Making Desserts Healthier

As thin becomes “in,” many operators are downsizing their desserts to help customers eat more healthfully. Sweet treats should yield a “nutritional punch,” says Cathy Bartko, executive chef at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. She’s just one of the operators who are incorporating healthier dessert options into their menus. She offers the hospital’s young patients sugar-free puddings and popsicles to satisfy their sweet tooth.

The hospital’s Web site takes her dessert philosophy a step further, providing dessert ideas and recipes for parents of children with diabetes, celiac disease and cystic fibrosis. These desserts include frozen yogurt with a variety of toppings, milkshakes, puddings and cheesecakes as well as gluten-free cookies and brownies, scones, cupcakes, individual tarts and pumpkin pies. Other popular items include banana pudding with vanilla wafers, Key lime pie, gelatins and custards.

Gluten-free baked goods are available in the cafeteria, as well.

“We also make pies, cakes and cheesecakes from our bakeshop available for sale to our employees. We’ll make biscotti for baskets for the holidays, too,” adds Bartko. “We don’t really do huge portions of desserts, just four-ounce ones. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.”

Bartko says she has a new project in the works this fall that will add a toppings station at the yogurt bar, filled with granola, fresh strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, banana chips and sugar-free syrups.

Keeping portion sizes under control is important, she says. “We don’t want to be known as ‘the diet place’ but we try to educate both our employees and our [outside] customers and give them healthier choices like low-fat yogurts and fruits. We try to make people take responsibility for themselves and their diets.”

Fruit, yes; trans fat, no: Healthy also is the mantra at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, where Lorraine Allan, assistant director for food production, quality and safety, likes to make fresh fruits visible and easily accessible by placing baskets throughout the cafeteria in an effort to promote healthy choices.

In addition, all desserts that are baked in-house—95% of all desserts sold—have been trans fat-free for several years. Patients and retail customers alike get the same cakes and pies with the only difference being the smaller portion size for patients’ cakes.

FoodService Director - healthy desserts - Luby'sBut Allan admits that dessert isn’t all about health. One of the most popular desserts is the Chocolate Delicious, a decadent chocolate cake with a cream filling, covered in a chocolate ganache.

At the 850-bed Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Frank Coffey, director of hospitality services, likes to use as much local produce as possible at the limited kosher facility, offering patients fresh peaches, red and green grapes, papaya and watermelon. He also uses fresh berries in fruit parfaits. Sheet cakes are also popular in Kingsbrook’s retail outlets.

At Overbrook Hospital in Summit, N.J., part of Atlantic Health Care, Executive Chef Todd Daigneault makes sugar-free banana cream pies. He also likes to take a meringue and fill it with a berry compote for a gluten-free offering. Lemon blueberry tarts are a big hit as well.

“I do a lot of pies and mousses depending on what’s in season,” says Daigneault. “We do pumpkin pie in the fall, but we also do crème brulee and a brambleberry tart with blackberries and a little lemon curd, too.”

He’s been working to implement new upscale patient menus with healthier, seasonal ingredients. The beauty of fruits, he notes, is their natural sugar. For  Independence Day, Daigneault grilled fruits such as carambola, honeydew melon, pineapple and figs with cilantro and honey to create a grilled fruit platter.

Smaller is big: Students at the University of New Hampshire in Durham are thinking small this year, according to Director of Dining Jon Plodzik. “Mini is big, for sure, and big isn’t as big as it used to be,” says Plodzik, who notes that cupcakes are one hot—and small—dessert item. “You can charge $2 and change for a little cupcake and people will pay for it. They want higher quality and smaller portions. We also do chocolate dipped strawberries for $1.29 each.”

In UNH dining halls, one-ounce cookies are baked all day, and Plodzik moved an oven into one dessert area for added effect. “You can smell cookies baking all day,” he explains. “The  smell adds a lot of draw.”

At Lehigh Valley Health Network in eastern Pennsylvania, where Sodexo manages the foodservice, Executive Chef Todd Saylor dips pretzel rods in chocolate, then rolls them in peanuts, sprinkles or toasted coconut and packages them in cellophane bags tied with a ribbon as an impulse item at the registers. “We also started doing chocolate dipped strawberries and chocolate dipped cheesecake on a stick,” Saylor adds.

Verboten: If there is one sector where desserts, healthy or not, have taken a hit it has been schools. Desserts have all but disappeared during the battle against obesity. Jean Moseley, director of child nutrition at Coppell ISD in San Antonio, says she doesn’t do much with desserts because of the state’s school nutrition policy. Ice cream and one-ounce reduced fat cookies are the only desserts.

Introduced six years ago, the strictly enforced policy limits the number of grams of sugar and fat served each week and restricts portion sizes for items such as frozen desserts. Schools found to violate the policy can be penalized with the loss of a day of state reimbursement.



Balancing Act

At Estée Lauder, customers want healthier desserts and the occasional decadence.

FoodService Director - healthy desserts - Luby'sHealthy is in this year, even when it comes to desserts, says Lorie Bratt, general manager for Whitsons Culinary Group at its Estée Lauder account.

