THEY MAY BE far apart on a map, but the two hotel catering departments featured in this month's Food for Fêtes — those of Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin of Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and JW Marriott Camelback Inn of Scottsdale, Ariz. — are on the same page when it comes to focusing on fabulous desserts. Each property staffs a highly trained in-house executive pastry chef, bucking the current outsourcing trend. And each is intent on keeping pace with the changing tastes of its event clients.
At Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, success lies in the ability to please the palates — as well as logistical and budget demands — of both high-end social and large convention groups.
For elegant social gatherings and for high-end corporate events with fewer than 200 guests in attendance, executive pastry chef Laurent Branlard might prepare a warm chocolate cake with hazelnut foam, lemon crème brûlée and citrus-verbena sorbet. Also popular among upscale groups is a peanut-butter emulsion with caramelized green apples, lemon financier (a traditional French cake) and caramel sorbet.
To enhance presentation, “These desserts are always garnished with a sauce, and quite often the plates are garnished with chocolate swirls and sticks made here at the hotel,” says the Swan and Dolphin's associate director of catering, Ed DiAntonio, CMP. They also are “always offered on specialty plates” in whimsical shapes such as triangles and squares, and grouped into dessert duos, he adds.
And while convention groups may have to forego the presentation finery, they don't miss out on flavor. Branlard's dessert buffets typically “offer a Florida twist to basics, such as Key lime pie,” the catering director notes. Other much-requested options include warm cinnamon churros, cheesecake topped with exotic fruit, orange mousse cake and coconut macaroons. Smaller bites may take the form of chocolate eclairs, fruit tartlets or gelato, while at dessert time, “coffee drinks are all very popular, too,” he adds.
It comes as no surprise that the Camelback Inn's Belgian-trained Patrick Peeters infuses his desserts with European liqueurs and a good dose of Belgian chocolate.
The desert property's dessert guru counts such extravagances as strawberries Romanoff with Chambord, Cointreau and vanilla sponge cake among his specialties. Also making for a pretty presentation is a Belgian chocolate mousse teardrop with brandied cherries and a Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée center.
And while Peeters notes that most of the once-trendy herb and spice desserts — “those with basil, rosemary, etc.” — are no longer in vogue at his venue, he says that one herb-laced dessert still sells well: “Honey-lavender crème brûlée with Cointreau-marinated berries, served in a Belgian white chocolate cup with a hazelnut tuile cookie.”
As for plating, the executive pastry chef notes, “Large functions usually get small plates and small functions like to use large white plates.” But plates are only half the equation. “Our most popular [dessert setup] is a 50-50 mix of plated and buffet.” The buffets themselves often feature action-intensive offerings such as bananas Foster and cherries jubilee — also hot choices on Branlard's dessert menus.
TEMPTATIONS IN TRANSITION
While both properties predict that desserts won't be dropped from event menus anytime soon, they do acknowledge that changing diet habits are changing the style of post-meal sweets.
The Camelback Inn has made several adjustments, introducing such guilt-reducing dessert choices as sugar-free apple and cherry pies, low-fat banana-chocolate brownies — even sugar-free Belgian chocolate mousse.
But, Peeters insists, “Desserts are here to stay. They are the finish of the meal.” His main concern: “Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer good craftsmen and craftswomen out there, and [culinary] schools are not providing a broad enough education in the pastry field. Here [in the United States] the programs are very short and expensive, and everything gets covered too fast.”
DiAntonio, meanwhile, sees diets — especially the hugely popular Atkins and South Beach programs — as an ongoing but easily surmountable challenge for his dessert team. “We now offer items such as fresh berries and fresh whipped cream sweetened with Splenda [sugar substitute], and often we will offer cheeses with dried fruits, nuts and marmalades.” As diets rotate in and out of fashion, he says, “We follow the trends and adapt our menus to them as needed.”
Still, like Peeters, he contends, “Desserts are absolutely here to stay. The dessert course allows our client, and us, an opportunity to show creativity, and to present their attendees with a ‘wow!’ at the end of their meal.” Or, as pastry chef Branlard states it, “Dessert is the cherry on the cake.”
JW Marriott Camelback Inn, 480/905-7941; Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, 407/934-4629