The challenge, always, is to entice diners with desserts. Pulling on the heartstrings has been a sound strategy for pastry chefs, offering up nostalgic classics with an expert touch. Today, the trend in reinventing retro desserts continues, but with fresh bravado. Hybridization, a trend launched into the limelight by the famous cronut, has informed this new creative energy, almost giving permission for an “anything goes” type of innovation—as long as it stays recognizable and delicious.
“You have to borrow the customer’s comfort zone to bring them to a place of innovation,” says Natasha Case, CEO and co-founder of Coolhaus, an artisan ice cream truck that grew into a three-city fleet, two bricks-and-mortar shops and a frozen snack brand. Her strategy is to look beyond dessert trends and maintain a broader, more global focus. She watches what’s happening on the savory side of the menu, as well as behind the bar, to stay ahead of the competition—and the consumer.
“We’re seeing a lot of reinvention of dishes that were considered low-brow being made better and positioned as a premium,” says Case. Chicken and waffles, butterscotch pudding, campfire s’mores. “It’s all about doing the classics really well, and then adding your own spin to drive sales.”
Let’s Talk Chocolate
Chocolate still reigns supreme as consumers’ favorite dessert flavor. Menu mentions of s’mores specifically have increased by 133 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends. The crunchy, gooey, smoky, chocolaty campfire classic is ripe for presentations as simple as tabletop DIY to decadent, shareable dips.
Brian Millman, executive chef at Atwood in Chicago, flipped the components of the traditional baked Alaska and incorporated marshmallow fluff. His S’mores Baked Alaska begins with chocolate cake, topped with a layer of graham cracker ice cream—a vanilla base with malt powder and graham cracker crumbs—then housemade marshmallow fluff is piped on top and torched.
“We could make denser marshmallows in a sheet tray and cut them up,” says Millman, “but we sell enough of the dessert that we make the fluff every day and keep it in the pastry bag, which saves space and time.”
At The Diamond Horseshoe restaurant in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., the Campfire Brownie is finished with a marshmallow meringue and kept just a bit warmer than room temperature. “You almost get that melty campfire texture when you bite into it,” says Christi Frommling, pastry chef for Magic Kingdom. The meringue is also easier on the staff then scooping out ice cream for hundreds of guests every day.
Red velvet cake has also become a comfortable favorite, with chefs innovating and hybridizing the flavor system. The version at Willa Jean in New Orleans takes reinvention to a smashing new level. “This dessert makes me giggle when it comes out, because it’s a blown up bowl of cake salad with all these different textures and chocolate flavors and bright acidic notes from the cherries,” says Kelly Fields, executive pastry chef of Besh Restaurant Group. “Apparently, I like building salads a lot, because I build my desserts exactly like them. In the bowl, every bite’s a surprise. There are nooks and crannies where I can hide something unexpected, unlike laying it out on a plate.”
Puréed beets are used as the liquid in the cake batter, and the baked result is served torn up with Creole cream cheese ice cream and crunchy “salad”—made from nougatine tuile, cornflakes, freeze-dried cherries, puffed rice and just enough white chocolate to bind it before breaking it up. The dish is topped with a cocoa nib whipped cream for deep chocolate notes in a lighter format.
Nostalgia emerges in the flavor. “I enjoy the playfulness of presenting something that seems so far removed from what it is. Like you’re expecting something else and you get hit with that flavor and that feeling of what your mom or grandma made for you growing up,” says Fields.
Spirited Ice Cream
Sweets infused with a bit more than sugar and spice are gaining popularity, and liquor and liqueur call-outs in baked goods grew 12.5 percent on Top 500 dessert menus in 2015, according to Technomic. Having a dessert with a hint of a cocktail is a way of indulging without imbibing, whereas mixing the two can be doubly decadent, or can streamline an after-dinner drink decision. Liquors can be added to whipped cream and sauces for a flavor boost, or to alcoholic beverage desserts like shakes and floats. The RumChata Whiskey Float at Fox & Hound Sports Tavern, headquartered in Dallas, is a Coke float with vanilla ice cream, covered with RumChata and Buffalo Trace Bourbon.
Coolhaus is going the other direction, infusing only enough spirits to capture the flavor in their ice creams. “The amount of alcohol that goes into the batch is so small, that it’s no issue for anyone,” says Case. The Whiskey Lucky Charms and Maker’s Mark Mimosa flavors are fun, bright colors, and kids are drawn to them. “It’s only a hint—more like adding a vinegar than a beverage. Anything beyond that is going to damage the ice cream’s ability to freeze and disrupt the texture.”
