Desserts that Comfort

In a tough economy, desserts are making a comeback, but operators endeavor to make them healthier.

Everyone has moments when they crave something sweet. A little indulgence at the end of the meal can relieve daily stresses or serve as a mini-celebration.

Foodservice directors are taking steps to take advantage of their customers’ desire for pampering by way of desserts by placing a bigger focus on them, such as positioning bakery display cases at both the front and rear of the cafeteria or by the registers as a visual reminder.

“We try to get them to buy desserts this way,” says Neal Lavender, foodservice director at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, where the department serves more than 4,000 people a day. “We try to upsell them.”

The hospital’s pastry chef, Brenda Burton, makes “all kinds of upscale desserts from scratch,” Lavender adds. “The scratch ones are more popular. Cakes and pies are a big hit. We sell a lot of her turtle cheesecake—hundreds of them—and also pies before Christmas. Our signature dessert is Brenda’s bread pudding with rum sauce. The key ingredient in it is French bread. We switched once to a less expensive bread and customers noticed, so we [switched back and] charge accordingly for it. We also serve cut fruit, fruit parfaits and fruit pies.

“You can build your profit margins with scratch desserts. Despite the waist watchers, people want these items. Everybody has a stressful day now and then, and on paydays sometimes they want to splurge and maybe buy a cookie or dessert. People have to do things in moderation. It’s about balance. It’s okay to have a slice of pie as long as you don’t eat the whole thing.”

In a move to reduce trans fats, he adds, “we did find a good par-baked trans fat-free cookie that we bake off.”

At Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Florida, Foodservice Liaison Damian Monticello is doing smaller sized desserts. The trend meshes with the fact that current “hot” dessert items include cupcakes and doughnuts.

“We make scones, tea cakes and cookies in house,” Monticello says. “Our customers like smaller sized desserts so we do mousse tarts and things that can be shared. We’re looking at reducing the size of some of our other dessert items. People still want dessert but in smaller sizes. They want the dessert but not the guilt.”

At the University of Iowa, Director of Dining Greg Black sees less demand for “traditional” desserts this year. “Kids here really like cookies and bars because they’re more portable and maybe more healthy,” he says. For Earth Week, dining services did a yogurt parfait bar because students asked for it. “Our demand for pies and cakes has decreased a bit,” Black observes. “We get a lot of requests for fresh fruit, both cut and whole, and we provide that daily. Also, students like toppings on frozen yogurt and cookies.”

Desserts, says George Desiderio, foodservice director at Dillard’s Store Services in Little Rock, Ark., “are an area where, if I had a good pastry person, I’d do more. We make regional favorites like pecan pie, cobblers and possum pie. Possum pie is made with chocolate, whipped cream and pecans. Our most popular dessert is bread pudding with rum raisin sauce.”

At 300-bed St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh, customers especially like angel cake with fresh strawberries, says Chris Vitsas, general manager for foodservice contractor Cura Hospi­tality. Also popular are chocolate cake and “HoHo cakes, which we’ve been making since 1967,” as well as cherry and blueberry cobblers, apple crunch cake and puddings. Gaining in popularity are mandarin oranges with fresh bananas. “People are more aware of healthy choices,” he says.

The hospital serves approximately 600 patient meals and 2,200 employees and visitors each day. In the cafeteria, customers see desserts right after they get their trays, says Vitsas. “A lot of people use dessert as a way to forget about things and indulge.”

At Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, Foodservice Director Tammy Yarmon offers cookies and s’mores as part of a six-week cycle, but basically uses fruits—cinnamon apples, cherry delight, crisps and sherbet cups—for dessert items. In the Chicopee, Mass., School District, Joanne Lennon, director of foodservices, also relies on fruit as the primary source for desserts, though she will “splurge” on Italian ice or ice cream sandwiches occasionally. Leo Lesh, executive director, Enterprise Management, at Denver Public Schools, notes that desserts are getting healthier, with two of the most popular being a black bean brownie and a cranberry pumpkin dessert, both “very cost effective and made with nutrient-rich ingredients. While most kids would not choose to eat a bowl of black beans or cranberries or pumpkin, they eat and like these desserts,” says Lesh.

Homestyle, classic desserts are at the top of the favorites list with Unidine’s customers, says Paul Booras, director of culinary systems and services for the New England contractor.

“We’ve re-educated our staff in scratch baking and find really well-executed classics—puddings like tapioca, green tea tapioca and rice—are popular along with seasonal cobblers and bread puddings,” he says. “We do a blueberry Johnnycake cobbler with whole-wheat flour, hominy and ground almonds that delivers nutritional value and it’s a hit with people.”

With heightened consciousness of food allergies, many operators, such as Iowa’s Black, try to provide signage to alert customers to potential allergens, such as nuts, in desserts. Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas tried to accommodate customers with food allergies by offering gluten-free cookies, but “they just didn’t sell,” says Lavender.

At World Elementary and Country Day School in Nashua, N.H., Food­service Director Cindy Campbell doesn’t do desserts as such. “We have snacks instead, like a honey wheat bar” that the 300 students particularly like, or baked granola bars, puddings or fresh fruit. “We serve Gaks Snacks because they are peanut-free.”


Baking Smiles in N.J.
B&I chef found a new love in baking and now passes that passion on to customers.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - dessertsBill Doyle, catering director at Stryker Orthopaedics, a ‘flagship’ Whitsons Culinary Group account in Mahwah, N.J., admits he didn’t use to be gung-ho for making desserts. A certified executive chef, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Doyle was never very interested in baking until he and his wife purchased a lift stand mixer for home use. “It opened my eyes,” he explains.

