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Piece of Cake

The unique characteristics inherent in a slice of cake are hard to recreate in deconstructed or minimized formats. Subtle revisions in flavor and form reinforce cake’s enduring appeal

By Laura Brienza

Often, when you look at the “what’s next” of many fast-tracking trends, it seems that you end up circling back to the trend originator. When a dessert has been successfully transformed into something as new and novel as a cake pop, perhaps it’s time to return to the source of inspiration. In this case, it’s the nostalgic and luxurious slice of cake. Few desserts are meant to be eaten with a fork, and require you to slow down and enjoy each bite. Perhaps cake wasn’t meant to be eaten on a stick after all.

“Cake is nostalgic to Americans. It triggers childhood memories, birthdays, special occasions and celebrations,” says pastry chef Stacy Mirabello, chef instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. “On a dessert menu, the word ‘cake’ is familiar and comforting to most Americans. And those diners who do not consider themselves foodies are more apt to order a cake than, say, panna cotta or baklava.”

While the dependable flavors, textures, and forms of classic cakes make them what they are, pastry chefs and operators are conscious of the need to distinguish and subtly revamp the classics to keep customers interested, especially in this age of minimized desserts. The first bite of a new cake is the pinnacle of the taste experience, and chefs are finding ways to repeat that flavorful intoxication and capitalize on the beloved cake experience.

The nod to American regional, historical and heritage recipes and ingredients is influencing many food items, and cake is no exception. Many of the modifiers lending fresh innovation and renewed interest are based on fruit — grapefruit, lemon, pineapple and coconut, for starters.

“Returning to those precious, historic family or restaurant recipes is becoming more interesting to the diner,” says Grace Bauer, author of Los Angeles Classic Desserts (Pelican Publishing, 2010). As an example, she cites the Grapefruit Cake from The Brown Derby, an iconic Hollywood Golden-Era establishment. The layer cake is complemented by a cream-cheese frosting with crushed grapefruit flesh.

Another classic seeing new light is the Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. Cracker Barrel, which operates more than 600 stores in 42 states with the mission of delivering Southern hospitality, has made a minor tweak to its version, adding a pineapple sugar glaze topping.

“We’ll always start with the traditional,” says Bill Kintzler, Cracker Barrel’s Director of Product Development, “but then we get more permission to reach into non-traditional flavors.” Kintzler notes the organization’s awareness that homestyle can evolve, but says, “We’re always going to have a Southern hospitality component because of our brand.”

Other operators are choosing to put more distance between themselves and the classics.

The Cheesecake Factory’s Black-Out Cake pairs a rich chocolate cake with chocolate chips and almonds. Photo courtesy of the cheesecake factory . “We just happened to have coconut in our kitchen one day, so we started playing around with it,” says chef Miguel Aguilar of Wynwood Kitchen & Bar in Miami. The result is Wynwood’s Coconut Upside-Down Cake, served with a whiskey-caramel sauce. The coconut replaces the traditional pineapple, and the binding agent of caramel-infused whiskey “creates a really nice balance,” says Aguilar.

Carrot cake is another classic that does well enough left alone, but also lends itself to slight tweaks. As executive pastry chef at Fontainebleau Miami Beach’s eight restaurants, Jordi Panisello likes to use flavors that his customers know and expect, but goes a step further to give a classic dessert a unique signature, such as using an unexpected mold, adding a little crunch or arranging the dessert in a new way.

“People need to find what they’re looking for,” he explains. “They want to know what they’re eating, and be able to identify the flavors. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop right there.”

He takes this approach with the carrot cake at Fontainebleau’s Gotham Steak. The cake employs the standard cream-cheese frosting that diners expect, but is paired with an orange-carrot sorbet. The combination of the cake and sorbet provides both complementary flavors and an interesting texture to update the classic carrot cake.

At its 64 units, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar differentiates its classic three-layer carrot cake with a dark rum-caramel drizzle atop its cream-cheese frosting. Executive Chef Russell Skall notes that the base of the cake is “nothing too special,” but that the twist of caramel has helped the cake become “one of our most popular desserts.”

With its simple yet rich and luxurious layers, the classic chocolate cake provides a trusted base for chefs to create modern twists.

Cracker Barrel employs a retro flair with its popular and nostalgic Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola Cake. It’s served warm with vanilla ice cream.

