Pie and cake lovers can be as divisive about their dessert preferences as dog and cat people, but chefs are finding new and old ways to court both factions.
“It’s all about comfort food. They want something that reminds them of home, but is a little different,” says Eric Wolitzky, executive pastry chef for the seven different concepts within Atlanta’s Fifth Group Restaurants. “You can’t do ‘just’ a cobbler, or you risk being compared to Grandma’s. You have to distance your dessert from the original.” One way he does this is by adding a small amount of miso to his cobbler crumble to cut through the sweetness. “It makes it a little more flavorful, so you want to take one more bite.”
The dessert category is considerably broader than it was 20 years ago. The options for small bites, shareable desserts, handhelds, spoonable deconstructions and mash-ups abound, giving restaurants more options to fit their brand and operations, and giving consumers greater selection. Providing them with the classics they crave with modern touches sets you apart from the crowd.
Differentiate, but don’t Alienate
According to Datassential, unique and classic pie varieties are all trending upward on restaurant menus. Additionally, the average number of cake and cheesecake varieties offered in restaurants has grown across every segment but fine dining over the past nine years. Regardless, the classic slice remains a centerpiece to any dessert selection.
“I am a true believer in the slice of cake. And the slice of pie,” says Wolitzky. “But it has to be craveable. You have to want to take one more bite. When you mess around with something and add too many components, it becomes too much.” He prefers cakes to have layered elements that make sense. “When I take a bite into a slice of cake, there’s got to be something going on inside of it,” he says. The gluten-free flourless chocolate cake at Fifth Group’s Alma Cocina concept has a crunchy toffee caramel on the bottom, and the cake itself is lightened up through the use of egg whites. It’s topped with crema and finished with a chile-spiced, cinnamon “Rice Krispie” for added crunch.
There are simple ways to maximize flavor without adding a lot of extra steps or cost. For example, Wolitzky pre-roasts his fruit to bring out the most flavor before tossing it in the pie crust, which also cuts down the final cooking time. Chef Vijay Sadhu at Cook Hall in the W Hotel Dallas, plans to make a red velvet cake with house-pickled beets to capitalize on the color, plus the sweet and the sour notes. Tandem Coffee and Bakery in Portland, Maine, utilizes both coconut and regular milk in the custard of the Maine Coconut Cream Pie to enhance the flavor and lighten up the consistency.
Applying gentle infusions of herbs and spices to crusts, toppings and creams is a way to surprise guests with something that otherwise looks traditional. Holly Ricciardi, founder of Magpie Artisan Pie Boutique in Philadelphia, tweaks her lime custard pie by infusing the whipped cream with fresh basil and layering it on top, and finishing it with a pistachio praline. “It sounds like it would be savory, but it comes out more floral and sweet,” she explains. “Combined with the lime, it really surprises a lot of people.” She also adds freshly ground pink peppercorn to apple pie for the citrus and spice notes that enhance the cinnamon and nutmeg.
“I like using unique ice cream flavors with simple pies and cake,” says pastry chef Rachel De Jong of Nashville’s 5th & Taylor. “It pushes the customer out of their comfort zone in a reassuring way. Star anise, sweet corn, fresh herb-steeped and tea-scented recipes are my favorite additions.”
New Old Favorites
The term “old-fashioned” is on the rise on menus as diners continue to seek out nostalgic desserts, and that includes indulgent classics like Boston Cream and French Silk—which are both appearing on more menus according to Datassential.
For 30 years, pie and chocolate cake have appeared on the dessert menu of Shaw’s Crab House, a restaurant under Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., with locations in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill. “Key Lime Pie is our No. 1 seller downtown; in Schaumburg, it’s the Chocolate Layer Cake,” says senior vice president Steve LaHaie.
“Eighty percent of our desserts are pie or pie-like, and we capitalize on fresh fruit,” he says. The popular Key Lime and double-crust Shaw’s Raspberry Pies are year-round offerings, supplemented by seasonal cobblers. The restaurants feature a two-fruit pear and cranberry cobbler in the fall, with the strawberry and rhubarb cobbler returning in spring, and peach and blueberry for summer.
Many pie flavors and ingredients can be easily converted to cake and vice versa.
“I love Boston Cream Pie, but I need my desserts to remain inherently French and in line with the brand,” says Susan Dederen, vice president of culinary for La Madeleine, with more than 70 locations nationwide. Instead of making a pie with cake layers, they made it into a two-bite tart, focusing on the two major flavors: vanilla pastry cream and chocolate. “It has a crispy sugar-dough shell with a layer of pastry cream, a layer of dark chocolate ganache and some roasted almonds. It’s a very simple dessert with simple, clean flavors,” she says.
