From dark chocolate paired with Superfruit to a drinkable crème brule, desserts take diners to exotic places and flood the senses with delight.

Upscale Desserts

Chef Kurt Stiles, Contributing Editor

Desserts are an indulgence that diners still enjoy. Even during hard times, restaurant patrons will order something sweet to finish off their meals and help them forget about their worries. Desserts featuring chocolate, creams, fruits and exotic spices are gaining popularity.

Chocolate’s Dark Secret
There is something undeniably mystical and irresistible about chocolate. The word itself is sensual and romantic. The creamy, silky texture; the deep, dark, elegant color; the exquisitely sweet, rich flavor; the tantalizing aroma--the seductive characteristics of chocolate can arouse the senses and send one’s pulse racing to new heights. To add to its appeal, chocolate is one of the world’s oldest, and perhaps healthiest, foods!

Aside from containing more cocoa butter than mass market chocolates, premium specimens also have a higher cacao content. Cacao content indicates the portion of the chocolate’s weight that comes from ingredients derived from the cacao bean itself. These days, levels as high as 65, 70 and even 99% are not uncommon. (Typical milk chocolate hovers around 35-40%.) Whatever falls outside this percentage is made up of sugar, vanilla, lecithin and milk; so, the higher the cacao content, the stronger the chocolate flavor, the lower its sweetness and the more robust the finished product.

Chocolate is made from plants, which means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables. These benefits are from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants (nearly eight times the number found in strawberries). Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure, through the production of nitric oxide, and balance certain hormones in the body.

Dark chocolate is good for the heart. A small bar of it every day can help keep the heart and cardiovascular system running well. There are two apparent heart-health benefits associated with dark chocolate. The first is lower blood pressure--studies have shown consuming a small bar of dark chocolate every day can reduce blood pressure. Also, dark chocolate has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 10%.

Dark chocolate courts ambitious flavor pairings (coffee, Superfruits, tea), because it needs a bold partner to equal its heft. Dark chocolate flavor is strong, because it is pretty complex, like wine, with all sorts of notes. So, if it is paired with something that is too weak, the chocolate will be overpowering. For many chocolate consumers, the higher the cocoa content, the higher the quality. Many people do equate higher cocoa solids with a better product, especially adults.

Classic Chocolate Creativity
Traditional chocolate sauce is derived from heavy cream, butter, egg yolks and melted bittersweet chocolate. Parameters, such as time, temperature and viscosity, are as important as ingredient selection. Cost constraints also are closely evaluated. According to Galaxy Desserts’ founder and master pastry bakery chef, Jean-Yves Charon, “In the test kitchen, making chocolate syrup requires sugar, cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. But, when translating this into a manufactured product, corn syrup replaces most of the sugar, and the syrup might require the addition of emulsifiers, such as polysorbates or lecithin. Also, many manufacturer formulas will omit the bittersweet chocolate in favor of an all-cocoa sauce. When formulating, it is important to balance the cocoa and sweetness profile.” 

This is evident in one vineyard’s shelf-stable sauce, which pairs savory and sweet ingredients. Its chocolate Port sauce is a marriage of the vineyard’s Port wines with a chocolate carrier. Pairing this sauce with other items, such as fresh fruit, egg-based sauces and caramelized sugar sauces, can yield unique culinary delights. Consider the possibilities: vine-ripened strawberries with caramelized chocolate pot de crème, rosemary-lemon crème anglaise and chocolate-enrobed wafers finished with raspberry-cappuccino foam. From a manufacturing perspective, chef Charon said, “There are so many creative ways to decorate our desserts.” Here are a few garnishing ideas:
* Fresh fruit, preferably berries or a small mint sprig.
* Cinnamon or cocoa powder and a small dollop of caramel, chocolate or fruit sauce.
* Chocolate shavings, curls or sprinkles.
* A small Parisian macaroon or finely chopped nuts, such as almonds, walnuts or caramelized peanuts, waffle cone or a marzipan decoration.

