‘Dessert’ is derived from desservir, ‘to remove that which has been served’. In ancient times that usually meant cheese, dried fruit or honey might be served after the table was cleared. In the Middle Ages, the wealthy would dine on sweet dishes (entremets such as jellies, compotes, and flans) in between the meat courses, then finish with a glass of Hypocras and a few bonbons.
The highly influential chef, François Pierre de la Varenne, author of Le Cuisinier françois (1651), one of the great codifiers of French cuisine, declared an end to this mixing of sweet and savoury dishes, which left the field free for the development of lavish grand finales to a meal.
Aristocratic desserts became as Baroque as the art in the châteaux. Royal pastry chefs created magnificent sculptures, of marzipan, preserves, creams, jellies, etc decorated with flowers. Ice cream and ice desserts appeared in the late 17th century.
In the early 19th century, France’s celebrity pastry chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1783-1833) ‘the king of chefs and chef of kings’ was producing fabulous sweet creations (pièces-montées) that resembled ornate buildings. You won’t see these very often now, but many restaurants pride themselves on their desserts, which really can be too pretty to eat, although somehow one always manages.
Many pastries of course can be desserts, and vice versa. Some smart restaurants may even serve a pré-dessert, to cleanse the palate for the main event.
A faraondole de desserts is when you get many mini ones to try; these are part of the joys of a café gourmand.
Image by Julie Kertesz, Creative Commons License