Thursday May 12, 2011

Abandon Mint NFG is NFG!

Working in a restaurant, I’ve had to spend a lot more time thinking about garnish than I did when I just made blog posts about doughnuts or layer cake.

I’ve really enjoyed the shift, getting back to my restaurant roots and culinary school lessons. I also love garnishes. Thoughtless, stupid garnishes, even ones made of pure gold really irk me. Where others see a mere sprig of mint, I see a lazy baker still drawing inspiration from a yellowing stack of cooking mags from the 80s. I know. I need therapy.

But a thoughtful garnish can absolutely transform a dessert.

vanilla bean pot de creme

In this case, a simple pot de crème gets an upgrade from a piece of hard caramel and a sprinkling of raspberry truffle dust.

Merriam Webster says the first documented use of the word garnish occurred in 1596. After a modest search, I found a medieval cookbook, printed in 1596, that contains the word garnish. I shall boldly connect the dots and surmise that Merriam Webster refers to The Good Huswifes Jewell.

I intended to only quote the line with the word garnish, but found so much utter delight in the recipe, that I feel compelled to share, medieval spelling and all.

Take a peece of Mutton, and cutte it in peeces, and washe it very cleane, and put it into a faire potte with Ale, or with halfe Wine, then make it boyle, and skumme it cleyne, and put into your pot a faggot of Rosemary and Time, then take some Parsely picked fine, and some onyons cut round, and let them all boyle together,then take prunes, & raisons, dates, and currans and let it boyle altogether, and season it with Sinamon and Ginger Nutmeggs, two or three Cloues, and Salt, and so serue it on soppes, and garnish it with fruite.

The recipe leaves an awful lot unsaid, but this first known license to garnish actually brims with genius. It enhances the dish in four distinct ways. First this garnish would add color to a drab pot of stew. Second its sweetness and acidity complement the savory, rich flavors of braised mutton. Third, as a raw element, it would provide a crisp texture to set off the melting textures of the cooked fruits, vegetables, and tender meat. Fourth the fruit would offer a contrasting temperature to the hot stew. In short, 16th century housewives knew more about garnishing a dish than Emeril.

In the margins of one of my school course books, among various scribbled notes, I have written, “NFG = NFG.” Unless you went to culinary school or have a lot of chef-type friends, you probably have no idea what that means.

The first NFG stands for “non functional garnish.” If you can’t figure out what the second one stands for, then I don’t want to sully your pure and innocent mind. Suffice it to say NFG means bad. Really, really bad.

People usually think of garnishes as jewelry for food. A little bit of bling to elevate a dish from delicious to stunning. To an extent, I can get behind that. But if a garnish only adds a visual pop? That’s no fu…..n. No fun at all, not when it could do double duty and add layers of flavor, texture, and overall deliciocity. (To use a technical term.)

double vanilla pudding

To illustrate this, Rosco took a photo of a very plain dessert, vanilla bean pot de crème, with and without the caramel garnish (above). The photo on the right clearly has more visual appeal, but the appeal extends to its flavor profile, the bitter caramel balances the simple sweetness of the pot de crème and imparts a much needed element of crunch.

Conversely, a lazy garnish could ruin the same dessert. A sprig of mint and some out of season fruit give a dessert all the visual finesse of a waiting room watercolor. Sure, it would add a splash of color, but mint’s a palate wrecker and a single raspberry looks cheap.

Now, if you had a mint flavored dessert, my objections vanish. As my last post illustrates I have no qualms with mint when used with the appropriate dessert, especially when transformed from a naked sprig to a candied confection.

I love that the right garnish can make a dessert more memorable, and you needn’t leave it to the “pros.” Anyone can dream up a great garnish. Child’s play. No, really. Remember Opposite Day? If you let topsy turvy opposite day rules guide you, you’ll never have to resort to technically edible but totally undesirable NFGs like raw mint leaves and citrus twists.

For the perfect garnish, get all medieval on it and keep The Good Huswifes Jewell in mind. Think of what qualities the dessert already has in terms of temperature, texture, and flavor. Whatever the answer, head in the opposite direction.

