Whether omnivores or vegetarians, we humans like our desserts. A special celebration is a good excuse to indulge in something outrageously decadent, but even a simple lunch or dinner doesn’t seem complete without a sweet finale.
Deep in the heart of Texas, it’s hot, and yet hot desserts are what many of the 2,000 daily lunchtime customers at the Sodexho-managed dining room at Marathon Oil are especially fond of. A pastry chef and bakery staff turn out a variety of hot desserts, from bread pudding to fruit cobblers, for customers who value “homemade” quality and don’t sweat the calories.
“We go through about 12 pans [of cobbler] a day—that’s 18 to 20 portions per hotel pan—and we use all fresh fruit with the exception of cherry filling,” says general manager Bill Carroll. “The cobblers are set out in hotel pans as a hot ‘impulse’ dessert at three different locations: near the soup, main entrée and barbecue stations.”
Summer’s flan: However, apple flan is actually the biggest seller at this account. Composed of a base of sliced apples and a small layer of custard, it’s topped with fresh whipped cream for a somewhat lighter offering. New York-style cheesecake also is available daily, along with a cycle of two or three other varieties of cakes and pies.
Because the 600-seat, 10th floor dining room is completely glass-walled, Carroll has been able to market this picturesque venue for weddings and other outside catered events. Here again, house-made desserts are an important part of the package. For example, a bride-to-be can choose the wedding cake, as well as the Groom’s Cake, from an on-line catering catalogue. “The Groom’s Cake—set up on the opposite side of the room from the wedding cake—is basically a chocolate ‘fun cake,’” Carroll explains. “Recently, we did a Miller Lite cake: We carved out the center and filled it with beer bottles, then surrounded them with ‘crushed ice’ made from a block of sugar. For a Texas A&M wedding, we’ll do the cake to look like an A&M graduation ring.”
In recent years, serving square-bottomed, multi-level Diversity Cakes has become a Marathon tradition, because the company is very involved in diversity program initiatives. “Every layer is a different shape, with columns in between them representing a growth period,” Carroll says. “Each layer has a different filling, such as chocolate raspberry, vanilla torte with fresh strawberries and perhaps a small black forest layer with a big star on the very top. If it’s for the whole building, we’ll do about 10 layers.”
Sushi as dessert?: At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC), where Chartwells runs the dining service program, the more than 21,000 students and faculty on campus soon will be offered an interesting twist on a popular ethnic food.
“For the fall semester, we’ll be introducing a dessert sushi,” reports Roger Lademan, executive chef at UNCC. “We did tastings in May for students, faculty and all our foodservice managers on campus. We’ll do two different types, both with sushi rice folded in and both priced to sell for $2.95.”
In the first version, a chocolate crepe is used instead of the traditional nori or seaweed wrap. Rice, cooked with coconut milk and sugar, then seasoned with a bit of cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg, is spread on top of the crepe. Julienned cantaloupe, mango or other fruit is spread over the rice. Once it’s rolled up, it’s sliced like a sushi roll, six pieces to a portion. For the second variation on the sushi theme, a raspberry or strawberry fruit roll is used instead of the crepe.
Inside-out to-go: For UNCC’s Ritazza coffee venues, an inside-out carrot cake cookie, priced at $1.95, generates solid sales, Lademann says. “The cookie is the same consistency as an oatmeal raisin cookie; we add nuts and oatmeal to the traditional carrot cake batter for greater binding power. We put a cream cheese filling between two of these two-inch cookies, rather than using the cream cheese as icing on a typical carrot cake.”
At two residential dining locations on campus, an action station attracts 300 customers—at each location—within a four-hour dinner period whenever Lademann features Fried Oreo Cookies. “We dip the entire cookie into tempura batter, deep-fry it, then sprinkle it with powdered sugar like a zeppole. We’ll do some ahead of time, back of the house, just to get them par-cooked, then we’ll finish them in a small fryer at the station. The person out front is kept really busy.”
Comfort-Style a Fit for All
Homemade “comfort” desserts are just what the doctors order—as well as the patients and cafeteria customers at 700-bed Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Being the hospital’s only supplier of a wide range of different items keeps pastry chef Tim Dvorak and his staff of four extraordinarily busy. For breakfast alone, they prepare about 20 items, including scones, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, a dozen varieties of muffins and 15 types of Danish pastries.
Patients usually have two or three dessert choices for lunch and two or three others for dinner, but because of special diets there are generally three or four additional options, including a gelatin dessert, commercially-made sugar-free cookies, and items for those needing a nutritional boost. “About 95% of everything is made by us and probably 75% to 80% of patients will choose the featured dessert item,” Dvorak says. “It might be the sour cream apple pie, with the secondary item being a thick and chewy chocolate chip cookie—that might be on for both lunch and dinner—then a caramel flan could be the main dessert at dinner.”
