Desserts: Sweetening the pot

The dessert menu has typically been a surefire way to boost the check by hitting customers at their vulnerable sweet spots. But for many restaurant patrons, today’s “new frugality” means making a meal out of appetizers, sharing entrees and doing without dessert. Nevertheless, smart operators are finding ways to tempt tight-fisted guests into ordering that sweet extra. It comes down to purchasing the right products and figuring out how to satisfy their dessert cravings—without ramping up labor and food costs.

Sweet spotting

The Center for Culinary Development (CCD) and Packaged Facts in Rockville, Maryland, has looked at what’s driving America’s collective sweet tooth. These are the recent trends they highlight in Confections and Dessert: Culinary Trend Mapping Report:

Nostalgia: Americans are seeking comfort in childhood sweets, yet still crave bold flavor profiles and high quality ingredients. Think butterscotch-toffee or ginger-peppermint cream Whoopie Pies for a new take on a favorite.

Flavor adventure: Plain vanilla and chocolate aren’t enough these days. Everyone—from Gen Y consumers to Boomers—is seeking more excitement and a global palate. Exotic fruits and savory-sweet combinations lead the charge. Desserts like olive oil cake with pomegranate sorbet and lime-basil macarons fit the bill.

Artisan appeal: Sweets that are hand-made with well-chosen ingredients are gaining fans. Dessert makers are differentiating desserts by sourcing from local, sustainable and/or small batch producers. Single-origin fair-trade chocolate is an example.

Indulgence: Small, affordable treats give diners a chance to indulge and escape from the daily grind. One cupcake or chocolate truffle is an inexpensive way to provide reward and a simple delight.

What are you buying now?

Flour, sugar, butter and eggs—dessert staples—are basic to any restaurant operation. And many pastry chefs and dessert makers like to cross-utilize ingredients from the savory side of the kitchen. These pros tap into the inventory but also order products that differentiate their desserts.

Adam Timney, Starbelly, San Francisco
I like to use local products when possible. Humphry Slocombe Cream Cheese Ice Cream is a cult favorite. It uses Strauss Creamery Base and Clover Dairy Fluid Milk, two California dairy products. I serve it with my Dynamo Chocolate Spice Doughnuts.

Craig Harzewski, NAHA, Chicago
Our most requested dessert is the NAHA Sundae. We change it up several times a year. Right now, we’re doing a Rocky Road Sundae with dark chocolate ice cream, marshmallow “fluff” and cracked almonds. I’m very particular about the chocolate I buy. I work with the chocolatier at E. Guittard to source a full line of cocoa, dark chocolate and white chocolate. I created a dessert called Complexite Bittersweet Chocolate Bar, with Hazelnuts and Cocoa. It uses chocolate in all its forms.

Hedy Goldsmith, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami
To brighten and lighten up the menu for spring, I’m using Meyer lemons, rhubarb and tropical fruits. Tourists to Florida expect tropical fruit desserts with kumquats, mangoes, blood oranges and melons. Best sellers include Meyer Lemon Tart and Thai Mango Pot de Crème. I’m also experimenting with savory ingredients, like corn in a panna cotta, tarragon in blackberry sauce and herbal jellies for cheese plates. Basil is the new mint!
Hillary Blanchard, one sixtyblue, Chicago
Right now I am buying spring fruits, such as rhubarb. A new seasonal dessert is Strawberry-Rhubarb Polenta Cake. A lush basil foam is spread around the base and crispy dried strawberry pieces are sprinkled on the plate. I pickle and preserve certain ingredients when they’re in season to use later. No matter the season, something chocolate is always on my dessert menu too.

Matt Fish, Melt Bar and Grilled, Cleveland
We’re a casual restaurant offering over 30 different grilled cheese sandwiches, all overstuffed with cheese and other interesting ingredients. Since opening in 2006, we’ve offered Fried Twinkies on the dessert menu. They’re very popular because they are priced right and add something small and sweet to finish an already huge meal.

Sugar shock

Sugar prices hit a 30-year high of 30.4 cents per pound early in February, only to tumble 42 percent since due to forced selling, according to Thailand’s Office of the Cane and Sugar Board. Thailand is one of the world’s leading sugar producers. As of April, prices had stabilized at around 17 cents a pound, but record rainfall in Brazil—another major sugar exporter—may spike prices again. Currently, demand for sugar remains high but a worldwide deficit continues. The drop in production in 2008-09 of 20 million metric tons is the largest ever recorded. Severe drought in the sugar-producing countries of Thailand, India and China accounted for the fall in supply. Although weather conditions appear favorable in 2010-11, it will take time for production to recover. 

