The Holiday Mode

Diet fads may come and go, but desserts remain the simple indulgence customers of all ages manage to justify. This is especially true come holiday time, when opportunities to dress up desserts abound.

What customers want for dessert on any given day may range from the sinfully decadent—perhaps a Mexican chocolate pumpkin bar—to the relatively healthful fruit tart or parfait. For the fast-approaching holiday season, many locations will opt for tweaking the tried-and-true concepts, effecting slight changes to color, texture, size and plate garnishing.

Whether there are bakers and pastry chefs on staff, or you typically rely on prepared mixes, canned fillings and ready-made toppings, menuing traditional fare as a dessert buffet and/or packaging such items for take-home use inevitably improves the bottom line—while putting your customers just that much more in the holiday mode.

For the past several years, Sodexho corporate dining accounts have been able to access recipes and point-of-sale marketing tips included in the contractor’s holiday-focused Sweet Talk program, which is geared primarily to generating take-home sales. According to Bill Mitchell, director of national program development for the division, fall is dessert season—and the Sweet Talk program, developed with manufacturer partners General Mills and Kraft, is thriving.

Sweets to go: “Overall, we find our customers like fairly traditional desserts including pies and tea breads,” Mitchell points out. “We work with our partners to develop recipes for cranberry, walnut and ginger breads, holiday cheese cakes, as well as pies, and market a whole menu of desserts that can be gift-packaged to-go for our customers’ entertaining or gift-giving. Pies are packaged in a nice box, tied with a ribbon—we even have gift tags—and cookies are packed in cellophane bags, also tied with a ribbon, while special labeling adds another level of appeal.”

Sweet Talk items are also typically available as impulse purchases or plated, dressed up with sauces and other attractive finishing touches. Additional holiday items, while not specifically part of the Sweet Talk program, can also be packaged to-go upon request.

Mitchell and his staff, having thoroughly researched Halloween, have concluded, to no one’s surprise, “it’s not just for kids.” In fact, that’s the tag line for the contractor’s new series of Hauntingly Delicious desserts. “We have some items that hark back to childhood, such as Rice Krispies treats decorated with candy corn and chocolate chips,” he says. “There are also caramel corn and nut clusters and caramel dipped apples, as well as more sophisticated treats including caramel apple and yogurt parfait—chunks of caramelized apples layered with yogurt and granola. Actually, it’s a pretty healthy dessert.”

For an additional touch of whimsy, there’s a Spoo Cookie, a chocolate-dipped chocolate cookie decorated with unique ghost sprinkles. The sprinkles were specially developed for Sodexho by one of its product partners.

A Mexican chocolate pumpkin bar  can be marketed from Halloween through Thanksgiving, but Mitchell confides he could enjoy them any time of the year. “It’s a shortbread base with a pumpkin custard center and a Mexican-style chocolate crumble topping,” he explains. “We’ll offer some pre-plated or packaged for take-home in clear cellophane bags—a half-dozen or a dozen—with special Halloween treat labels.”

Chocolate treats: Naturally, chocolate is always popular and Sodexho’s holiday offerings include easy-to-prepare chocolate truffles—just the right combo of chocolate, cream and a bit of butter as the recipe basics. These ingredients are mixed until they reach the easy-to-work-with stage, shaped, then supplemented with various flavors and coatings from cocoa tops to nuts and candied fruits.

Mitchell reports dessert and sweet snack sales currently account for about 10% of sales (excluding breakfast), while demand hasn’t wavered much in recent years. “However, we have changed portion sizes,” he says.

“For instance, we’re menuing cookie bites packaged in multiples, and portions have been reduced on other desserts. Now, we’re working on doing a series of desserts served in shot glasses so customers can enjoy wonderful flavors without feeling they’re overdoing it. This tasting size is a trend in fine dining—not just in desserts but in other parts of the menu.”

He plans to offer mousses, mini tiramisus or even fruit desserts such as lemon curd. For now, the biggest challenge for Mitchell and his staff is finding the right size, crystal-clear plastic container with a lid for portability. “Overall, dessert is still a very important menu category for us,” he asserts. “Holiday desserts—and desserts in general—bring fun to the menu and are another way to add to our check averages.”

Many Restaurant Marketing Associates’ clients don’t want holiday-specific desserts, according to vice president Al Byrnes, and their customers aren’t “big cake and pie people either.” Still, the contractor’s Theater Square Grill location within the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark menus several unique items for the holidays. Notes executive chef Amra Tomlinson, who serves 100 to 180 guests each day: “We make these items for seasonal ambiance.”

Mini pumpkins: For Thanksgiving, Tomlinson rounds up a supply of mini pumpkins from which he creates two of his specialty desserts—Jack-Be-Little Pumpkins filled with either nutmeg crème brulée or pumpkin pie. To prepare, he cuts off the pumpkin tops on an angle and scoops out the seeds. “For crème brulée, we steam off the pumpkins in a steamer, fill with nutmeg-flavored custard, bake off in the oven, then cool them in the refrigerator,” he says. “For garnish, you place a hazelnut on the tip of a skewer, dip it into caramel, then lay it on wax paper to cool while you torch the crème brulée to give it a crust.”

