WITH THEIR INCREASINGLY GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE, consumers are becoming better acquainted with flavors once deemed too exotic for the American palate.
As American as…well, you name it. While apple pie certainly still tops the list, don't be surprised to find exotic, ethnic flavors like cardamon, rosewater and mango flavoring everything from cakes to brownies or almost any baked product.
Few ethnic flavors have shown the breakout momentum of the Latin dulce de leche, which is now so much a part of mainstream America that it is a Girl Scout cookie variety. But pastry chefs throughout the country report that their customers also are developing an appetite for certain Middle Eastern and Asian ingredients and flavor profiles.
Mintel's “Hot Flavors of 2010” list includes cardamom, a bakery product staple in both South Asia and Scandinavia; rosewater, traditionally regarded as a fragrance in the United States, but long an integral flavor component in Middle Eastern sweets; and the South Asian mango, which has successfully crossed the line from exotic fruit to go-to dessert ingredient for U.S. pastry chefs. In addition, lemongrass, native to India and extensively used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, is providing herbal inspiration for American pastry chefs resulting in its inclusion in an increasing array of desserts.
Chad Durkin, owner of Desserts International, Exton, Pa., recently created a prickly pear and white chocolate cardamom cream cake that was a hit with his company's wholesale customers. He also likes to mix cardamom into spice cakes, especially during the holidays.
Heather Hurlbert, executive pastry chef, Cherokee Town and Country Club, Atlanta, is pleased that cardamom, which she says has been long underused, is finding its way into the sweets spotlight.
“Cardamom goes beautifully with chocolate and fruit; I've used it in buttercreams and ganaches, and I grind it into a fine powder to add to the dry ingredients for chocolate cakes and cupcakes,” she says.
Marda Stoliar, director of the International School of Baking, Bend, Ore., likes to add the “peppery-lemon” flavor of cardamom to round out lemon cake, curd and pastry cream, as well as chocolate items. She believes many American consumers would respond positively to a higher cardamom profile in fruit-topped Danish pastries, especially cherry, or mixed with the honey in baklava as it is made in the traditional Turkish style.
At her Blackmarket Bakery in Irvine, Calif., owner Rachel Marie plans to debut a Caspian Sea shortbread — a Middle Eastern twist on the ever-popular Mexican tea cake — with cardamom, toasted pistachio nuts, cinnamon and orange zest. And Thomas Trevethan, pastry chef at Paris and Bally's Las Vegas likes the idea of a cardamom-spiced chocolate ganache center for a croissant.
When it comes to rosewater and other florals, Durkin recommends they be added sparingly. “If you use too much, your dessert can wind up smelling and tasting like soap,” he explains. “Just a hint is enough, a ‘nose flavor’ to excite the olfactory gland.”
Rosewater pairs particularly well with strawberries. For Valentine's Day weekend, he offered a romantic dessert that combined layers of rose vanilla mousse, rose-infused sugared strawberries, chocolate mousse and red velvet cake.
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At Nine Cakes bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y., the almond rosewater cake with its pinch of cardamom has become one of the most ordered non-chocolate cakes, according to owner Betsy Thorleifson. She also has dscovered that this specialty is becoming a popular choice for weddings and birthdays.
Blackmarket's Marie incorporates rosewater into the house-made caramel for her date, toasted pistachio and almond Maghreb tart. Her Bazaar Sensation also features rosewater, along with dates, pistachios, almonds and honey. At Ghalia Organic Desserts in Los Angeles, owner Khatija Dadabhoy takes full advantage of rosewater's versatility by featuring it in pistachio cupcakes, ricotta cheesecakes, brownies, icings and other treats.
Once somewhat tricky to source, mangoes are now readily available fresh in supermarkets, in IQF pitted halves, in freeze-dried chunks, as a puree or in powder form for bakery applications.
At Ghalia, Dadabhoy features mango as one of her cupcake flavors. Marie spikes her scones with mango and coconut and also pairs the tropical twosome in her curry-topped Mumbai Mambo bar cookies. Trevethan infuses mango into his mousses and creams and includes the dried fruit in some holiday breads.
Desserts International's Durkin is one of the biggest mango fans in the bakery business. He uses it as a fresh fruit or mousse filling and as a glaze on all types of individual desserts.
For many pastry chefs, lemongrass holds a lot of potential, but is still in the experimental stage. Thorleifson is playing with the idea of infusing the aromatic herb into buttercreams and ganaches, particularly for coconut cake. Thomas Trevethan says heplans to add subtle hint to a cream cheese icing for sticky buns.