Syrupy liqueurs with a lot of sugar, like Kahlúa, have a lower alcohol-to-water ratio and work perfectly in ice cream. “It’s a good way to celebrate those sweeter spirits. Dark spirits, like rum and bourbon, also work better in ice cream, and clear spirits in sorbets,” says Case.
Coolhaus is rolling out a “Dessert Island” selection of flavors this summer. “Mixologists are taking simple cocktails that have been bastardized over the years and making them really well. We’re bringing that same idea to our menu,” says Case. The new flavor lineup includes:
- Blue Hawaiian: rum, coconut, pineapple base, Blue Curaçao, candied pineapple
- Straw & Salt Margarita: Bacardi and Malibu rums, fresh lime, sugar, salt and fresh strawberries
- Miami Vice: Piña Colada and Daiquiri flavors combined
- Wine Spritz Granita: Champagne-based, grapefruit, elderflower, cucumber, hint of lemon
- Coconut Negroni: Passionfruit and blood orange ice cream with coconut fat-washed Campari and toasted coconut flakes
- Dirty Mint Julep: Dirty Mint Chip flavor spiked with Maker’s Mark bourbon
Fresh Fruit Surprises
Renae Connolly, pastry chef at Café ArtScience in Cambridge, Mass., captures her childhood summers in California in her Strawberry Lemongrass Creamsicle, inspired by roadside strawberry vendors and memories of her family growing lemongrass. “It speaks really personally to me, and I wanted it to be playful,” Connolly says.
A tangy and slightly herbaceous pea tendril purée with a bit of lemongrass and lime juice is brushed on the bottom of the plate to start the build. The puck-shaped creamsicle, with its smooth, icy strawberry gel exterior and lemongrass ice cream inside, sits atop. “It reminds me of Fruity Pebbles milk; it smells exactly like it and has a nice, sweet flavor. The lemongrass comes through quite well,” she says.
A violet meringue is torched to order—again, to take advantage of the marshmallow-like texture and toasted flavor. Fresh strawberries are puréed in-house and spun out in a centrifuge. Connolly pulls the clear, vibrant red liquid off the top to make caviar pearls that go on the plate. “They hold so much flavor, it’s like a little pop in the mouth when you bite into them,” she says.
Olive oil cornmeal cake is added for texture, and whole fresh strawberries are brushed with egg whites, frosted in violet sugar and allowed to dry. “The sugar becomes this beautiful crust that almost glows, and it starts to break down the interior of the fruit a little bit, so when you bite it you get this explosion of strawberry juice, flavor and the crunch from the crust,” says Connolly. “For me, it’s a way of elevating eating snacks of raw berries and sugar with my grandfather as a kid.”
Back at Atwood, the moment farmers began delivering rhubarb, Millman started putting it into the freezer, with the strawberries not far behind. He’s added strawberry shortcake to the menu, but reinventing the classic with intensely seasonal cues and signature touches. Its base is a lemon sponge cake soaked in fennel simple syrup to brighten and pull out all the flavors of the other ingredients. Strawberry-rhubarb mascarpone is layered on top, then a strawberry-rhubarb-basil sauce with macerated strawberries, then more of the mascarpone, and finished with fresh berries and a shortbread crumble.
Reimagined rustic and vintage puddings and custards are working their way back into the dessert mainstream—you can’t throw a rock in New Orleans without hitting a restaurant with a banana pudding on the menu. For the banana pudding at Restaurant August, Kelly Fields uses a spreadable marshmallow without gelatin on the plate, toasting it lightly before putting down a banana custard, topped with banana cake, then vanilla wafer ice cream, a dusting of peanut butter powder, and finished with a piece of crisp banana meringue on top.
“Meringue is such a good vehicle for flavor. Depending on how you make the meringue, it can contribute so much texture to the plate,” says Fields. “It’s really silly not to do it if there’s a place for it.” This banana meringue is simply whipped egg whites, sugar and fresh banana purée. “It’s the most intense banana flavor on the plate—stronger than the fresh bananas,” she says.
Puddings can be easily customized with add-ins like fruit, chocolate or candy pieces, and scaled to large and small sizes. Last year, New York’s Magnolia Bakery introduced a chocolate pudding parfait that inspired them to extend the flavor profile to their classic banana pudding. The rich chocolate pudding has chocolate wafer cookies mixed in, instead of the traditional vanilla, as well as fresh sliced bananas.
Irvine, Calif.-based Yard House’s Salted Caramel Butterscotch Pudding is a decadent option that still falls under 600 calories, with chocolate cookie crumbles, Maldon sea salt and housemade whipped cream. Or there’s The “Elvis” at M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach, Calif., a mess of chocolate pudding, peanut butter mousse and bacon brittle—a fine example of a dessert that melds nostalgia and innovation with memorable flavor twists.