Dessert rules

Two dessert pros offer expert advice to guide purchasers.

Mark Kwasigroch, Pastry Chef/ Instructor, Kendall College, Chicago
Jennifer Ladisky, Consulting Pastry Chef, Synergy Restaurant Consultants and owner, SugarChef, Delray Beach, Florida

How can operators become smarter buyers of dessert products?

JL: Plan ahead for future needs so you can order in bulk. Buy from both specialized dessert vendors and broadliners to get the most variety. The former would carry a good assortment of chocolates, for example, while the latter has staples like nuts and apples.

MK: No matter how big or small an account you are, you can bargain by playing one supplier against another. If you buy in smaller volume, compare prices at places like Restaurant Depot for staples like sugar, cream and eggs.

How can a kitchen weigh labor vs. cost when purchasing?

MK: Do the math. Scratch desserts usually come out cheaper but do you have the time and skilled labor, plus the space to inventory all the ingredients? Depending on volume, 60 percent of the time, it’s usually better to go with mixes for cakes, brownies and quick breads. These are consistent and versatile enough to create many desserts.

JL: For fast-casual restaurants, premade grab-and-go desserts are the answer; dessert is often an impulse buy and these match the kitchen’s skill level. For midscale, I suggest 80 percent readymade and 20 percent from-scratch. At fine dining, it’s 90 percent scratch-made and 10 percent purchased products. The latter tend to be garnishes, fruit purees and ice creams.

How can a casual restaurant differentiate its purchased desserts?

JL: Add value with housemade touches, like a fruit coulis or sauce.

MK: Purchase accompaniments. If your signature mousse draws in customers, keep making it the same way. But you can buy a brownie mix or pre-baked cookies to serve along with it.

What dessert products offer the best value?

JL: IQF [Individually Quick Frozen] fruits offer year-round consistency at a good price. I recommend using fresh fruit where it counts for appearance and seasonal appeal, but frozen fruits work well in cobblers, pies, sauces and coulis. Mini desserts packaged and sold in shot glasses require little labor outside the box.

MK: Good quality and unique ice creams. I also wouldn’t skimp on chocolate. It has to come from a top purveyor; some even have pastry chefs on staff who can educate your kitchen staff.

Do you have suggestions for cross-utilizing savory ingredients?

MK: If avocados are going bad, I encourage my students to turn them into a sweet dessert mousse instead of guacamole. Corn, sweet potatoes and herbs can also be incorporated into desserts.

JL: Some pastry chefs  blur lines to the extreme, using everything from bacon to smoked salt and truffle oil in desserts. Upscale diners may find this intriguing but the broad market is not ready. Herbs, spices, chilies with chocolate—these are acceptable.

Point out some dessert trends.

JL: Interactive desserts, like fondue and s’mores. More cocktail flavors are showing up, such as mojito cake and cosmopolitan sorbet. And comfort ingredients and mini desserts are here to stay.

MK: More natural products. Instead of whipped topping, kitchens are using real whipped cream; in place of high fructose corn syrup, honey and agave are sweetening desserts. Tropical fruits are now mainstream and gluten-free baking mixes are more available. 

Are macarons the next cupcakes?

By Miranda Rake

Whether you spell them macaron or macaroon, these pastel beauties are not to be confused with the familiar chewy coconut macaroon. These bite-size, melt-in-your-mouth sweets are luxuriously delicate and light. And they seem to be popping up everywhere—from the display case at Starbucks to petit fours plates at the exclusive Jean-Georges.

Petite histoire: The French macaron has a somewhat murky past. Originally filling-free, it is likely the cookies originated in Italy and were brought to France in 1533 by Catherine de Medici. They became popular in the 1790s when two Carmelite nuns started to bake and sell them in Nancy, France. In the early 1900s, the famed Laduree patisserie in Paris sandwiched a good dollop of ganache between two cookies, creating the modern macaron.
How to: For all their whimsical decorativeness, macarons are actually a very simple baked good. Ground almonds, icing sugar and whipped egg whites make up the light-as-air cookies, between which ganache, buttercream or jam is spread.

Where: Pastry chefs are running wild with this blank slate of a pastry, creating every flavor imaginable. Laduree offers a set menu of thirteen flavors—rose, bittersweet chocolate, black currant violet, pistachio, etc.—as well as a rotating selection that changes seasonally. MacarOn Café in New York City offers raspberry, lemon, chocolate and espresso, among other varieties. For something a little more edgy, Pix Patisserie in Portland, Oregon, takes the macaron to new heights with flavors like curry, absinthe with chocolate pop rock and maple bacon.


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