Scaling Up to Upscale Desserts
September 01, 2005 - Article
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September 2005

 

Scaling Up to Upscale Desserts

By Kimberly J. Decker

When Ian Farrell dreamt of becoming a pastry chef, he never imagined he'd do so in a place known as the Dogpatch. But that's what locals call the pocket of San Francisco's Potrero Hill District where Farrell turns out tarts, tortes and tiramisus that, like the Patch's design studios and artist lofts, sound a sharp counterpoint to the salty, wharf-front biker bars that once crowded this industrial-chic neighborhood.

"Industrial chic" goes a long way toward describing the operation at the city's Creative International Pastries, Inc., where Farrell serves as production supervisor. The industrial half of the equation is evident in the company's hangarlike facility, where the whir of mixers, clank of rolling racks and scents of tempering chocolate and caramelized sugar accompany brigades of hair-netted employees as they peg fragile chocolate fans to buttery rounds of jaconde (a thin sponge cake with a chocolate pattern piped into the batter before baking). The chic reward for all this industry is a product that would do a Parisian pâtissier proud.

But for one pâtissier to generate the quantity of desserts that the company supplies its hotel, club, foodservice and retail clients, they'd have to be pretty resourceful. "During the busy time," Farrell continues, "we can do up to 200 small cakes a day; petit fours we do in the thousands" -- a production scale that, given the intricacy and precision involved, demands an input of ingredients and craftsmanship that not all producers see fit to justify.

"I don't know of any other company that does what we do and in the volume we do it," says Farrell. "We're just set up to do it. We don't take any short cuts. Yes, we use a big Hobart mixer and big ovens; you have to do that. But as regards putting the fruit on top, piping everything into the molds: It's all done by hand. It's all glazed by hand. Everything. And you can definitely tell the difference."

So when Farrell says that he would definitely consider the company in the "gourmet dessert category," he does so on solid footing. While manufacturing gourmet desserts on an even larger scale obliges some degree of compromise from Farrell's standards, companies have to draw the line between compromise and cutting corners if they want to put the pastry chef in the package.

Designer dessert
"Gourmet" might be the hardest-working word in the food industry these days. According to a 2004 Datamonitor report, an expected growth rate of 30% will boost the market for premium foods to $94 billion by 2008. With sweets and pastries obvious outlets for indulgence, more dessert manufacturers want to make gourmet claims. But will those manufacturers want to hand-dust their cassis cakes with gold leaf? Can their margins accommodate the premium ingredients? Do they have what it takes to produce a gourmet dessert?

The answer depends on the definition of "gourmet." Like "fresh" or "natural," the word is one of those semantic shape-shifters whose meaning adjusts to suit the purpose at hand.

We do, however, have examples of what it doesn't mean, according to Anton Angelich, vice president, marketing, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY, gourmet dessert can't come from your average neighborhood bakery. Granted, the shop on the corner might be perfectly capable of baking, say, a legendary strudel -- one that "may taste wonderful, may be a work of art," he notes. Even if the shop is run by three generations of Viennese-trained craftsmen, "a strudel," he maintains, "is not gourmet."

An exception to that rule might be made for a strudel produced in the food-world equivalent of the designer boutique: a specialty bakeshop. According to Angelich's theory, the allure of "the bakery at Bloomingdale's or a place that sells $50 cakes" might be just the ticket to endow even a modest strudel with what he calls a sense of "special identification" that signifies luxury. Looked at another way, he says, "gourmet is like a Louis Vuitton bag."

A gourmet dessert's rarefied rank sometimes stems less from the substance of the dessert itself than from the emotions and myths we project onto it. "It's all perception," says Michael Goldstein, vice president, R&D, Love and Quiches Desserts, Freeport, NY. Gourmet, in his view, "is an interpretation of a product. Gourmet is not classifiable by any strict definition. It doesn't mean that you've got to have 'x' percentage of butter. Gourmet just has an air about it. It connotes quality. It connotes an upscale type of product."

But airy connotations are quick to dissipate without real-world experience distilling them into living, breathing brands. Angelich emphasizes the experiential aspect of establishing a dessert's gourmet aura: "It's about being at a restaurant and having something for a special occasion. It's the kind of thing you do on your 20th wedding anniversary. You do it for somebody's college graduation. You do it on a very special Valentine's Day."

Or people do it on a random Wednesday that, for any number of reasons, feels like a special occasion. "In this economy, where there's a lot of money and a lot of disposable income, a lot of little occasions can become special occasions," Angelich says, and there's no reason why we can't celebrate each one with a nice, relatively luxe after-dinner treat.

As dining-out frequency increases, the excuse to splurge on dessert rises. "We notice that people eat desserts more often while dining out, definitely," says Joanne Kim, research and development scientist, Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Northbrook, IL. "They go out to feel special. They want to go all the way from appetizer to entrée to dessert."

Such exposure to desserts forged at the ground zero of culinary design ratchets up the criteria. So it's only natural to want to recreate the experience when serving dessert at home, surrounded by cookbooks, customized kitchens and possibly an "Iron Chef" DVD or two -- all of which experts credit with popularizing gourmet desserts.

"American consumers have become so much more aware of culinary trends, with the Food Network, HGTV and the Travel Channel, that they're looking for things at home to replicate what they see on television," says Julie Snarski, manager, culinary and foodservice development, David Michael & Co., Philadelphia. "You're even seeing Betty Crocker® and Duncan Hines® mixes going gourmet."

