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Sweet Mash-Ups It’s time to get serious about playful fusions in desserts

A sense of fun goes a long way when it comes to creating irresistible desserts, like this layered cupcake in a jar.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Cheesecake Factory Bakery

Although some can dismiss the cronut—that wacky mash-up of croissant and doughnut—as a flash in the pan, its meteoric rise to stardom speaks to a collective yearning on the part of today’s consumers. When they get to dessert, they’re looking for fun swirled with familiarity, comfort and nostalgia.

Desserts that fuse different flavors and forms answer that craving—whether it’s a new format for favorite desserts, like a cheesecake ball, or a fusion of popular desserts, like the cronut. Examples include a cheesecake on a stick, a pie milkshake and a cupcake popsicle.

Taking their cues from the cronut, other fusion desserts delve into the nonsensical Seussian dimension with smashed-together names. The scuffin—scone dough formed into a muffin shape and filled with fruit preserves—can be found at Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco. There’s also the muffle, the crofiterole and the crookie. And feel free to chuckle at the scronut, an unfortunately named mash-up of a scone and doughnut found at The Cheese Emporium in Greenport, N.Y. Even chains are taking notice: Carl’s Jr. is testing Bisnuts, a biscuit-doughnut hybrid, at its Southern California locations. Crumbs Bake Shop is testing two mash-ups: the Crumbnut, a doughnut-croissant hybrid, and a Baissant, a bagel-croissant offering.

Success behind these whimsical creations requires an absolute commitment to familiar flavors. “Blending creativity and innovation without getting too complicated is key to leveraging existing dessert menu items into the ‘Wow!’ factor that chefs and operators constantly chase,” says Ken Darling, pastry chef and chief innovation officer of ThinkCake! dessert consultancy. “The goal is to have fun without complicating the outcome.”

This trend has been brewing for awhile, bubbling up from the retro dessert boom a few years back and siphoning ideas from the street-food scene. Flavor mash-ups were born in food trucks and are now nurtured on menus everywhere—from bar bites to sandwiches. It makes sense that mash-ups are now crossing over to the sweet side. Casualization, too, seeps into every part of foodservice, including desserts.

“The shape of dessert is changing. Literally. The existing zeitgeist mash-up approach to food and cuisine that has defined its own movement is now present on dessert menus in every corner of the food business, from fine dining to QSR to retail and beyond,” says Eric Stangarone, creative director at The Culinary Edge and chef/owner of En Su Boca in Richmond, Va. “These playful mash-up forms and flavors on dessert menus are great advertising to show guests that a concept is dialed into what’s happening in the larger food scene.”

New Forms, Familiar Flavors
Although these dessert mash-ups invite whimsical collision rather than refined fusion, winning formulas still need craftsmanship behind the builds. “Taking a form and making it into something new and different is a way of pushing boundaries,” says Mindy Segal, executive chef/owner of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. “It’s a good way to make desserts that people will talk about. And although sometimes the best thing to do is just make a really great chocolate chip cookie, fusion forms allow creative folks to bend and twist a dessert into something fun and playful.”

Long before the cronut, Segal was making brioche doughnuts. “I made them 20 years ago when I was pastry chef at MK.” She features them at Hot Chocolate, served with a buttermilk glaze on the dessert menu while simply dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with raspberry jam during morning hours. “They came to life as a way to use scraps of brioche dough left over from our bread program,” she says. “It’s a resilient, sweet, buttery dough that’s easy to work with.”

Elegant mash-ups on the menu include her version of an affogato, in which she pours hot chocolate over cocoa-nib ice cream. Her Vanilla Nilla Wafer is a marriage of the whoopie pie with a banana cream pie. “The door is now open for us to play, and guests are really enjoying those creative, fun desserts,” says Segal.

As Segal points out with her brioche doughnuts, fusion desserts can also provide a back-of-house solution. At Roofers Union Restaurant & Bar in Washington, D.C., Executive Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley serves a Crème Brûlée Bread Pudding with apples, maple syrup and vanilla bean. “Bread pudding is a great way to use day-old bread, and the custards in crème brûlée and bread puddings are the same, so it’s an easy prep,” she says. She uses a mixture of brioche and ciabatta, as well as leftover pastries. “It’s really popular because it’s clever, it’s different, and it’s familiar—that’s the beauty of this kind of dessert.”

Uniqueness in marketplace is key, along with a mastery of flavor and texture. Mimicry of tried-and-true forms like the cronut is perhaps the quickest way into the trend, but probably also the shortest lived. “Rather than hooking their wagon to a single, playful mash-up dessert, we would instead encourage operators to have fun and experiment with an array of new forms for favorite flavors,” says Justin Massa, CEO of Food Genius. “A continuous cycle of new and playful items will keep people coming back.”

Cake pops, cheesecake pops—these minis on a stick have helped move dessert into snacking occasions. Creative options abound on dessert menus, too, where mini desserts still hold sway. Examples include Chicago chef David Burke’s signature Cheesecake Pop tree and Outback Steakhouse’s Cake Pops. Outback guests can choose two out of three flavors, including Cheesecake Melba, Chocolate Peanut Butter and Carrot Cake. At New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, chef Christina Tosi elevates cake balls into cake truffles. The B’day Truffles mix yellow cake with cream cheese and rainbow sprinkles rolled into balls and coated in cake crumbs.

“Operators are using both mash-up flavors and forms, as well as updated and unusual ingredients, and whimsical language,” says Stangarone. “Birthday, as a flavor and as an experience; candy; savory inclusions; seasonal approaches like pumpkin-spice everything; boozy shakes; drinkable cakes and pies and just plain unusual ideas are all making an appearance.”

Sweet Solutions
When executed well, enticing desserts hold promise in bolstering a sagging menu part. And this trend has long legs, so development dollars aren’t wasted. “If you think of this overall trend on the menu adoption cycle, it’s interesting that it can fall in almost all stages, from inception (macanuts, a mash-up of macaroons and doughnuts) to ubiquity (baked goods on a stick),” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “The great thing about this overarching trend is that it can be leveraged by nearly all types of operators in a wide variety of ways, reaching a very broad spectrum of consumers.” Conceptual development of dessert mash-ups is less taxing than coming up with net-new ideas. “Creating close-in menu applications with a twist is a fairly safe development path for operators in comparison to full-on product development,” says consulting chef Rob Corliss. The challenge, then, is making it new and exciting while keeping it recognizable and familiar.

Chef Tom Van Lente at Two in Chicago features a biscuit doughnut with seasonal accompaniments on his dessert menu. In winter, it came with a scoop of housemade maple ice cream and Templeton Rye syrup. “The doughnut flakes like a biscuit but rises like a doughnut,” he says. “People love this kind of fusion dessert—they come here for it. They know a good thing when they see it.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.