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Hitting the Sweet Spot

Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake at No. 246

The Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake at No. 246. Photo by Chrysta Poulos

Take a look at some of the pastry and dessert trends to keep an eye out for on restaurant menus across Georgia.

By Candice Dyer

Look on any menu in Georgia and you’ll probably notice there’s been a renaissance with desserts.
While chocolate will forever remain tried and true, the segment is going in some different directions. Pastry chefs are stretching past conventions and exploring fresh possibilities with a new sense of bravado, experimenting with new items like ruby chocolate and incorporating vegetables into traditionally sweet dishes.

Yes there’s the extreme dessert trend – think the freakshakes, charcoal ice cream and multi-colored unicorn desserts – fudge, frappe, ice cream, you name it. But there’s also more refined, restrained statements being made out there, too.

“An ideal dessert should hit all of the flavor profiles – acidity and bitterness along with sweet,” says Claudia Martinez, pastry chef for Tiny Lou’s, an American-French brasserie that opened this summer above the Clermont Lounge (a seedy landmark legendary for its unconventional strippers) as part of the complete refurbishment of the 94-room Clermont Hotel.

dessert chocolate shoe

Tiny Lou’s Chocolate Shoe. Photo by Sarah Newman/ snewmanphoto.com.

The restaurant’s showstopper dessert is inspired by the dancers’ flashy footwear. It’s a six-inch stiletto pump made of chocolate, coruscated with real gold and glitter, and spilling over with luscious exotic fruit and ice cream. Known as the chocolate shoe, it goes for $50 a plate.

“It’s representative of what I want to do in the future, in terms of creating something dramatic with a higher markup,” says Tiny Lou’s pastry chef, Claudia Martinez. “People want something weird and interactive. They want a flambé or a sauce that changes color when it’s poured on something. They want to see what happens when you pour liquor over cotton candy.”

That approach is in line with what many pastry chefs are saying. Thanks to the constant exposure to cooking shows and splashy desserts on Instagram, diners have become more playful, savvy and adventurous, Martinez says. When it comes to the final plate of the evening, they’re now looking for a mix of novelty, comfort, nostalgia and creativity. And Georgia’s pastry chefs are delivering on those expectations.

Here’s a look at some of the trends in baking and desserts and what some of the state’s top pastry chefs are doing to keep guests coming back for more.

Claudia Martinez, pastry chef at Tiny Lou’s in Atlanta. Photo by Heidi Geldhauser.

Showstoppers. Instagram-worthy desserts are de rigueur if you want word to spread about your restaurant. Increasingly, more pastry chefs are designing with one eye on how the final product will look online. This isn’t vanity – create a buzz-worthy dessert that gets comments and views, and you’ll get more people through a restaurant’s doors to enjoy the rest of their dinner there, too.

“Social media has really changed the food landscape,” Martinez says. “Millennials, especially, want to post pics and even videos of their desserts, so we have to be extra-conscious of how they look, how they’re plated, how they’re described on the menu.”

Think of it like a circus act – the more over the top, the better. There’s the overloaded cakes trend, where simple cakes are topped with whole candy bars, truffles, cookies – anything piled high to make a statement. These types of desserts are intended to be shared, both online and by the whole group at the table.

At Tiny Lou’s, the chocolate shoe can be customized depending on the season – guava and citrus for summer, apples and cinnamon for fall – which entices guests to order it again and again to see what
surprises will be added to the dish.

Dessert Blondie

Tiny Lou’s Ode to Blondie, a brown butter blondie with curried bananas flambé, buttermilk ice cream and a hazelnut crémeux. Photo by Sarah Newman/ snewmanphoto.com.

A sense of fun and whimsy is coming back to desserts as well. Another one of Martinez’s creations for Tiny Lou’s pays homage to the Clermont Lounge’s most celebrated exotic dancer, Blondie Strange. It’s a Brown Butter Blondie with curried bananas flambé and buttermilk ice cream.
Carrie Hudson, pastry chef at Atlanta’s West Egg Cafe, has a current fave: sprinkles. “I call it fufetti,” she says. “We’re all on the unicorn boat these days, it seems. They’re on cupcakes, sugar cookies, and specialty coffees, and we do a cheesecake with them inside of it. People get excited about little pops of color.”

