No other ingredient category defines and develops a dessert menu as thoroughly as dairy. From the simplest panna cotta to decadent cheesecakes to elaborate foams and fillings, dairy tackles the role of superstar or supporting cast with an ease that is difficult to duplicate with other ingredients.
“Every single one of our desserts has dairy in it,” says Jessica James, executive chef of culinary innovation and development for Applebee’s, “whether it’s a functional ingredient or as the main ingredient. Three of the six menu items come with ice cream, and the others contain dairy as a functional ingredient, whether it’s butter, cream or milk. We have milkshakes, too, and a number of dessert-like cocktails with a dairy component.”
Simplicity at its Finest
“I feel, in some ways, dairy gets taken for granted,” says Meg Galus, executive pastry chef of the Park Hyatt Chicago and NoMI Kitchen. “I even have to stop and think about it, because it’s so integral to everything I do. Most of the time you’re using dairy as a vehicle for something else, but sometimes you want to highlight the flavor of the dairy itself and allow it to be the star.”
A few years ago, Galus started bringing in local dairy products from Kilgus Farmstead, in central Illinois, for the busy spring and summer months. “I get their cream, milk and half-and-half to use in specific applications to really highlight the flavor of the dairy itself,” says Galus. “I do a straight-up dairy panna cotta—no vanilla, no nothing—just to really taste the flavor of the local milk and local dairy, which is so good.”
Working with the local product posed its own set of challenges, but she says they’re worth it. “I actually had to adjust my recipes—I can’t use the local stuff for everything. It’s a very different product. You can taste the difference, you can see the difference, and the textures are different.”
For Galus, utilizing local product contributes to the story that is shared as part of the dining experience. “It’s interesting for the staff to talk about with the guests, and the guests really enjoy it,” she says.
Milk alone also provides a sidecar for that all-time favorite dessert: cookies. “We all have the ‘best’ chocolate chip cookie recipe,” says chef Ken Darling, founder and chief innovation officer for ThinkCake!, a professional culinary dessert development group in California. “What better way to showcase it than with a fresh local milk?”
“Three minutes out of the oven, I’m opening a quart of fresh milk from our local Alta Dena Dairy that has that layer of cream on top. You have to break through that cream to get to the cold milk underneath—there’s nothing else like that dairy coat with the warm chocolate,” says Darling. “It’s my favorite dessert in the world, and I’m a European-trained pastry chef.”
Small and Shared
Since its inception at Seasons 52 nearly a decade ago, the shot glass dessert trend has taken restaurants by storm. Dairy desserts are a perfect fit, because they readily deliver a decadent experience and are easy to downsize.
“You can indulge in this rich, creamy little dessert that’s not terrible for you. It sits around 200 to 300 calories,” says James. Applebee’s features three dessert shooters on their menu for $1.99 each: Strawberry Cheesecake, Chocolate Mousse and Hot Fudge Sundae.
“We have one component of a dessert that is dairy-based—our maple cream-cheese sauce,” says James. “Eighty percent of our restaurants carry the Butter Pecan Blondie dessert, which features a traditional blond brownie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. It’s served on a warm skillet with the maple cream-cheese sauce poured over it tableside. It sizzles and produces this intoxicating aromatic element.”
The plan is to feature the same sauce in a different presentation—as a dip. The company will launch its new Caramel Pretzel Bites dessert in May, which will be available in both individual and sharing-sized portions. “It’s a tower of sticky goodness,” says James. “It’s very on-trend, served warm with this rich dipping sauce, and you get that sweet, savory, salty and creamy all in one dessert.”
Dairy can provide the ultimate assist when it comes to flavor exploration on the dessert menu, especially in its tart and cultured forms. Look at the dessert menu of The Cheesecake Factory, now with more than 30 different cheesecake varieties. The company hasn’t slowed down in growth or flavor innovation with its core dessert since its inception in the 1970s.
Last summer the chain released a cheesecake mash up with a campfire favorite: Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore, which features its Hershey’s cheesecake at the center, covered with a toasted housemade marshmallow, graham crackers and whipped cream.
Park Hyatt’s Galus likes using sour cream and crème fraîche to balance the sweetness in desserts. “It allows me to go into those deep, dark rich desserts without being overwhelming. My standard chocolate sauce even has crème fraîche in it instead of cream.”
