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Desserts: Sweet-Natured – US Food Trends

04 June 2008
Desserts: Sweet-Natured – US Food Trends

Creative, seasonal fruit desserts can bridge the divide between a menu's savory and sweet sides.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

At The Montville Inn in Montville, N.J., guests are enticed to start their meal with a strawberry-rhubarb martini. The martini's punchy flavor comes from vodka, lime and the tangy juices reserved from macerated strawberries and rhubarb. Guests who order the restaurant's popular cocktail might later be tempted to order dessert, in particular a cobbler that also incorporates the strawberries and rhubarb.

Meanwhile, at A Voce in New York City, Executive Pastry Chef Joshua Gripper combines the tart flavor of rhubarb that is seasoned with bay leaf, black pepper and juniper with orange- and bourbon-spiked crespelle, white-chocolate-and-mint cream, orange gelato, orange segments, salted caramel, pine nuts and mint.

Such context matters. The most successful fruit desserts are not only seasonal, but also they provide a fitting segue between a meal's savory start and its often-sweet ending. "It doesn't make sense if you're eating at an Italian restaurant and you order dessert and it's strawberry shortcake," Gripper reasons.

A Natural Fit

When developing desserts to follow a restaurant's savory menu, guest expectations need to be considered.

Lincoln Carson, corporate pastry chef for San Francisco-based Mina Group, oversees menu development for the company's growing list of restaurant concepts, including Michael Mina in San Francisco and Bourbon Steak in Miami, Detroit, and Scottsdale, Ariz.

- "People who come to Michael Mina are looking for a chef's experience," he says. Sweet courses at Michael Mina often unite three miniature desserts under a single theme. For example, "Chocolate" includes white-chocolate-rose panna cotta, a saffron marshmallow and chocolate ice cream with lavender. Other Mina Group concepts, while still creative in dessert preparation, are more straightforward in their approaches.

At Bourbon Steak's Miami location, passion-fruit panna cotta is paired with coconut and mango sorbets in a light dessert that is at once accessible and adventurous. A final flourish of sliced avocado adds subtle richness. "It's something that you can eat and really enjoy and that you can appreciate on a higher level," Carson says.

Jonathan St. Hilaire, corporate pastry chef for Atlanta-based multiconcept operator Concentrics Restaurants, also tailors his desserts to match the style of each of the group's restaurants.

At Trois, a fine-dining restaurant that focuses on tasting menus, St. Hilaire uses vacuum-packed apricots flavored with lemon verbena and vanilla bean as a dessert component. Simple, fresh blueberry shortcake, in contrast, works well at Two Urban Licks, a bustling restaurant in which a wood-burning oven dominates the dining room. And at steakhouse concept Twelve, pineapple upside-down cake gets upscale flourishes of pineapple granité and brown-sugar ice cream.

Yet St. Hilaire also pays attention to local taste preferences, noting that some produce items, notably rhubarb, do not sell well in Atlanta. When he does use rhubarb, he masks its texture by juicing it, straining it and making a gelée.

At Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, Executive Pastry Chef Hedy Goldsmith also keeps customer tastes in mind.

"People, whether they live here or vacation here, are not interested in heavier seasonal fruit [such as pears and apples]," she says. Goldsmith relies instead on tropical fruits and local citrus varieties, serving desserts such as Key lime cheesecake flan with local Key limes and highlighting local produce at its peak.

Fresh, Simple, Classic

Suzanne Imaz, pastry chef of Chicago-based Cornerstone Restaurant Group, will showcase local cherries in a vibrant soup at one sixtyblue, also in Chicago, this summer.

"I tried using them raw, but they benefit from light poaching," she says. She poaches the cherries briefly (about 5 minutes) in a mixture of raspberry purée, orange juice, orange zest, star anise and vanilla bean, and then cools the cherries in the liquid.

Once strained, the poaching liquid is thickened with cornstarch and then chilled to form the base of the soup. To serve, the poached cherries are combined with a few pitted cherry halves and lemon verbena ice cream, with the chilled soup poured tableside.
Yet Imaz doesn't downplay the importance of fruit dessert classics. "[These desserts] are very seasonal; they have contrast in flavor with the sweet and the sour, and they have contrast in textures, where you're getting the soft fruit and the crispy toppings," she says.

