shelf brandy and tried to use good ingredients from top to bottom.

The end result was prize-winningly fantastic. When I told people I spent like 40-50 minutes on them they got mad. The Dulce de Leche was the worst part, and it involved me watching TV while I checked on it every 25 minutes or so.

Good desserts don't have to be frustratingly difficult.
posted by Sphinx at 12:11 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

What subject_verb_remainder said. Alton Brown's I'm Just Here fore More Food gives great advice and turned me into a much better baker. He doesn't just give recipes, but gives you an overview of how baking works and why, and how different methods and ingredients affect the final product.

It's also got great advice for getting to know your oven, such as how to figure out what rack positions and areas of your oven heat more or less (and how to modify your oven so it cooks more evenly).

Other things that can help include getting the right accessories (ring moulds, squeeze bottles, pastry tips, etc.) and practicing with them.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:13 PM on March 7, 2012

I found that having the proper machinery beats hand working ingredients, at least for baking.
posted by wongcorgi at 12:17 PM on March 7, 2012

I've had great success with desserts from America's Test Kitchen ("Baking Illustrated" is particularly great). One of my favorite features of their books is that often explain how they arrived at their recipe. They tell you what happens when you add an extra egg to a cake recipe, for example. This really helps you learn how to adjust recipes.

As an aside, Hershey's isn't bad chocolate (watch the video).

Finally, be sure to be patient and to practice. In baking there is no silver bullet, you have to develop your technique until you get it right. Books like The Professional Pastry Chef and blogs like Joe Pastry (this is where I learned to fold correctly) are great. You also need to be fearless, don't let recipes intimidate you. Don't wait until "you're ready." Just do it (and then learn and do it again, and again.)
posted by oddman at 12:21 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Creams, frosting, and fillings from such restaurants are likely to contain thickening agents, emulsifying agents, artificial flavours, etc. These goops are more mass-produced chemical products than baking. They also contain a lot of fat. If you really want to make desserts that taste like Olive Garden desserts, order some food service fillings and use those. You can order buckets of every kind of filling or cream from a bakery distributor (though you'll have to meet some order minimum).

Otherwise, if you want to aim higher, use high quality ingredients (particularly good quality chocolate over cruddy cocoa, good butter, pastry flour over all purpose, vanilla beans, fresh zest and whole spices), be careful and deliberate (use a scale, control the temperature of your ingredients, control the type of mixing you are doing (vigorous creaming vs gentle folding), check your oven temperature, rotate your cakes to ensure even baking, test for doneness rather than relying on a timer), and try to improve by baking the same recipe over and over, taking notes and making tweaks. Recipes that specify high quality ingredients are often a good bet.

You could also visit some higher quality bakeries or restaurants to get a taste of quality scratch baking, to see if you really prefer Olive Garden desserts.

What does my local Applebee's know about desserts, that I don't?

They don't know anything. Some chemical engineer somewhere knows how to make the desserts. None of these desserts are made at your local Applebee's.
posted by ssg at 12:24 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

High quality ingredients, for sure, like everyone else has already said. Full-fat everything. Real cream. European butter. Real vanilla beans. Quality chocolate. Real sugar. King Arthur flour or other professional pastry flour. Good booze.

That, a little bit of understanding of how thickeners, eggs, and leavening agents actually work, and cultivating the patience to get the little things right has vastly improved the taste, appearance, and quality of my baked goods. This is what I mean by little things:

-Letting the oven preheat properly (with an oven thermometer to verify actual temperature), and putting the oven racks in the proper places

-Calibrating my candy thermometer a couple times a year to make sure it's accurate

-Using high quality European butter, and using unsalted when it's called for instead of just using the salted butter I always have on hand

-Taking the time/doing the advanced prep to do things like let butter soften correctly, let cookie dough chill or age in the fridge, not put chilled cookie dough on hot baking sheets, properly cream butter and sugar, beat enough air into cake batters, let things chill or reach room temperature as called for, etc.

-Not skipping the tiny amount of good booze, strong coffee, or unusual-sounding spice called for in some recipes because I don't have it on hand or am too lazy to make it--it can really make a difference in the quality of the flavor

-Straining custards and sauces

-Properly flouring and/or buttering pans and molds

-Using water baths for some custards and cakes
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:43 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who's worked in a number of commercial kitchens and restaurants, I agree with the above: most (chain) restaurants are using mixes in their desserts. You would probably be scandalized to know how many high-class bakeries use cake mixes too! It's just so much faster and it guarantees a consistent product that has a longer shelf life. Cake from scratch can start to dry out within 24 hours, while cake from a mix lasts easily 3-4 times as long. Plus, many Americans have grown up eating boxed desserts and their taste buds prefer mixes to from-scratch products.

So, all of that is to say that it might not be you at all, it's just the chemically enhanced mixes they are using.