Dessert Sauce or Cream
Pairing chocolate pot de crème (a creamy, rich custard) with crème anglaise (a rich custard sauce) or Chantilly cream (lightly sweetened, and sometimes flavored, whipped cream) provides contrast and offsets the extra sweetness and bitterness in the chocolate. But, if paired with a fruit coulis (a thick purée) or compote, the slightly acidic note from the fruit will tone down the pot de crème’s sweetness. Sauces are classified and categorized as follows: egg-based sauces, chocolate-based sauces, caramelized sugar sauces and fruit-based sauces. Dessert sauces are a creative component and function as a topping, filling or decoration.

Today’s chefs are taking crème anglaise to more advanced culinary altitudes. Chef James Brisson, CEC, CCE, says, “Observing retail and even foodservice inventories gives way to a whole new library of sweet and savory manufactured chocolate sauces. For example, they might substitute the vanilla traditionally found in crème anglaise with herbs and spices, such as lemon thyme, lemongrass, lavender, spearmint and basil, to create an offbeat, original take on this classic sauce.” The French make sabayon-- also known as zabaglione in Italian and zabaione in the U. S., which is a foamy, cooked, egg-based dessert sauce that traditionally uses wine as the main flavor component. Sweet sabayon is derived from eggs, wine and cream, whereas its savory counterpart is derived from a stock-and-herb-flavored sauce. He continues, “This is one of the few sauces where the wine flavor profile is not lost, but remains quite intense. Although both sweet and savory versions of sabayon exist, one of the most common versions is flavored with sweet Marsala wine. Another interesting variety uses Champagne in place of sweet Marsala. Sometimes, these sauces are further flavored with fruit after the cooling process. Sabayons and zabagliones typically accent cake, fruit, ice cream or pastry.”

At a competition that took place at this year’s annual IFT show, the author of this article and chef John Namy’s team approach was to combine texture and flavor into a beverage base. One of the texture builders used was the addition of particulates made by grinding pie, cake, cookies or other baked goods. “You’re actually deconstructing the dessert,” chef Namy says. “It gives some crunch or some chew or some goo to your product.”

Chef Namy also builds texture with cereal-and-nut clusters treated with a moisture barrier coating to resist sogginess, and with a proprietary concept he calls a “gelato stabilizer system.” He and his colleagues created a drinkable dessert called the Cinnamon Caramel Tostada at an RCA Culinology® challenge a few years back. The Latino-inspired drink had a full-bodied mouthfeel from the gelato stabilizer system, punctuated with chopped buñuelos, or baked cinnamon-sugar-coated flour tortillas, and spicy praline pecans.

While at Caribou Coffee, chef Stiles designed an Edible-Drinkable Crème Brule Dessert, finished with Burnt Amber Sugar, which was steamed by a cappuccino machine in a 6oz cup. Caramel sauces provide that extra touch of brown, earthy, caramelized burnt notes to a dessert. They give a dessert an extra richness, lift and panache.

Caramel can pair with chocolate in many imaginative and ingenious ways. Adding savory ingredients, like rosemary, purple basil or lemon thyme, to a basic caramel sauce further extends a dessert sauce application and heightens the senses and overall flavor profile. One menu example: raspberry-cheesecake, with mini-marshmallows, chocolate mousse, melted zebra curls and banana, topped with candy praline pecans.

A Fruitful Finish
Fruit-based sauces or raw piece fruit can complement a wide variety of desserts. A typical fruit sauce’s natural acidic character makes it an excellent accent to numerous desserts. Typically, fruit sauces are made with either a purée or coulis. A purée is simply that--a natural, unstrained purée of a fruit. A coulis is a strained purée. Sweetening a purée or coulis will depend upon the application. When sweetening these sauces, use sugar syrup in the mixture, in order to fully incorporate the sweetener. The amount of sugar syrup used will depend on the ripeness of the fruit used—the more ripe a fruit, the more sugar (fructose) it contains. Also, in many cases, adding a small amount of acidulant, such as lemon juice or citric acid, will help achieve a superior flavor profile.

