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Play With Your Dessert

Raspberry sauce served on the side gives diners at Romano’s Macaroni Grill a way to have their Warm Berry Torta how they want it — pouring or dipping the sauce creates an interactive experience. Photo courtesy of ROMANO’S MACARONI GRILL Consumer confidence brings a more adventurous attitude, and interactive desserts have great play

By Cindy Han

When dessert is brought to the table at Landry’s Oceanaire Seafood Room, it’s a conspicuous event. Flames shoot dramatically from a mega-sized Baked Alaska, and every diner turns to watch.

“We’re known for large desserts, and this one towers a good eight inches above the plate,” says Executive Pastry Chef Megan Edwards of Landry’s Signature Inc. “When it comes out like a ball of fire, it’s very eye-catching — and then other people want to order it, too.”

Even without flames and super-sized portions, interactive desserts are catching fire. The time is right for such bold and whimsical treatments. The economy is starting to come out of recession, and consumers are ready for experimentation and adventure.

During tough economic times, people cling to nostalgic comfort foods. But we’ve shifted beyond that, says food trends analyst Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides. “In a recession, there is a blankie of fear that people hold onto. But as soon as they feel more confident, they let go — they push out of their comfort zone and get a little crazier. It’s the perfect time for restaurants to be putting themselves out there. Restaurant numbers are up, consumer confidence is up — if the consumer is trying to put on a smiley face, you can do that, too.”

And what says smiley face more than desserts? Not just the same old desserts, though: desserts that involve diners and invite them to have a little fun at the end of a meal.

At any museum, kids and adults alike gravitate to the exhibits with button and dials. After all, anything becomes more interesting when there’s a hands-on element to it. So it is with desserts.

The act of dipping your dessert is simple and satisfying, and there are plenty of ways to do it. One of them is fondue — not with savory breads dipped in cheese, but with sweets dipped in sweetness.

“Fondue is hot,” says Badaracco. “All you need at the table is a little pot of chocolate with mini cakes and fruits. It would be very simple for a restaurant to pull off, and it’s very fun for adults.”

A sauce on the side can be an even easier way to provide diners a chance to take a dip. At Romano’s Macaroni Grill, the popular Warm Berry Torta — available from spring through summer — features zabaglione, pistachios and a raspberry side sauce. Guests can make their own decision as to how they wish to use the sauce.

“It’s pretty interesting,” says Brandon Coleman, chief marketing officer for Romano’s Macaroni Grill. “Quite often we’ll see a couple order two of the desserts, because they disagree over how they like to eat it. One person might want to pour the sauce over the top, while the other prefers dipping into the sauce one piece at a time.”

Another appealing approach is to design a dessert tailor-made for dipping. A top seller at The Mission, a modern Latin restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., features espresso churros that are served ready to dip into an Ibarra chocolate milkshake. “It’s very interactive, playful and fun,” says Pastry Chef Marie Belfiglio. “It’s reminiscent of dipping your  Wendy’s fries into your Frosty.” She says the churros are ordered as a dessert, but are also a popular bar food. “It’s a little whimsical, and anytime you get to interact, the process of eating is more fun — particularly with desserts, which people tend to share.”

Why should kids have all the fun? Adults enjoy DIY desserts too, like this berry-packed ice cream sandwich, which lends itself to assembly at the table. Photo courtesy of naturipe farms. ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
If diners are willing to dip, they’re probably ready for even more. One way to create an interactive dessert is by simply having diners build it as they please. It’s a technique that’s long been a hit with kids, who would much rather build their own s’mores or make their own ice cream sundaes than be served a ready-made concoction.

“I think restaurants should look at the fun, flirty side of kids’ menus,” says Badaracco. “Borrow from the kids and have adults make an ice cream sandwich and roll it in some candies. We’re not talking about molecular gastronomy — it’s quite easy to do something deconstructed. Serve cake and have the diner add the frosting.”

Some pastry chefs like The Mission’s Belfiglio are experimenting with getting the diner more involved in assembling their desserts. She serves fried bananas, for example, with separate sides of mousse and ice cream, allowing the guest to choose how the elements should be combined.

Badaracco feels the time is right for chefs and operators to be introducing more of such interactive desserts. “It’s one of those trends that is not yet a consistent national movement,” she says. “But it’s a no-brainer. If you don’t do it, you’ll be missing the boat.”

Not everyone wants “interactive” to mean “do it yourself.” For those diners not ready to do more than lift a fork to eat, interaction can mean that your server offers some sort of tableside presentation.

Landry’s flaming Baked Alaska is one such form. It’s not only showy, it’s also an example of the sort of bold dessert that fits the post-recessionary mood.

“People are feeling a little crazier, and open fires are daring,” says Badaracco. “Grilling is becoming a year-round craze, so the idea of an open flame, or anything evoking a campfire grill, is likely to do well.” She explains that the appeal of wood-fired ovens goes along with this trend, as do any desserts that remind people of cooking over a campfire. “You could serve pies in little mason jars, or fruit galette — any way that you can put food in a fire.”

