America’s sweet tooth is alive and well, and club chefs are responding both with new twists on classic favorites and dishes created from special inspiration.
According to a Dessert Consumer Trend Report published in October by Technomic market research, 63% of the consumers who were surveyed said they indulged in dessert at least once a week. And while many consumers want a familiar sweet such as cookies, cakes and pies to finish their restaurant meals, a growing number are looking for something different and unique, the Technomic report showed.
“Refreshing the dessert menu can land a restaurant in that sweet spot of appealing to consumers who love to order their favorites, [and also to] a new set of diners excited about new flavors,” says Kelly Weikel, Technomic’s Director of Consumer Insights. “[Restaurants] can’t go wrong with a well-executed brownie or sundae, but they could also pile on incremental sales if they think up different ways to pitch dessert, from an afternoon pick-me-up to a flight of several small treats.”
|SUMMING IT UP
• Combine the familiar with the unexpected to pique guest interest.
• Offer small plates or mini-portions of desserts.
• Items featuring seasonal ingredients or themes will always sell.
• Gluten-free is growing.
At Cheyenne Mountain Country Club in Colorado Springs, Colo., about 30% of members and guests regularly order dessert, according to Matthew Richardson, the club’s Executive Chef. An equal amount of them order desserts at lunch as well as after dinner.
On his à la carte menu, Richardson likes to keep it classic, with seasonal cobblers and crisps and lots of housemade ice cream. But classic doesn’t mean boring. Traditional lemon pound cake took on a new personality when it was drizzled with lemon-infused olive oil and paired with reduced blueberries in balsamic vinegar and a little sugar. In the summer, a strawberry rhubarb compote with a hint of anise from tarragon accompanied a local goat cheese dessert plate.
On the fall menu, a dessert feature was an apple pecan tart topped with chai ice cream. “The warm nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon flavors of the chai are just what you want to eat in the fall,” Richardson says.
One dessert that Cheyenne Mountain’s members always expect to be on the menu is sticky toffee pudding, which was first introduced about 10 years ago. Sometimes Richardson gilds the dessert with a little bacon, “just to spice things up.”
Where Richardson gets really exotic and cutting-edge is on his special event menus. A recent example was a foie gras ice cream with hazelnut brittle and port cherries that he served for a fall “Tour de France” wine dinner. “I thought it went nicely with the Sauternes,” he reports.
Sampling plates of mini-desserts or tasting portions such as little cakes or tarts, crème brulee and panna cotta also spark interest in sweet treats at the club. Panna cotta is a particularly versatile item; Richardson has made it in a wide variety of flavors, including rose-scented for a garden club meeting and lavender-ginger and key lime versions for warm weather. Sometimes he will decorate the panna cotta with edible flowers, for an extra-elegant touch.
|Sweets With Sizzle
In a survey of nearly 1,300 chefs, the National
• House-made/artisan ice cream (66%)
For both à la carte and special-event meals, a growing number of Cheyenne Mountain’s members are asking for gluten-free and even dairy-free desserts.
“In a cobbler, for example, I’ll use coconut oil instead of butter,” Richardson explains. “For those who want to avoid gluten, I’ll substitute oat and rice flours for wheat in the cobbler, or they can order ice cream or flourless chocolate cake.”
About 17% of members and guests at The University of Washington Club in Seattle regularly order dessert. That number is highest in the winter, to cap off a hearty meal on a cold day. In summer, they are more likely to go for a lighter sweet, such as a gluten-free frosted lemon cookie. Executive Chef Jon Maley makes sure there is a balance of refreshingly light and deeply rich desserts on his menu year-round, to satisfy the cravings of his members. They can choose from three options: cookies, cheesecake and a dessert special of the week.
Because the club’s dining room is only open for lunch Monday through Friday, most of the desserts are sold for weddings and other special events. A group of about 200 members dine in on a daily basis, so Maley changes the à la carte dessert menu weekly.
Although he usually avoids “getting too weird,” Maley says he likes to “open people’s eyes” to new flavor profiles and combinations. One recent offering that was well-received was a sweet potato cannoli with beet molasses, sweetened watercress, grapefruit ice and pistachio dust. It was also decorated with lemon curd and a sweet-potato tuile.
“Members trust me to never put anything on a plate that I wouldn’t want to eat,” Maley says. “And younger members are really getting on board to see what’s coming next.”
But members also never get tired of the club’s old-fashioned house-made cookies (one is always gluten-free) and seasonal carrot cake.
Giving a new—and gluten-free—spin to a traditional fall dessert, Maley made a crustless pumpkin chocolate pie with squash puree, blackberries and candied almond marmalade. The dish sets up like a panna cotta, he explains, without including gelatin. And when his produce supplier told him about the availability of some beautiful crimson Anjou pears, he prepared a poached pear carpaccio with a pecan crumble and blackberry gel.
Maley gets his inspirations from a wide variety of sources, including friends in the industry from all over the country. His favorite desserts are collaborations of ingredients that are fresh and seasonal and techniques that are “now.”
“A classic brulée with a slice of Isomalt glass sticking out of it is simple, yet elegant,” he notes.
While overall dessert sales have “slacked off a little bit” at Knoxville, Tenn.’s Cherokee Country Club, even the most health-conscious members perk up when they see mini-desserts on the menu, reports David Pinckney, the club’s Executive Chef.
Chocolate cake came in as the third most preferred choice of desserts, in a report published in October by Technomic market research. It was selected by 59% of respondents and topped only by brownies (67%) and apple pie (65%). Among the top 500 restaurant chains, caramel, carrot and vanilla are the fastest-growing flavors of baked goods.
“Their all-time favorite dessert is our K-Town Sundae—a small scoop of ice cream rolled in pecans and topped with hot fudge and caramel sauces, whipped cream and a cherry, Pinckney says. “They like the price, too. It’s $1.50.”
Pinckney’s popular mini-banana splits are made with half of a banana, two little scoops of ice cream, and chocolate and raspberry sauces. In place of peanuts or walnuts, he garnishes the dessert with a cayenne praline.
About a quarter of the diners regularly order dessert at the club, Pinckney reports—mostly at dinner, but some at lunch as well. “A lot of that depends on the servers; the ones that promote desserts more sell the most,” he says.
This was confirmed by the Technomic survey: A tempting menu description or suggestion from an enthusiastic server can sell desserts to diners who had not even thought of ordering one, the survey found, with 58% of the respondents saying they had purchased desserts on impulse.
For the most part, Pinckney likes to do his own riffs on the classics, like pecan-crusted chocolate ganache squares with a salted bourbon-caramel sauce, or a rum-enhanced coconut sour cream cake. For fall, he featured a traditional pumpkin roll, a genoise with cream-cheese filling, and a cinnamon crème anglaise.
After tinkering with his bread pudding by using pumpkin-pie batter instead of the usual custard, Pinckney immediately sold the hybrid dessert onto three banquet menus. “The batter makes it extra-rich,” he says.
Seasonal “fruit forward” desserts such as cobblers with blackberries or apples also tend to do very well at Cherokee CC; they are a staple on the club’s Wednesday Family Night Buffet and at Sunday brunch, Pinckney says.
Pinckney makes his own ice cream (recent flavors included pumpkin and mango), but finds that he sells more sorbets. For the pumpkin roll, he made an apple cider sorbet. The sorbets also make a refreshing intermezzo for special-event dinners. To make his ice cream and sorbets, Pinckney uses an Italian ice cream maker with a built-in compressor that makes two quarts at a time.