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Suite o’ sweets -- Using pre-made cupcakes, brownies, sugar cookies and chocolate cake along with ice cream, whipped cream, fruit, melted chocolate, ice cream toppings and coconut, students studying quantity food production at Southern Illinois University Carbondale created these specialty desserts in just minutes. Photos by Eric Johnson Download Photo Here

November 07, 2008

Expert offers tips to put ‘wow’ into holiday desserts

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Holiday meals take time to make. When you finally get to dessert, it’s tempting just to plunk down a slice of off-the-shelf pie or cake and call it good. But with a little effort and some tips from Sylvia Smith, you can take that store-bought dessert from so-so to spectacular.

Smith, an assistant professor of food and nutrition at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, worked as a certified pastry chef before trading her baker’s cap for a blackboard. These days, she teaches classes for the College of Agricultural Sciences in, among other subjects, quantity food production. One of her labs focuses on turning mixes and pre-made food items into eye-catching desserts.

“Dessert is the last thing people eat, so you want them to be wowed,” Smith said. “Presentation is part of the wow.”

The “wow” starts with the plate. Chefs use white ones because they don’t compete with the food for attention. The smaller the plate, the less you need do to make an impression -- and the dessert will look larger, too.

To make their desserts special, chefs often put something under or next to them and something on top. In addition to flash, those “somethings” provide added flavors as well as contrast in color, texture and temperature.

Sauces and syrups, pooled or drizzled in a pattern beneath the dessert or off to the side, make good bases. You could melt chocolate or cook fruit with sugar to make a base or, to save time, rely on commercial products, such as toppings used for ice cream and pie fillers.

Sauces and syrups that come in squeeze bottles make drizzling patterns on a plate a snap. But drizzling isn’t the only way you can make a design.

“If you have a pool of sauce or syrup, you can add a second one on top in a different color and then take a toothpick or a knife tip and then draw it through the two,” Smith said.

When placing the dessert on top of the base, you don’t have to put it smack dab in the middle. It will look more interesting set a little to one side, a placement that also gives you more options as to where to put the topper.

If cake is your dessert, think about using cupcakes.

“A little individual serving makes much more of a presentation than a square or round cake cut into pieces, and they freeze well, so you don’t have to serve the entire dessert on one occasion,” Smith said.

Most anything -- fruit, cookies, ice cream, whipped cream, nuts, coconut, powdered sugar, chocolate -- can serve as a topper. Just be sure the flavors and textures of the topper, dessert and base complement each other. Caramel and chocolate, for instance, play well together; caramel and lemon, not so much. The crispness of cookies makes them a good topper for soft desserts, such as puddings or ice cream. The cool sweetness of ice cream allows it to pair nicely with warm desserts.

As for how to use toppers, consider these tips. You can garnish with raw fruit, sliced or whole, cooked, frozen or canned. Dust powdered sugar freehand or through a doily or some other template. Shave curls from chocolate bark with a vegetable peeler, or make a standing topper by melting the chocolate and drizzling it on waxed or parchment paper in a small, free-form shape. When the chocolate hardens again, peel away the paper and stand the topper in ice cream, whipped cream, pudding or other soft element.

So how might you pull all this together? Here are a few ideas.

• Take a slice of pumpkin pie, place it to one side of a small, white plate with the point facing toward you. Cut the slice into three smaller slices and stagger them by bringing the right slice forward an inch or so and the middle slice forward by about half that much. Place a dollop of whipped cream next to the pie (if it comes from a can, you could make a little, freeform shape) and top it with toasted nuts or coconut.

• Place a slice of pecan pie off to the side on a small, white plate. Drizzle caramel topping in a pattern next to it. Top the pie with orange zest.

• Using a biscuit cutter, cut rounds from a pan of brownies. Place a brownie round on a small, white plate. Spoon cherry pie filling around the edge of the brownie, whipped cream or ice cream on top of it and top that with a single cherry from the pie filling.

“All of this will require a little bit of extra time, but for a holiday meal, most people are willing to take that time,” Smith said.

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