Sweet sauces

Sweet sauces

Justin North
15 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

In the same way that savoury sauces work to complement and unify the component parts of a particular dish, so too do sweet sauces.

Sweet sauces add moisture and flavour to desserts, be it in the form of a basic stock syrup or caramel, a fruit purée or a thin pouring cream. Other thicker sauces, such as custards and whipped creams, go one step further, providing body and structure to a dish.

The techniques you’ll learn in basic sauce making are critical, as they form the basis for many other desserts. You can’t make sorbets without understanding how to make a syrup or a fruit purée; you can’t make ice creams or crème brulées without making a basic crème anglaise (thin custard) or any of the numerous different French pastry desserts without a crème pâtissière (thick custard).

Sugar syrups

Sugar syrups are perhaps the most fundamental and simple element of the French dessert kitchen. Stock syrup – equal weight sugar and water, simmered together briefly – is the basis for numerous French desserts.

I always have a variety of stock syrups on hand, infused with different flavourings, such as citrus, vanilla, spices or even fresh herbs. I use them to poach or macerate fresh fruit or simply to drizzle over just about any dessert.

This basic mixture of sugar and water can be varied and the syrup can be cooked to higher temperatures, which increases the concentration of sugar. It’s at this point that we begin to touch upon the very precise art of confectionery making. While it’s fairly easy to make light and dark caramel syrups simply by judging the colour by eye, to make candies, boiled sweets or spun sugar decoration you really need a sugar thermometer.

People often complain that their syrups turn cloudy or crystallise and there are a few simple rules to observe if you want to make any sugar syrup successfully. First, you need a good-quality heavy-based pan that distributes the heat evenly and constantly. Pastry kitchens tend to use copper pans, but these do take some effort to clean and maintain. Good-quality stainless steel saucepans in a range of sizes should be perfectly adequate. But before you even start cooking, make sure the pan is spotlessly clean and free from grease.

I guess the next thing you need is patience. The sugar should be heated slowly over a very gentle heat. Never try to make the sugar dissolve faster by stirring it; a little gentle swirling of the pan is the most movement you need. Sometimes grains of sugar spatter up onto the sides of the pan and you should use a wet pastry brush to wipe them down. Always make sure the sugar has completely dissolved before bringing the syrup to the boil and then, once it is boiling, you need to keep a close eye on it. Once the syrup starts to colour around the edges of the pan, it can take only moments for it to reach the desired colour. A few seconds can make the difference between success and burnt, bitter disaster.

Remember, too, that the syrup will continue cooking even after you’ve taken the pan off the heat, so it’s a good idea to have a sink full of iced water ready. Plunge the base of the saucepan into the icy water, which will stop it cooking further.

For more specific types of sugar syrup, you’ll need a sugar thermometer to accurately gauge the various stages.


It’s hard to imagine dessert without cream. As well as being the classic accompaniment for all kinds of desserts, creams are also used to make many other recipes, such as mousses and bavarois. From thin whipping cream to lightly sweetened crème chantilly or flavoured crème fraîche, cream adds an incomparable richness and smoothness to a dish.

Of course this ‘mouth-feel’ is all about the fat. Cream is graded according to the amount of butterfat it contains, and it is important to use the appropriate cream as specified in each particular recipe.

In Australia we can generally choose between pure cream (which has a butterfat content of 45% plus) and thickened cream (which contains not less than 35% butterfat), which is generally whipped to thicken and increase its volume. French desserts also make good use of crème fraîche, which has a lactic bacteria added to thicken it and add a slight sour flavour. In this book, I always mean 35% (whipping) cream, unless I specify 45% (double/heavy) cream.

When whipping cream to aerate and lighten it, do make sure that the cream is very cold – straight from the fridge is best. If you’re feeling energetic, whisk your cream by hand in a large spotlessly clean stainless-steel or glass bowl with a balloon whisk. In my kitchen, apprentice chefs learn to use the traditional figure-eight wrist action that successfully thickens the cream without overheating it and causing it to split.

Although whisking by hand gives you greater control, most people prefer to use an electric mixer. My suggestion is to go slowly. Don’t be tempted to crank the speed up too high or you’ll turn it to butter!

