Seasonal Sugar Rush

30 June 2006
Seasonal Sugar Rush

Tradition reigns supreme with fruit desserts, but so does a dash of the unconventional.

This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 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. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

Fresh, in-season strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums and cherries are as far removed from winter as Fort Lauderdale. As the weather warms, their staggered arrival to market resonates with pastry chefs.

"In summertime it's a fruit explosion. It's almost an embarrassment of riches," says Karen Barker, pastry chef and co-owner of Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C. Of course, fruit desserts are not limited to warmer months. But spring and summer are when they stand the best chance to trump chocolate, the top-selling sweet indulgence.

Home Baking With a Twist

When it comes to sweet finales, many pastry chefs understand that diners crave comfort. Simple fruit desserts hit on familiarity and highlight the fruit. Barker advocates a "warm fruit something with ice cream" option as a sure-fire seller. With fruit desserts, she uses individual berry or stone-fruit cobblers and crisps baked that day that are heated to order and finished with a scoop of house-made ice cream.

Baked berry cobblers work well for serving a crowd, says Glenna Artripe, executive pastry chef for Hilton Americas-Houston, that city's largest convention hotel. When preparing for galas with 50 to 3,000 guests, she stays away from fruits that need to be peeled and instead serves large berry cobblers in chafing dishes with cinnamon-flecked whipped cream on the side.

Familiarity also is a base from which to innovate. Melissa Walnock, pastry chef at Grace in Los Angeles, turns the flavor profile of a strawberry cheesecake into a cream-cheese sponge cake layered with lemon-verbena panna cotta, strawberry marmalade, strawberry ice cream and phyllo. While more intricate in technique, the taste evokes its original inspiration. "I like taking flavors you might find in a strawberry cheesecake and changing them into something more refined, but it still might taste like a strawberry cheesecake," explains Walnock.

Classic fruit flavor profiles, however, don't become desserts by default. What is prepared with fruit often is determined by taste and quality of the product. While many pastry chefs prefer to prepare fruit with as few alterations as possible, some fruits benefit from baking, poaching, or sautéing.

Taming the Sweet Tooth

Pastry chefs have upped the ante with unconventional touches. It's no secret that many Italian cooks love a touch of balsamic vinegar with strawberries, and the pairing works for good reason. Ingredients that seemingly are odd fits for pastry kitchens can help balance a dessert that might otherwise be too sweet. Vinegar, alcohol and lemon juice draw out fruit flavor while keeping sugar levels in check.

There's also wiggle room with salt. Walnock uses fleur de sel as one of the key components of her pineapple tempura that accompanies a caramelized-honey milkshake. Even pepper is being added to give the fruit a kick. Artripe purées blackberries with black pepper, then strains the mixture for use as a sauce with lemon pound cake.

Like savory seasonings, herbs have a place on the sweet side. Mint long has been the dessert garnish of choice, but pastry chefs have been keen to experiment with other herbs such as lemon verbena, lavender and tarragon.

"Herbs are a wonderful source of variation and flavor," says Erika Masuda, pastry chef at Chicago's Coco Pazzo. She incorporates sage, basil or mint into gelato and sorbets. For basil gelato, she blanches and purées basil leaves with a few spinach leaves added for color and strains the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined chinois. The result is a vibrant shade of green that acts as the flavor base.

Seasonal Strategies

Good things come to those who wait, but waiting for seasonal fruit challenges the most creative chefs. Some seasons have trouble starting at all, coming late and delivering underwhelming harvests. Others taper off, their final offerings less than delightful.

Especially difficult in colder climates is the gap between winter and summer when farmers markets still are in hibernation but customers demand fresh tastes. But with bountiful harvests comes the time to plan ahead. When the price drops, Barker orders more cherries than she needs, then pits and freezes them for future use. Berries of all kinds also can be quickly frozen for future uses in purées, sauces and sorbets.

Keeping fresh fruit has its challenges. Barker recommends buying fruit frequently and to stagger purchases to ensure products are at optimal ripeness. When fruit needs more ripening time, she stores it in the restaurant's wine cellar rather than its walk-in to preserve texture. She'll also avoid baking too much at once, preferring to run out of a dessert than to carry over excess product to the next day.

Michael Giletto develops relationships with local farmers to help supply his Compass Group kitchen at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia with high-quality fruits. Wild local strawberries often lead to strawberry panna cotta, a preparation that's well-suited to their delicacy. Relationships with local growers are important to Giletto. "I've gone out of my way to do it because people at the bank have loyalties to certain farmers," he says.

Sourcing became the inspiration for Sodexho's Seasonally Sweet dessert program. David Martin, director of culinary services and executive chef for Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho USA's healthcare division, was looking for ways to lighten desserts. He realized that using in-season fruit would lead to better products at better prices and now strives to highlight seasonal and, when possible, local fruits each month. "I was bothered when people served oranges, bananas and apples all year round," Martin says.

Health implications are an additional benefit of a fruit-forward focus. Half of the 140 fruit dessert recipes fit requirements of Sodexho's wellness program. Strawberry shortcake always is a top performer, but Martin also is a fan of mousse and pairs a cream puff and vanilla mousse with peaches, and angel food cake with lemon-blueberry mousse.

Mousse not only adds richness to lighter desserts, but also helps Martin get around using ice cream and sorbets, which are difficult to serve in healthcare facilities. Though not all fruit desserts are meant to fit healthy criteria. "We still feature a cheesecake of the month with fresh fruit. It's about as full-fat as it gets, but it's the customer's choice," he says.

Life's Short, So…

Pastry chefs everywhere seek ways to expand their involvement in guests' dining experiences. Some offer dessert tasting menus to follow Á la carte main courses while others abandon the savory side entirely with dessert-only bars.

Sweet or savory, the goal for many is to fully integrate dessert into a meal. "It's incredibly exciting to control the guest's experience," says Pastry Chef Koa Duncan of Los Angeles' Water Grill. "You're guiding them and building towards the end."

On the all-dessert scene since 2003, ChikaLicious Dessert Bar (above) in New York City makes dessert the focus rather than a finale. Will Goldfarb, chef-owner of Room 4 Dessert, a new dessert bar in New York City, wanted to offer the kind of dessert tasting diners expect at a four-star restaurant in a more comfortable setting.

While challenges abound in selling diners on eating "just" dessert, Goldfarb is excited about the possibilities of this niche. "People come here to eat innovative desserts. We're selling our ability to provide something distinctive for them," he says.

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