Health-conscious diners may be more likely to skip pudding these days, but desserts can be profitable and provide a lasting impression. As Emma White reports, a little flair and imagination can persuade them to indulge
Desserts provide the prime opportunity for caterers to conclude a meal in style and send customers away with a positive lasting impression. Whether those customers are interested in all-out indulgence or a pudding less likely to spoil the diet plan, caterers have a vast range of dessert options to satisfy demand and make good profits.
At the Danesfield House hotel, near Marlow, Buckinghamshire, head chef Adam Simmonds's latest desserts include pistachio soufflé with foie gras ice-cream chocolate consommé with chocolate panna cotta, malt ice-cream and pear ravioli, and liquorice parfait with rooibos jelly, longans and saffron. The cheeses come with home-made crackers, biscuits, a grape and celery sorbet and Stinking Bishop soufflé.
The hotel's Oak Room restaurant has been voted Buckinghamshire Restaurant of the Year by the Good Food Guide 2007 and holds three AA Red Rosettes. For Simmonds, good quality seasonal ingredients and an understanding of how flavours work together to complement the menu as a whole are paramount. "Our desserts are not as sweet and filling as most, because we prefer our customers not to leave feeling uncomfortably full," he says. "When putting the menu together we consider texture, taste and temperature and we try to offer repetition, for example, by having foie gras as a starter and dessert option."
The current use of autumnal ingredients and colour is intentional too. "We use ingredients when they're at their best to maximise flavour and give the best product to the customer. There's no point in putting strawberries in desserts now," he says. Simmonds finds it frustrating that some customers like familiar dessert options but he refuses to compromise. "Sometimes I introduce new desserts and wonder if they'll be picked, but I think you should push boundaries and have confidence in what you do," he says.
Ian Penn, executive chef at the Luton Hoo Hotel Golf & Spa in Bedfordshire, believes a menu should reflect the style of the restaurant and its customers.
"Luton Hoo is a five-star country hotel with a huge classical and traditional background so I include items on the menu to complement that," he says. "I look to include a balance of citrus, seasonal, refreshing, classic and comforting elements."
The dessert menu comprises Cox's apple gallette with ginger crème fraîche and butterscotch sauce chilled red fruit soup with lemon thyme and mascarpone sherbet white coffee crème brûlée with spiced jelly and orange assiette of chocolate, plus a selection of cheeses with walnut bread and home-made ice-creams and sorbets.
"Crème brûlée is now a firm fixture on lots of British menus. I've added the orange foam to the brûlée for an extra twist," says Penn. A new brasserie is due to open next month for residents using the golf and spa facilities. "I'll be offering hearty desserts like sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick for golfers to have pre- or post-round, and I'll include a healthier option, like the chilled fruit soup, for those using the spa facilities," he adds.
Traditional desserts have also proved a big hit at the Perry Hill gastropub in Catford, London. The menu comprises home-made lemon tart, sticky toffee pudding, Bailey's cheesecake, bitter chocolate fondant and apple crumble.
Head chef Andrew Bellew says: "We sell 25 to 30 portions of the apple crumble on a typical Sunday, although I'd say the sticky toffee pudding is our best seller."
While old-time favourites have never really disappeared off dessert menus, Martin Zalesny, managing director of frozen dessert producer Vittles, says they're currently making a major comeback. "Twenty years ago people ate Black Forest gâteau and peach melba and now they're eating better-quality versions of these desserts all over again. One of the products I've seen take off the most in the last 17 years is the lemon tart."
Matt Owens, executive pastry chef for bespoke dessert company Zuidam, says increased demand for traditional English desserts stretches across the board from gastropubs to fine-dining restaurants. "Lemon tart, dark chocolate ganache tart and vanilla pod panna cotta are the current biggest sellers at Zuidam," he says. "Five-star restaurants may ask us to add ingredients such as thyme or chilli, for that added twist, other places request a basic dessert."
Traditional desserts with a "contemporary twist" are the speciality of Charlotte Marriott, development chef at The Serious Food Company. "We might use a Sicilian lemon or Bourbon vanilla and layer the desserts differently. All the components of a traditional dessert are there, but they're eaten in a different way," she says.
The latest dessert menu from Brakes reflects the trend for tradition with the launch of five favourites comprising sticky toffee pudding, apple and caramel brioche bread and butter pudding, caramel and apple pudding, cherry Bakewell sponge pudding and spiced plum pudding.
