Known to the ancient peoples of Mexico as a bitter, chile-spiced beverage, chocolate was first sweetened in Europe, where it quickly became a trendy drink for the rich. Then came the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century, Dutch, Swiss and English inventors developed processes that turned cacao beans into the less-bitter, sweet, moldable solid we know today—and that in turn led to the rise of chocolate as a delectable ingredient in cakes, pies, tortes, tarts, puddings and ice creams.
Chocolate desserts have continued to evolve. In the 20th century, the United States saw the rise of new chocolate cakes in each generation, from Devil’s Food and Red Velvet to Bundt, German Chocolate and Black Forest in the ’60s and ’70s to the molten-center lava cakes of the ’80s to the flourless cakes of the ’90s and the dark chocolate darlings of today.
Chocolate remains far and away the top dessert flavor on U.S. menus, and all the classics are still in high demand. Technomic consumer research shows that 68 percent of consumers would happily order a brownie for dessert, 62 percent would order chocolate cake, and 51 percent would order chocolate ice cream or a slice of chocolate cream pie. But with restaurants working harder than ever before to differentiate themselves from competitors and build traffic and sales in a mature marketplace, innovation has sped up as every operation seeks to offer something different or something more.
Here, we’ll take a look at the latest trends in formats and flavor pairings of chocolate desserts.
Format trend: Chocolate Bread Pudding
In line with a larger movement toward amped-up versions of homestyle desserts, bread puddings in restaurants today often are spiked with complementary ingredients—including chocolate in many forms. Instances of specialty chocolate puddings are up 43 percent this year on the menus of regional emerging chains and independent restaurants tracked for Technomic’s MenuMonitor database. A fairly complicated dessert, chocolate bread pudding is mostly a full-service restaurant phenomenon, but menu items can be found across price points:
- Chocolate Bread Pudding: Spiced custard with chocolate sauce and cream-cheese drizzle; served warm — Bob Evans, Columbus, Ohio-based
- Toasted Coconut & Pineapple Bread Pudding with Macadamia Chocolate Bark — Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Winter Park, Fla.-based
- Chocolate Banana Chunk Bite-Tini: Bread-pudding bites with chocolate centers, topped with a banana-chocolate drizzle — Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based
- White Chocolate Bread Pudding served warm with housemade butterscotch sauce, topped with vanilla ice cream — Black Angus Steakhouse, Los Altos, Calif.-based
Format trend:Chocolate Cheesecake
Also a classic indulgent dessert, cheesecake is another staple at restaurants. Chocolate cheesecakes are up 36 percent this year on menus of regional chains and independents. Chefs are showing off with ever more complex builds, such as:
- Cheesecake with Nutella, with a chocolate graham-cracker crust and a layer of Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread — Fazoli’s, Lexington, Ky.-based
- Girl Scout Thin Mint Cheesecake: Chocolate mint cheesecake loaded with pieces of crumbled Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie on a Thin Mint crust — Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
- Banana-Chocolate Chip Cheesecake: Banana cheesecake on an Oreo/graham-cracker crust, with chocolate chips folded in, covered with rich chocolate ganache and topped with whipped-topping rosettes and banana chips — Oggi’s Pizza & Brewing Co., San Diego-based
- Tuxedo Mousse Cheesecake: Fudge cake layered with chocolate cheesecake and mascarpone mousse swirled with chocolate — BD’s Mongolian Grill, Burnsville, Minn.-based
Flavor Pairing trend: Chocolate + Raspberry
New flavor marriages can make classic chocolate desserts seem contemporary. Chocolate and fruit pairings in general are on the rise; the very hottest of these in independents and emerging chains is the classic chocolate and raspberry, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor database. Here are some chocolate-raspberry iterations showing up on menus:
- Chocolate Raspberry Truffle: Chocolate ice cream, black-raspberry ribbons and chocolate flakes — Bruster’s Real Ice Cream, Bridgewater, Penn.-based
- Dark Chocolate Raspberry Harvest Pie: Pie crust filled with dark-chocolate ganache, raspberry sauce and chocolate mousse, topped with raspberry sauce, dark-chocolate chips and whipped cream — Coco’s Bakery Restaurant, Carlsbad, Calif.-based
- Chocolate Raspberry Wontons: Crispy wontons filled with a chocolate-raspberry filling, dusted with powdered sugar and served with raspberry and chocolate sauces, raspberries and mint — P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based
- Red Chocolate Chile Peppers: Peruvian chile mousse, red-pepper tuile, raspberry-red pepper sorbet, chocolate crumble— SushiSamba, New York-based
Flavor Pairing trend: Chocolate + Savory
Technomic consumer research shows that about one fifth of diners, and a larger proportion of those aged 18 to 34, hunger for a complement of salty, spicy and savory flavors built into their sweet dessert.
