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Make it festive

pumpkin spice seasonal flavor dessert restaurant

Early fall brings a frenzy of pumpkin-spiced treats to the foodservice market, ushering in the official holiday flavor season that carries through to the New Year. How will operators top last year’s eggnog cookies and shakes? Is peppermint still relevant? It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict this year's holiday flavors, but it does take some trend watching and historical menu mining to know what to expect.

Piling on pumpkin

Chicago-based research firm Mintel shows pumpkin mentions growing by 10 percent per year since 2010. Because pumpkin has become such a tried-and-true hit, pastry chefs are now using it as a base for trend extensions and innovative applications.

A recent “Icing on the Cake” dessert report from Chicago-based menu-tracking experts Food Genius cites cheesecake as a dessert and a flavor with room to grow. This year, Dunkin’ Donuts puts the two together with the Pumpkin Cheesecake Square filled pumpkin cheesecake filling and topped with orange icing, crumbled graham cracker topping and finished with a white icing drizzle.

Other restaurants look to pumpkin-like ingredients to fuel the fall trend. Last year, health-minded full-service chain True Food Kitchen menued a seasonal squash pie with coconut whipped cream. This year, Flavor Cupcakery, a specialty bakery with two units in the Baltimore area, features a sweet potato cupcake with marshmallow filling, maple frosting and glaze and candied pecans as part of its fall line-up.

Tricked-out treats

Beyond the pumpkin patch, Halloween has become a true time to indulge. Confectionary sales spike as early as August each year, and the National Retail Federation tracked candy sales at well over $2 billion last Halloween. Savvy pastry chefs use candy-enhanced desserts to join in the trick-or-treating fun.

Dunkin Donuts is currently serving up a Reese’s Peanut Butter Square with peanut butter buttercream filling. Last year, casual dining chain Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery introduced desserts served in old-fashioned Mason jars. One decadent creation layered toasted graham cracker crumbs, salted caramel sauce, cheesecake custard, Heath bar toffee bits, vanilla wafers and whipped cream.

By later fall and early winter, desserts get even fancier and even more indulgent, and peppermint becomes the leading confection. Last year, Starbucks created a peppermint Brownie Cake Pop with butter cream icing, candy cane pieces, white chocolate icing and sprinkled with candy cane bits. Pie Five Pizza took a branded approach to the mint trend with its dark-chocolate-chip brownie baked in a deep-dish pizza pan and topped with chunks of Andes mints. 

The holiday spirits

Nothing captures the holiday spirit quite like spirits, and pastry chefs have been pouring them on in recent years. Chicago-based research firm Technomic recently reported that alcohol mentions in baked goods grew by 12.5 percent on Top 500 dessert menus over the past year. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, for example, serves a Deconstructed Balvenie S’more infused with Balvenie DoubleWood Scotch whiskey. Similarly, Houlihan’s topped a Grand Cappuccino Cake with Kahlúa fudge.

Technomic also noted that bourbon-laced desserts grew by 167 percent on Top 500 dessert menus since the first quarter of 2014, a trend they attribute to bourbon-pecan combinations in fall favorites such as pies and tarts. Rock Bottom stays on-trend with its Mason jar version of Bourbon Pecan Pie, doused with salted caramel sauce, dotted with Kentucky bourbon pecan pie pieces and finished with vanilla ice cream, more caramel sauce and fresh mint.

Even kid-minded treats can capture the holiday spirit. Last year at Panera Bread, a drinkable dessert featured hot chocolate made with premium dark chocolate, Madagascar bourbon vanilla and steamed milk, topped with whipped cream, chocolate-chip marshmallows and a drizzle of salted-caramel sauce.

Panera’s loaded cocoa follows a holiday dessert pattern menu researcher Jennifer Aranas has been following at Chicago-based research firm Datassential.

“Often, restaurants are tailoring familiar dessert trends to make them festive or to fit another season. For instance, a chocolate shake becomes a hot cocoa shake. Or the roasted marshmallows that have been so popular in s’mores become mint marshmallows,” Aranas says. “It’s all in the delivery.”

This post is sponsored by Sweet Street Desserts

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