McDougalls offers a range of sponge and pastry mixes which can be used to help time-stretched caterers make the most of seasonal fruits. As Mark Rigby, development chef at Premier Foods, says: "A multitude of fruits are in season during winter that are ideal for creating pies and crumbles, such as damsons, plums, blackberries, apples and cranberries."
Consumers are also showing an increasing interest in the provenance of their food when eating out, and Zalesny suggests caterers make the most of this by flagging up where ingredients are sourced on the dessert menu. "We've seen restaurants specifying where meat, fish and vegetables come from on their main-course menus and I think we'll start to see this with the dessert menu too. People are prepared to pay more for a better product with better ingredients," he says.
Bellew has also noticed a growing interest in provenance and the content of food in the past 20 years. "People want to know where their food comes from, what contains nuts, gluten, fats, salts and sugars," he says.
Swedish dessert company Almondy offers a range of frozen gluten- and preservative-free desserts, including a dark chocolate tårta and raspberry cheesecake. Managing director Andrew Ely launched Almondy in the UK last year and says: "There's a growing awareness of food intolerances and the need for gluten-free products on menus. Almondy enables coeliacs to indulge without compromising on taste or their health and caterers to accommodate without making drastic changes to their menus."
Awareness of the need to eat healthily is driving the trend for smaller portion sizes and sharing platters. Almondy offers mini platters for diners too full to enjoy a large dessert, and other occasions such as buffets or afternoon tea.
David Grainger, food development director at Atlantic Foods, says: "Dessert platters have taken the US food service market by storm." Atlantic has launched a range of 10 frozen mini desserts called Go On! Made for sharing, they include brownies with Belgian chocolate, profiteroles, traditionally made bread and butter pudding, Belgian waffles and mini fruit-filled pancakes. "They provide customers with the excuse to indulge. Companies need to be more creative in their approach to desserts and these provide an alternative selling point," says Grainger.
Zuidam's Owens has also noticed the demand for smaller portion sizes. "We've been making canapé-sized desserts for buffets so people can choose what they eat," he says. "They may end up having just as much dessert but because they've eaten two smaller portions they don't feel so bad. People are definitely more health-conscious - less is more."
Despite the potential for caterers to impress customers with a great dessert menu, independent research conducted for Schöller Ice Cream last year indicates that they continue to be an afterthought for many. Nearly half (45.5%) of the 200 UK operators questioned make less than £2 profit per dessert served, and managing director Mike Godwin reckons they're missing out. "The Christmas season offers great scope for the savvy caterer who appreciates the profit potential of a well thought-out dessert menu," he says. "Christmas is the time when many people push the boat out. They're happy to indulge themselves with a special treat and pay £5-£6 if they perceive they're getting good value for money."
Schöller offers 21 preportioned frozen desserts under the Christophe Delmotte brand, including the Tarte Tatin, Truffe Chocolat and Antillais Caramel Banane. When promoting your desserts, Godwin says: "The first thing you need to remember is that customers buy with their eyes. Present your desserts in an innovative way and offer a mix of warm, classic and fruit flavours with a good mix of colours. Use your imagination and personalise desserts with fruit sauces, wafers, chocolate and nuts in your own house style."
Godwin recommends using waiting staff as dessert ambassadors. "Some 85% of respondents to our survey said they thought a recommendation from a waiter or waitress is the most effective way to sell a dessert. Their knowledge of what's on the menu should be second to none," he says. "Keep the menu fresh too. I know how bored I can get when confronted by the same old menu. Go for an element of surprise.
"The last thing you often remember about a meal is the dessert. It's your last opportunity to make an impression and getting it wrong could be a wasted opportunity. Getting it right could mean a steady stream of regular customers."
- Almondy 01628 894837 www.almondy.com
- Atlantic Foods 01252 846500 www.atlanticfoods.co.uk
- Brakes 0845 606 9090 www.brake.co.uk
- McDougalls/Premier Foods 01727 815850
- Schöller Ice Cream 01483 205500 www.schoellericecream.co.uk
- The Serious Food Company 01753 552488 www.seriousfood.co.uk
- Vittles Desserts 0116 246 1951 www.vittlesfoods.co.uk
- Zuidam 01684 274111 www.zuidam.co.uk