To prepare the pumpkin pie version, Tomlinson roasts the whole mini pumpkin, also with top and seeds removed. After letting it cool, he then fills it with scratch-made pumpkin pie filling and bakes it for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center comes clean.

“We cover the top of the pie filling with a mixture of vanilla, cinnamon and whipped cream, then rest the top of the pumpkin atop the whipped cream,” Tomlinson says. “There will be about an eighth of an inch of pumpkin flesh inside the pumpkin that can also be eaten and it’s delicious since the flavors of the pie filling seep into the pumpkin flesh.”

With an on-staff baker, homemade desserts are a matter of course and thoroughly enjoyed by the approximately 350 athletes who dine in the cafeteria on the campus of the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Col. Executive chef Jacque Hamilton, CEC, finds these athletes (200 in residence plus about 150 regularly on-site for competitions) eat at least four or five times a day, so food is continuously available on an all-you-can-eat basis. Chocolate soufflés and fruit cobblers are so in-demand that she includes them on the menu every week.

International appeal: “For holidays, we’ll set up a huge display, our Dessert Extravaganza, which often showcases a chocolate fountain for dipping fresh fruit, cookies, etc.,” Hamilton reports. “For Halloween, our baker makes cakes shaped like skulls—the skull is a chocolate cake baked in a big stainless steel bowl with eyes scooped out with a melon baller. She also bakes cookies that look like fingers.”

Since visiting athletes arrive on campus from all over the world and often don’t speak English, at first they don’t know what to eat. “But by the end of the week, they’re eating cheeseburgers and fries and they all love ice cream,” she finds. “We always have hand-dipped ice cream as well as yogurt and soft serve. Once a week we put out hot fudge and as soon as they (the foreign athletes) figure out what it is, they’re right there.”

For the holidays, Hamilton will be sure to include a recent addition to the menu—Mile-high Mud Pie—that has already earned raves among the athletes. Basically, this chocolate silk pie incorporates brownies on the bottom plus whipped heavy cream with melted chocolate. Chocolate drizzled on top plus shaved chocolate completes the confection fit for any occasion.

Construction zone: Need 5,000 cookies or a three-foot tall croquembouche tower of cream puffs? Perhaps a yule log that looks like the real thing, or more than 500 individual servings of chocolate mousse? No problem if you’re at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago where pastry chef Timothy Dvorak and the other two members of the bake staff can seemingly handle any and all requests. In fact, the pastry department produces baked goods for patients, the cafeteria, several coffee kiosks, catering (both outside and inside) as well as for the doctor’s dining room.

Showcasing their creations at the Holiday Fair in the cafeteria is an annual event, as are the bake sales for Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four years ago, a new holiday tradition was born at Rush when gingerbread house construction classes for staff members and their families were first offered.

Attendance has steadily grown from 10 participating families the first time to 45 last year. “We put together four walls and a roof,” Dvorak explains. “We give them icing, a bag of candies and some instruction, then they’re on their own. We usually do it between Thanksgiving and Christmas—it’s just a lot of fun.”

For the Doctor’s Dining Room Holiday Buffet, Dvorak will “build” a croquembouche, a classic Austrian/German confection ideal for a large buffet. “People pick off a cream puff and pop it in their mouth,” he says. “We put pulled sugar around the tree-like shape to look like tinsel, plus candies to trim. It’s filled with custard or caramel so the individual cream puffs will stick. Each cream puff is about the size of a golf ball, so we’ll use about 100 puffs for a two-foot tall croquembouche.”

Logging on: Dvorak is a master of yule log production (each serves about 20 portions), and prides himself on making them look like the real thing. He prepares a jellyroll cake and ices it with various shades of chocolate to imitate natural imperfections of a log. A special pastry comb is used to mark the frosting, further creating the appearance of bark. A few meringue mushrooms or toadstools, strategically placed, complete the straight-from-the-forest effect.

“Chocolate cake is very popular here,” he says. “Last year, for the patient menu at Christmas, I did a chocolate fudge cake with chocolate peppermint topping. We also did Christmas cookies for lunch Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They were just sugar cookies dusted with green and red sugar. They have more of a crunch than spritz cookies, almond-flavored butter cookies that are lighter and piped out of a bag. We pipe them into a shell shape onto a sheet pan and bake; then take them out of the oven, carefully remove them from the sheet and dip in light or dark chocolate and add sprinkles.”

Speeding production: Dvorak admits that automation in the form of a hand-cranked cookie-dividing machine has speeded up production. “You put in the dough then one crank gives you four round cookies—less than a second a crank,” he says. “Producing 5,000 cookies used to take about one full day (spread over a few days). Currently we have three different shapes—Christmas trees, stars and rounds of various sizes–as well as (ordinary) cookie cutters for larger holiday cookies.”

Keeping his primary focus on patients, Dvorak notes with pride that eggnog crème brulée is on the patient menu for the holidays. To prepare, he combines heavy cream, sugar, egg yolks and nutmeg, then bakes it off.

“We bake the crème in 4-oz. cups, turn them over and pop them out,” he says. “It’s served with crème anglaise sauce, also flavored with a bit of nutmeg and cinnamon, on the plate around the bowl,” he notes. “A lot of what (cafeteria) customers see on these holidays in the way of desserts is what the patients are getting. And, for our bake sales, I always think: What can I bake for them that I can sell at the bake sale, too?”