Textural Play. “Textures are a big thing,” Tiny Lou’s Martinez says. She experiments with mouth feel – the foams, gels, and powders that are sweeping Europe. Other options include topping desserts with textures – think battered and fried, dehydrated, puffed or popped. “I add what I call fuzzies to dessert to give diners a Pop Rocks feeling,” she says. “I believe in using those elements sparingly, though, and not making them the main event.”

Novel Ingredients. The unique ingredient of the moment is Ruby Chocolate, a pink, sweet-and-sour product introduced last year by Barry Callebaut, a Belgian-Swiss cocoa company. “It’s hot in Europe, and it’s making its way through New York, California and Chicago, so I expect it to arrive in Atlanta very soon,” says Martinez. “It’s the biggest revolution in chocolate since white chocolate.”

Made from the Ruby cocoa bean, the naturally reddish chocolate lends a berry-fruitiness flavor to a dish and is extremely smooth. That’s thanks to a unique processing formula that took 13 years to perfect, in which no berry flavor or color is added. The chocolate is not widely available in the U.S. yet but has taken the rest of the world by storm; look for it to become more prevalent in 2019.

Chrysta Poulos, creative director of pastry for Ford Fry’s restaurants. Photo by Emily Schultz.

Nostalgia. No matter how crazy desserts get, nostalgia and tried-and-true recipes continue to hold their own on the menu. Old standbys are rooted in familiarity, but are today being reinvented to suit the restaurant’s personality. Chrysta Poulos’ desserts fall squarely into this category.

“We don’t follow dessert trends at any of our restaurants,” says Poulos, who serves as creative director of pastry for Ford Fry’s sprawling empire of seven restaurants: The Optimist, JCT Kitchen, No.246, King+Duke, St.Cecilia, Marcel’s, and State of Grace. “We very much adhere to tried-and-true classics.”

She says a traditional pudding cake is her calling card.“At King + Duke, we’ve been serving the Sticky To ee Pudding for 10 years,” Poulos says, “and it remains a favorite.”

The Optimist serves a lemony Atlantic Beach Pie with a saltine crust that echoes the oyster bar; No. 246 sells a Macchiato Crème Caramel; and Marcel offers a disarmingly simple Hot Fudge Sundae.

“I think nostalgia plays a big role in desserts,” Poulos says. “You want something that tastes like what your grandma made, something that will bring out the kid in you.”

Martinez agrees, saying for that reason, she believes caramel “will always be a thing – it’s so homey.”

At West Egg Cafe, Hudson plays around with childhood favorites. “We do pop tarts with the full, heavy consistency in the filling,” she says. “Probably my favorite, though, actually uses one of my grandmother’s richer recipes: the Kentucky Butter Cake. I call it the ‘fried chicken of pound cakes’ because it leaves a butter ring on a napkin.”

Dessert Plate

Some of the sweets served at West Egg Cafe in Atlanta. Photo by Janet Howard Studio.

Hudson likes to explore “straightforward Southern” fare inspired by her family’s kitchen table in Midway, Georgia, which, every day, come what may, always held fresh-baked cornbread and a cake.

“I love to browse the farmers markets for Mercer apples and fresh peaches for pies,” she says. Hudson also makes seasonal jams and uses ground, dehydrated fruit to create a paste that adds color and flavor to baked items without increasing their moisture.

Savory Bites. Another movement to watch for: savory desserts. “These will incorporate things like celery, mushrooms and foie gras,” Martinez says. “I’m already doing macaroons with pimiento cheese or herbed cream cheese in a black pepper shell.”

Incorporating hits of savory balances out the sometimes overly sweet notes you can get from many dessert menus.

“It’s ironic that I’m in the position I’m in because I was never a dessert person,” says Martinez, whose roots are Venezuelan. “My mother didn’t let me eat candy when I was growing up, and American desserts just tasted too heavy and too sweet for me.”

At No. 246, Poulos offers a Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake with charred lemon curd. And West Egg’s Hudson won national recognition this year in a General Mills competition for her Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese turnover.

