The artistry of presentation sets apart the seasonal modern tarts at Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco.
Two approaches to dessert-inspired flavor exploration are currently booming in the foodservice space: fired-up familiar forms and classic-exotic mash-ups. The challenge is finding that precarious balance between adventure and familiarity. By the time diners get to dessert, they usually want a sweet something that they know and love. But just because they want familiar doesn’t mean they don’t want that “Wow!” factor. No other menu part demands such a careful balancing act. Understanding where today’s consumer draws the line is key.
“Consumers have that drive for adventure, and it’s really taken off in the last couple years,” says Cristi Shipley, corporate R&D chef with Food IQ culinary consultancy. “We’ve become more exposed, more often, to new techniques and flavors, and our palates are evolving.”
Ingredients and techniques that were pushing the avant garde 10 years ago have been absorbed by the industry and consumer. Now they are part of the battery of cuisine, and they are used not to call attention to themselves but to make dishes better. So when it comes to desserts, why not embrace them to create an exciting flavor adventure that lingers in the guest’s mind long after they leave?
“It’s important to design a dessert menu with a mix of comfort and adventure, even if it’s just a cupcake with a flavor they can’t get somewhere else,” Shipley says. Of course, this is a familiar proposition for chefs—the modern challenge is featuring on-trend flavors and forms when they hold the sweet spot of exciting yet familiar. As the trend cycle moves faster from emerging to ubiquitous, finding and holding that sweet spot can be tricky. “Keep that [innovation] continuously evolving to keep people coming to your place of business to explore,” she says.
Familiar Format, Flavor Forward
The recent explosion of artisan cupcake, ice cream and doughnut shops provides proof of consumers’ comfort with flavor explorations when they come from a place of familiarity and low risk. “Every culture has their version of a fried, sweet dough,” says Michael Laiskonis, creative director and a pastry and baking arts chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “It’s universal, and it’s a great clean slate to build or introduce new flavors or combinations, or something exotic.”
For example, District: Donuts, Sliders and Brew in New Orleans pulls from a repertoire of more than 200 flavor combinations, presenting 10 options in the doughnut case each day, with a handful of everyday favorites such as cinnamon sugar. The more palate-pushing combinations are all over the map: coconut and basil, passion fruit and cocoa nib, marshmallow fluff with Count Chocula pop rocks, maple Sriracha with candied thyme, or raspberry powder with candied Satsuma.
Shaking up an existing dessert program in-house with more feisty flavors requires a measured approach. Nicholas Flores, executive pastry chef for RingSide Hospitality Group in Portland, Ore., launched a creative frozen custard program at RingSide Grill earlier this year to nudge its older clientele out of its comfort zone. Guests are offered a selection of traditional toppings and mix-ins, as well as a few chef-inspired options. “We started safe with a cheesecake and fresh berry compote, mixed in with graham cracker streusel,” he says.
Then, the flavors became more adventurous, with slow-roasted strawberries, Tellicherry black pepper and a salted pistachio toffee for extra crunch. “Tellicherry pepper has less heat and more aroma and a lot of very fruity notes,” says Flores. The flavors of the pepper both acted as a complementary bridge to the roasted berries, and provided a spicy contrast that cut through the overall sweetness of the dish.
Flores plans to gently push the guests a bit further each season. His next move is a play on red velvet cake using a very light, roasted beet genoise sponge cake, folded into a goat’s milk cheesecake, and then into the custard. “It’ll have that same sweet-tangy flavor play as red velvet, so it’s familiar,” he says. He hopes as the program expands over time, guests will begin mixing their own toppings and making their own sundae combinations.
Upgrading Grandma’s Desserts
“It seems we’re going back to the classic desserts and using those to build a bridge for the guest to get them to try new things,” says Laiskonis. “It’s not a lack of more original ideas—a great way to have fun with guests and play with their perceptions is to repackage that familiar flavor in a new way. Or use a familiar vehicle to showcase something flavor-wise.”
At Pie Corps in Brooklyn, N.Y., co-founder Cheryl Perry likes to take her recipes one small step away from what people love, adding brown-butter crumb to the top of a pumpkin pie, or infusing rosemary into the cream for the caramel topping of her apple pie. “We’re always infusing and combining flavors. You don’t see a lot of it out there where pie is concerned, but we use a lot of fresh herbs,” she says. “I also like texture on the top.” In the summer, Pie Corps offer a blueberry pie with thyme and lavender cobbler, and in the winter, the cranberry pie is topped with an orange-rosemary cobbler. The floral and herbal notes warm the palate with a mellow, savory flavor through the tart sweetness of the berries.