And indulgence is never out of style when it comes to a chocolate layer cake. Orlando, Fla.-based Smokey Bones’ Leaning Tower of Chocolate Cake is a six-layer stack smothered in dark fudge and chocolate frosting.

The classic is also getting plenty of upgrades from complementary accents. At Trio in Austin, Texas, the Warm Chocolate Cake is accompanied by coffee ice cream, salted caramel crémeux and whiskey foam.

Romano’s Macaroni Grill offers up customer interactivity to its newest chocolate cake, which is baked in-house and served with a side of warm, pourable ganache and toffee bars for crunch. “This way, the customer can decide how to enjoy it — whether to pour the sauce over the cake before cutting into it, or cut it first and then pour,” explains Randall Warder, chief concept officer. “Either way, it becomes a fun and interactive experience for our guests.”

The Cheesecake Factory offers four chocolate cakes on its expansive dessert menu. A symphony of flavors take Chris’ Outrageous Chocolate Cake to new heights: it layers moist chocolate cake, brownie and chocolate chip-coconut cheesecake with a toasted coconut-pecan frosting. The Black-Out Cake pairs a rich chocolate cake with chocolate chips and almonds, while the Chocolate Tower Truffle Cake tops layers of fudge cake with chocolate truffle cream and chocolate mousse. These three cakes spice up the traditional chocolate cake with interesting combinations of flavor and texture, while Linda’s Fudge Cake stays true to the classic, with simple layers of chocolate cake and fudge frosting.

To meet the varying needs of today’s diners, many operators have started to offer cakes in alternative portion sizes to appeal to all customers.

Panisello stresses the importance of context when deciding a cake’s size and form. For example, when planning menus for Fontainebleau’s banquets, he says all desserts should be a maximum of two bites. Smaller, bite-sized cakes look clean and are easy to enjoy in a crowd where customers might be eating while standing. In contrast, when designing a room-service menu, he points out, “It’s nice to have a big fudgy cake in the privacy of your own room.”

Diners looking to indulge without feeling guilty or too full have embraced smaller portions. “Smaller portions are here to say,” said Russell Skall, crediting the mandate of calorie counts on menus as a major reason. Small portions also appeal to diners who have had a full meal, but still want to top it off with something sweet. “If small bites are available, they’re more apt to try that,” he notes. Fleming’s is developing a dessert menu that customizes a guest’s preferences in terms of size and flavor, allowing diners to choose from a selection of size options as well as flavors — for instance, choosing a sauce to go with a cheesecake.

Classic layered cakes like this Lemonade Cake with Meyer lemon curd provide retro, nostalgic cues. Photo courtesy of sweet street desserts. Fig & Olive, which operates three restaurants in New York City, one in Westchester, Conn., and one in Los Angeles, offers its marzipan cake in different size options — in bite-sized form on the Tasting & Sharing Plate, and at full size on the dessert menu.

Johnson & Wales’ Mirabello offers another portion-size strategy: “Instead of the classic triangular slice of cake, offer it in a rectangular/bar shape and serve it with a small scoop or quenelle of ice cream,” she suggests. “It’s the same beloved cake but with a more modern approach.”

As chefs continue to look for ways to keep their piece of cake inspired, new flavors are appearing on the horizon, especially those with a hint of savory.

“Salted caramel sauces are favorite toppings, adding interest and a new flavor profile to cakes,” says Bauer. “Flavored salts such as Maldon sea salt and lavender salt, Szechuan peppercorns and rosewater are appearing in more desserts as well.”

Finished-dessert suppliers are keeping pace with the trends. Sweet Street Desserts recently introduced 11 new cakes to its lineup of desserts. Varieties include Salted Caramel, a Lemonade Cake with Meyer lemon curd and a Chocolate Nut Torta made with Nutella —one of two new gluten-free cakes to meet the needs of a growing population with gluten sensitivities.

Restaurants are catching on to the gluten-free movement, and many of those that don’t yet offer gluten-free cakes are aware of the demand to make them available.

“We’re in the research stage right now,” says Russell Skall on Fleming’s intent to add a gluten-free cake to its dessert menu.

Building on the abiding appeal of cake to offer subtle upgrades, nostalgic nods and even gluten-free options will ensure all patrons can have their cake and eat it too.


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About The Author

Laura Brienza

Laura Brienza is the author of "Discovering Vintage Washington, D.C.", and "New York’s Historic Restaurants, Inns & Taverns." She is a recent winner of the Lifetime Writers Project fellowship and lives in Los Angeles.