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Apr 28, 2005 03:37 PM

What do people have such low standards when it comes to dessert?

  • c

I've noticed a disturbing trend on the home cooking board. When people discuss gnocchi, they pay attention to the quality of the ricotta. Much attention is paid to the subtleties of roasting chickens. Generally, people are knowledgeable about food - and those that aren't present themselves as new cooks, eager to learn.

And then the topic turns to dessert.

Suddenly, the quality dips. Now, I'm not denying that some very good information is passed back and forth about dessert. But among the recipes for flourless chocolate cake and panna cotta, you find truly horrible recommendations. Lots of instant pudding mix (truly one of the most obscene products on the market - regular pudding is little more than milk, sugar and cornstarch and only takes about 15 minutes). Pre-made frozen pie crusts. Cake mixes. Melted Kraft caramel squares. The sort of junk that I thought people who cared about food, well, rejected. Not out of snobbery, but because these things taste really, really bad, and are loaded with artificial colors, flavors and preservatives to boot.

Why does dessert bring out the worst recipes? Is it because pastry is seen as difficult (but surely no more difficult that many of the cooking projects discussed)? Or is it because people like anything as long as it's sweet? Or is it some sort of childhood regression thing, dessert being the part of the meal you're "allowed" to be childish about?

I used to work as a pastry cook, and I've noticed this before. People who will spend a lot of money to enjoy a fine dinner don't seem to notice if the dessert is overly sweet or long-frozen or just bad. Why?

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  1. I think it's totally the childhood regression thing. As Americans, our dessert tastes (as learned in childhood) are pretty...basic. If not low. Honestly, as much as I can appreciate high quality chocolate and as much as I only eat things made out of real food, my secret favorite dessert is Jello with Lite Cool Whip. Sometimes with pretzels crumbled on the top. It's so shameful, I can only admit this via the anonymity of the internet.

    I would NEVER eat a store-bought pie crust, though. My mother taught me SOME standards.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Adrian

      I know a hound who eat Jell-O eggs!
      Who would forswear all the desserts at a buffert for the treat of various flavored jell-O's in little cups....

      :) :) :)

      1. re: galleygirl

        Oh boy...when I was cooking at a fishing lodge, my most popular, hands down, dessert was Jello...I would scoop out oranges and put the jello in the rind, then when it set, cut it in wedges. You would have thought they had magical powers. They just fascinated people, it was crazy! Ooo...look...oranges...NO...JELLLLOOOOOO!!!! How does she do that? Ooooo...munch slurp munch.


        1. re: Cyndy

          I know someone would would clearly think you were a genius...;)
          There's always room for jello...(of course, I've never understood why anyone would choose jello instead of REAL dessert...)

          1. re: galleygirl

            Dear lord, do you people know what that stuff is made out of? As soon as I found out, I stopped using all manner of jello and gelatin.....blech. (My brothers enjoyed grossing out there sensitive little sister as to what it was I was actually eating)

            Now pudding (homemade) is another issue entirely!!

            1. re: krissywats

              What, you mean hooves? I made cow's foot jelly myself in 7th grade for a history project. I don't think I cleaned the hooves as well as I should have. My poor mother. The house stank for a week. And I promise the jelly never passed anyone's lips.

              1. re: krissywats

                I, unfortunately, live near a General Foods Jello plant in Massachusetts just north of Boston...the town was formerly known for its tanneries - go figure. :-/ And when the sickeningly sweet smell of grape Jello wafts over half the town, I have to keep my windows closed. It's just horrible!

                1. re: krissywats

                  What about the jell-ing of a good, homemade chicken stock?

                  1. re: krissywats

                    Frankly, I think using every last bit of an animal we kill for food is a good thing.

                    1. re: krissywats

                      I would rather eat a horse's hoof than eat another dinner with someone who will only eat "boneless skinless white meat chicken breast."

                      To me, that is a person who doesn't show respect to an animal.

                      Using every bit of animal you've killed does show respect.

            2. As long as it has fat and sugar, how can it be bad? Dessert is not a time for subtlety. Seriously, I do not mean to downplay the tremendous skill and dedication of fine pastry chefs, but fat and sweet can't be beat.