It’s a strategy that works even if you want to hike past the herb garden and into the Asian grocery. At San Francisco’s Craftsman and Wolves, chef William Werner wanted to make a snickerdoodle cookie that stood out. “Sometimes we try to be creative in our flavors for visual identity. For some concepts that’s taboo, but that’s a big part of who we are, as our entire menu is right in front of you in the case,” says Werner. “When the guest is seeing the whole menu at once, you have to think about color and getting it noticed, as well as triggering a memory. A snickerdoodle is not exciting to look at, and will get overshadowed by the Thai scone, for example, which is coconut-y and crazy green and orange.”
The eye-catching green color and grassy, vegetal flavors of matcha offered what was needed to play up the grated lemon zest and pop of ginger in the cookie, and white chocolate chips were added for sweetness. “We find sometimes the more familiar the product, the more we can walk the line with the flavor combinations,” he says. “People know the snickerdoodle. When you get that cookie and eat it, the texture is very reminiscent. There’s a familiarity for them, and safeness, and they’re willing to accept it.”
The Prairie Artisan Gold sour beer played well against the extra sweet peach jelly filled doughnut dusted with a sour citrus sugar at Courtyard Brewery in New Orleans.
Complement, Contrast and Balance
“When you taste a dish that features contrasting flavors like sweet and sour or sweet and spicy, even though those flavors are blended, we don’t actually taste them simultaneously,” explains Shipley. “We taste each one individually in a layered way. Each keeps its individual qualities distinct, and it makes the flavor experience very interesting and exciting for the palate.”
Combining those contrasting flavors—such as sweet and sour, bitter and sweet, or sweet, sour and salty—increases the vibrancy of the total flavor package. The carrot cake at RingSide Steakhouse has a layer of cream cheese as well as a citrus buttercream frosting. “The citrus adds that great acidic note that helps foil the sweetness of the buttercream, and it pairs great with the carrots,” says Flores. “It provides a small, ‘Hey, what is that?’ moment for the guest.”
Werner agrees. “There is a magic sweet spot for ingredients. When you get into using a fifth element, it can become overwhelming,” he says. For a unique take on a fruit tart, he infused the cream with Douglas fir needles, then combined it with sweet, tart blackberries and a small vanilla crust. He and his team developed half-pipe molds for the tart crust to give a more direct balance of crunch to fruit to cream, versus needing to fill the capacity of a traditional tart shell.
“There’s a complexity in the simplicity of it,” he adds. “Three different textures, two are familiar flavors, and a third is the surprise or ‘A-ha!’ moment.”
Creative Doughnuts, Craft Beer
The recent Louisiana Craft Brewers Week in New Orleans—in which breweries and restaurants collaborated on local brews paired with local fare—opened with a pairing of craft beers at The Courtyard Brewery and artisan doughnuts from District: Donuts, Sliders and Brew. Courtyard’s co-founder and brewer Scott Wood came up with a beer list, which District’s co-founder/head pastry chef Chris Audler matched with creative mini doughnuts.
“I intentionally threw some challenging beers in there,” says Wood. “I wanted a mix, and I didn’t want the choices to be obvious or super easy. What do you pair with an IPA? What do you pair with a sour? We looked for options that were savory as well as sweet.” The resulting pairings opened consumers’ eyes when it comes to complementing and contrasting flavor profiles. “The parsley meringue was a little weird, but it worked,” says Wood.
Beer: Gnarly Barley Peanut Butter Korova Porter (6.4% ABV Milk Porter)
Doughnut: Salted caramel with raspberry-peanut brittle
Beer: St. Bernardus Tripel (8% Belgian Abbey Tripel)
Doughnut: Banana cream filled with parsley meringue and “Banana Runts” sugar
Beer: Courtyard Lonesome Traveler Mosaic (7.2% Single Hop American IPA)
Doughnut: Grapefruit glazed with grapefruit-infused marshmallow dusted with Mosaic hops
Beer: Prairie Artisan Gold (6.5% Golden Sour)
Doughnut: Peach jelly filled and rolled in a sour citrus sugar
Beer: Evil Twin Imperial Doughnut Break (11.5% Imperial Double Stout)
Doughnut: Filled with Imperial Doughnut Break Pastry Cream and tossed in Biscoff-cinnamon sugar
Beer: Stone Bourbon Barrel-Aged Arrogant Bastard (8.1% American Strong Ale)
Doughnut: Smoked vanilla bean glazed, topped with bourbon-braised bacon