Looking for ways to up your pastry game from homey to restauranty? You’ve come to the right place. Click on one of the categories below to find ways to take that dessert off the kitchen table and onto the chef’s table at a fine dining restaurant. Or at least to your dining room table. At the end of the day, all of these categories are all about dessert plating. To get Really Good at it, you have to learn to look at desserts as an assembly of components. I hope you find this helpful when it comes time to try some restaurant-style dessert plating for your next dinner party!

Dessert Plating Menu

Dessert Construction/Dessert Deconstruction/Plating the Dessert/Refining the Dessert/Spinning the Dessert

Dessert Construction

As important as it is that you make your dessert look beautiful, ultimately it is food, and someone will stab it with a fork and eat it. With that in mind, construct your dessert wisely. More sturdy layers should go on the bottom. Lighter, creamy layers should go on top. If you want a crispy layer in the midst of the creaminess, make sure it is either a)a very thin sheet or b)broken up into crumbles so it doesn’t press down on the creamy layer causing it to guish (pronounced gwish) all over the place. Use common sense. Oh, and have you ever wondered how those pastry chefs who compete on the National and World levels build cakes with 8 perfect layers of vastly different components? Molds and freezers, my friends. Layers stack much better when they’re frozen. If you are interested in finding some molds to up your dessert plating game, I recommend checking out Chef Rubber. The name in molds.

Dessert Deconstruction

To deconstruct means to take something apart. To deconstruct a dessert means to separate the components and then plate them creatively. Let’s take, for example, a nice and homey Banana Cream Pie. What are the components?
  • pastry crust
  • sliced bananas
  • custard
  • whipped topping of some sort
Ask yourself two questions:
  1. How can I rearrange these components?
  2. Can I “fancy up” any of the components?
Now check out this Deconstructed Version. From what I can tell, here’s what they did:
  1. Roasted banana sorbet or ice cream.
  2. Poached bananas (maybe in rum).
  3. Banana pastry cream.
  4. Some sort of crunchy sand to take the place of the crust. Maybe macadamia nut dough baked off and run through a Robot Coupe.
  5. A cool snakey tube of Awesomeness. Maybe more banana pastry cream or plain pastry cream.
Now, consider the case of the the lemon chess pie. I don’t know about you, but I love buttermilk pie. It reminds me of church picnics. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a beautiful wedge of lemon buttermilk pie. For a special dinner party, you might want to jazz it up a bit. See what they did?
  • Lovely Meyer Lemon Curd
  • Shortbread Tuile
  • Buttermilk Sorbet
All the elements of the traditional pie are there, just taken apart and plated up in a new and different way. I’ve just given you two examples. Do some more research by picking a dessert–say, apple pie. Then, do an image search for “deconstructed apple pie” and see what inspires you. Go play!

Plating the Dessert

There are some general guidelines to follow when designing your dessert plating. Think like an artist–our eye is generally drawn to curves rather than straight lines. Symmetry can be pleasing to the eye, but asymmetry will keep your eye moving around the plate. Groupings of odd numbers (1 and 3) are much more interesting than groups in even numbers (2 or 4). Don’t be afraid of negative space. No need to crowd your dessert together–let the white plate shine through. Oh, that reminds me–(affiliate) white plates will be your best bet to show off your dessert to best effect. Colors of sauces will stay much truer on a white background. White gives a nice clean background for all your components. Do you really want your mousse creation to compete with the big cabbage roses on your grandmother’s fine china? I didn’t think so. You can also use clear glass, especially when served on a white tablecloth. Decide your color palette:  you can go monochromatic, with all colors being generally different shades of the same color. You can have a complementary color scheme in which the colors used are opposite of each other on the color wheel, or you can have an analogous color scheme in which the colors of your dessert components are adjacent to each other on the (affiliate) color wheel. Please remember, in coming up with your schemes, color combinations should always take a back seat to flavor and texture. Here’s a video I put together showing some different ways of plating four components that most of us have in the house: ice cream, cookies, whipped cream and a sauce. Hopefully it will spark your creativity!

There are usually at least three components to a basic plated dessert–the main item, an accompanying sauce and a garnish of some sort. Keep in mind that these three components should have flavor notes that complement each other and deliver a “harmonious flavor chord” when eaten together. Sounds a little out there, I know, but trust me–flavors either go together or they don’t!

A couple of things to remember about these components:  your sauce should be just enough to get a taste in each bite. When the main component is gone, the sauce should be gone–about 2 Tablespoons for a 4 oz. main component. Garnish should a) make sense (why would you put a strawberry as a garnish on something that has nothing to do with strawberries),  b)it should be edible–nobody wants to eat around that artistic cinnamon stick (twig) that you stuck on their plate, and c)it should have a texture and/or temperature that contrasts nicely with the main component (crispy with gooey, warm with cold, crunchy with chewy, etc). Also as a general rule, don’t decorated the rim of the plate–leave it clear (or at least a major part of it clear) so when you’re serving, you don’t get thumb prints in your powdered sugar. If you try to drizzle sauce on the rim, it will run and look amateurish and dumb. Only sauce the flat of the plate.

Refining the Dessert

Refining is taking a basic home-style dessert and applying a few more finishing techniques to up the “wow factor.” This could include something as simple as straining liquids once or twice to get them ultra-smooth to refining every element one at a time. Consider this example:  The trifle. Auntie Ev’s Trifle, to be exact. One of my favorite desserts. Here’s one I made for a Christmas party a couple of years back. Store-bought pound cake soaked with cream sherry, layered with store-bought raspberry jam. It’s topped with vanilla pudding and then whipped cream. Slice and eat. Pure joy.

Here’s how I refined it into a plated dessert for the restaurant:  Lemon sponge cake soaked in sherried simple syrup, house-made raspberry jam, vanilla pastry cream, sweetened creme fraiche and croquant. The sauces are lemon sabayon and raspberry jus. It could have been further refined by cutting out the cakes in circles then placing them in slightly larger ring molds and pouring the custard in. That way, all you’d see would be the custard. You could even ice each individual piece with the creme fraiche, rather than making a quenelle. Then, you could put a glazed raspberry on top. Really, there are a ton of possibilities.

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So, go ahead and refine away! It’s really not that hard. Take any “home” dessert you like, think about the components and how to refine the presentation for a dinner party.

Spinning the Dessert

The “spinning” category is sort of a catch-all category. It can mean switching up flavors (making a cashew butter mousse with a raspberry bavarian and calling it “peanut butter and jelly, for example) or adding herbs or spices to an old standard to update it. Pink peppercorn shortbread? Yum. Strawberries and rhubarb stewed with basil? Hey, now there’s an idea! Take two flavors/food items that are usually associated with each other and see how creative you can be with your interpretation:  strawberries and cream, coffee and doughnuts, the aforementioned peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, cake and ice cream, chocolate and peanut butter. You truly are only limited by your imagination. Check this one out. Bill Corbett, (then) pastry chef at Anthos in NYC came up with a dessert called “Sesame in Sesame”, and it won Pastry Scoop’s Golden Scoop Award “Most Innovative Dessert” Award for 2007. (I don’t think Pastry Scoop gives these awards anymore. Too bad). He took sesame and put it on the plate in as many different forms as he could. How’s that for putting your own spin on something?! This is the category where you can be as playful as you want. Keep in mind balance of flavors, textures and temperatures, do some research and spin away! And for more visual inspiration for plated desserts, I did an image search for you. I am sure some of these creative plating ideas will spark your imagination!