Not so long ago, dessert sauces and syrups were served exclusively in fine and formal dining rooms, where sweet embellishments were the signature of sophistication. But with the current explosion of casual dining, and the ensuing competition by restaurateurs to find more ways to distinguish their operations, these colorful drizzles and pretty pools of sauce are surfacing on dessert plates everywhere
Beyond their visual appeal, sauces and syrups can take pastry to the next level, infusing extra—or contrasting—flavor, adding textural interest, and creating another dimension of the dessert experience. Tracy Kamperdyk-Assue, executive pastry chef for both the City Limits Diner in White Plains, New York, and Cafe Meze in Hartsdale, New York, is well aware of the dessert sauce’s transformative powers. A CIA graduate and veteran of top New York City restaurants such as Lespinasse and The River Cafe, Kamperdyk-Assue uses the “liquefied flavor” of a sauce or syrup to elevate classic desserts like key lime pie, chocolate mousse cake, and homemade ice cream. Her approach is deliberately simple, based on seasonal, high-quality ingredients and the combination of just a few intense flavors at a time. She notes, “I use sauces to reinforce the flavor I already have on the plate or add another dimension. . . . I don’t make color a priority . . . For me it’s about adding flavor.”
What is the basic difference between a sauce and a syrup? Syrups fall into the broader category of sauces, and although both have consistencies that can coat the back of a spoon, syrups tend to be thicker. Also, syrups have a sugar or caramel base, while sauces may, but don’t have to, have a sugar base.
For Kamperdyk-Assue, the essential ingredients for a sauce depend on the dessert. “I just look at whatever the dessert is and its featured flavor,” she explains. “If it has banana, for example, I will use a sauce to add more banana flavor, or to contrast it with ingredients like star anise, chocolate, vanilla bean, maple, or honey.” For a complementary sauce, the chef would favor an anglaise made with pureed bananas; a contrasting sauce might feature caramel syrup infused with spiced tea. Kamperdyk-Assue adds that basic fruit purees are favorite sauces for pastry chefs, but she also enjoys experimenting with wines, ports, and liqueurs.
In the City Limits kitchen, Kamperdyk-Assue uses only Tahitian vanilla beans, which she believes are the best available, even though they are “unbelievably expensive.” She gets her money’s worth from each bean by using the seeds in sauces, drying and chopping the pods in a food processor, mixing them with sugar, and then straining, to make a vanilla-infused sweetener. “Vanilla is the salt of the pastry kitchen,” she remarks. “It makes everything taste better.”
She also states, “We use Valrhona chocolate almost exclusively,” but notes that Michel Cluizel, another French chocolate, also finds its way into the occasional dessert. When it comes to sugar, Kamperdyk-Assue does not believe that all are created equal. While the restaurant’s high volume prevents her from using costly organic varieties, she opts for Muscovado, which has an intense molasses flavor, and the less refined Demerara, which is a rich brown sugar.
Fruit is one of Kamperdyk-Assue’s favorite ingredients to source. She instructs, “Use ripe, organic if possible, in-season fruit for the best possible flavor.” Choosiness is important to Kamperdyk-Assue, and this year she hand-picked four flats of strawberries for use in the restaurant.
Sauces and syrups are two of the simplest dessert components to make, and in some cases, like fruit purees, cooking isn’t even necessary. Still, sharp attention to detail and quality equipment make a big difference. Kamperdyk-Assue uses only stainless steel pots, pans, and bowls, as they are nonreactive. She always has several heavy-duty saucepans on hand, and stainless steel balloon whips make fast work of mixing. For straining, a chinois is preferred over looser-weave strainers.
When making a simple syrup, Kamperdyk-Assue begins by caramelizing sugar. She often steeps lemon thyme and vanilla bean in the mixture to give it a very intense, floral taste that complements the caramel. A slightly fancier version, such as her Clear Earl Grey Caramel Sauce, includes a pre-steeped, concentrated Earl Grey tea. She says, “We get really intense flavors in little drops of syrup.”
For one of City Limits’ most popular and versatile sauces, Vanilla Bean and Chocolate Sauce—essentially a chocolate ganache—Kamperdyk-Assue adds vanilla seeds to a mixture of heavy cream and milk, then scalds it over medium-high heat. She pours the hot mixture over chunks of Valrhona chocolate and beats with a whip until the sauce is smooth and creamy.