It was only a matter of time before the salted-caramel craze was extended to a chocolate-caramel-salt trio. Relying on easily available and relatively inexpensive ingredients, chocolate-salt-caramel meldings are particularly prominent in new frozen desserts and pastries in limited-service restaurants. A few examples include:
- Monday Sundae: Twisted chocolate and vanilla soft serve topped with dulce de leche, sea salt and whipped cream, served in a Nutella-lined cone — Big Gay Ice Cream, New York-based
- Salted Caramel Turtle Crunch: Salted caramel frozen yogurt with pretzels, pecans, chocolate sauce and caramel sauce— Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt, Oklahoma City-based
- Salted Caramel Square: A dense chocolate square with pretzels, pecans and caramel mixed in — Starbucks, Seattle-based
Salt is one thing; olive oil is something else. Way beyond the parameters of traditional chocolate desserts is the chocolate-and-olive oil pairing now seen in more and more restaurants, particularly on the upper end:
- Warm Chocolate Olive Cake with coffee gelato and hazelnut crumble—Avec, Chicago
- Flourless Chocolate Cake: Olive-oil ice cream and gummies, Sicilian pistachio truffles, caramel-brown rice crispies —Boulevard, San Francisco
- Torta di Mousse al Cioccolato with olive oil, Earl Grey crumb, bittersweet-chocolate sorbetto — Cafe Juanita, Kirkland, Wash.
The name says it all: Chocolate Sin Cake at Ruth’s Chris Steak House combines chocolate and espresso in a decadent dessert.
Flavor Pairing trend: Chocolate + Bitter Beverages
Coffee provides a classic flavor pairing to cut the richness and sweetness of chocolate desserts. Despite the familiarity of this duo, espresso- and mocha-accented chocolate desserts (including liquid desserts, from milkshakes to alcohol-spiked after-dinner drinks) are on the rise this year:
- Chocolate Dreams Blendini: Mocha cream ice, old fashioned chocolate frozen custard and Heath English Milk Chocolate toffee chunks — Rita’s Italian Ice, Trevose, Penn.-based
- Heaven: Mascarpone, chocolate mousse, espresso and amaretto — Taverna Blu, San Diego
- Vegan Mocha Pie: Decadently rich dark chocolate laced with decaf coffee over a chewy crumb crust, studded with a chocolate-covered coffee bean — Razzis Pizzeria, Seattle
- Espresso Brownie: Espresso-infused brownie, rich chocolate espresso crème and brown Brazilian snow ice cream— Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Fla.
In full-service eateries, classic liquor-and-chocolate flavor pairings (such as brandy or bourbon) are increasingly being joined by chocolate desserts that feature the complementary bitterness of stout beer:
- Stout Mousse Cake: Chocolate sponge, stout mousse, vanilla ice cream, Beer Nuts — Red Star Tavern, Portland, Ore.
- Chocolate Stout Pie: Chocolate ganache infused with CEO Stout from Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, Mich., then a layer of CEO Stout-infused chocolate mousse, topped with whipped cream and a drizzle of CEO Stout chocolate ganache — Grand Traverse Pie Company, Traverse City, Mich.-based
Updating Chocolate Desserts
Many of the desserts highlighted here may seem complex, but most of them are not based on elaborate recipes; instead, they’re a matter of assembling components with complementary flavors and textures.
- Puddings, pies and cheesecakes can be varied with new mix-ins, crusts and toppings.
- Pies and cheesecakes can be built on an unexpected crumb crust.
- Puddings, cakes and ice-cream desserts gain flavor complexity and visual appeal from sauces and toppings.
- A jaunty salted pretzel or a crisp wafer cookie topping off a chocolate dessert can add textural interest and another flavor contrast.
- Nuts are a classic ingredient or topping for chocolate desserts, but consumers’ tastes change over time; right now, hazelnuts are hot.
- Operators may want to consider branded ingredients to add cachet to chocolate desserts; Oreo-cookie pairings with chocolate desserts are up 6 percent this year, and other brand names—from Ghirardelli to Girl Scout cookies—also have power to draw consumer interest and lower patrons’ price resistance.
The formats and flavors of sweet treats will continue to evolve, but one thing’s for sure: Chocolate will always remain the centerpiece of the dessert menu. A restaurant that succeeds in pleasing its chocoholic customers is already way ahead of the pack on menu competitiveness.