Club pastry chefs are taking the ‘if it looks good, it tastes good’ mantra to heart.
A carefully executed pastry is as much about appearance as it is about taste. While much time and thought go into selecting the freshest ingredients and crafting a delectable dessert that is almost too pretty to eat, presentation is hardly an afterthought.
As pastry chefs continue to contend with the effects of the pandemic—fewer banquet stations and more to-go and a la carte offerings—they must pay even greater attention to their plating techniques in order to ensure a memorable meal finale.
After 12 years in the pastry business, Michaela Arzola knows how to pull off a satisfying sweet. Having spent the last eight years as the Executive Pastry Chef of the Austin (Texas) Country Club, she has fine-tuned her plating strategies based on different service styles.
“With banquet service, there is a lot to keep in mind: timing, temperature, table space and guest appreciation,” she explains.
To address these factors head on, Arzola believes in the importance of meeting her clients and addressing their needs right from the start.
“You want that ‘wow’ factor,” she says. “And making sure you are on the same page gives you the opportunity to go over different plating, serving and garnish options that are sure to please. You always want great feedback, and seeing guests snap pictures of your plate is one of the best compliments.”
When it comes to plating a la carte selections, Arzola finds that striking a balance between simple and contemporary yields the best results.
“A lot of our main menu desserts are Southern-style comfort plates like tres leches cake and Texas pecan balls, but we also do weekly and seasonal features and that’s where I really have fun with plate design,” she says.
Purchased garnishes such as chocolate sticks and specialty croquants help to ensure consistency. Arzola opts for house-made sauces and local ingredients that, while highlighted on the menu, do not detract from the dessert itself.
Because takeout has become a key component of club dining, pastry plating necessitated a shift in packaging, particularly with the house staple, chocolate chip cookies. Usually available in a cookie jar for members to help themselves, they are now individually bagged.
“Ensuring that our membership can still access their favorite afternoon treat while keeping everyone safe, has been the packaging highlight of the year,” notes Arzola. For small gatherings, desserts are showcased in upscale plastic vessels that are aesthetically pleasing and easy to take home.
Because plating during the pandemic has offered its own set of challenges, Arzola has found innovative ways to get her work done with noteworthy results. When creating frozen desserts to go, she stockpiles a reserve and creates a different product with a similar flavor profile—thereby offering two options for her to-go guests. She has also invested in more shallow bowls and makes a point of using a variety of plate styles as her kitchen permits.
Back to Basics
Pastry plating is a skill that requires constant fine-tuning and for Erica Coffee at StoneWater Golf Club in Highland Heights, Ohio, it’s a true work in progress. While she has spent the past 12 years perfecting her pastry craft, Coffee has been at her current gig for the past year and recently gained notoriety for her festive “hot cocoa bombs.” A popular takeout item during the past holiday season, this dessert was carefully packaged in cellophane boxes and holiday tins for easy transport—and easy gifting.
For Coffee, simplicity is the key when it comes to to-go pastry boxing.
“Takeout plating can be tricky with most desserts,” she says. “I prefer to keep everything the dish entails separate.” Including special instructions, such as how to reheat a dessert that should be served warm, is something she believes helps to ensure the best possible quality.
When plating desserts, Coffee’s biggest considerations are stability and the longevity of the finished product. High-volume banquet pastry needs to be able to maintain its taste and appearance from plate to service and from kitchen to table.
“I like to use a solid foundation like sauces that will hold up in warmer temperatures, as well as keep items from moving or sliding around on plates,” she says.
For a la carte service, Coffee prefers to stick to the basics, keeping things clean and simple, because she may not always be the chef doing the actual plating.
She is focusing on adapting to restrictions and shifting to more staff- (rather than self-) served displays. It may require more work, but it’s a challenge she relishes.
“It’s been a lot of fun coming up with menu ideas to transition what would be plated desserts to new creations,” Coffee says. “It’s a trend I don’t see going away anytime soon.”
Thinking Outside the Pastry Box
For industry veteran Yascha Becker, continually evolving trends keep him on his toes. With 28 years of experience under his belt, he has spent the last decade executing pastry production at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa in Miramar Beach, Fla.
Becker points to how the recent movement from towering desserts to less-complex renderings has literally leveled the playing field, especially when it comes to banquet pastry plating.
“Not too long ago, dessert plating was all about the visuals, with tall architectural desserts paired with cookie tuiles, sugar and chocolate garnishes reaching high over the plate,” he recalls. “These would be set upon pooled sauces, creams and reductions in a highly decorated manner, or splattered like a Jackson Pollock painting.”
In the current club environment, Becker is more focused on the ingredients and composition of his product.
“So instead of architectural eye candy, you are taken on a journey through textures, flavors, hots, colds, fats and liquids that helps to create more of a dining experience,” he explains. And with pastry being as much about streamlining production as it is about plating, he makes sure not to overwhelm his creation by committing to no more than five key components: dessert, sauce, whipped cream, garnish and/or fruit.
When faced with other obstacles to his pastry-plating techniques—enlarging his library of flavor profiles and finding a specific purpose for each ingredient—Becker falls back on his ‘less is more’ approach. “Desserts, while lovely, should not be a meal unto themselves,” he professes. “Three to five small bites should take you on a journey or give you an experience that leaves you satisfied.”
Becker also places a great deal of emphasis on takeout packaging, particularly in recent months. He likens his work to being somewhat of an artist by thinking outside the box and believes that the addition of a ribbon and bow, be it for a large cake or a simple box of truffles, helps to elevate the overall culinary experience and extends a satisfying meal high.
“I think that the motion of untying a package creates the emotion and anticipation you feel when opening a present,” Becker surmises. “What better way to feel when retrieving your sweet endings?”