Plated pastry, take a number. Order-ahead chocolate soufflé and tableside Bananas Foster may have their ‘wow’ factor, but lately, showstopping dessert boards are creating a buzz that commands more attention. What started as a social media sensation has since turned into an in-house dining experience that enables pastry chefs to create themed dessert displays with a variety of textures and flavors in one convenient setup.
Gather and Graze
Theresa Brauer, Pastry Chef of the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, understands the impact of a satisfying end to a meal, especially one that allows diners to indulge their senses as a group. It’s the very reason Brauer relishes making dessert boards for club members and guests. “They allow people to gather and try many different things instead of sticking to one dessert,” she says.
Brauer has been experimenting with dessert board concepts for the past two years, representing a new chapter in her seven-year-long stint at the club. She credits Janice Wong, a pastry chef in Singapore she follows online, for alerting her to the initial idea. And while dessert boards have yet to become a menu mainstay, Brauer finds fun ways to incorporate them into her banquets and special events lineup.
One of Brauer’s more popular boards is a chocolate mousse duo (dark and white chocolate) complemented by various toppings and bases. These include almond chocolate biscotti, chocolate chip cookies, macaron shells, vanilla-poached pear, strawberries, amaretto oranges, caramel sauce and a raspberry gastrique (pictured above). This past New Year’s Eve, she created a DIY dessert board for the club’s restaurant, Ollie’s, which was a big hit. Members were given a bowl of pudding they could decorate with any toppings, including Oreo crumbs, mini cookies, peppermint crumble, fresh strawberries, crispy pearls and whipped cream. With these types of creations, Brauer has observed their universal appeal. “Dessert boards are for everyone; they bring a crowd together,” she notes.
Brauer is focused on balancing sweetness when preparing her boards, which requires thoughtful planning. “Just like creating a plated dessert, you need to lay out all your items and compare them between salt, sweet, acidic and bitter,” she notes. “The best part of our job is creating that balance and knowing you hit those points. It brings an extra scientific element to creating the boards.” She typically starts with the main idea, assembles a list of possible ingredients, and eliminates any that don’t mesh well with the concept.
Brauer is excited by the dessert board possibilities in the coming months. “Spring is one of the best times for the boards—so much color and fun flavors to work with,” she says. She plans to incorporate macarons into a fun dessert board on the buffet table for Easter. For Mother’s Day, a pound cake dessert board will be enhanced with several toppings, such as macerated raspberries, vanilla bean Chantilly, salted caramel sauce, sweet lemon butter, sliced mangos, chocolate fudge sauce, graham cracker crunch and toasted almond crackers. “It’s a fun way to incorporate every flavor for every dessert lover,” she says.
Going Bananas for Boards
At Arrowhead Country Club (Rapid City, S.D.), dessert boards are a hot commodity, and Pastry Chef Kristen Belan knows how to respond to increased demand. “We host numerous events and banquets throughout the year. Any time a guest wants a petite dessert display, they want a board,” she says.
Before taking charge of Arrowhead’s pastry production, Belan perfected her craft as a pastry caterer in Atlanta, enabling her to transition into the private club scene smoothly. “I’ve been making dessert boards since the wood-cutting board became popular,” she says. “I love catering, and setting up edible displays has always made me happy.”
In Arrowhead’s kitchen, dessert boards showcase Belan’s talent, particularly in pairing pastries with flavorful extras.
“If I have specific desserts I know I’ll be working with, then it’s fun to add bits of caramel and roasted fruit to enhance pretty much everything,” she notes. “Who doesn’t love a dip?” Tried-and-true favorites include lemon curd, Chantilly, caramel and roasted fruit.
While a la carte dessert boards are not currently on the menu, Belan expects that may soon change. She now enjoys pairing fresh fruits with salty components: “They make for colorful accents and textural variation.” Currently on the roster is a southern-inspired treat board, complete with bananas Foster pudding, blueberry buttermilk panna cotta and fried peach empanadas, which is finding favor with adults and kids alike. She also incorporates pudding, empanadas, and pecan pie bites into a dessert “flight,” garnished with fresh fruit, nuts and cheese cubes.
Belan will continue to stay true to her Georgia roots this spring with some holiday-themed selections, with Mother’s Day and Easter brunch being two of Arrowhead’s more popular events. “I plan to keep with my regional trend by adding lemon meringues and carrot cake to my list of southern sweets,” she says.
Sweet and Savory
Long before dessert boards became a social media sensation, Rebecca Freeman, CEPC, Executive Pastry Chef of the Club at Las Campanas in Santa Fe, N.M., was on the case. “There was definitely a need for a shared dessert, and a board filled it perfectly,” she recalls of her first creation in 2019.
Freeman has since mastered the art of assembling a perfect pastry board. But rather than setting out with a specific plan to make boards, the process happened organically.
Freeman recalls her executive chef asking her to whip up something on the fly when special guests were dining, or a kitchen order needed fixing. “I would just put something together that sounded delicious to me: either multiple desserts or a sweet charcuterie board,” she says.
Aside from their visual appeal, dessert boards enable simplified sharing, which allows members to enjoy dessert without the pressure of selecting a single item individually. One of Freeman’s more recent memorable boards was a funfetti-style birthday cake with orange segments and hazelnut brittle.
Freeman tunes in to what she craves when developing dessert board ideas. On a recent trip to her native Chicago, she returned to the club with popcorn on her mind.
“Maybe I was feeling homesick, but I made a board with cheesy popcorn, salted caramel sauce and chocolate cake,” she says. “It sounds weird, but I promise the flavors worked.”
Other equally addictive, display-worthy creations include a chocolate fondue board with cookies and fruit for dipping and a fruit-centric riff on crème brúlée, starring orange segments and bananas. “I think it adds a nice, bitter caramel note,” Freeman says, “with a slight char of dark caramel.”