Sweet dreams

fpx126363Desserts all too often become the forgotten dish at the tail end of a meal. But it doesn’t have to be like that, writes Kerryn Ramsey.

Chefs may expound their exquisite entrées and innovative mains but do they treat their desserts with the same reverence?

Well-known chef and festival director for Tasting Australia, Ian Parmenter, doesn’t sweet-talk the matter.

“These days, diners don’t usually take desserts that seriously, often favouring cheese at the end of the meal.”

“Desserts are not so much about food for survival as food for total indulgence,” says the Belgian born, Australian based chef.

However, Parmenter says he’s not ready to say goodbye to desserts altogether, with his Tasting Australia festival showcasing “mountains of fabulously toothsome desserts” from October 21–30 this year.

Parmenter has whipped up a storm with his flippant comments, with some of Australia’s most highly acclaimed chefs claiming desserts deserve more credence.

Catherine Adams, head pastry chef at Sydney’s Rockpool, claims diners now appreciate desserts as much as entrées and mains. Her delightful creations—such as chestnut, cognac and vanilla mille-feuille—have become a permanent fixture at the restaurant, but they still have to compete with the signature dessert—date tart.

This brulée-style custard tart, created by former pastry chef Lorraine Godsmark in 1984, was described by The Sydney Morning Herald Good Guide 2005 as “the closest thing we’ve found to a gastronomic orgasm”.

Brisbane restaurateur and über-chef Jason Peppler of Isis Brasserie understands the two-sided sword of signature dishes. When he once took the risk of changing his showcase soufflé—currently quince soufflé with pistachio ice-cream and rosewater anglaise—he “was almost lynched”, he says.

He’s found Queensland diners are quite conservative, but has forged on to create original desserts that are “more adventurous, quite earthy, rich and complex”. Many of his spices come from Europe and the Middle East, and he enjoys putting unusual elements in desserts, such as fairy floss or mulled wine (to go with his orange and white chocolate parfait and spiced hot chocolate sauce).

Like many cutting edge chefs around the world, Peppler enjoys infusing a touch of savoury into his sweet creations. Melbourne’s Jacques Reymond restaurant, which won R&CA’s Restaurant of the Year last year, is proud of its stout and aubergine ice-cream. In Perth, Jackson’s Restaurant in Highgate serves its pumpkin pie with honey cream and curried peach ice-cream.

Can this trend go too far? Just consider The Fat Duck’s smoked bacon and egg ice-cream, created by Michelin-winning chef, Heston Blumenthal, in the UK’s Berkshire.

“I don’t understand why chefs keep adding savoury ingredients in dessert,” states Melbourne’s Kirsten Tibballs, who trained in Europe with leading pastry chefs and now runs Savour, her chocolate and patisserie school.

Tibballs is prepared to name a few other trends that have gone too far. The Australiana ingredients of the ’90s—such as wattle seed and lemon myrtle—are out, and don’t even think about mentioning those perennial favourites—sticky date pudding and panna cotta.

Despite her gripes, Tibballs is impressed with the fresh interpretations of traditional dishes now appearing on modern menus.

“Reinventing is similar to fashion,” she says. “It’s easy to add unique touches but the principals are the same. There are certain priorities that don’t change—desserts need to be simple, fresh and clean.”

Mixing different textures and temperatures is another winner. “It’s good on a plate,” she says.

There’s no denying that chocolate has found a new resurgence, from fondues to fondants. The only dilemma is choosing the best brand to use. Rockpool mainly uses Valhrona and Callebaut chocolate, according to Adams. “We also use different cocoa contents depending on what we are making and the flavour we are trying to achieve.”

While Tibballs appreciates Valhrona, including the 2005 Ampamakia vintage available from September, she’s quite enamoured with France’s Cacao Barry.

“There’s been a lot of education about chocolate at restaurants in the past few years,” she says. “The standard used to be quite low, but many of the techniques have now been updated and a lot of chefs come to my school for courses.”

Chocolate cafes are also popping up around the country. A booming outlet and cafe, Max Brenner, has eight stores in NSW and Victoria, and is about to open five new outlets later this year, followed by ventures in Queensland planned for 2006.

So what is the other must-have on Australian dessert menus? Two words—petits fours. Diners who can’t fit in a full dessert prefer these miniature masterpieces.

“It takes more work than doing a dessert,” says Tibballs, who won the 2004 Pastry Olympics in Germany after a gruelling seven-hour session of glazing, sculpting and decorating three styles of petit fours and two gateaux.

“There’s been more variety and quality in the past few years. But most diners aren’t aware of how much work it takes,” she says.

While many chefs have proven that dessert is serious, some have posed the question that it’s been taken to a new level. So, is dessert better than sex?

“If it is, you’re doing something wrong,” quips Peppler.

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