“Sometimes, we’re searching for these new, hot ideas, and it’s something much simpler that makes a big impact,” says Dederen. When the Coconut Cream Cake LTO ran its course last year, the restaurant received so many comments that they had to bring it back. “It was so funny. It’s such an old-fashioned style of cake, but people just love that flavor.”
It’s what you remember as a classic coconut cake for Easter. The coconut inside the cake is toasted to give it more flavor and combined with a pastry cream. Then the cake layers are soaked with vanilla syrup to keep everything moist. The entire cake is coated with a classic vanilla buttercream and sweetened, flaked coconut. “If you leave it out a little bit, it melts and gets nice and soft. It’s very classic, with simple, clean flavors,” says Dederen. “The texture and the icing really bring it together.”
Old-school regional favorites are also making their way into new territory. Hot on the heels of Red Velvet, Hummingbird cakes are migrating north. It’s part of the larger trend of the approachable, authentic and craveable American Southern dishes finding their way into other regions. The dense, sweet cake is made with pineapple, bananas and pecans and topped with cream cheese icing and even more pecans. It’s a fun flavor combination that isn’t intimidating or foreign. Representing another regional sweet, Big Sky Cafe in Cut Bank, Mont., serves a simple Amish cream pie, a custard-like vanilla pie dusted with cinnamon. Also called Hoosier pie, the dessert is native to Indiana.
“Our customers seem to be gravitating more toward custard pies than in the past,” says Susan Bond, director of R&D for Legendary Baking. Owned by American Blue Ribbon Holdings, Legendary was spun off when the Baker’s Square brand could no longer handle all the dessert demands in-house at their 40 locations in the Midwest.
“Custard pies are not the easiest to manufacture, ship and freeze,” admits Bond. “So, we set it up in a kit. Baker’s Square gets the custard in a pouch, and they bake the pie off fresh. It’s a low-volume item, so inventory control isn’t an issue.”
Minis, Shareables and Flights
The slice does well enough on its own, but the smaller and shareable formats create an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and keep up with the larger trend of different-size portioning. At La Madeleine, 60 to 65 percent of the guests are female, and they love to mix and match and customize their experience. “A few years ago, we introduced a line of mini desserts, such as parfaits, tarts and Napoleons. Instead of cannibalizing a larger dessert, it created another occasion for somebody to grab a quick, sweet bite,” explains Dederen.
The full cake slices are actually smaller as well. “We were cutting our 9-inch cake into eight slices, and we’ve dialed that back to a 10-slice cut. We have a lot of solo diners, and the size is more manageable. Plus, it’s good for our value proposition; we don’t have to charge as much,” she says.
At Shaw’s, the mini desserts and flights are among the best sellers on the dessert menu and are offered in different formats depending on the daypart. At lunch, the restaurant offers individual three-bite desserts, and a dessert sampler is offered at dinner. The sampler contains mini versions of the Key Lime Pie, Raspberry Pie, Chocolate Layer Cake and a mini crème brûlée. For brunch, mini versions of all the desserts are laid out buffet-style. “You can try several things, and they’re not huge pieces. You don’t feel as guilty,” says LaHaie, highlighting a proven tactic for enticing interest in a sweet finish.
Mix & Match
Cakes and pies are being reformatted into other desserts, like doughnuts and milkshakes. According to data from Technomic’s MenuMonitor, this transformation is especially prevalent at limited-service restaurants.
Magpie in Philadelphia blends up pie milkshakes using 10 ounces of a local vanilla ice cream and one full slice of any sweet pie. “Some are better than others,” says Magpie’s Holly Ricciardi. “The Butterscotch Bourbon is fantastic as a milkshake, but the lemon curd isn’t—the citrus just doesn’t hold up well. Fruits and berries turn out really, really well.”
On The Menu: Cake and Pie Transformations
- Chocolate Cake Shake: Vanilla soft-serve ice cream blended with a slice of chocolate cake — Portillo’s
- Peach Pie Doughnut: Yeast doughnut filled with peach-pie filling and topped with white icing, pie-crust crumbles and peach-flavored drizzle — Krispy Kreme
- The Pineapple Coconut Pie Sundae: Pineapple and coconut frozen yogurt swirl, topped with coconut shavings, pineapple chunks and graham-cracker crumbs — Orange Leaf
- Red Velvet Cake Concrete: Vanilla frozen custard mixed with a slice of housemade red velvet cake — Shake Shack
- Oreo Mud Pie Cricket Protein Milkshake: Vanilla-bean ice cream, Oreo cookie crumbles, Peruvian Chocolate Cricket Protein powder and chocolate and coffee flavors — Wayback Burgers