Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Sweet Shortcuts In a world that values housemade, speed-scratch lends a helping hand

At CraftWorks concepts, ready-made elements combine with housemade touches to create desserts like Rock Bottom’s Bourbon Pecan Pie.

Ready-made ingredients certainly help relieve back-of-house dessert prep, but well-placed, creative, brought-in components can also help turn desserts into signature top-sellers. From puff pastry and cake mix to cookie dough and cream filling to fully prepared desserts, operators are using smart strategies to offset the operational challenges of housemade offerings.

“Desserts are a great area of the menu to balance some bought starting points or elements and build those to a finished plate by adding creative made-in-house elements,” says Stan Frankenthaler, chief officer of food, beverage and strategic supply for Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, which operates Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom, Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurants and Rock Bottom Restaurants & Breweries.

Frankenthaler points to Gordon Biersch’s Apple Cherry Strudel Crêpe as an example. “We buy the crêpes and the mascarpone crème filling, but make our own apple and brandied cherry filling from scratch,” he says. At Rock Bottom, the Bourbon Pecan Pie Mason Jar features a brought-in pecan pie, but it’s layered in individual serving jars with crushed and toasted graham cracker crumbs, housemade salted caramel sauce and freshly whipped cream.

Best Use of Time

Frankenthaler says speed-scratch desserts benefit the company in many ways. “Having a few of these on the menu helps with consistency across our many kitchens. It’s a strategy that can also help address the absence of a particular skill level in-house, saves time, and helps with inventory by aggregating a bunch of individual, single-use SKUs into one.”

Also, relying on some speed-scratch items on the dessert menu allows the company to focus staff training efforts on perfecting the execution of a few of the more time-consuming signature desserts.

Take CraftWorks’ carrot cake as an example. “That cake is very labor-intensive,” says Dean Dressler, CraftWorks’ corporate chef and culinary research and development. “It’s completely scratch-made—from beer in the batter, to shredding the carrots on a mandolin to making the icing from scratch. Including items like the pecan pie Mason jar dessert and the crêpes frees up the time for all that.”

The same is true at Columbus, Ohio-based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, with 11 full-service restaurant concepts. As corporate executive pastry chef for the company, Summer Schott creates desserts for all 11 concepts. “But what I may shape for one restaurant may not be doable for another of our concepts, which has three or more units,” says Schott.  The chocolate-almond cake she created as a New Year’s Eve dessert feature for Marcella’s restaurants was such a hit, others wanted to serve it, too. “We quickly realized that what I might do as pastry chef with just one restaurant wouldn’t be easily reproducible by everyone.” So Schott switched to a chocolate cake mix as the base for the cake. “We still make the almond cake layer from scratch,” says Schott. “You always have to balance quality with ‘quickly,’ and in this instance, the time saved with the chocolate cake mix went into training staff on scratch-making the almond layer.”

The chocolate cake mix is also used for the company’s Cap City Fine Diner & Bar’s “Seriously Big Chocolate Cake,” which is that restaurant’s best-selling dessert. “The box mix saves time because you don’t have to measure out as many ingredients every time, and we get a more consistent result throughout the restaurants,” says Schott.

A high-quality, pre-made chocolate cake base makes this lava cake a dessert that merits its signature status at the Sonesta Coconut Grove Hotel’s Panorama restaurant in Miami.

Quality is king

Christopher Cramer, executive chef at the American regional Panorama Restaurant & Sky Lounge at the Sonesta Coconut Grove Hotel in Miami, agrees. “Including ready-made items on our dessert menu allows our chefs to devote their skills to crafting the signature elements that require extra time and preparation,” says Cramer. “As a small operation that runs without the luxury of a pastry department, we utilize a mix of housemade items and convenience-based items to create the decadent desserts our guests expect.”

In order for this to work, Cramer emphasizes that purchased elements need to be of exceptional quality. “The high quality of the outsourced items we use helps us feel confident that we are serving product that we can stand behind, while taking a near-impossible in-house task out of the hands of the staff,” he says.

One of Panorama’s best-selling signature desserts, the Chocolate Lava Cake, is prepared with a pre-made chocolate cake base that contains a chocolate fondant center. The restaurant bakes the cake to create the lava-like warmed center and then adds vanilla ice cream, fresh fruit and a dusting of powdered sugar. Putting extra effort into finding top-quality, locally sourced, seasonal, fresh produce (strawberries, oranges and mangoes) gives the dishes a “fresh, South Florida flair” that guests really appreciate, says Cramer.

Seasonal and Local

Dessert consultant and educator Priscilla Martel, co-author of On Baking: A Textbook of Baking and Pastry Fundamentals (Prentice Hall, 2008), says using seasonal and local ingredients to enhance and finish speed-scratch desserts is a smart strategy that creates uniqueness and earns guest loyalty.  “Find something that fits your theme and your locale,” says Martel. Local ingredients with regional name recognition bring with them a premium appeal. One example: While the ice cream is made from scratch at its Guild House concept, Cameron Mitchell specifies that Ohio-based Graeter’s Handcrafted and Johnson’s Real Ice Cream brands be used in the baked Alaska featured at its Ocean Club concept and also in the Frozen Mudd Pie dessert served at The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek.

For Dudley Nieto, executive chef at Barbakoa restaurant, a modern Latin barbecue concept in Downers Grove, Ill., fitting theme and locale means garnishing a pre-made lemon tart with a made-from-scratch, tequila-spiked, prickly pear coulis and Mexican-chocolate cream. “The flavor of the lemon tart is good on its own, but pairing it with these unexpected Latin flavor accents really put the dessert over the top,” says Nieto.

Chefs at Sonesta’s Panorama add juice and zest from locally grown Persian limes to the pre-made Key Lime Tart’s custard. “We garnish the tarts with housemade port liqueur meringues, which we delicately caramelize before serving,” says Cramer. The result is a dessert with a distinct accent.

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Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.