Nobody thinks twice about putting carrot cake on the dessert menu, salted caramel sweets have become all the rage, and dark and bittersweet profiles are informing more chocolate treats. And there’s no shortage of savory-leaning pastry creations popping up on cutting-edge dessert and tasting menus.
But let’s make one thing clear: For the mainstream dessert consumer, sweet still reigns, and that’s showing no signs of waning. “All of our desserts in our three concepts are still very much sweet, decadent indulgences that our guests happily choose to enjoy as they end their meal,” says Bob Okura, The Cheesecake Factory’s VP of culinary development/corporate executive chef. “This is exactly what we want and what we’re known for. Even the subtle and casual savory enhancements like salted caramel, Greek yogurt and black pepper have not yet made it into our dessert repertoire.”
Okura points to a key principle in proven dessert purchasing behavior: Most dessert consumers seek out those familiar, comforting or nostalgic flavors, and don’t approach this menu section with an experimental or adventurous eye, as they might a small plates/snacks menu. Cutting-edge sweets can certainly build buzz (just recall the bacon-dessert frenzy over the past year), but even adventurous pastry chefs know that the classics will always outsell the cutting edge.
So while the media loves to hype the notion of “desserts becoming savory,” what’s really going on in this arena is no different than in other parts of the menu—the continued experimentation and integration of new flavors—but with much more nuance. For successful dessert development, any touches of savory need to be very subtle, limited to hints of salt, dark chocolate and tart dairy bases as mild counterbalances to sweetness.
A Wider Pantry
The overarching thinking in the current dessert space is that there are more ingredients that are fair game, leading experimental dessert makers to expand the realm of flavors beyond just sweet: adding hints of saltiness, acidity and heat.
“Like mixologists, pastry chefs continue to explore the broader world of ingredients and flavors,” says Kara Nielsen, culinary director of the Sterling-Rice Group. “We are seeing more inspiration coming from global cuisines like Latin America as well as Asia. Even the French use of gastriques—sweet fruit vinegar sauces—are finding their way into desserts.”
While many consumers have on occasion enjoyed a surprisingly brilliant treat made of beets, foie gras, blue cheese or other savories, this is far out of the mainstream or even growth dessert menus. However, in expanding flavor profiles, there are a few areas of safe exploration that can lead to dessert distinction.
Dairy, The Universal Modifier
Tart dairy elements is one growth area for an enhanced flavor spectrum. According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, goat cheese is the fastest-growing nontraditional dessert flavor. James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Gale Gand recommends using more acidic dairy desserts to help lighten up the guests’ meal in the same way an aperitif would. “Whether it’s crème fraîche, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt—I love all of them. I’ll serve a buttermilk panna cotta with berries that are macerated in hibiscus syrup, which has this really bright vitamin C flavor profile.”
Ken Darling, founder and chief innovation officer for ThinkCake, a dessert development group in California, agrees. “I make a crème brûlée with a hint of Gorgonzola that’s just to die for,” he says. “And I like to combine my Greek yogurt with a little crème fraîche to sweeten it up.”
There is a thread of the familiar in a cheesecake, custard or a crème brûlée that makes experimentation acceptable. Restaurants celebrating a particular global cuisine or a thematic program have an opportunity for a new dessert LTO. “People might get more excited about it if there’s a cocktail, an appetizer and a dessert,” says Nielsen. “Then it becomes a ‘theme dinner’ experience to the guest.”
She recommends starting with a simple cheesecake and creating sauces or compotes to serve alongside it. “It’s a low-risk component that can be played with,” she says. “It allows you to build thematically on something that’s overwhelmingly familiar.”
Chocolate, the Flavor Maker
Chocolate has a sugarless heritage—its origins encompass both savory and spicy elements that have become more popular lately.
“Chocolate is a great way to segue savory flavors into the mainstream dessert menu,” says Darling. “I love the smoky flavor chipotle adds to chocolate. Then there’s the traditional cinnamon and chile powder. Fresh herbs can pair with it nicely as well.”
Part of what makes chocolate so easy to pair with are the 25 volatile molecules humans can detect that make up its aromas and flavors. These same flavor components can be found in a variety of foods and spices—like jasmine rice, potato chips and Chartreuse—and they make chocolate into a chameleon that can pair with almost anything.
“If you ever want to spice up any flavor, add some hot fudge,” says Joe Morris, purchasing manager for Texas-based Amy’s Ice Creams. “Any fruit, jasmine, lavender, cardamom—the volatile molecules in chocolate will bring something to the dish that wasn’t there before.”
Salt, Pepper and Spice
Salt and pepper are making their way onto more dessert menus, and the growth of global cuisines is introducing consumers to a greater selection of spices than ever before. These can represent a means to dessert distinction.
Gand prefers to go the dairy route when using spices. “When I’m working with pepper, I’ll suspend it in some kind of fat,” she says. “I’ll make a black pepper whipped cream as a finish for a chocolate mousse, and I’ll put white pepper in shortbread.”
Black pepper can be very complex and brings more than heat to a dish. “People don’t realize the depth of its flavor and how floral it really is,” says Gand. “It’s unexpectedly good, but I prefer to use the heavier spices and savory elements in a garnish versus creating a whole dish around them. That would be too much,” she says, highlighting a key flavoring strategy.
“Ice cream, fruit sauces and compotes are excellent vehicles for spices on the dessert menu, where they can play a fun role,” says Nielsen. She also predicts that smoked salts and spices will step into the flavor positions bacon has occupied.
“One of the challenges for pastry chefs is that, by the end of the meal, many diners have used up much of their spirit of adventure,” says Nielsen. Given that, new flavors in dessert development have to be dealt with a slight hand. “Dessert is a homey comfort food, nostalgia driven. Also, people have dessert profiles, whether they are a chocolate, dairy, sorbet or pie fan. Sometimes it’s less about the flavor and more about picking the dish that speaks to them as a form.”
When experimenting with subtle savories, Darling recommends starting with those nostalgic desserts like pumpkin pie, carrot cake and strawberry shortcake, and diving into your own pantry to find a twist that fits your concept. Infuse strawberries with a bit of lemon or pineapple basil. Deconstruct a Snickers bar and add cracked pepper and fleur de sel.
Whatever you do, don’t short the guest on their dining experience. “If you are going to use a signature ingredient—something unusual and savory—it has to definitely be present,” says Nielsen. “For those diners seeking adventure, there’s nothing more disappointing than thinking you’re going to get this adventurous dessert, and you can’t even taste it.”