The Sweet Art of Indulgence

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Convenience, health, locality and sky’s-the-limit creativity are a few hallmarks of the current Canadian dessert era — different things for an increasingly diverse set of Canadian consumers. Dessert and pastry choices also appear to be mood-driven, with recent research from Chicago-based Technomic indicating Canadian diners impulsively choose desserts when feeling anxious, happy or when having a bad day. This creates opportunity for operators across segments to innovate with their dessert and pastry impulse-buy offerings.

According to Technomic’s Canadian Dessert Consumer Trend Report, 51 per cent of diners say cravings are an important factor in their dessert-purchasing decisions, while 69 per cent say they tend to enjoy the same desserts they enjoyed as a child. New twists on nostalgic flavours, such as ‘funfetti’ birthday cake (white cake with sprinkles mixed into the batter), have proven popular with Canadian diners in recent times.

North American QSR chain Sweet Jesus sells a birthday-cake flavour of its “pimped out” soft-serve ice cream (made with vanilla soft serve, bits of birthday cake, cream-cheese frosting and sprinkles, $7.50), while Toronto’s Momofuku Milk Bar offers a higher-end offering: its signature multi-layered Funfetti Birthday Cake (from $50) and B’Day Truffles ($25 per dozen).

A supplier well-versed in the art of nostalgia recently revamped its offerings to Canadian foodservice operators. Sara Lee Frozen Bakery represents a family of three brands (Sara Lee, Chef Pierre and Select Bistro) that offer dessert solutions to all types of operations. Its products are a blend of time-honoured, traditional recipes and desserts specifically developed with industry insights in mind. Brian Clark, managing director of the Canadian division of Sara Lee Frozen Bakery, says the company’s history is steeped in innovation.

“Sara Lee founder, Charles Lubin, invented a process in which cheesecakes were baked, frozen, shipped and sold in the same light aluminium baking pan,” he explains. “This pioneering process of freezing fresh-baked goods helped spur the growth of Sara Lee [as a company] and made an impact on the food industry, as many frozen-food providers continue to use the same method.”

Aside from the classic cheesecake, Sara Lee Frozen Bakery currently offers a range of cakes, desserts and baked goods for foodservice.

“We’re offering convenient methods, from which foodservice operators can truly benefit,” Clark says. “Our products are thaw-and-serve, which saves on preparation; our Mini-Bistro Collection helps with individual portion control and our Traditional and Hi-Pies are bake-and-serve ready, greatly reducing labour costs.”

Nostalgia may be a major player when it comes to opportunistic sales, but it’s not the only driving force within the segment. Foodservice industry analyst for NDP Group, Robert Carter, says health and wellness is the main factor to consider when it comes to understanding the growth — or lack thereof — of Canadian dessert sales.

“Desserts continue to be a real challenge in the marketplace in terms of their share,” he says. “It accounts for less than 10 per cent of our overall meal consumption.”

While smaller, bite-sized snacks — such as health-focused QSR Freshii’s Energii Bites (now available in two flavours with the launch of its new Nut-Free Cocoa, $2.49 each) — are growing in popularity, the traditional slice of cake or pie has fallen by the wayside. Operations focusing on one type of sweet treat, such as Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake in Toronto, often rely on wow-factor and social-media buzz to help sell product.

“There will always be some items that are going to carve out a bit of a niche,” Carter explains. “But, in terms of wide-scale traction, it’s hard for any single-focus operator to expand in this market. That said, there’s more interest in those specialty dessert items that are ‘Instagrammable’.”

Global flavours continue to be of serious interest to Canadian diners and this extends to desserts and baked goods. From baklava to mochi (glutinous-rice cakes), non-Western desserts are gaining traction across North America. This is not only a reflection of Canadian multiculturalism, it also speaks to the idea of health-conscious dessert consumption, as globally influenced treats often use natural sweeteners and herbal or floral flavours.

“There’s no doubt there’s an underlying health-and-wellness trend taking place,” Carter says. “And there’s plenty of global influence coming in. Canadians are open to trying different multicultural-style desserts.”

In Whitehorse, Yukon, dessert offerings need to be satiating enough to get through long winters. At The Kind Cafe, Meghan Rodger is not only meeting those needs, she’s creating luscious desserts entirely from plant-based whole foods.

“[My style] of desserts often comes with the perception of not tasting as good or being difficult to make,” she says. “That’s completely untrue. Since the beginning [of my business], my desserts have been received extremely well. Whether someone has dietary restrictions or is simply looking for a healthier dessert option, there’s been great demand for something like this [in Whitehorse] for a long time.”

