Menu Development Case Study: Desserts at Iowa State University

Outside influences and a recipe committee help chefs create successful desserts.

Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Iowa State's mini cherry pie.

Iowa State University, in Ames, is not New York City or Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean it can’t produce some on-trend desserts for its 29,800 students. The secret, according to Ed Astarita, pastry chef, is to take traditional top sellers and put the department’s own twist on them.

“We’ve been doing cake pops and macarons, and cupcakes are still big around here,” says Astarita. “I also offer sampler plates where customers can choose three desserts from an assortment of six. These desserts tend to be small, probably two-bite desserts. People are gravitating more and more toward that kind of dessert. It’s become less about heavy desserts and more about small bites. We really like to take popular traditional items and put little spins on them. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just replacing the spokes.”


Astarita is the only chef whose responsibilities span both residence dining and catering, which he says have different approaches to developing dessert recipes.

“For the desserts in the dining hall, the process usually starts with someone coming in with an idea or we get a request from a student or employee,” Astarita says. “We test the recipe out and standardize it. Then we bring it before the management team. If everyone likes it, we may make a couple of tweaks to it. Then we’ll submit it to CBORD and eventually it gets put on the menu. I’d say we bring in new recipes for desserts about every other month.”

Jeffrey Miller, catering director, says desserts are also part of the department’s monthly recipe committee meetings.

“We bring different items to the committee and they taste different versions of items,” Miller says. “Desserts follow the same process. There are about two dozen people on the recipe committee at any given time. We’ll get feedback from there so it takes us through that review process.”

To get new ideas Miller says the team looks at magazines and websites and attends trade shows. He also says students are an active part of the process.

“Our marketing department is very progressive in getting feedback from students,” Miller says. “We have a text messaging system where students can text real-time comments, which then appear on a television screen. So if people like or dislike something those comments show up in real time. The people who monitor that feed will go back and look over those results and look for stuff that gives us valid input. You can gain some valuable feedback on an item, especially items you are offering for the first time.”

Catering: Miller says the process for catering is different because of the relatively short notice the department gets for orders.

“For recipes in catering, the process is more reactionary to market trends because of the type of events we tend to do for catering,” Miller says. “We’re subject far more to demands from the general community. Plus, typical catering orders come in, if we’re lucky, two weeks in advance. We’re moving at a much higher speed than the residence halls, which have their menus done months in advance. We also tend to be more influenced by what customers see in magazines or things people see on TV on the Food Network like all the cake shows.”

“It always cracks me up,” Astarita adds. “I’m here by myself and customers see ‘Ace of Cakes’ where they have ten chefs. Then the customers are like, ‘what do you mean that is a $2,000 cake?’”

The dessert process in catering usually starts with reacting to the trends that chefs see in the media, magazines or at trade shows. Miller says he tries to sit down with the team twice a year to discuss what the trends are and how the department can answer them.

“I try to really talk about trends on a more methodical level, which is looking at what kind of trends are happening,” Miller says. “For example, we saw that cake pops were becoming really big. So we experimented with square cake pops and round cake pops to see what worked. It took us about a year to really work through that trend so we could make it work within our production capability. It takes a lot more conversation because of our short lead time.”

Miller says fighting against customer expectations, which are often born from food television shows, is one of the catering department’s biggest challenges with menu development for desserts.

“That is especially true of our wedding business,” Miller says. “We do about 140 weddings per year. We have to be realistic with our customers. We are trying to give them what they want, but we’re also fighting their perception of what they’ve seen on TV. There’s also some sticker shock when they realize what the reality is of making desserts like that.”

Miller says making sure the dessert team has hired the right people is very important.

“If you start experimenting and telling people you can do things then you have to be extremely careful that you can produce it in in high volumes,” Miller says. “I also think it’s important to build on what people like. I don’t think just because something is traditional means it is stodgy and old. Build on the basics and put your own twist on things and then the desserts are yours.” 

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