Galus developed a skillet cookie dessert specifically for the Park Hyatt Chicago’s in-room dining menu using that balancing idea. “When you’re dining in your room, you really want to relax and indulge,” she says. “So we have this giant, warm chocolate chip cookie topped with a crème fraiche ice cream to cut through that richness.” She plans to change it soon to a chocolate chip-oatmeal cookie, topped with sour cream ice cream and salted caramel.
Fromage blanc also appears in her recipes. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with it,” says Galus. “It’s a different texture and flavor that’s not too sweet or too savory. It’s mellower than cream cheese, which has a distinct tang. Fromage blanc just likes to hang out. I’ve used it as the base for a chocolate mousse, and in several other desserts since, in a variety of forms.”
NoMI Kitchen also offers a selection of sorbets, and the buttermilk lime is very popular. “It’s just buttermilk, some lime juice and a little bit of sugar, stabilized with gelatin, which we whisk together and throw in the ice cream machine,” Galus says. “It’s really pure and offsets the other sorbets nicely.”
Innovating Away From the Cow
As rich and creamy as her dessert offerings are, Galus usually has one dessert item that’s dairy free. “And that’s been a challenge for me as a pastry chef,” she admits, “to find those ingredients that give me the same mouthfeel and flavor, which can provide the same comfort level to the diner.”
“We’re past the point of being able to just give vegans a fruit plate or sorbet bowl,” she adds. Her dairy-free dessert last summer was a hazelnut panna cotta that she made after creating her own hazelnut milk.
“Dairy has always had the advantage of being something of an untouchable,” says chef John Csukor, founder of KOR Food Innovation in Ashland, Va. “It is so needed in the dessert category that it’s almost irreplaceable.”
“Coconut milk has some great nutritional numbers,“ says Csukor. “And it’s stable once emulsified. It’s up there with soy milk from a viscosity perspective; they both match milk really well. From a fat perspective, using coconut as a butter replacer, it has some dominance over soy, but what they both have in common is a definitive flavor,” he adds. “Soy is very beany, you taste that legume. Same with coconut; some people just don’t like it.”
That can be a real challenge to work around. “A milk product can perform like milk, and give you all the necessary nutrition, but if it doesn’t taste like milk, then it’s not milk,” he says.
Almond milk, though, is fast becoming the poster child of dairy-free dessert ingredients, as it’s proving to be more than a one-trick pony. According to Csukor, a high quality nut product won’t give you much almond flavor at all once you’ve made it into almond milk. It also has the ability to mimic dairy milk nutritionally. “It has all the strong fat notes, a great protein statement and good, cholesterol-free fats. It’s an excellent mimic for taking on a dairy-free approach,” he says.
“You can do a lot with a starter of almond crème, which is basically a super-thick almond milk,” says Csukor. “You can inoculate it and make Greek yogurt, or you can strain it and make your own fresh almond milk.” Csukor and his team used the strained milk to create condensed milk, which was then cooked down into different levels of caramel. “It was butter- and dairy-free and still had the richness of a traditional caramel,” he says.
“When you can create a panna cotta from your own fresh almond milk, you get this really sublime, delicate dessert that easily replaces a cream-infused product, and gives it an artisan approach,” says Csukor. “You can create something that’s as equally decadent, desirable and creamy as a whole fat dairy product—without the cholesterol.”
Dairy has a solid position in the traditional kitchen right now, but it’s wise for chefs to work dairy-free cooking into their bag of tricks. “Any avoidance of taking a look at dairy replacers in any kind of cooking and baking is procrastination,” says Csukor. “You have to do it. Where we get our raw goods and how we consume food is on a trajectory of change, and we have to look at everything.”
For ideas and first steps, he recommends looking at what vegans and vegetarians have done already. “They’ve laid the groundwork for us. They have the ratios and percentages for how to replace cream in a cheesecake or sour cream in a baked good already figured out. We just need to make them better.”
While alternative options abound today, making dairy-free desserts easier to achieve than ever, cream- and milk-based desserts will always reign as queen of the category, lending sweet, craveable creaminess that makes desserts memorable.