“Desserts should be beautiful and sensuous, and when they are, you can see it in people’s eyes,” says Bratt, who oversees foodservice at Estée Lauder units in Melville and Islandia, N.Y., and Oakland, N.J. So strong is the allure of dessert, she adds, that some customers will deprive themselves of something else in order to have something sweet at the end of their meal.

“Calories are obviously an issue for a lot of people, so it’s important to post them,” Bratt notes. “Desserts are eye candy. We try to stick with the healthy stuff, like frozen yogurt without high-calorie toppings. We top parfaits with fresh strawberries and granola.”

She also gives customers no-fat and low-fat vanilla yogurt and lets them select from a variety of toppings. “They like to watch parfaits being made.”

Bratt also serves mini desserts because “nobody wants to be over-satiated. They’re not big money makers, but they’re big customer pleasers.”

Mini cannoli cupcakes and martini glasses filled with berries or sorbets are popular at Estée Lauder’s catered events. Mini cheesecakes such as blueberry, marble, raspberry and pumpkin drizzled with praline sauce are also favorites. “If we put out large desserts they don’t get eaten,” Bratt says.

Lemon meringue pie is especially popular around Thanksgiving, adds Bratt, because it’s perceived as healthier and less fattening than more traditional pies such as apple or pumpkin.

Portion control is very necessary today, Bratt notes. “Our customers love rice pudding with raisins. We put it in little containers and put them on display. We also do chocolate pudding with whipped cream and graham cracker or granola.”

Whitsons gets a lot of feedback from cafeteria customers, she says. “Now, we’re going to banana breads and pumpkin breads, and we’ll do those in mini sizes. They like to have just a little taste [of something sweet].”

But it’s not all about health; Bratt also offers made-to-order Belgian waffles. “They’re sinful,” she admits. “A lot of people deprive themselves in order to have them."



Dessert Designer

Chef thought of becoming an architect, but ended up in a different “design” field.

FoodService Director - healthy desserts - Luby'sDan Phalen, executive chef for the Culinary Contract Services division of Luby’s, says he stumbled into the world of pastry. He’d dreamed of becoming an architect, but when he learned to cook, he became entranced with the artistry of plate preparation. A baking apprenticeship at the Doubletree Hotel in Houston showed him that he’d found his true niche. Today, he derives great pleasure from preparing plated signature desserts for Luby’s high-end catering accounts.

“We like to base the desserts on the specifics of the function. I’ve done cookies shaped like corporate logos because the dessert is the last piece of the meal, and you like to leave them with something they’ll remember.

To pick a favorite dessert is like asking someone to pick their favorite child. I really enjoy the artistry part of making desserts. Desserts let a chef make the evening memorable for the guests; for a breast cancer function, Project Pink, I did a raspberry tart. When dessert is served, the response is really nice, and if it’s a chocolate dessert, it’s always a win-win.

Artistry plays a huge part in dessert sales. Desserts are the indulgence that everyone wants but no one wants to admit or tries to have ‘will power’ against. Plate presentation, garnish, packaging, a little flair is what it's going to take to get customers to give in and indulge. For grab and go, we use a contemporary style label in a clear cellophane bag for a clean presentation. What drives dessert sales is that customers feel they deserve a treat or reward now and then, and they are right. The savory items we eat may be what we need, but a dessert is what we want.

In our cafés what we do for desserts depends a lot on the account. Some of our accounts are hospitals, some are colleges and we have B&I ones. Our style is to do multiple stations and there’s always a dessert one. We also have a Live Smart program that calls for 600 calories or less and under 30% of calories from fat and a minimum of three grams of fiber. We call what we do ‘stealth nutrition.’ We have a chocolate muffin we developed for Texas Children’s Hospital, for example, but it’s made with prune juice and bran cereal. We’ll also do a brownie with puréed black beans and a muffin with puréed avocado. You can’t taste those ingredients and they let you still be able to give the customer that dessert indulgence. When the Live Smart program came out, we saw customers take their meal and then buy a bag of cookies. They still made room for that indulgence.

Fruit desserts are good because they add nutritional value and certain vitamins and fiber. I try to incorporate it where I can. The average customer today is a lot more savvy about nutrition.

Our customers like our mocha brownies, made with coffee, and blondies. We’ve done the mocha brownies, putting them in a circle and wrapping them in a chocolate cylinder and serving them with mascarpone and fresh berries. That’s a favorite. In our cafés, we do grab-and-go desserts like cookies in nice cellophane bags. We have a signature Luby’s chocolate cake and we also do pies. We’ve tried mini desserts, but because of the actual food costs, the price point for [something like] a [little] slice of pie was high. Customers decided they’d spend a little more and get the full-size portion.

Customers are more health conscious today, and for a while we saw a dip in sales on the dessert side. But they like to make room, to adjust what they eat in the rest of their meal to allow them to have that touch of something sweet at the end. They’ll always love that little sweet touch.

What’s the next big trend in desserts? The food industry changes so rapidly these days. Smaller portions came and went. Now, I see customers arrange their calories so they can still have that slice of cake. The huge portions we used to see are gone. I think we’re just getting back to the basics. People just love the comfort desserts from their childhood. There’s a beauty to a doughnut, for example. They’re actually my personal favorite. I also love crème brulee because there are many ways you can do it differently with flavor profiles.”

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