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QSR Feature
Less is More

“People are really eating less, and they don’t always want a big dessert,” Braker says. “That’s what we’re finding everywhere. You go and buy this popcorn at a movie, and they’re giving you more than what you want. This is portion control in the other direction, and this is going to hit the nail on the head that people really don’t need a huge portion of something like a tart.”

The big allure is that it’s all yours, and you don’t have to share it— sort of like the ice cream cone.”

In October 2007, Mintel International Group issued a report saying cakes and pies need to evolve (read: get healthier) for sales to grow. The same report urged retail cake and pie manufacturers to focus on health and gourmet and unique flavors to meet consumer demand and boost sales in the United States, which have been flat since 2001 (except for a blip during 2004 when new products answered the low-carb craze). Families with children, for instance, bought 15 percent fewer snack cakes in 2007 than in 2001. Boosting the nutritional profile of desserts, via healthy ingredients and slimmed-down portions, would reach out to families concerned about children’s well being as well as to body-conscious baby boomers, Mintel reported. In fact, 63 percent of cake and pie eaters told the research firm they’d like healthier options on the market.

The remainder of consumers? They’re less concerned with health when it comes to the end of the menu. They consider dessert an indulgence. And Mintel suggests giving them what they want by focusing on gourmet ingredients and high-end packaging. “They could be positioned as a sophisticated and delicious pair for afternoon coffee or as a self-treat, much like Dove chocolate is positioned,” read the report.

And don’t forget men. Mintel suggests males—who report enjoying cakes as much as women—are an emerging market for indulgent mini desserts.

The Technique

In an upcoming class on miniature dessert production, Braker will be teaching tips and tricks like layering white or dark chocolate mousse or ice cream between cake layers for a sandwich effect and using such ordinary ingredients as corn flakes tossed into tempered chocolate for an easy but dramatic flourish. “It looks quite attractive and more fussed-over than it is,” she says. “It’s a gorgeous garnish.”

Desserts are becoming more relaxed, Braker says, so it’s not necessary to work for architectural grandeur. “Everyone’s sort of dressing down,” Braker says.

Recipe developers looking at incorporating fruits in dessert might want to take cues from chefs’ favorite fruits for 2008, topped by pomegranate, starlet of last year’s tables, and followed by such exotics as dragon fruit (a Mexico native that belongs to the cactus family), figs, passion fruit, prickly pear and cactus, lychee (a berry from southern China), persimmons, mango, guava, and papaya. Classics like citrus, berries, and grapes rounded out the chefs’ top picks.

In the desserts category, chefs also hailed sorbet and gelato, cheese plates, fresh fruits, chocolate, sweet or savory crêpes, ice cream, custards, pies, cheesecakes, and cakes in that order. All can be miniaturized to please tiny-dining penchants.

Choux dough filled with ice creams and mixed-flavor fillings and topped with caramelized sugar, chocolate, or caramel is another trend Braker has noticed in fine dining. “Caramel is so in,” Braker says. “And of course a little salt with caramel is so important. It piques the taste of it.”

Who’s Ahead of the Curve

Whether it’s Sweet Shots at Brinker-owned Chili’s (one for $1.99 or three for $5.49) or Mini Indulgences at Darden-owned Seasons 52 ($2.25 each), bite-size desserts have already made their mark on casual dining and fine-dining scenes.

Seasons 52 Executive Chef Clifford Pleau says he developed its slate of shooters to deliver great taste in calorie-responsible servings. “They’ll satisfy the most discriminating sweet tooth, Pleau says. And with tastes such as key lime pie, old-fashioned carrot cake, red velvet cake, tiramisu, and pecan pie with vanilla-bean mousse tallying in at 250 calories, how could they not? A 250-calorie German chocolate cake is next up on the menu. Additional flavors will be introduced seasonally.

Two national quick-service concepts have also embraced the bite-size movement, albeit for a limited time. Sonic offered its version of bite-size cheesecake on a seasonal basis. Its Cheesecake Bites came with a Caramel Cinnamon Drizzle sauce and sold for $2.49 for a large, five-piece order and $1.99 for a small, three-piece order. Last October another brand introduced New York-style Cheesecake Poppers, small vanilla-flavored cheesecakes coated in a graham cracker crust, fried, and served with raspberry dipping sauce. A six-piece popper order was available nationwide through this winter for $2.29.

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