Dvorak is pleased that the operation is close to achieving its no trans fat goal, using butter instead of margarine. “Only the crust of the sour cream apple pie has trans fat since we use a commercially made crust,” he says.
Some of our muffins are scoop and bake, but most companies are eliminating margarine and going to butter. Our supplier went trans fat-free about three months ago and I find the flavors are better since they’re usually substituting better ingredients.”
Crisp comfort: A longstanding Rush favorite is individual pineapple upside down cake. Each time it’s offered, the 150-member kitchen staff is impressed by the precision and speed of the “performance” as they watch the final minutes of production through the viewing window of the bake area, Dvorak explains. “We take our large six-ounce muffin tin, used to make our Texas-style muffins. We put a bit of brown sugar, a pineapple ring, cake batter and a Maraschino cherry into each ‘cup,’ then bake. You must flip the tins while they’re still hot, otherwise everything will stick. We’re making 400 to 600 of those and they’re all coming out at the same time; 10 minutes later we flip them all—that’s the ‘performance.’”
Word of mouth: Because of the large volume, cafeteria items mirror some of those on the patient menu and Dvorak finds that actually provides an unexpected marketing tool. “For example, the Double Chocolate Cake with chocolate icing is very popular in the cafeteria, so we’ll do 40 cakes to serve patients and the cafeteria. It’s a good idea, too, because the nursing staff and dietitians talk to patients and we want them to know what it tastes like, so they can say, ‘You’ve got to have this cake. It’s great.’”
In Room 500, the dining club open to staff members, Dvorak might create an over-the-top Chocolate Decadence Cake. To prepare, he combines melted chocolate coins and melted butter, then folds in whipped egg product and a bit of vanilla. He bakes it in a water bath, freezes it, slices it, then slathers each slice with chocolate ganache.
For summertime fun in Room 500, he might set out a big truffle with fruit; basically it’s layers of pastry cream alternated with cake soaked in orange liqueur, then topped with fresh whipped cream. “We’ll stick a big spoon in it and let people help themselves,” Dvorak says.
For the past 18 years, Steven Jayson, CEC, v.p., corporate executive chef, has been in charge of foodservices for all Universal Parks and Resorts restaurants in Orlando, FL. When it comes to desserts, he finds “petit” is the way to go since he aims to leave his customers clamoring for more. Providing a sweet indulgence at a “sweet” price point is a sure way to boost volume—and he should know.
“Although we’ve been doing shot glass desserts for more than a year—they’re now at two of our locations in the park—I don’t think they’re old hat. A lot of our guests are in a hurry and want very quick service. The other part that makes it grow is that it becomes a sweet indulgence in a petit way. More and more there’s a medical focus on the obesity problem. Shot glass desserts are great for us because they’re quick, it’s a sweet indulgence that’s just enough to satisfy, plus it’s a good price point—$1.25 to $1.75.
"Working with these little vessels—little martini glasses, shot glasses—we do about seven or eight different flavors such as chocolate zabaglione, chocolate mousse, carrot cake, tiramisu, raspberry cheesecake, crème brulee, etc. For crème brulee, we have a Styrofoam holder for the glasses to keep them steady in the pan in the water bath, then into the combi-oven to cook, then we hit the top with a torch real quick and it works out real well.
"Chocolate continues to be the most popular dessert flavor and chocolate mousse is the best seller overall.
"We’ve scaled back the sizes of some of our desserts, the same things we looked at with shot desserts. As of December 2006, we went trans fat free and at the same time we said we’d continue to look at the menu to cut calories, fat content and size of portions. Now, we’ve come up with another presentation for six types of pastries—we’ve shrunk them down to minis. We’re testing it in one of the restaurants in the park where we present a tray with a number of plates on the side of the tray and lift off the pastry with tongs. Each is about one-third the price of a full-size dessert. We offer mini éclairs, Napoleons, tiramisu and a mini flan. At Universal it’s worked for us because it’s quick and convenient, and it also works because guests say it was just the right amount of dessert and now they can go out and walk around without feeling too full. As for the dollars, I’d say for us it was a shift.
"Dessert sales are up a small amount in dollars but up significantly in volume.
"Jumbo desserts are becoming extinct. It’s a combination of being overdone and too much of a good thing. Also, desserts are getting a little less sweet, especially some more European-style tortes with less sugar, less corn syrup in the recipes. We’ve had a lot of success with warm desserts such as a flourless chocolate cake or a chocolate banana bread pudding, with a bit of ice cream on the side, if they wish. At Mythos, the restaurant inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure, we do one ‘house dessert’ and that’s a warm chocolate gooey flourless cake with banana sauce and peanut butter ice cream. It’s been a signature item for us for the last seven years.
"The Baby Boomers like comfort food and warm desserts are in that comfort zone. For us, two groups really drive sales: the kids because the parents bring them figuring they’ll love it and the Baby Boomers because they’re the ones with the extra money. Together, those two groups comprise 80% of what drives the market.”