Cut the fattiness of a dessert with an acidic garnish, like a slice of candied orange instead of a raw slice that people will push to the side. Pair a dense dessert with something airy; a toasted toasted marshmallow, perhaps? A light dessert may need a rich garnish in the form of a chocolate curl or sprinkling of candied nuts. If you can pack several opposites into one garnish, all the better.

deconstructed creme brulee

The two garnishes I’ve used for the pot de crème contrast the dessert’s texture and flavor. The shattering crunch of bitter caramel works perfectly with the sweet, silkiness of the pot de crème. The raspberry truffle dust, first and foremost, comes as a complete surprise. It looks like an innocent dusting of cocoa, but a single taste reveals a punch of intense fruit and chocolate. Each bite of pot de crème can be “dosed” by dragging the spoon through the powder and purists can leave it to the side and enjoy the unmitigated vanilla.

I think the result has far more sensory appeal than a sprig of anything. These garnishes can be made well in advance and keep indefinitely, making them the perfect secret weapon to have stashed in your cupboard to pull out when company comes for dinner. The pot de crème also have a great shelf life, holding in the fridge for up to a week.

vanilla bean pot de crème
decorative caramel
raspberry truffle dust

I originally wrote this post for Honest Cooking, where I am a contributor, but I wanted to cross post it here as well so those who subscribe to the blog won’t miss out. Click here if you’d like to be one of those people.

posted byStellaand filed under:  Chocolate  Fruit  Gluten Free  Sideshow Photos  Vanilla

29 comments and counting

May 12, 2011 · 11:08 AM


Good post! Do you have any tips for spun-sugar nests? I tried from another bloggers recipe, followed it precisely (I have a candy thermometre) and it just failed miserably! Any tips?

 · amansterdam ·

May 12, 2011 ·  1:03 PM

I absolutely adore your post and thanks for sharing your pro wisdom via your blog. I’ve recently been obsessed with garnishes and the rules you put together here are just fabulous. That spoon is so simple yet breathtaking and fun! Love also your ideas on toasted marshmallows. Merci!

 · Jill ·

May 12, 2011 ·  1:07 PM

Love the idea of your post! We tend to forget sometimes that garnish does not necessarily equal chives, mint, and cinnamon powder. It’s time to get creative. Your photo here is absolutely amazing and beautiful!

 · Jessica ·

May 12, 2011 ·  7:00 PM

Ha! Lucky the last time I actually needed leaves for a garnish I turned left and picked lemon balm instead of mint But I really needed leaves that time! I Love using praline for garnishes where it’s in tune with a dish … adds a lovely texture contrast and it’s not just a garnish, but also part of the taste sensation, like the caramel and truffle dust. Totally agree with you. Love your posts!

 · Chocolate Chilli Mango ·

May 13, 2011 ·  2:02 AM

great idea for ganishings. your cup of latte looks spectacular… i love how you decorated it with that sugar surup design and cocoa powder on the tray… simply beautiful!

 · cakewhiz ·

May 13, 2011 ·  4:38 PM

Oh my gosh, that caramel garnish is gorgeous!

 · Jessica ·

May 13, 2011 ·  7:53 PM

@amansterdam, in what way did it fail? I don’t often do nests because they can be difficult to store, but I haven’t had any real trouble with them per se. Maybe I’ll tackle it for a blog post.

@Jill, thank you ma’am. At a restaurant where I previously worked, I went in for dinner with friends, and when we ordered dessert (my dessert!) they came out with NFG mint garnish. I totally, totally lost it. So upsetting.

@Jessica, I am such a huge fan of Rosco’s photography. He really blew me away with this latest batch. I love the one with the black background especially.

@Viviane, mmmmm, lemon balm. That’s always for the win. I just did a successful experiment with freeze dried mango and powdered sugar today, to find a way to jazz up the tired “dusting of powdered sugar” on a plated dessert. It has a really interesting flavor, rather than one note of sweetness.

@cakewhiz @Jessica, thank you so much. The caramel is super easy to do, I hope you’ll give it a try sometime.


May 15, 2011 ·  9:27 AM

Hi Stella, the sugar just didn’t get “strandy” enough to set. And when I could get strands, it just stuck to the (oiled) spoon, I couldn’t pull it off. I wonder if it’s because I used organic raw sugar?

 · amansterdam ·

May 17, 2011 · 10:36 AM

I will write a post on this in the future! I have, personally, have had bad luck with raw sugar in candy making (though I love using it elsewhere!). This may be because of the various “impurities” it contains causes the sugar to crystallize differently compared to refined sugar.


May 17, 2011 ·  7:33 PM

I’m definitely with you on this! You’ve definitely convinced me to rethink any of my future garnishes =)

 · Peggy ·

May 17, 2011 · 10:06 PM

I love coming here you amaze me and inspire me! Plus your witty! A win win!