But she’s equally smitten with a no-cook strawberry sauce, made by pureeing garden-fresh berries and adding a bit of vanilla sugar and lemon juice to temper the sweetness. “A lot of fruit sauces do well with a squeeze of lemon,” she comments. Remarking on the quick-and-easy characteristics of her sauces, she says, “I like to keep things simple so that you have pure flavor.”
Although Kamperdyk-Assue enjoys a variety of sauces, her top choice is a wintry reduction made with a good, intense port. She cooks the sauce to a syrup, adds pureed plums, a bit of vanilla, and perhaps a hint of cinnamon. “You get all the flavors of a glass of port in the syrup,” she reports. “It lends itself to all different applications, everything from fruit to chocolate.”
It’s hard to go wrong in making a sauce, but Kamperdyk-Assue points to a handful of errors that can crop up. “The biggest problems are using the wrong ingredients, using too many ingredients, over sweetening, using unripe fruit, or masking the flavor. . . . Don’t mask the flavor of fruit with a thousand other flavors; work with it to bring it out.”
The chef maintains that the added cost of a sauce or syrup “really depends on the ingredients.” She continues, “For me, vanilla is in everything. The beans are expensive, so a sauce made with the seeds is slightly more costly. But the vanilla sugar is cheap. Organic fruit can cost a lot. But if you have a sugar-based sauce, it can be as little as pennies per portion.” Her penchant for using upscale embellishments like Hennessy VSOP Cognac sometimes raises the cost, but it is often balanced out by lower-priced basics.
In choosing which recipes to pair with a sauce, Kamperdyk-Assue says, “I don’t like a sauce with cr[[e]]me br[u]1 [e]e. You need something with texture, some kind of body.” Instead, she steers toward classic, more solid desserts like tarts, where the creamy inside is juxtaposed with a crisp shell and liquid sauce. Likewise, with a torte, a layer of cake is topped by a layer of mousse or cream, which is then blanketed with sauce. In both cases, “the three different consistencies give a nice mouth-feel.”
When asked which sauce is a perennial diner favorite, Kamperdyk-Assue immediately states, “People love chocolate sauce. People just love chocolate! We use Valrhona in everything from chocolate chip cookies to mousses to chocolate sauce, and customers can’t get enough.”
But one of the great benefits of using a sauce or syrup is that they can give new life to menu stalwarts. With chocolate mousse cake, for example, Kamperdyk-Assue gives it a summery twist with a mint ganache sauce, or in the fall gives it an earthier flavor with a maple anglaise. Her lemon meringue pie has been garnished with a raspberry puree, and sometimes the lemon custard itself is mixed with stewed blueberry sauce and fresh blueberries for a down-home taste. “You can change the whole experience of a dessert by changing the sauce,” she asserts.
Vanilla Bean and Chocolate Sauce
by Tracy Kamperdyk-Assue, executive pastry chef, City Limits Diner, White Plains, New York
Whole milk 14 oz
Heavy cream 12 oz
Vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds only 1
Valrhona extra bitter (61%) chocolate, chopped 1 lb
1. Combine milk, heavy cream, and vanilla bean seeds in a medium-sized sauce pan and scald over medium-high heat.
2. Place chopped chocolate in a large stainless steel bowl. Pour heated milk mixture over the chocolate and whip to a smooth consistency.
Kamperdyk-Assue recommends using the sauce with a warm cr[[e]]me br[u]1[e]etart, and serving with2001 Mas Amiel Maury, from France’s Roussillon region.
Clear Earl Grey Caramel Sauce
by Tracy Kamperdyk-Assue, executive pastry chef, City Limits Diner, White Plains, New York
Water 2 cups plus 2 oz
Loose Earl Grey tea leaves 3 T
Sugar 2 lb
Vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds only 1/2
1. Place 2 cups water in medium-sized saucepot and heat to boil. Stir tea leaves into boiling water and steep 5 to 7 minutes. Strain and set aside.
2. Place sugar, vanilla bean seeds, and 2 oz water in clean, medium-sized sauce pan; heat over medium heat. Cook until sugar is caramelized and turns a medium-amber color. Turn off heat and add strained tea. Whip until smooth.
Kamperdyk-Assue recommends using this sauce with alemon cream mousse torte and serving with 1999Gini Recioto di Soave Renoblis, from Italy’s Veneto region.