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The Comfort of Cookies

The all-time favorite cookie is good old-fashioned chocolate chip, made extra tempting at Max & Erma’s, where they come to the table straight from the oven. Photo courtesy of max & erma’s. They’re the ultimate dessert for shareable nostalgia, beverage pairing, textural interest and just plain sugary goodness

By Priscilla Martel

If you find a freshly baked, warm cookie irresistible, you’re certainly not alone. And in challenging times, there is nothing like the comfort of the familiar.

Although cookies are not traditionally offered as standalone desserts on most full-service menus, they are starting to play more leading roles. And although traditional flavors — chocolate-chip, peanut-butter and sugar cookies — are most popular, chefs are changing up America’s favorite portable sweet in new and creative ways.

“It feels as if Debbie Fields is on our doorstep,” says New York restaurant consultant Arlene Spiegel. “We’re seeing cookies in all kinds of food environments, from corporate cafés to fine-dining restaurants.”

Cookies, sweet snacks that feel good and build a check average, speak to the “small indulgence” trend, she says. At Max & Erma’s, warm, baked-to-order cookies are part of the “brand message” and increase dessert sales, reports Steve Weis, the company’s vice president of operations. The program started about 11 years ago at the Columbus, Ohio-based chain.

“Very few people really do baked-to-order cookies,” says Weis. “It takes some preparation.”

Max & Erma’s uses dedicated ovens and pre-portioned cookie dough made by Legendary Baking, its sister brand. Servers promote the fresh-baked cookies, offered in two flavors, at the start of the meal, building customer engagement and anticipation.

The order of six cookies is presented on a cookie sheet, adding to the homey appeal. Weis says the cookies work at all dayparts, even lunch, where customers are “not too indulgent,” so any remaining cookies can be taken home.

Although Weis hints that, “down the road,” seasonal flavors could be added, Max & Erma’s sticks to classic cookie varieties. And the company is not alone. From The Cheesecake Factory’s Grande Luxe Café concept to New York’s hip Bubble Lounge, the cookie is chocolate chip and the key selling message is “warm.”

Matt Hood, chief marketing officer of BJ’s Restaurants, based in Huntington Beach, Calif., attributes the success of its Pizookie, pan-baked cookies served warm with ice cream, in large part to the combination of “flavor, temperature and textures.”  Menuing cookies that are “house-made,” “freshly baked” or “baked-to-order” spells sell-through success.

According to Jonna Parker, director of account management at the Perishables Group, which tracks grocery sales and product trends, nostalgia and regional flavors are key trends: “In store bakeries, we’re seeing cookies that Grandma made.”

In a foodservice setting, people also favor the familiar. When it comes to brownies or chocolate-chip cookies, says Jim Dodge, baking authority and director of specialty culinary programs for Bon Appétit Management Company, “people do not want you messing with them much.” The nuts might be pecans instead of walnuts, the chips might be white, bittersweet or branded chocolate, but the products must be recognizable.

Branding the chocolate used and listing descriptors such as “bittersweet” or “chunks” also enhance the indulgence message. For Dodge, that means Cordillera Chocolate, a Fair Trade product from Colombia that is in keeping with Bon Appétit’s mission of sustainability. (Dodge says it took time to find a Fair Trade product that was consistent in texture and taste.)

Abigail Kirsch Catering pairs a caramel milk shake with a whimsical selection of cookies including minted Oreo, black and white, peanut-butter-and-jelly macaroon and chocolate chunk. Photo courtesy of abigail kirsch catering. Executive Chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez at The Spa at Norwich Inn in Norwich, Conn., says his clientele is looking for “simple things.” To satisfy guest requirements, his staff make Oreo-style cookies and graham crackers, all gluten-free because of the number of allergic customers.

When cookies are among several different types of dessert offerings, there’s more room for flavor experimentation. Red velvet cake interpreted as a cookie flavor is a trend to watch. BJ’s added a Red Velvet Pizookie, expanding its warm pizza cookie menu to eight flavors, including a new gluten-free chocolate-chip version. (Chocolate Chunk, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, Peanut Butter and Oatmeal Raisin Walnut are the current offerings.)

“Few things have as much mass appeal as red velvet,” says BJ’s Hood. The latest Pizookie takes the flavors of red velvet and sweet cream cheese icing and interprets it in a “cookie format,” he says. Red velvet is also trending in cookies sold at in-store bakeries, concurs Perishables Group’s Parker.

Whether served on a plate or as the base of a mountainous dessert, cookies encourage sharing and engage a sense of play and excitement. Sharing lessens the guilt associated with ordering dessert, says Spiegel.  And sharing can make dessert a healthier option, suggests Dodge.

“A big part of sharing,” he says, “is that it can increase your sales,” especially when servers recommend sharing a cookie plate. At many of the cafés Bon Appétit manages, he notes, customers purchase small bags of cookies to take home.

Operators themselves are offering cookie plates as a lagniappe, an unexpected treat. Typical of such offerings is the best-in-class cookie plate at Brooklyn’s River Café, where Pastry Chef Karen McGrath makes pecan sandies, chocolate-chip and linzer cookies in miniature.  In New York City, two of Spiegel’s clients use complimentary cookies as an extension of their theme: Trattoria Cinque delivers an Italian cookie plate with the check while at Kellari Taverna, Greek cookies are offered at the hostess stand.

“It reflects their hospitality,” McGrath says, and does not affect dessert sales. In the catering setting, cookie plates increase revenue and add that “WOW factor,” notes Christopher Muller, senior pastry chef at Abigail Kirsch Catering in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Sharing is  a matter of scale and broadened appeal. BJ’s created the Trio, three warm mini pizza cookies offered with the customer’s choice of cookie type and ice cream. Matt Hood says it is “less about check average than finding that shareable mix-and-match option that appeals to a wide range of customers.”