Today, his “Doc Doyle’s recipes” for blondies, health bars, crispy rice cakes, Linzer bars and other desserts are big hits with his 1,400 customers. “They go gaga over the health bars,” he says.

An e-mail from a customer praising his desserts and asking how they were made proved to be a revelation, showing Doyle that he “could turn people into bakers.”

Doyle’s Demo Baking presentations, inspired by the e-mail and supported by management, are now popular. Employees sample items, such as a Valentine’s Day offering of fudge cupcakes with a ganache cream, and learn baking techniques.

“When I do a baking demo on random Wednesdays, I’ll put an announcement on the intranet,” Doyle explains. “I’ll send a burst of over 100 e-mails to every catering customer. I’ll invite movers and shakers so they feel involved. It makes them feel like part of the ‘in’ crowd. I’ll ask them: ‘Do you like chocolate? I’ve got a demo for you!’”

Recently Doyle demonstrated how to make red velvet cupcakes to 90 employees; his demonstration on chocolate biscotti drew a crowd of more than 100. “It’s only 20 or 30 minutes and the Stryker executives come down, so employees can see that it’s not frowned on,” Doyle notes. “It’s great for morale. We give them classical pastry techniques and ideas they can try at home. When I did one on phyllo dough, people called afterward to tell me they’d made apple strudel at home.”

His educational efforts are enticing customers to Whitsons’ newest branded concept, Creperia. “We do it once a month in our display cooking station in the servery,” says Doyle. “It’s growing in popularity. We started with savory crepes—an 11-ounce crepe with five ounces of filling for $4.75, with a choice of a regular flour or whole-wheat crepe. Next were dessert crepes. The customers watch as they’re made and it creates interest.

“For the sweet crepes, we’ll do strawberry jam, bananarama, spiced apple and crepes à la mode. The sky’s the limit with this. Comfort food is coming [back] like gangbusters.” 


Tapping Her Creativity
University pastry chef thrives on putting her own signature on desserts.

FoodService Director - Menu Strategies - dessertsLinda Pearson, pastry chef for Bon Appétit Management Co. at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., presents a daily menu of sweet offerings from warm apple cobbler to sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan options, at a dedicated “dessert island” in the café. She’s known for her cupcakes frosted all over and decorated with airbrush-painted designs.

“I’ve been baking for 26 years and I like to try different desserts with strawberries and chocolate. Chocolate desserts are always very popular. I’ll do different versions of things like shortcakes or I’ll chop up leftover brownies into marshmallows and add bananas to create something new.

People buy with their eyes, but it’s all about taste in the end. We like to involve the students in what we do and we ask them for their suggestions.

On the dessert island, I’ll slice the cakes and the pies before serving and the students help themselves. There’s always a chocolate option, a fruit one and a healthy one. At lunch we keep it more grab and go, but at dinner we’ll go more elegant with a flan or cheesecake. One of the popular desserts we do is waffle cones. I’ll make a stiff mousse and pipe it into the cones. Then I melt chocolate and dip the cones in it to seal the mousse in and drizzle chocolate on the cones. I put them on a sheet pan and freeze them.

We like to play on the different seasons. In the spring, I bake cookies and put sticks in them to make them look like flowers and sprinkle Oreo crumbs around to look like dirt. I like to get the kids jazzed up about dessert. They like key lime pie and cheesecakes, which we’ll decorate. I like to avoid repetition. At lunch we always do cookies and brownies, which are favorites and easy for grab and go. I’ll also prebake pie shells and fill them.

I try to work with the chef to see what’s on the menu and tailor the desserts around that. I do desserts from different backgrounds and cultures, like crème brulee. You want to be creative because the kids get bored really fast.

I like to use a lot of margarine instead of butter, and if we have heavy cream left over, I don’t want to waste it. I won’t skimp on taste, but I try to utilize what I have left over, like bread, for desserts like bread puddings. I don’t have a lot of waste, but it’s a challenge. It’s always ‘what can we make out of this today?’

We’re here for the students, so we try to do desserts that are good, but that are also good for them. We have a lot of health-conscious students.

The students will suggest different desserts, like today I got a request for a red velvet cake. A very popular dessert is apple crisp, which I’ll make in a hotel pan with cinnamon and sugar and add maple flavor or desiccated coconut to give it a different flavor.

Every day is different and I enjoy what I do. That’s really the key. Desserts are very creative. It’s like putting your own signature on them each time you put something out.

We do theme events like one with a gambling focus where we did big round chocolate chip cookies that we made to look like roulette wheels and sugar cookies that were the ‘chips.’ Before the holidays, we also make pecan, pumpkin and apple pies that the faculty will buy to take home.

We have students who are lactose intolerant and some who are vegans, so I’ll do a lot of stuff with Tofutti and try to do special desserts for them. I’ll put bakeable cups in the freezer that are hand-sized and pour gluten-free cheesecake into them. I use tofu and sour cream and cream cheese or I’ll bake cream cheese scones with blueberries and strawberries. We have a gluten-free chocolate cookie. It’s a challenge, but you make it fun. I’ve managed to come across some good recipes.

Nuts are a big problem because of students with nut allergies. It’s very tough. In tea cakes and muffins, we just eliminate them across the board because it’s too dangerous.

Before we serve desserts we always mark everything clearly if something contains nuts. The desserts are supposed to be set up so that the ones with nuts are off to one side.” 


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