Even without fire, desserts with some tableside flair add appeal for diners. At Applebee’s, the Maple Butter Pecan Blondie, baked with nuts and topped with ice cream, is served sizzling at the table. That little touch of showmanship sets the dessert apart.

The same goes for the Cinnamon Bun Soufflé served at Brenner’s on the Bayou, a Landry’s concept. An eye-catching ode to the classic cinnamon bun, the dessert arrives at the table billowing over in a large ramekin. Then, at the table, the server drenches the soufflé in a maple-rum-cream-cheese-sabayon sauce.

“People are always looking for the next new thing,” says Landry’s Edwards. “So if you take something they know from their childhood, but do it in some new way, they’ll respond to it. Whether you light the dessert on fire, or they participate in some way, making it interactive makes it more memorable.”

An unexpected presentation can have the same effect. At Romano’s Macaroni Grill, diners are treated to mini cannoli served inside a little cardboard box. “When it arrives at the table, you open it up, like you got it at an Italian bakery,” says Coleman. It’s easy, it’s interactive, and it forwards the restaurant’s overall theme.

Mini treats for tasting, such as Landry’s adorable ice cream sandwich lineup, invite diners to share and interact with their desserts — and with each other. Photo courtesy of landry’s inc.. LIQUID ASSETS
From mini portions to decadent drinks — sweets are showing up in formats that invite diners to sample, slurp or sip their desserts. Applebee’s has easy-to-eat and easy-on-the-wallet “dessert shooters” for $2.29 a pop. The mini treats are served in shot glasses, with mousse or ice cream and whipped cream layers featuring flavors like strawberry cheesecake, chocolate mascarpone and hot fudge sundae.

In addition, Applebee’s dessert menu includes fruit smoothies and milkshakes — beverages that offer both familiarity and flair. Drinkable desserts also appeal to diners seeking lighter fare, and the flavor combos can be easily updated according to season or trends.

Combining alcohol with these traditional childhood drinks leads to new, zingy dessert possibilities. The Cheesecake Factory adds adult appeal to kiddie favorites by offering spiked milkshakes and smoothies. Its Twisted Salted Caramel Pretzel combines Absolut vodka and Licor 43 with caramel, pretzels and ice cream, while the Flying Gorilla is a “kicked up” chocolate-banana milkshake with Godiva chocolate and banana liqueur. Looking to mixology for inspiration can lead to trend-setting dessert beverages.

Analyst Badaracco sees the potential for drinkable desserts to show up in even more fun and exciting forms. “With dessert drinks, why not set them on fire?” she asks. “You could take a milkshake or a ginger beer ice cream float, add alcohol, then light it.”

New beverage options are also in the works at Romano’s Macaroni Grill — and the goal is to bring these to the table with some interactive element, says Coleman. “Being interactive adds another layer to the experience, and people appreciate that. They like to participate. So that’s something you’ll see more of, across all platforms.”

Over the past few years, shareable desserts have become the norm, driven by diners’ concerns about both their wallets and their waistlines. What’s more interactive than having everyone at the table dig into a dessert together?

One form of shareable sweets is the attention-getting kind that begs to be passed around the table — either because of its size or its uniqueness.

Pastry Chef Edwards knows how to do this right, not only with the giant Baked Alaska, but with Landry’s Red Velvet Dobos Torte and the Banoffee Pie. Both are based on homey, comfortable desserts, but both are also designed to grab diners’ attention. “The red velvet cake is served as a slender square made of eight layers that tower above the plate,” says Edwards. “The Banoffee Pie combines the classic combination of dulce de leche, bananas and whipped cream, but we took it a step further with mascarpone and espresso in the whipped cream, toasted oatmeal cookie dough for the crust and candied hazelnuts as a garnish. It’s both comforting and refined, and when people see it, they say ‘Wow!’ and then tend to pass their plates.”

Another of Landry’s shareable desserts lends itself to mini tastes. In the Ice Cream Sandwich Trio, French hazelnut macaroons sandwich three different types of ice cream: Mexican vanilla, dark chocolate and Luxardo cherry. The ice cream sandwiches are served with house-made candy that evokes a Snickers bar — crispy chocolate and layers of peanut-butter nougat and caramel. “It’s playful, colorful, and the entire table wants to get their fingers into it,” she says.

Her overall philosophy lends itself to creating such interactive desserts. “You want to put something in front of people that won’t be too much — something that won’t leave them too stuffed, but will leave them satisfied. That’s pretty hard to achieve. So making the dessert interactive in some way means you can get away with smaller servings yet still keep people happy,” she says. “I always want people to leave feeling, ‘That was the perfect ending to a meal.’”


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About The Author

Cindy Han

Cindy Han studied journalism and has worked mostly as a magazine writer and editor, covering topics from animal conservation to interactive desserts. She is also a producer for a public radio news program and is working on a documentary film. She has lived in some great food cities—from New York to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and now Portland, Maine. She loves simply being with her family, enjoying nature, art, travel and, of course, good eats. Given her Chinese heritage, Cindy’s favorite dishes are anchored in the classic Asian flavor trio of soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar.