Dessert First

Become a savvy dessert connoisseur


Who doesn’t love the creamy sweetness of a New York-style cheesecake lingering as you sit back and enjoy the memory of the perfect dining experience? Maybe it involved wine. Maybe it involved a juicy, tender steak; or maybe it was perfectly cooked al dente spinach ravioli with fresh Bolognese. But all of those fond memories can be wiped considerably if you choose the wrong dessert to cap off your meal.

Just like wine, some flavors, tastes and sensations seem born for each other. The same is true of dessert. An often overlooked course, dessert can actually be the most important course in your dining experience. And the key to the perfect dining experience? Leave room for dessert!

In the pastry world you truly cannot sacrifice flavor for a low-fat treat; the two can be synonymous, but only with the most talented of pastry chefs. Usually a dessert equals a full-fat indulgence, as fat equals robust flavor.

Guidelines for choosing your dessert can be as simple as matching flavors or ingredients. If your meal had citrus flavors in it, like orange, order a dessert that has orange essence in it as well. It doesn’t have to be the main ingredient. It doesn’t even have to be a prominent flavor. As long as there are subtle hints, you can’t go wrong.

Ice cream is one of the most flexible and simple desserts to choose. Sassy Cow Creamery, a local dairy that excels at natural ice cream and milk, has many flavor varieties that could match your meal. Marketing Manager Kara Kasten-Olson recommends the new Orange Chocolate Bliss or their highly regarded Dark Chocolate Cherry ice cream to lend a bit of sophistication to the conclusion of any meal.
Similarly, matching regions is always advisable. Desserts born in a country are created with the regional flavors in mind, so they will likely complement one another. Think of the aforementioned spinach ravioli with fresh Bolognese. It would match well with the delicate balance of a layered tiramisu.

Justin Hilgenberg, manager at the Claddagh Irish Pub in Middleton, recommends honoring the “When in Dublin...” mentality. Claddagh’s fish and chips are a unique house specialty. In this case, Hilgenberg recommends pairing the dish with the intriguingly-named Galway Hooker, a brilliant melding of roasted crème brulee and a warm flourless chocolate cake topped with chocolate sauce. Eat this dessert by ensuring you have a bit of each element on your spoon to get the full, balanced experience.

The only time you would not want to match dinner and dessert is when you have a large, heavy meal. Go instead for a lighter, airy dessert so you can actually walk away from the table when it is time to go. Conversely, if you have a light dinner or smaller portions, don’t be afraid to balance it out with a rich, decadent dessert.

What about coffee after dinner? Have it if you want. Coffee is a great palate cleanser and also naturally enhances the flavors of chocolate. Try serving a chocolate cream cheese scone from Mary’s Coffee Express and Bake Shop in Mt. Horeb and coffee after a meal such as grilled steak, steamed asparagus and a baked potato. Hanson uses a different technique for this special dessert scone—she leaves the cream cheese in chunks rather than the traditional method of creaming it into the mix. This results in a more eclectic experience as the acidity in the cream cheese is allowed to directly challenge the development of the chocolate in each bite.

One last dessert item to mention is the oft-overlooked dessert wine. These sweet wines can be enjoyed with dessert, but they do have the fortitude to stand alone. The trick is to sip it slowly. Let it develop and enhance the flavors of the meal you just experienced. Wollersheim Winery makes a lovely ice wine or Port. The ice wine consists of very concentrated flavors, so sip it when it is very cold. Julie Coquard, vice president of Wollersheim, recommends pairing it with an elegant meal or special-occasion dinner. And if you simply must have something solid, join it with a straightforward cheesecake to avoid complex flavors in some other desserts that may interfere with the wine. Alternately, she says the Port is an adaptable dessert wine that can be enjoyed at less formal dinners, such as after dinner with friends. The Port is best enjoyed solo, but it also pairs well with chocolate.

Still in a quandary? Keep it simple and go French! The French, while known worldwide for their decadence, are rumored to enjoy a simple fruit plate after meals. Fruit is naturally sweet and will satisfy your sweet tooth. The flavors are more subtle so they will not overpower your meal, and it is gently filling to lend to the feeling of a well-rounded dining experience.

Clearly, selecting a dessert can be more than simply choosing “what sounds good” or your usual choice. However, going with your gut feeling may be your best bet, as long as you listen to your gut and not your head. Let your stomach lead. And how many times do you hear that?


For more dessert recommendations or advice (and possibly samples!), all of the mentioned dessert connoisseurs will be at the Madison Food & Wine Show, October 22–24.





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