The concept of plate profile is the final step in establishing a vocabulary for analyzing flavor. Analyzing a dessert’s flavor profile helps chefs to isolate and clearly define the strengths and weaknesses of their creations.
Once a chef understands the concept of plate profile, he/she can then separate the individual components of a particular dish to answer the questions, What is missing? and What does this plate need? The analysis required to develop a plate profile is not unique to the pastry world and should be used by all chefs when they taste and evaluate their dishes.
A plate profile consists of a description of a product’s flavor from when it is first smelled until after it is swallowed. The movement of flavor in the mouth is referred to as the top, middle, and base notes. A plate is said to have a full plate profile when it possesses all three of these notes.
The top note of a dish is the initial impression it gives the consumer. The top note can appear in three different forms: through an ortho nasal aroma, or via sweet or salty elements of the dish. Let’s begin with the ortho nasal aroma. Recall that retro nasal perception of flavor is always present as a by-product of the tasting process. Thus, only an ortho nasal aroma is considered to be a top note. We smell the waft of apples from the slice of warm apple pie and get an immediate initial impression of the pie’s flavor, even before our fork touches the plate. This aroma is a top note.
Other sources of top notes are found in sweet and salty elements. The sweet and salt was perceived before the actual flavors of the almond. These are top notes.
Top notes provide instant impact. Ortho nasal aroma reaches us before we even eat the pie. Likewise, sugar and salt hit the front of the palate before we get a true impression of the product’s true essence or flavor. The majority of top notes are volatile flavors; they evaporate quickly and have little or no staying power. While their impact is almost instantaneous, it dissipates quickly.
Middle notes provide the actual staying power of any particular flavor. These notes are the essences of the flavor. The middle note is the product’s flavor. In the nut tasting, the middle note was the almond essence or almond flavor of each nut. In that case, the middle note was the orange flavor or essence.
In many instances fat will help to hold and carry a middle note. The following exercise helps to illustrate this point.
Middle Notes and Caramel
Caramelized sugar is one of the few products whose flavor can be anticipated by its color. The longer the caramel is cooked, the bitterer it becomes. For the most part, Americans are used to a rather anemic caramel, sugar cooked until it is a light honey color. This is caramel that is simply sweet (it is, after all, sugar) but with little other flavor. If, however, the caramel is cooked until it becomes quite a bit darker (the color of dark ground cinnamon) a wonderful bitterness begins to emerge.
Prepare both the clear and classic caramel sauces using the recipes in the Appendix. Begin by tasting the clear caramel sauce. Because there is no fat in this sauce, you will fully experience the bitter sweetness of the caramel. The top note of sweetness hits your palate first. The middle note consisting of the actual flavor of caramel, or caramel essence, follows. The caramel will have a nutty richness to it. The bitterness of a dark caramel is the base note. In this context bitterness is not a negative; it gives the caramel a full nutty flavor. Take another taste and concentrate on the movement of the flavor through your mouth: sweet—caramel nuttiness bitter.
Now try the classic caramel sauce. Again, you are initially hit with the sweetness, followed by the flavor of the caramel. In this instance, however, that flavor is dimmed or blurred by the fat that is also in the sauce. The caramel has a rich, buttery flavor with less nuttiness. A fatty richness accompanies the caramel flavor. The bitter end of the sauce, unlike the clear caramel sauce, is much shorter and not nearly as strongly recognizable. This is a good example of the role of fat. Again, this is neither good nor bad, it simply is what it is. Follow the movement of flavor in your mouth: sweet—buttery richness—caramel nuttiness—faint hint of bitter.
Let’s take this tasting a step further. Divide both the clear caramel and the classic caramel into three batches. For each (clear and classic) keep one batch as is, to the second batch add a bit of sea salt, and to the last portion add a bit of ancho chilli powder. Taste the three clear caramel sauces first and then the classic caramel sauces. Taste the sauces in the following progression: plain (no additions), salt, and then chilli. As you taste, concentrate on the way in which the flavors move through your mouth. For both the clear and classic caramels, you will find the salt hits your palate first followed closely by the sweetness of the caramel and then the bitter last note. The caramels with chilli are especially interesting, as they leave not only a back note of bitter from the caramel but also a wonderful trigeminal response from the ancho chilli powder. Pay close attention to the movement of flavor through your mouth as you taste each sauce.
For each sauce the movement in your mouth should feel something like this:
Clear caramel sauce: sweet—caramel nuttiness—bitter
Clear caramel sauce with salt: salt—sweet—caramel nuttiness bitter
Clear caramel sauce with ancho powder: sweet—caramel nuttiness earthiness from the ancho chilli powder—bitter—heat from the chilli powder
Classic caramel sauce: sweet—buttery richness—caramel nuttiness hint of bitter
Classic caramel sauce with salt: salt—sweet—buttery richness caramel nuttiness—hint of bitter
Classic caramel sauce with ancho powder: sweet—buttery richness caramel nuttiness—hint of bitter—hint of heat
Notice that the flavor and heat of the ancho chilli powder is really smoothed out and somewhat dulled in the classic caramel sauce. The chilli’s earthy qualities are not nearly as recognizable as they are in the clear caramel sauce counterpart.