Counting such delights as flan, crème brûlée, tapioca and bread pudding as kin, custard-based desserts are easy, enchanting and on-trend.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2007 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 here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
"Sometimes customers look for something a little lighter after a rich meal, and other choices can be too overwhelming," says Executive Chef Evan Treadwell of Lido Restaurant in Pismo Beach, Calif. "Custards are a little friendlier and easier to eat."
Treadwell and Pastry Chef Benji Puga play off perpetual top-seller crème brÁ»lée-baked custard crowned with a crackled layer of caramelized sugar-in a Custard Trio sampler plate meant to coax guests to try something different. The recipes are playfully divergent in preparation, but the results vary nicely.
Mint-chocolate pot de crème is perhaps the most traditional model in the lineup, using milk, egg yolks and sugar along with bracing flavors of chocolate and mint. Ginger-lavender crème brÁ»lée swaps the milk for extra-heavy cream, cutting through the richness with clean, sharp aromatic flavorings. The final component, blood-orange panna cotta, uses gelatin, not eggs, as a binder, technically putting it outside the strictest definition of custard. Nevertheless, the results are close enough that few argue about the distinction.
In another creative custard application, the Pismo Beach chefs recently returned blueberry-ricotta bread pudding to the menu. Long proven as a crowd pleaser, chefs and guests alike welcomed it back to the lineup.
Unexpected custard combinations help stir excitement at other operations as well. Frederick Clabaugh, executive chef for Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North Cos. at Yosemite National Park's Tenaya Lodge, currently offers lavender-honey crème brÁ»lée as an appealing alternate for those who don't adore chocolate. His dark-chocolate pots de crème boast an even more exotic ingredient: canned chipotle chiles. "You taste the smoke up front, then it finishes with a little spice," Clabaugh says.
Stirring Up Sales
Flavorings are a big driver of dessert sales, says Executive Pastry Chef Alejandro Luna at The Langham Hotel in Boston.
"Fresh berries like blackberries and blueberries are very popular here in New England, because you can find them fresh. The same goes for apples, pumpkins, and all the ingredients that are very local. Toward the West Coast and in Miami, it's more about tropical tastes like mango and coconut," says the chef, who came to Boston last year from the Wynn Las Vegas resort.
Among Luna's recent custard incarnations is a version of chocolate-orange crème caramel that substitutes chocolate for sugar, leading to a less-sweet finish. For another unusual recipe, he dabbles in molecular gastronomy, using natural gums instead of eggs to mold crème brÁ»lée made with milk, chocolate and tonka beans (a sweetly fragrant seed).
For the contemporary American menu at HB Home Bistro in Chicago, Chef-owner Joncarl Lachman favors simple over extravagant desserts, choosing traditional flan over creative adaptations. The formula he uses has a light texture, its sweetness softened by using milk instead of the often-used condensed milk and whole eggs rather than egg yolks. Brown and white sugars, vanilla and lemon zest round out the mixture that is poured into caramel-coated ramekins and baked in a water bath. "Making flan is easier than any of our other desserts," Lachman says. "We run a skeleton kitchen, so it helps on busy weekend nights."
Bread pudding is enjoying widespread menu renaissance, evident in examples from HB Home Bistro's Bananas Foster Bread Pudding to Warm Cinnamon-Toast Bread Pudding at Rathbun's in Atlanta. Brett Freifeld, director of food and beverage for Columbus, Ohio-based Damon's Grill, says it also is a good fit in chain kitchens, where staff may not have the skills to prepare fussier custard-based recipes such as crème brÁ»lée and panna cotta.
The casual-dining chain's Chocolate Bread Pudding incorporates layers of melted chocolate into the standard recipe of bread soaked in milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla. Large pans are baked a day ahead, cooled and cut in squares. Each serving is heated then topped with ice cream, chocolate syrup and confectioners sugar to order.
"Chocolate is the No. 1 flavor, and we were looking for what would be most appealing," Freifeld says.
At coffee shop/dessert lounge Buzz in Alexandria, Va., Pastry Chef Lisa Scruggs has tried-and-true techniques to prepare custard-themed desserts, including Gala Apple Bread Pudding, Milk Chocolate Crème BrÁ»lée and Chai Crème Caramel.
Whole spices are her preference for infusing deep flavor; in her crème caramel, fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and cardamom are added to scalded whole milk and sugar. "It's easier to control the flavor, and I don't want to see flecks of spices," Scruggs says.
Miniature desserts are the hottest food trend for 2007, says a recent National Restaurant Association survey of American Culinary Federation members. Do operators agree with that assessment?
- Listed under the "Just A Bite" header at Palace Kitchen in Seattle are milk chocolate toffee-peanut bars, maple éclairs and blood-orange "slushies" with jasmine ice.
- At soup, salad and sandwich chain Crispers in Lakeland, Fla., "individually sized" desserts include red velvet cake and pumpkin cognac cheesecake.
- Wild Sage American Bistro in Spokane, Wash., offers bite-size choices such as the house-made truffle sampler, cream puffs and mini pies.
- At Nuevo Latino restaurant Chispa in Coral Gables and Doral, Fla., Corporate Chef Adam Votaw says most diners in the health-conscious locale prefer to share rather than ordering their own desserts, leading him to believe that scaled-down servings wouldn't make the cut.
- Columbus, Ohio-based Damon's Grill is exploring options such as mini cupcakes, but Director of Food and Beverage Brett Freifeld says an overall shift to petite desserts is not in the cards. "I still think if people are going to have dessert, they want dessert," he says.
- Since bluestem restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., offers only tasting menus, desserts are downscaled-but not bite-size-for diners ordering multiple courses. In general, most Midwestern diners prefer to see hearty portions, says Co-owner and Pastry Chef Megan Garrelts.