Whether taking broad strokes or baby steps with dessert updates, diners are more receptive to changes when they are delivered with some old-fashioned favorites, such as chocolate cookies and butterscotch pudding. After all, change is good—and sweet.
But when it comes to balancing comfort and innovation on the dessert menu, operators should balance their brand identity with what consumers clamor for. Shawn Finn, vice president, international operations of Legendary Restaurant Brands, the parent company of Bennigan’s, says it’s important to know your brand, know your guests and add new elements accordingly.
“People want to come out to Bennigan’s to indulge,” he says. “We are a traditional brand built on good value dining, 90 percent scratch-made products and a comfortable environment,” he says. “But new trends are a way to differentiate ourselves from a sea of sameness, so we find ways to offer unique comfort dishes that we can put our own stamp on.”
On example is the brand’s bread pudding, which is prepared in a traditional style and topped with praline sauce, powdered sugar and a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a craveable twist.
A pinch of innovative flavor
While praline sauce keeps things new but still in the comfort zone, other dessert chefs take bolder steps. For instance, custard pie reads like something straight from a 1940s diner menu, but at Four and Twenty Blackbirds in New York City, a dose of matcha—an antioxidant-rich, ground green tea—makes an egg pie sound fresh and healthful. Likewise, a chocolate cookie called the Bombay Mix sounds worldly with the addition of coconut and sweet curry at the Tribeca location of Baked.
More adventuresome palates are ready for more challenging tastes, even in the dessert segment, says dessert expert Gayle Gand, who spoke at an industry event in October 2015 in Chicago. She noted how ingredients with higher acid content and bitter and sour notes are the latest flavors to gain acceptance.
For example, black cocoa, a darker, bitter chocolate best known as the ingredient in Oreo cookies, can change a traditional chocolate recipe into something modern and less sweet. Kefir and different regional yogurts are other ways Gand likes to bring in tart notes. Tartness balances sweet, similar to the way salted caramel brings harmony to coffee drinks and dessert sauces.
Meanwhile, independent pastry chefs are finding more inventive ways to bring salt to the dessert plate, such as the butterscotch pudding topped with salt and pepper peanuts at Spritz Burger in Chicago. The chocolate tart at Magnolia Bakery in New York City is served with salted nut brittle, chocolate sauce and bourbon whipped cream.
Offering new takes on classic comfort desserts is often a matter of deconstructing a dish’s elements and putting them together in an unexpected way. Gand demonstrated this technique with a chocolate cream pie that featured toasted meringue, caramelized banana, clementine sections, candied orange rind, toasted coconut shards, salted caramel salt, gold gilded pecans, micro mint and coconut shortbread crust. The plate that looked more like a painter’s palette than a final course.
This post is sponsored by Sweet Street Desserts