The overall flavor profile of a dessert sauce will also depend on the application. A fruit tart or pastry will require a sweetened coulis or purée, whereas a scoop of ice cream tastes better with an unsweetened coulis or purée, in order to balance the sweetness of the ice cream. Some chefs and processors will add a fat, such as cream or butter, to add an extra depth of culinary richness. Other accent options include adding flavored brandies, rums or whiskeys--after the fruit sauce has cooled, so as to not strip out the volatiles in the fruit. The types of fruit coulis and purées are practically endless, ranging from strawberry, blueberry, kiwi, banana, boysenberry, raspberry, pear, cranberry, orange and beyond.

Ginger Adds Jazz
Ginger is another punchy flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate, and it is showing up in more applications, both as a flavor note and as a bona fide inclusion. Suppliers offer ginger in a number of confectionery-ready forms, from crystallized and syruped pieces to pulps and crèmes, and most have the advantages of functionality and a clean label--ginger, sugar and little else.

This author has studied ginger in chocolate applications and has found that moisture is critical, absolutely critical, and water activity, too. So, whether or not to use syruped ginger, which contains about 22% water, in an enrobing application, for example, will depend on the product’s specific requirements. Syruped ginger looks for small cracks in the chocolate, and the syrup seeps out, causing a sticky base and also causing the product to bloom.

In chocolate bars, add drained syruped ginger, ginger dices, pulped ginger or ginger crème (a pulped ginger with minimal fiber, temperature stability and amenability to pumping, extrusion and mixing with dairy.) The ginger crème is like a whipped butter, but it is nothing but ginger and sugar. The texture is smooth and creamy, and it works great in ganache fillings.

Two apparent heart-health benefits can be found in dark chocolate. It is said to lower blood pressure and reduce LDL cholesterol.

Chef Terms for Chocolate Menu Items
Pleasure--pure dark chocolate.

Renew--contains dark chocolate, grapes and black currants. 

Forgiveness--containing dark chocolate, lemon and a type of cactus. 

Vigor--a stimulating blend of chocolate, coffee and guarana (small berry grown in the Amazon basin).

Tranquility--a delightful combination of milk chocolate, lavender and lime blossom. 

Rejoice--a bitter orange with rich milk chocolate and natural lime blossoms. The exotic flavors of this chocolate are enhanced by deliciously crunchy crisped rice.

Chef-created Products
Hot Chocolate--dark chocolate pistole (mini-round pellet-like disks).
Truffles--will be all-natural, handcrafted, dark chocolates made with healthier ingredients, including blueberries, nuts and apricots, all dipped in dark chocolate. Naturals Black Sesame Crunch and Dark Chocolate--dipped Apricots are a cross between a truffle and a caramel. It is a luscious, salt-butter caramel dipped in milk or dark chocolate and rolled in crushed roasted peanuts or toasted coconut.
The Chocolate Shot--designed for mixing and dispensing an espresso, like a European “shot” of drinking chocolate, a liquid dessert perfect for sipping and dipping. Serve as a dessert or aperitif, mix with coffee or alcoholic beverages, or mix with ice cream.
Chocolate-covered Coffee Beans--chocolate and coffee: this is a marriage that is heaven on earth. The pungency of the beans, coupled with the sweet elegance of dark chocolate is satisfying. Choose the beans to one’s liking, too (flavored, plain or dark roast); each lends a lovely nuance to this delicious treat.

A line of chocolate teas:
Chocolate Tea--chocolate, black tea
Chocolate A-Peel--chocolate, orange, black tea
Slim Mint--chocolate, vanilla, rooibos, mint, black tea
Buccaneer--chocolate, coconut, vanilla, rooibos, black tea
Currently Cordial--chocolate, black currant, black tea

Chef Kurt Stiles is with Princeton, Minn.-based Intelligent Ingredients/Pure Living. Pure Living Company strives, where possible, to create the purest form of commonly used whole-food products that are allergen-free, vegan, kosher and with the inclusion of whole grains. Using culinology (culinary arts and food science) in product development, ingredients are chosen that harmoniously function and benefit the overall wellness of a product. For more information, contact chef Stiles at or phone 763-432-3703.