Applebee’s offers a “sundae for the whole table,” set atop a “warm chocolate-chunk cookie,” the menu language evoking family and fun. The dish is garnished with Oreo cookie pieces, which provides a touch of the familiar.

Other operators give a twist to the familiar chocolate sandwich cookie. “If it is an Oreo, you have to have it deep-fried,” says Perishables Group’s Parker. You can have your deep-fried Oreos in the zeppole (deep-fried dough pastries) served at Lavo in New York and Las Vegas or at any number of independent snack restaurants.

Along the same lines, the Las Vegas club restaurant Tao serves a giant Fortune Cookie stuffed with white and dark chocolate mousse.  Like street snacks or something eaten on an episode of Man v. Food, these dishes appeal to the sense of adventure, but the indulgence factor is reduced by sharing.

You can order milk with your cookies at Max & Erma’s. But Abigail Kirsch Catering takes the combo from quaint to cool with Muller’s sophisticated interpretation of cookies and milk. His plated dessert includes a caramel malted milk shake paired with minted Oreos, a black-and-white cookie, a peanut-butter-and-jelly macaroon, a warm chocolate-chunk cookie and a fortune cookie. Inside the fortune cookie is a complete description of the dish.

This dessert works on many levels, Muller says. Cookies and milk are the perfect pairing. There are temperature and texture contrasts and interaction when the guest reads the fortune. The whimsical dessert bridges generations, working for the younger diner who wants something “edgier” and the older client looking for something lighter, he says.

Matching cookie plates with shakes and artisan sodas — like Cookies and Cream at Boston’s Finale, which pairs cookies and bars with an Izze Blackberry Float — makes sense for the same reasons.

Another trend that is gaining traction is beer with sweets. “We won’t force a pairing,” says BJ’s Hood, “but where culinary flavors complement each other, we’ll make a recommendation.” Among the promoted pairings are Pizookie with Pumpkin Ale and the new Camaraderie beer with the red velvet dessert. Fullsteam Brewery, a craft beer sensation in Durham, N.C., serves South Durham Confection Company’s savory cookies with its brews.

The cookies are the brainchild of Jimmy VerVaecke, a home-brewing enthusiast, and Allison Collins, a baker and his partner.  He says the cookies, more like European-style biscuits, are less sweet than a normal cookie. The pairing brings layers of flavors together to enhance the drinking experience.

A limited-time-offer at Perry’s Steakhouse indulged grown-up comfort cravings with a Maker’s Mark milk shake and warm chocolate-chip cookies. Photo courtesy of perry’s steakhouse. For example, the texture and the fat, savory, fruity-and-sour notes of the blue cheese, cranberry and rosemary cookie go with the carbon and acidity of Fullsteam’s pale ale. VerVaecke attributes the initial success to the vibrant “foodie culture” in the Durham area.

2011 is being called the year of French macaroons, those delicate, pastel-hued almond meringues. At farm-to-table One Midtown Kitchen in Atlanta, the menu lists macaroons on the sorbet plate. Made by Executive Chef Drew Van Leuvan, macaroons also accompany a rice pudding for texture.

“Macaroon is a selling point,” Van Leuvan says of a cookie his customers have heard of but may not have tasted. French macaroons also send the indulgence message in Pastry Chef Tariq Hanna’s Lipstick on a Pig: PB and J, which he serves at Sucré in New Orleans. It is a deconstructed peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on a strawberry macaroon with rich peanut butter and marshmallow.

Macaroons have also found a home in American coffee bars. Take Manhattan’s Macaron Café. When French-trained baker Cecile Cannone observed the American coffee culture, she saw an opportunity.

“American people drink a lot of coffee, and when you eat a macaroon, you want to drink something,” she says.

This gave birth to her idea for a specialty café that serves breakfast, lunch and macaroons. “Ninety percent of the people who come for their lunch have a macaroon.” she says. Many eat one while waiting for their lunch.

Although technically challenging to make, macaroons freeze well. This allows Van Leuvan to bake them in batches and allows companies like the Macaron Café to sell and ship them to other operators who want to add le savoir-faire to their menus.

Cookies play a stealth role on dessert menus as a vehicle for texture. Those trails of crumbs and “edible dirt” are often cookie based. Van Leuvan makes ladyfingers and cookies for decorative crumbs and as something for the ice cream to sit on. Tuiles and wafer cookies all add a textural element to dessert plates.

They also can send a theme message when flavored with exotic spices or studded with sesame seeds, as in the black-and-white-sesame tuiles at Kyotofu, a Japanese dessert bar in New York. Pastry Chef Janevha Gregg at Duo Restaurant in New York likes to add texture to her cookies by blending in Rice Krispies, marshmallows or Special K cereal.

Ice cream sandwiches also spell comfort with crunch and are appearing on more and more menus. Here, cookies contain ice cream while sending a homey, fun message. At such chef-driven restaurants as Harvest in Louisville, Ky., Pastry Chef Patty Knight pairs warm sorghum spice cookies with bacon-brittle ice cream.

While the cookies are essential, it is the bacon brittle that makes the sale, she says. This ice cream sandwich speaks to the continuing popularity of bacon and local food. Latin-themed menus may sandwich the ice cream between alfajores (shortbread sandwich cookies).

There are so many ways to work cookies into the menu, even if it’s just the words “cookie crumbs” or “cookie crunch.” Even when the cookie crumbles, it adds flavor, texture and comfort to the menu.


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