The cream will progress through several levels of thickness. The first is what we call the ribbon stage. If you lift the whisk out of the cream it should fall in a lightly thickened stream and form a trail or ‘ribbon’ on the surface below. With further whisking it will reach the soft-peak stage, where it is firm enough to hold soft, floppy peaks; and finally, firm peaks, where the peaks hold their shape without collapsing. Once the cream has reached the required level of stiffness, chill until ready to use.

Custards and sabayons

As I touched upon in the lesson on eggs, the yolks and whites of these little nutritional powerhouses are used to very different effect in cooking. In my view it is in dessert cooking that these different uses are most evident.

Yolks, which are high in fat and protein, have the extraordinary ability to thicken and enrich, and they are the key ingredient in making all custards, curds and sabayon sauces.

Custard – or crème anglaise, as it’s known in French – is a thin, sweet pouring sauce. Perhaps the all-time favourite dessert sauce, it’s made from egg yolks, sugar and milk, and is usually flavoured with vanilla. Crème anglaise is also the most common base for classic ice creams, where extra flavours are added, ranging from liqueurs and chocolate to fruit purées – the possibilities are endless.

Crème anglaise does have a reputation for being ‘tricky’. While it’s not really difficult to make, there are a few simple rules to follow if you want to avoid lumps or scrambled eggs and, essentially, it comes down to temperature. The basic technique involves pouring nearly boiling milk onto a mixture of yolks and sugar, and whisking it all together well. The sauce is then returned to the pan and cooked very slowly on a very low heat until it thickens to a light cream consistency. If you are impatient, you risk overcooking the yolks, and this is what causes lumps or curdling.

The richness and thickness of crème anglaise depends upon the ratio of egg yolks to milk. The more yolks you use, the thicker the resulting sauce. Many cooks also like to add cream to the cold sauce, which makes it richer, smoother and creamier.

Crème pâtissière – or confectioners’ custard – is a thick, glossy custard which is used to fill all those decadent French pastries. It’s much easier to make than crème anglaise, as it is stabilised by a little flour or cornflour. The technique is essentially the same as making an anglaise, but it needs to be boiled, so that the flavour of the flour is cooked out. As it boils you need to whisk it vigorously to stop it catching and burning. Unlike an anglaise, any lumps can easily be whisked out.

In baked custards, the same thickening magic occurs, but in the oven. In dishes such as crème brûlée or crème caramel, milk or cream is set with whole eggs and egg yolks. These desserts are usually made in a mould, and they set firm enough to be turned out. Other baked custards are used to fill tarts – think of a classic tarte au citron – but in this case the filling is usually infused before baking with an additional flavouring, and when cooked it is less firm than an unmoulded baked custard. Ideally, it should wobble gently, and just hold its shape when cut.

The sabayon is another type of sweet sauce made from a base of egg yolks and sugar. Unlike custards, which are made with milk or cream, a sabayon is made with wine, champagne or a flavoured liqueur. Sabayons are cooked very gently, ideally over a bain-marie (water bath), whisking all the time until the mix doubles in volume to become a light, foamy mass.

There are various forms of bain-maries. The most common is a double-boiler, where a saucepan of water is placed on a low heat at a very gentle simmer and a bowl is set over the top. This method is essential in the cooking and whisking of sabayons, which require a gentle heat while air is incorporated into your sauce through whisking.

Fruit sauces

Fresh fruit can be used to great effect for intensely flavoured, light and healthy sweet sauces, very much in keeping with contemporary trends.

At their simplest, fruit sauces are simply purées of fresh fruit, although some fruits benefit from being lightly poached in a flavoured stock syrup to intensify their flavour.

To achieve that perfect professional smoothness, you need to purée the fruit in small batches in a food processor or blender. When quite smooth, rub the purée through a fine sieve to remove any seeds, stray pieces of skin or fibrous bits.

The smooth purée can then be thinned with a little stock syrup to make a light sauce, also called a coulis, or left thick and used to flavour the base of soufflés, mousses or bavarois.

Fruit sauces freeze very well, so buy up ripe fruits when they are in peak season and freeze them for a delicious hit of summer in the long winter months.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again