Ice Cream. The Thai rolled ice cream trend continues to gain steam, and the aforementioned charcoal and unicorn flavors have been a hit on social media. But look for more soft-serve ice cream to start popping up, both as stand-alone locations and on restaurant menus, in the near future. Its signature ridged swirl harkens back to the nostalgia trend, and it’s approachable, too. Behind the counter, it’s fairly simple to manage, aside from finding room to install a soft – serve machine. Once the ingredients are added, the dessert is ready to go for the remainder of the night.

West Egg Cafe pastry chef Carrie Hudson. Photo Courtesy of General Mills.

Vegging it Up. Innovations with plant-based and vegan products have headed to the dessert menu as well. And vegetables are increasingly being incorporated into desserts, even if they’re not necessarily name checked on the menu.

Yes there’s carrot cake, but there’s other naturally sweet vegetables you can play around with, including corn. And don’t exclude savory vegetables – avocado, squash, zucchini and even parsnips are all popping up on dessert menus across the country.

Diners may not be as open to eating their veggies in desserts though, unless they try them first.

“People are intimidated by beets, for some reason,” Hudson says. “When I listed beets in the description on the menu, it didn’t sell, but when I removed the word ‘beets’ it went fast.”

Healthy Desserts. The macro-trend that everyone seems to agree on is health consciousness. Gluten-free, vegan, and non-dairy desserts are increasingly in demand.

“People ask for them,” Hudson says. “So we do gluten-free granola bars, nut-based cakes, hazelnut tortes, gluten-free brownies, flourless cakes. People want a healthier option, especially in bathing-suit weather.”

Hudson is especially proud of her gluten-free dark chocolate cupcake. She uses avocados in the frosting and beets instead of eggs. “I mix soy milk with vinegar and let it curdle like buttermilk,” she says.

dessert pound cake

Tiny Lou’s vanilla pound cake with lemon curd. Photo by Sarah Newman/ snewmanphoto.com.

An Eye on the Environment. Just like the rest of the kitchen, pastry chefs are increasingly trying to keep a lid on food waste, creating housemade vinegars from fruit and vegetable scraps and incorporating “leftovers” from the main menu into a dessert.

Reducing costs is also a concern. To minimize costs, Martinez cross-utilizes ingredients between the cart and the main menu. “If there’s leftover fruit, it can go in a muffin or something.”

Ford Fry keeps his inventory in a large commissary for distribution. “We input all of the recipes there, and there’s this massive org chart,” says Poulos. “We share ingredients among all of the restaurants, especially caramel and fudge sauce, which cuts down on waste. So even if the cost of eggs and dairy fluctuate, it doesn’t affect our bottom line.”

No matter what your dessert menu looks like, don’t feel like you have to follow these trends just because everyone else is. If you want to freshen up your sweet list, consider incorporating one or two of these trends into a dish or two.

But the most important thing is to make sure your dessert menu stays true to your restaurant concept. Do that, and you’ll be sure to hit the sweet spot with your guests every time.


On the Menu

It’s great to keep an eye on the trends, but how many dessert items should a menu include?

Carrie Hudson, pastry chef at West Egg Cafe in Atlanta, usually maintains a dessert menu of 14 items, including four cookies, four cupcakes and cakes and pies – one chocolate-based pie, one fruit pie and a random one, such as a Root Beer Float Pie or an Oatmeal Cream Pie.

Tiny Lou’s dessert menu presents six dishes, along with a mobile, rotating cart with smaller, less expensive items that are not plated. “In an ideal world, if I were running a Michelin restaurant, I would only offer three desserts,” says its pastry chef, Claudia Martinez.

A good dessert menu should never reveal too much, she adds. “I do a Royale that is 74 percent chocolate with cardamom, but I only list the main ingredients so it’s more of a surprise. Some people are initially put off by the spice if it’s listed on the menu.”

Martinez enjoys introducing diners to unanticipated tastes and ultimately winning them over to something they might not normally order. Her current favorite is the Fair Lady Tarte, a crème fraiche cheesecake topped with passionfruit, guava, mango, coconut and lavender ice cream and garnished with a grapefruit tuile for added crunch and astringency. “People aren’t expecting that combination.”

Poulos says the perfect dessert menu offers only four items. “We’ve tried five in the past, but usually one of those will lag in sales,” she says, “so I’d rather have four truly kick-ass desserts.”

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