Rodger first began making plant-based desserts for a local restaurant in 2014. From there, she expanded to an online catering business and the local farmer’s market. Her catering garnered attention and, in September 2019, she opened the doors to The Kind Cafe.

“My connection with whole foods has a lot to do with growing up in the Yukon,” she muses. “Our lives [here] are so intertwined with the environment. I’ve been fortunate to have developed a relationship with the Earth from a very young age. Through my business, my goal is to empower people to eat mindfully and make that connection to the bigger picture.”

The Kind Cafe specializes in foods that are simple, natural and don’t compromise on flavour. The ingredients used in Rodger’s signature “bakes” are always whole and minimally processed. Her Raw Berry Cheezecake, Chocolate Hazelut Cheezecake and Chocolate Matcha Squares (sold for $4.50 per slice or $75 per whole cake) use cashews, almonds and Medjool dates as base flavours.

With this shift to healthier dessert options, is there still room for high-end indulgence? Jason Bangerter, executive chef at Langdon Hall Country House and Spa in Cambridge, Ont., and pastry chef Rachel Nicholson, believe there will always be room for a specially crafted dessert — especially when made using ingredients grown on-site.

“[High-end] pastry should become more ingredient-focused; using the best-possible ingredients at the peak of their flavour while trying to extract all of the usable parts — be it a cocoa pod or a peach,” Bangerter says. “Past, present, future — the important thing is dessert is comforting, fun and delicious.”

Bangerter and Nicholson travelled to Paris with Cacao Barry to create their own signature Or Noir chocolate in the Cacao Barry laboratory, which they use in all their chocolate desserts (such as Chocolate Coffee Cream, Kahlua Sabayon, Cocoa Sorbet & Milk Chocolate Caramel, $18). In its own backyard, Langdon Hall’s gardens supply the chefs with lemon verbena, lime leaf and tangerine marigold to use in their Buttermilk and Citrus Plant Panna Cotta with Ontario Saffron Jelly and Sour Garden Begonia ($18).

“Diners are looking to indulge,” Nicholson says. “At times, they’re even coming in just for dessert. It’s rare to see our guests finish their dining experience without one — or even two — desserts, followed by petit fours with their after-dinner drinks.”

Langdon Hall offers an à la carte menu as well as a chef’s tasting menu ($160), which frequently changes and reflects what’s currently growing on-site. It includes two sweet dishes to finish the meal.

“A tasting-menu dessert must be cohesive and complement the rest of the meal; finishing the story we’re telling,” Bangerter explains. “Small bites, packed with flavour, are the perfect end to a tasting meal. Even a ‘heavy’ ingredient, like chocolate or cream, can accomplish this if using a technique that keeps the mouth-feel light.”

If Cambridge is a land of abundance, St. John’s, Nfld. could be considered a bit more barren. Colder weather and rocky soil make for fewer locally sourced pastry ingredients to choose from, but that hasn’t stopped chef Celeste Mah from winning Canada’s 100 Best’s Pastry Chef of 2019. Originally from Vancouver, Mah made the move across Canada to work at Raymond’s Restaurant in St. John’s. “My husband is originally from Newfoundland,” she says. “I had just decided to move to Newfoundland with him when Jeremy Charles (chef and owner of Raymond’s) called and offered me a job. So, we packed up a U-Haul and drove across the country.”

Coming from Vancouver’s mild weather to Newfoundland could be a shock to the system for anyone, but Mah made it her mission to learn about the climate and culture of her adopted home. For her, having fewer local ingredients to celebrate make her dishes — such as her parsnip skin chip filled with parsnip cream, parsnip-milk granita and leftover parsnip sugar ($15) — even more celebratory. Using innovative techniques has made Mah, deservedly, famous within the industry.

“Moving [to Newfoundland] has made me a better pastry chef,” she continues. “Because we’re so focused on using only what the island can give us I’ve had to focus. Food security [on this island] is a major issue and something my husband and I are very passionate about and speak about often.”

Driving innovation in high-end pastry often includes working with unfamiliar ingredients not usually associated with desserts. Mah feels pastry is getting a second wind within high-end Canadian foodservice and pastry chefs are not only highly respected, but a popular hire, once again.

“Demand for quality dessert is back on the rise,” she says. “For a while, pastry chefs were a dying breed. Operators didn’t care [to hire one] and would often have someone on garde manger do desserts. Now, we’re back on the rise. Social media has a lot to do with that.”

Written by Janine Kennedy

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