              20 Replies
              1. re: Karl

                How sad that a Chowhound would feel this way! It's like saying "any wine will do---as long as it has alcohol in it, who cares?". I have to agree with the original poster; I too am a a former pastry cook and am saddened by the lack of standards desserts are expected to live up to. The same people who are appalled at using canned cream of chicken soup, Velveeta cheese, or fake crabmeat in an entree have no problem using over-processed, engineered food loaded with unpronounceable ingredients, high-fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Why? Creating a fabulous dessert from REAL food is so enjoyable. And people CAN tell the difference. Last year I made the treats for a tea party at our local library. One of the things I made were "jam tarts", actually a thumbprint cookie. The cookie was made of butter, sugar, flour and a pinch of salt. The thumbprint was filled with raspberry jam (raspberries, sugar and pectin). The moms raved so over these incredibly easy-to-make cookies, you'd think I had dipped them in gold! They just recognized that they were NOT what they were used to---probably Pillsbury slice 'n bakes! I think it's just a matter of educating people---just like letting them taste REAL homemade food instead of the garbage served at McDonald's. What else can we do?

                1. re: Anne

                  I'm not disagreeing with you in any way. I share your feelings. In fact, it breaks my heart when I spend all day baking something very special only to have someone say 'Oh, is this Betty Crocker?' as inevitably happens in my family. But don't underestimate the nostalgia factor. For many people, particularly those of us of a certain age, when we were kids, dessert was about instant pudding and things with melted caramels. It all evokes a memory and cleary some very strong feelings. I don't think you can educate childhood memories out of a person. Hit the streets with a fine display of gourmet desserts and a plate of those Rocky Road Squares with the colored marshmallows. I don't think I have to tell you which one would disappear first. I will always love that stupid Kraft Pizza Mix in a box and will chase it with a Joe Louis and a coke. That's just the way it is. Doesn't stop me from trying to take it to the next level, but hey, people are gonna do what they are gonna do.

                  And for some of us, wine is just wine, as long as it has alcohol in it. I personally can't tell the diff between a merlot and a cab. Just not my thing :-)

                  1. re: Cyndy

                    I get what you're saying - but to me I think if you made those gooey bars from scratch and put them next to the one's made from a box, people would notice the difference. Of course someone that has only ever tried the chemical-laced stuff might actually find the 'newness' of a non-chemical version off putting...but that is going to be rare.

                    I think the issue here is that if we CAN make it from scratch and if we are paying such close attention to the detail in our meals, shouldn't we be showing the same attention to our precious desserts?

                    And you might not be able to tell a cab from a merlot, but I bet you can tell both from a boxed white zin!!

                    1. re: krissywats

                      The worst compliment I ever received was when I lovingly made an apple pie only to be told, "This pie is so good. It tastes just like Entemann's."

                      1. re: Miss Needle

                        Not unlike the tourist viewing magnificent scenery commenting it is " so perfect, almost like Disneyworld." The modern aesthetic uses Disney and Entenmanns as its gold standard. Oy.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          That would hurt!

                          (I'm not sure they would get another invite from me--or I'd just pick up a pizza and a some donuts for dessert--no "pearls to swine"!)

                    2. re: Anne

                      I refuse to use HFCS and not long ago I wanted to have a fun night of banana splits for friends. I made all of my own toppings, including the strawberry and caramel toppings. EVERYONE was astounded at how much better it was than the jarred stuff and how easy it was to make fresh strawberries into a beautiful topping.

                      I make everything from scratch (I will admit to using one type of box mix for pudding, but the only ingredients on the box are 'sugar, cocoa, corn starch' and I add extras to make it my own). I think people have no idea how much your tastes change when all you eat is the low grade versions.

                      I'm right with you on this - dessert can be as subtle, as complex, and as layered as any other part of the meal. If you think all that is needed is 'sweet and fat' you are clearly missing out on incredible desserts.

                      1. re: krissywats

                        Tongue in cheek does not work very well on the internet. For the record, I make all my desserts and breads from scratch and agree with you in principle. Also, as I thought I had expressed in my original post I do know the serious issue raised. Personally I am not a dessert lover, but that is a matter of taste. I think the issue is similar to the discussion of the relative value of tragedy and comedy. Just because tragedy is more serious, does not mean it has less value.

                        1. re: Karl

                          Ah..yes, you are right - the subtleties (or not so?) of our language are often lost on forum speak.

                          And as an actor - I absolutely agree with you on the tragedy/comedy issue. It's believed among actors that comedy is much harder to do well than tragedy - for various reasons I won't go into here. Could the same be said for an excellent dessert?

                          Just taking the analogy a bit further....may not work even a little.

                    3. re: Karl

                      I am a cake slut.

                      I am also a cake snob. I have never made a mix cake in my life and I have a very bad attitude about people who do. I won't make red velvet cake, nothing but butter crosses my threshold, and I'm distainful of bundt cakes. I am contemptuous of powdered sugar icing and Cool Whip is an abomination.

                      However, if someone brings a "homemade" cake mix, canned icing monstrosity into the breakroom or a grocery store lard-spackeled unholy-colored birthday cake to a party, I will eat it, and possibly have seconds. I'm not saying I won't complain about it, but I will trample anyone who gets between me and the cake.