Memories of summertime fruit desserts inspired John Livera, executive chef of The Montville Inn, to serve warm strawberry-rhubarb cobblers and experiment with fried pies. For the fried pies, which he shapes like empanadas, he takes the same strawberry and rhubarb filling and encloses it in a butter-based short dough. Overnight maceration of the fruit ensures that plenty of juice is available for the restaurant's popular martinis.

Simple fruit desserts also perform well for Golden, Colo.-based Boston Market. The chain is reintroducing a limited-time-offer tart cherry cobbler baked with an oat-and-brown-sugar topping. The cobbler, on the menu through June, comes in individual servings or in large aluminum containers for family-style sharing.

In Miami, Goldsmith is experimenting with a shareable peach crostata to be complemented with sides of crème fraÁ®che and blackberry jam. More important for Goldsmith, though, is not cluttering dessert with too many components.

"We don't have to put 50 things on a plate anymore," Goldsmith says. "We haven't stripped away everything that is fabulous. We put all the passion into what is on the plate."

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler Yield: 16 servings
Executive Chef John Livera, The Montville Inn, Montville, N.J.

4 pints Strawberries, hulled, small-diceÂ
10 stalks Rhubarb, small-dice
2½ cups Granulated sugar
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. Vanilla extract, divided
¼ cup Lemon juice
2Vanilla beans, halved
1 Tbsp. Cornstarch
- Kosher salt as needed
1½ oz. Unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tbsp. Brown sugar
1 cup All-purpose flour
2 tsp.Baking powder
2/3 cup Buttermilk
- Whipped cream to garnish

  • In a large bowl, mix together strawberries, rhubarb, granulated sugar, ½ cup vanilla extract, lemon juice, vanilla beans and 2 pinches salt. Refrigerate, stirring occasionally, for 12 hours.
  • Using a slotted spoon, scoop mixture into 16 8-oz. oven-proof serving dishes. Bake at 350F for about 25 minutes or until fruit is tender.
  • In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and brown sugar. Gradually add flour, baking powder, remaining 2 Tbsp. vanilla and 1 pinch salt. Drizzle in buttermilk until just combined. Cover with plastic wrap; chill 2 hours.
  • Place dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. Using a rolling pin, roll dough to ¼-in. thick. Remove top layer of plastic wrap; cut dough in 2-in. rounds. Bake rounds at 350F for 8 to 12 minutes or until light golden brown.
  • For each order, place 1 round on top of the baked fruit. Heat until warmed through. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.

Amid Dessert, a Side of Veggies

In some climates, seasonal fruit arrives late in the season, leading chefs in search of local product to explore their other produce options, including herbs and vegetables.

In Chicago, John Peters, executive chef of Powerhouse Restaurant and Bar, cooks carrots in carrot juice and then purées them to accompany a carrot cake garnished with macerated raisins, walnuts and a free-form scoop of cream-cheese panna cotta.

A celery salad is the unlikely accompaniment to Pastry Chef Josue Ramos' top-selling Chocolate-Peanut-Butter Marquise at Commerce in New York City. "I don't usually consider vegetables with dessert," Ramos admits, though he finds them useful for adding an unexpected flavor or texture.

At one sixtyblue in Chicago, Pastry Chef Suzanne Imaz candies lotus root in orange-juice syrup and beet powder (pictured), and at New York City's Aquavit, Executive Chef Johan Svensson incorporates candied beets into chocolate cake.

Yet vegetables should be used sparingly. "There are a handful of restaurants that are going to get away with it, and they have to be destination, food-driven restaurants where people expect it," says Lincoln Carson, corporate pastry chef for San Francisco-based Mina Group.

Fresh Techniques

Here are three tools that pastry chefs are employing to keep their fruit desserts fashion-forward:

  • Agar-agar: a vegetarian gelling agent made from seaweed. To make fruit pearls, Pastry Chef Suzanne Imaz of one sixtyblue adds agar-agar to fruit juice and then, using an eyedropper, drips the juice into cold oil to set.
  • - Agave syrup: a natural sweetener made from processing the juice of an agave plant. Executive Pastry Chef Hedy Goldsmith of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink uses it in any recipe that calls for corn syrup.
  • Vacuum-packing: sealing cut fruit in airtight plastic bags. Pastry chef Jonathan St. Hilaire from Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants uses it both to compress fruit and to cook fruit slowly in its own juices.
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