To get the purest, cleanest flavor out of lemongrass, Durkin recommends steeping the fresh stalks — a time-intensive procedure that requires at least a pound of the herb for cake batter or cookie dough. But Stoliar notes that lemongrass also is available in a powdered form that works well in bakery products.
Despite the work involved, Durkin thinks lemongrass is great paired with stone fruits, such as apple and pears. Stoliar says it gives white chocolate extra distinction and dimension and suggests an almond cookie dipped in lemongrass-accented white chocolate as an intriguing, but subtle example.
Unless you have a very adventurous client base, it is usually best to underplay unfamiliar flavors in dessert names, at least initially. Simply mention them in the descriptions while emphasizing more easily identifiable and well-received flavors, such as chocolate or fruit, says Patricia Nash, pastry chef, Motor City Casino Hotel, Detroit. Another effective way to encourage clients to overcome a fear of new flavors is to introduce them in small tasting portions, such as cookies, tuiles and plated dessert side sauces, she says.
A recent report by international food industry trend tracking firm Technomic, echoes Nash's advice. “Appealing to non-ethnic consumers may be more easily accomplished by incorporating ethnic flavors into traditional desserts — as was seen with specialty cheesecakes,” the report advises.
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As Hispanic, Asian and other ethnic populations grow, and as mainstream American consumers become more accustomed to trying new flavors, “there is strong potential for growth in the dessert category,” according to Technomic. The report quotes census projections showing that between now and 2020, Hispanic and Asian populations in the United States are both expected to grow by 68 percent.
But don't discount the continued influence of European cultures on flavors, ingredients and product trends in bakeries. Until recently, many Americans thought macaron was simply a misspelling of macaroon, a favorite coconut cookie. Now, the delicate meringue- and ground almond-based authentic French sweet is taking the nation by storm. Even Starbucks recently offered them as a limited edition in-store coffee accompaniment. Trader Joe's now stocks them in its freezer case.
“Parisian macarons are fun and exciting for both pastry chefs and consumers because they can be made in a virtually unlimited variety of flavors, from basic vanilla or chocolate to sophisticated Sicilian pistachio, cassis or chestnut,” says Kara Nielsen, trendologist at San Francisco's Center for Culinary Development. “They can be sandwiched with anything, from fruit jams to colorful, exotically flavored buttercreams and ganaches.”
For special occasions, Trevethan forms the macarons into clamshell shapes that he fills with fresh fruit. He then puts them on sticks to create whimsical lollipops. He then attaches them to a 1- or 2-ft. cone of chocolate to form a “tree” centerpiece.
Olive oil is gaining a more prominent position in Italian-influenced cakes (sometimes made from polenta and paired with rosemary) and biscotti. Nielson points to a recently published olive oil dessert cookbook as proof of the ingredient's move to the American mainstream. “Olive oil represents a duo of appealing characteristics — it combines ethnic exoticism with a healthful reputation,” she says.
An ethinic flavor that may be on the horizon in American cuisine is kalamansi (or calamansi), a tiny citrus fruit from the Philippines with a sour flesh. Stoliar describes the flavor as a cross between lime, grapefruit and sweet peel.
“The French have been using kalamansi for some time,” she says. “Now, with the growing interest in different citrus flavors among American consumers, pastry chefs are beginning to use it in a variety of ways — from steeping the leaves to infuse into glazes and fillings, to adding the candied peel to Florentine cookies.”
Durkin uses the fruit to layer and glaze individual desserts, made with milk chocolate mousse, white chocolate dacquoise, flourless chocolate cake and cocoa croquant.
Some high-end restaurants are asking for desserts made with ube, a sweet potato-like tuber from the Philippines with an intense purple color, Durkin says. Although it is still a challenge to source, he has used whole and brined ube to make gelee layers and create an exotic twist on lemon mousse fillings.
Ube can also substitute for sweet potato or pumpkin as a pie filling and offers an easy, natural way to add bright, distinctive color to and boost the flavor of breads, cakes and cupcakes. A pastry-friendly powdered version of the tuber is available from specialty suppliers. “2010 should be a particularly appropriate year for ube because purple is one of the hot fashion colors,” Stoliar says.
Bakers and pastry chefs are in a unique position to spot new flavors trends and introduce them to consumers. Some restraint is required, but bakers can stay ahead of the curve by keeping an eye on what's next in flavor profiles.