                      Any cake is better than no cake at all.

                      Thank you for hearing my confession.

                      1. re: danna
                        Caitlin McGrath

                        Disdainful of bundt cakes? Why ever so?

                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                          Yeah, I'd like an answer on that, too. It's a damn fine vessel in which to make scatch pound cakes, banana bread, applesauce cakes, and such - they bake much more evenly, and the presentation and service is far easier and better-looking. Plus I find Bundt cakes much easier to store, and to divvy up, as the slices are alreay defined - I split a lovely scratch almond-cream cheese pound cake with my partner in crime just last night, along with a nice little container of fresh strawberries in a light orange curacao sauce to spoon over it. Would I have tried to split a layer cake with him? Not on your tintype!

                          I guess we've encountered a new breed today: The Bundt Snob. Go figure. :o)

                          1. re: peg

                            It seems to attack a bundt pan. It is just a pan!

                            Now it true that a lot of bad mix cakes are made in a bundt pan but I think you should leave the genre only.

                            Long live the bundt pan.

                            1. re: JudiAU

                              Damn straight, Judy. They'll have to pry my Bundt® pan out of my cold, dead fingers, I'll tell you whut!

                              Now, I think I'll mosey out to my kitchen, and have a nice slice of that home-grown almond pound cake, topped with some of those curacao-laced sliced strawberries, augmented with some sliced bananas.....mmmmmm..... :o)

                          2. re: Caitlin McGrath

                            As I was typing that, I figured someone might ask about the bundt thing...and I knew I would have no good answer. I OWN a bundt pan...I just never use it.

                            I guess I just don't like the pre-formed design. It seems a little bit precious. If I want to make a pound or other non-layer cake, I use a pan with straight sides.

                            I TOLD you I had some *problems* where cake was concerned ;-)

                            1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                              David Leite at Leite's Culinaria has written an amusing little article about this very subject. Check it out below (the rest of the site is great too).

                              (Personally, I love bundt pans. I especially love the look of glaze-drizzled mini-bundts. I guess I need higher standards.)

                                1. re: Jujubee

                                  That piece is just fabulous. Fabulous! And the cake sounds just great, as well - chocolate and orange are a match made in heaven. Thanks so much for providing Leite's much-needed validation for a great American baking product. Vive le Bundt® Pan!

                                  1. re: peg


                                    If I didn't make it myself, I wouldn't have believed it. I've made it several more times, and it comes out just as good every time.

                                    All best,

                                    David Leite


                                2. re: Jujubee

                                  Ah, the internet! Where no matter how big a weirdo you may be, you can search out others with the same, shall we say, eccentricities.

                                  Oh, and the cake sounds great....and one day I may make my straight-sided tube pan ;-)

                          3. Well, I think it's a combination of two things:

                            - The average American under the age of 40 or so grew up in a time period where convenience foods were a big exciting thing. Our mothers were thrilled to find shortcuts in the kitchen and used them. We stunted our taste buds. If you don't think this is true, go to any church or ladies' group cookbook, and the favorite recipes all have shortcut ingredients and methods.

                            - This experience is a lot like what is found with immigrant families. Once they assimilate to American life, they don't always see the value in keeping up tradition through language and cooking. Some of us don't really remember authentic, good sweet rolls or cakes that weren't made from a mix. Out of sight, out of mind. And, if we want to make them, Grandma took the recipe with her when she hung her apron up for the last time.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: MkeLaurie

                              I wouldn't really say it's the average American under 40... Probably under 70 is more like it. My parents are in their early 60's, grew up in the 1950's, when all kinds of convenience foods were all over the place...

                            2. By the time dessert after a meal rolls around, I'm usually too full to pay much attention to it. If I'm having dessert on its own, I'm a lot more discriminating.

                              1. I feel your pain. For me, a bad, or even just adequate dessert will negate any great food that might have preceded it. Same as substandard, watery espresso.

                                But many otherwise good restaurants DO treat dessert as an afterthought. It breaks my heart to receive, at the end of an otherwise excellent meal, some hard-crusted, sad lemon tart topped with wrinkled, bleeding berries that must have sat in the fridge for days before someone ordered it.

                                As for recipes, it seems bizarre that people would want to use redy-made mixes when so many outstanding desserts can be made with just flour, suggar, butter, and eggs. But many bakers here on CH seem quite discerning about butter, for example.

                                I would attribute the general trend to place emphasis on cooking rather than baking/dessert-making to many people's irrational fear of baking, and the fairly common notion that it's some arcane science that only a select few can master; for the rest, there's Betty Crocker.