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Lightening up the dessert course

SHAPE April 2016

Operators, chefs find ways to make desserts healthier while retaining great flavor.



With an increasing number of Americans demanding both flavor and good nutrition from their dining out experiences, restaurateurs are trying to let them have their cake and eat it too — particularly when it comes to the dessert course.

Approximately two-thirds of Americans are classified as being either overweight or obese according to government health figures, so it's not surprising that more people with an eye toward consuming less sugar and fats are taking a closer look at the nutritional composition of the food they order in restaurants. Nevertheless, most continue to want to enjoy some level of dietary indulgence where desserts are concerned.

Arlene Spiegel of New York-based restaurant consulting company Arlene Spiegel &  Assoc. acknowledges the need for restaurateurs to cater to this growing population with lighter healthful desserts. “Many 'health conscious' diners do not want to blow their calories on a fattening dessert, but they do want that sweet ending,” she says.

“So many people today have issues with food,” notes Cindy Ferron, associate professor at Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. “It makes sense to offer better options on the menu as well as indulgent items.”

The foodservice industry has not ignored what consumers are saying, either. The National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast found that 65 percent of the nearly 1,800 culinary professionals polled believe that nutrition is shaping up to be a hot trend this year. As a result, more chefs are finding ways to lighten some of the dessert selections on their menus without compromising taste.

One solution is simply to reduce the size of dessert portions, experts say. Blaire Newhard, a culinary dietitian with Healthy Dining in San Diego, points to restaurants that are offering desserts in reduced one- or two-bite sizes. In fact, the NRA's What's Hot Forecast found that 60 percent of those surveyed say bite-size/mini-desserts will constitute a hot trend in 2016.

Another way to lighten a dessert selection is to remove a portion of the sugar or fat from the recipe. “The object is not to eliminate ingredients entirely — you just need to reduce the amount,” Newhard says. “The product will still be delicious.”

For example, she continues, in non-baked items it's easy to reduce the amount of sugar by 25 percent. She also recommends substituting lighter ingredients — like using light cream or half and half in place of heavy cream. “It will still provide a creamy texture,” she says.

The replacement of whole grains for more refined ingredients can help boost a dessert's nutritional value. The addition of a tablespoon of ground flax seed can increase the health quotient of muffins or pancakes, J&W's Ferron says.

Adding fresh fruit — a dietary fiber- and vitamin-rich food — also has emerged as a popular way of enhancing a dessert's health halo as well as adding color to a plate. According to the NRA's What's Hot Forecast,  31 percent of chefs say that  fruit desserts such as cobblers, crisps and tarts will be a hot trend in 2016.

Research firm Datassential finds that strawberries are the most popular fruit among restaurateurs, appearing on a quarter of all dessert menus. Meanwhile, apples can be found on 23.6 percent of dessert menus; bananas, 20.2 percent; coconuts, 16.4 percent; lemons, 15.8 percent;  cherries,  14.4 percent; raspberries,  14.3 percent; limes, 10.2 percent; and berries,  9.8 percent.

“Restaurants are increasingly working with fruit in all forms on their dessert menus,” Spiegel says. “One of my clients offers a dessert of pineapple carpaccio topped with blood orange sorbet. This item has become the most popular dessert on the menu. Housemade sorbets, crustless fruit tarts and frappés are also popular choices.”

In addition, Newhouse cites the increasing use of exotic fruit like yuzu, passionfruit and lychee nuts, noting that they can be used in a coulis, as a garnish or a plated combination with a cream sauce.

Ferron and Newhard list several other ideas for preparing healthful fruit-based desserts:

• Grilled fruit kabobs. Skewer a selection of dense fruit such as pineapple, mango or apple, and then cook on a grill or griddle. Serve with a coconut- or dairy-based cream and garnish with crushed nuts or toasted coconut.

• Fruit parfait or trifle. Layer fruit, slices of angel food cake and either yogurt or light whipped cream in a parfait glass. Traditionally, this is made with pound cake, but the angel food cake is lighter, Newhard says.

• Frozen tureen. Alternate layers of whole fruit sorbet, creamy fruit like bananas and mangoes, and tart fruit like pineapple, and then freeze. Nuts also can be added.

• Peach cobbler. Cut a peach in half, brush with agave syrup and lemon juice, sprinkle with cinnamon and bake in the oven. Top with a streusel layer that includes oats and brown sugar and return to the oven until streusel is done. Serve with a fruit- or light cream-based sauce.

• Roasted stone fruit. Select a variety of stone fruit; slow roast together in a pan with a drizzle of maple syrup, allowing the flavors to blend together. Arrange the warm fruit on a dish with sorbet.

• Vegetable and fruit dessert plate. On a plate, arrange a combination of poached sweet potato squares, baked fennel chips, roasted golden beets, fennel fronds, fresh herb sauce and blood orange segments.

More and more, consumers are looking for dessert items that offer healthful dietary solutions as well as a flavorful, indulgent experience, experts maintain. “People in general are just smarter when it comes to eating,” Ferron says. “They're looking for lighter options. They're taking more of an interest in what they're putting in their bodies.”

Consequently, Spiegel says, “It's smart for restaurants to offer lighter desserts as it adds to the enjoyment of the total meal experience and doesn't leave any of the guests out.

“Of course,” she adds, “it also adds to the ticket average.”



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