 · Crash · 

May 18, 2011 · 12:27 PM

@Peggy, I’ve definitely found the garnishes that take just a bit more effort to think of, pay off exponentially on both the visual and culinary end of the spectrum. People sit up and take notice, whereas they will just overlook something more standard.

@Crash, thanks! I’m glad you keep coming back.


May 18, 2011 ·  5:35 PM

What I wouldn’t give to have a video of how you make the hard caramel garnish!
I tried and it looks like a mess. No wonder I have not used garnishes! Your pictures look like a high speed freeze frame of the caramel leaping! Can we donate $ for videos?

 · shuckydurn · 

May 18, 2011 ·  6:43 PM

@shuckydurn, what kind of troubles did you have? My brother is a videographer, so perhaps I can talk him into helping me make a vid; but in the meantime, I’d be glad to try and troubleshoot the problem.


May 19, 2011 ·  5:47 PM

I agree completely about the mint. It can do so many wrong things to a dessert, though used in the right place it works.
The hard caramel is drop dead gorgeous in it’s intricacy.

 · Dana ·

May 21, 2011 ·  1:33 AM

Love your desserts, ladylou! Pleasing to all senses.

 · Ann-banana · 

May 21, 2011 ·  5:15 PM

@Dana, it’s funny how it looks so fancy, but the design is totally random. Such an easy, go-to garnish.

@Ann, thank you much!


Jun 06, 2011 ·  4:03 AM

I always think of watching Emeril Live when he was still on and his stupid ass mint garnish for desserts. His mint garnish never had anything to do with the dessert. Funny! Thanks for the post.

 · Butters · 

Jun 07, 2011 · 11:14 AM

@Butters, BAM!


Jun 08, 2011 ·  3:25 AM

I have a problem with hard caramel much so I want to do a post on it.

Few years back I took about 2 days to master caramel cages for a classic French dessert. On eating the caramel cages I realised they were best left on the side where I think hard caramel be admired but not eaten.

The worst crime has been the prolific use of hard caramel with savoury food! I feel like shouting at the chef under those circumstances but I resist the urge .

With savoury food they supposedly flavour it with things like sesame or vinegar to somehow add savouriness to match the food but I tell you having experience those horrid things in my teeth all you are left with in your mouth is broken down pieces..then dust of sugar. Not very nice with your beautiful scallops!

 · azelias kitchen ·

Jun 08, 2011 · 10:05 AM

@Azelia, definitely I think “the more the merrier” is not applicable to hard caramel. The threads of the nest in particular get tiresome after about the second bite. I like to keep mine thin enough that it essentially mimics the sugar layer of a brûlée. Hard and crunchy enough to add contrast and flavor, but thin and delicate enough you won’t chip a tooth.

I have not had the misfortune of tasting a savory hard caramel, but I kind of threw up a little just thinking about it. I might be able to dig the flavor, but you’re right, the texture is not what I’d like with some tender scallops. Ugh!


Jun 09, 2011 ·  1:13 PM

Clever?! That’s a lot of pressure! :O Love how you are so particular& expect the best from others but first yourself. I can completely see why you LOVE Rosco’s photography. & instead of clever I am giddy silly with anticipation and you know why!

 · foodwanderings ·

Jun 09, 2011 · 10:48 PM

@Shulie, my Mom’s been telling me “clever comments” needs to go; too much pressure! I was feeling pretty sarcastic the day I coded the comment form and didn’t really give it much though. I probably should go back and lower the bar, I’d rather have a friendly comment anyway.

I’m excited too over you-know-what! I’ll hopefully get to tackle it this weekend, whee!!


Sep 06, 2011 ·  2:26 PM

saw this on TS – very very impressive. i also enjoyed the excerpt you shared. very entertaining.

 · amee ·

Sep 07, 2011 · 12:13 PM

@Amee, thanks so much for taking the time to let me know. I’m glad you enjoyed!


Apr 28, 2012 ·  8:01 AM

Hi! You’re post is very helpful! So glad I found this. May I just ask how can I make a caramel lace that consumes a spherical space? Or any 3D shaped caramel lace.

 · kristeen · 

Apr 28, 2012 ·  5:59 PM

@kristeen, I haven’t posted complete instructions for it, but it’s not so hard. Check out my recipe for decorative caramel. To make the spheres, cover some object in a layer of tinfoil and then grease lightly with pan spray. Drizzle the hot caramel over the foil and once the caramel hardens, just peel away the foil. If you’d like more detailed directions, just Google “caramel cage.” Hope that helps!


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