Some of it, however, could be recipe selection. For instance, if you love the creamy, buttery frosting at a local cafe but yours at home always crusts over and has a powdered sugar taste, maybe they're making an Italian Meringue buttercream, and you're trying to accomplish the same goal (cake frosting) with a completely different method and recipe. Or maybe adding a few good ingredients (vanilla paste in your pastry cream, for instance, to boost the vanilla flavor) could give you some satisfaction.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 12:44 PM on March 7, 2012

2. Flavored simple syrups on cake layers.

Cannot emphasize this enough. You can cover up almost any sin in cake with the liberal application of flavored syrup. Dark rum + water + sugar (for dark cake--skip the rum or switch to amaretto or something that complements your cake flavor for light cake), heated until the sugar dissolves, and drizzled over the cake (preferable while it's still warm, but not necessarily) will make slight-over-baking impossible to notice, and will give it that succulent richness and depth of flavor you associate with bakery-made confections.

No baked dessert from Smitten Kitchen has ever steered me wrong, either. She's pretty paint-by-numbers, but theory starts to emerge after you've made a couple of her cakes.
posted by Mayor West at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Highest quality ingredients, commercial cake pans and over thermometer and Rose Levy Beranbaum. Frankly, when I bake her cakes, they're vastly superior to anything available at some bake shop, no matter how fancy. But you really have to pay attention to her techniques, time consuming as they may be. Cream the hell out of that butter.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:46 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Get a couple of really good books. They should have a good balance between text explaining the rationale and theory, as well as recipes. I don't know the titles but there has got to be a set of books that professionals and artisans keep on their bookshelves. Just start with one or two books, and over time I guarantee your investment will raise your work to another level.
posted by polymodus at 1:56 PM on March 7, 2012

Buttermilk is magical in cake. Magical.

As for pastry cream, you need a stand mixer for it to turn out properly. Also really fresh eggs.

And nth-ing the "use higher-fat butter than standard US butter a la Land O' Lakes" though I use European-style butter from Vermont because I feel silly buying butter that was shipped from overseas.

Your palate might just be attuned to the artificial flavors that the folks at chain restaurants are using right now, though. I say this not out of judgment at all--I make amazing lemon meringue pie, but it will never taste the same as the lemon meringue pies of my youth, which were made in vast quantities by the Table Talk Pie company and purchased by my mum at the local IGA and were probably mostly citric acid, yellow dye, and corn syrup, and man were those things delicious.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2012

Agreed with those who say you may just need to retrain your palate. Properly-made pastry cream IS a little eggy. Chocolate buttercream made without commercial flavor-enhancers is never going to be as over-the-top chocolatey as the stuff that comes out of the 5-gallon bucket. We're trained by commercial foods to want flavors very strong and very sweet; good pastries charm their way in by being subtle and balanced.

Olive Garden and Applebee's and all the rest have millions of dollars of research into making foolproof components that can either be put together at the restaurant or shipped there readymade, that will overwhelm your palate with sweetness and artificial flavor, and that will taste, look, and feel consistent. A little of this now and then is not a terrible thing, but it's not great confectionery either.

The best 3 tips I can give you are:
- Measure by weight, not by volume
- European-style butter
- Rose Levy Beranbaum
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Rose Levy Beranbaum books, Joe Patry blog and the best ingridients! And your desserts will be fantastic
posted by ivanka at 6:20 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just had the exact opposite experience. After asking a similar question about chocolate cake sent me on a baking adventure I found that my own cake tasted better than what I could find at Olive Garden. I highly recommend Cooks Illustrated. There is a recipe for a triple chocolate mousse cake that alone is worth the price of a magazine/subscription. On news stands now there is a chocolate magazine with amazing treats or you could always go for the full book, Baking Illustrated. Find the mousse recipe, make it, then go to Olive Garden and you will be shocked how much better you can do it! Also, spoiler alert: the answer is with real dark chocolate, Valhrona cocoa, real vanilla, heavy cream and buttermilk.
posted by saradarlin at 8:08 PM on March 7, 2012

Just wanted to add what any of the excellent aforementioned books will tell you in an instant: no frosting made of butter and confectioners sugar will do. You'll want to make a proper buttercream, starting either with a heated merengue (as in Swiss Buttercream) or by beating a boiled sugar syrup into egg yolks (as in the case of classic buttercream.) You won't miss that raw, starchy texture and flavor or beating lumps out of confectioners sugar one bit!

Also, if it's a boxed cake mix level of moisture you're after, seek out oil based cake recipes rather than butter based, which have more flavor but generally a denser, drier crumb. Happy baking!
posted by Lisitasan at 6:43 AM on March 8, 2012

I'll echo the recommendations for Cook's Illustrated recipes. They tend to not make ridiculous ingredient recommendations, or at least try to highlight what ridiculous ingredient is worth finding and how/if you can substitute. Their website has terrific guidance on finding quality ingredients, which can be key. Baking tends to be super sciencey, and the quality of their technical writing, so to speak, is excellent, working towards the best technique.
posted by jroybal at 5:44 PM on March 8, 2012

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