Keepin' it real
It doesn't take a marketing whiz to realize that, preparations of fresh fruit and sorbets aside, few would gamble on positioning dessert as a generally healthful food. And while some manufacturers have made stabs at fortified, reduced-fat and sugar-free options, those products sprout from a distant branch of the family tree that bears little if any relation to what most people have in mind when they think "dessert," let alone "luxury" or "premium."

That's not to say that seekers of high-end pleasure won't comb a dessert's ingredient declaration poised to reject anything with trans fats, artificial preservatives or otherwise "chemical-sounding" constituents. In fact, if forced to settle on one objective measure of gourmet, the insistence on "pure" ingredients comes about as close as possible. "Many people tend to associate a simple ingredient statement with an indication of higher quality, or more gourmet," says Scott Brank, director, food science, Darifair Foods, Inc., Jacksonville, FL. "This may or may not be the case, but the perception is certainly there."

Americans have rediscovered a nostalgia for a bygone artisan tradition that many of them, ironically, never even knew. "If you think about many of the baked goods and candies we're used to," says David Poust, senior account manager, Domino Specialty Ingredients, Baltimore, "there's a lot of history with those recipes that goes back hundreds of years. So they were all made with the natural things that were available at that time." That means butter instead of hydrogenated vegetable fats, real eggs rather than substitutes, and sugar -- from beet, cane or honeybees -- instead of high-fructose corn syrup. That, he adds, "is what the consumer is used to buying in the grocery store. They think, 'I have a bag of sugar. I know sugar. I understand it.'"

A simple ingredient statement needn't imply a Spartan one. "The idea of gourmet is that it's full of flavor," says Tim Sieloff, baking instructor, American Institute of Baking, Manhattan, KS. "Gourmet desserts also have a good texture -- a good eating quality to them. In some cases, they have a smoother eating quality. So there's a heightened sensation with these products that's definitely more desirable. When you talk about desserts that are gourmet -- or specialty, premium, upscale -- a lot of the time you find that you're using the same ingredients, but that there will be an increase in the percentage of those ingredients in the formulation. It could be more chocolate. It could be higher sugar content. It could be the use of cream or whole milk versus nonfat dry milk. So, in essence, you're driving up the fat content or you're increasing the sweetness value or you're using chocolate liquor compared to cocoa. For the most part, it's starting with a normal product and enriching it."

Farrell has taken this strategy to heart -- and to the production floor. "We use really high-end, quality ingredients," he says. "For example, everything is real butter, real cream, a high percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate; all our chocolates are 70% cocoa solids. All our fruit is ordered fresh every day. It's good-quality stuff, and you can definitely taste that in our product."

Not surprisingly, Farrell and his group of customers are among those for whom a clean label is paramount, too. "I would say gourmet desserts are made from scratch, with no mixes gone into their production, everything made fresh daily, no preservatives or additives," he adds.

Taking care of business
Because his clients radiate within the relatively tight circle of the Bay Area, Farrell's desserts don't require the extensive shoring-up that technologically sophisticated functional ingredients offer.

"Freshly prepared gourmet desserts may have little need for stabilizers or other additives," says Brank. "The customer is usually quite close to the artisan baker or the micro-batch ice cream maker. The dessert is typically consumed while still quite fresh."

But, as Goldstein points out, "there's a difference between making a dessert at a corner bakery for eating at home and making it in New York and having to get it to California. We sell to the Middle East and to Southeast Asia, and to get product all over the world, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get it there."

Nevertheless, limitations exist. "I don't think that gives you liberties to add whatever you want," says Goldstein. While most upscale dessert manufacturers don't create products for the natural market, many feel that "real" ingredients not only enhance the sensory integrity of the dessert, but also reassure skeptical consumers who might view polysorbates or carboxymethylcellulose as shortcuts, if not downright adulterants. While "we do not add preservatives or stabilizers to our product," he says, "we don't go out of our way to make an all-natural or an organic product. So if these ingredients are in something that we use, we're not going to have, say, a filling reformulated so that it's all-natural."

Products that take advantage of freezing technology absolve manufacturers of using preservatives. But, as Sieloff notes, sticking to strict standards for ingredient simplicity, "in some cases, actually puts you in a position, depending on the product, where you're going to have to use those functional emulsifiers, stabilizers or starches. So when you talk about going from, say, a shortening to butter, butter may be what most people desire as a flavor, but butter has what you might call poor emulsifying properties." Even within the protective womb of a freezer, he adds, "every baked product has some form of moisture migration or loss going on, whether it's into a filling from a cake or from a filling into the cake layers." The best way to forestall such moisture mischief is through modified starches, hydrocolloids and "chemical" stabilizers.

While a premium dessert designed for ingredient simplicity won't rack up the shelf life of a doughtier formulation, the target audience for these products doesn't necessarily want immortality from a special-occasion indulgence. "Keep in mind that some companies, especially retail, make these desserts for the moment," says Sieloff. "They don't make them to be something that's going to last for days and days."

Less is more
Indulgence might be a hallmark of gourmet, but wretched excess is not. That might sound counterintuitive in a nation whose animating principle seems to be that bigger really is better. Visit any number of restaurant chains and you'll find no shortage of people welcoming the opportunity to wallow in cheesecakes, sundaes and brownie pies that pack so many lumps of cookie dough, candy bits, and swirls of oozing whipped cream that they overflow their plates. "We have found that there are people who feel that more is more," says Goldstein. "And so the 5-lb. piece of chocolate cake isn't going away. I don't know that we'll ever be able to get away from it."

But such desserts won't win any converts in the gourmet market. "A gourmet dining experience is not gluttony," says Angelich.

Bonnie Gorder-Hinchey, vice president and director of culinary services, the Hazelnut Council, Seattle, agrees: "All the trends right now are going toward cleaner, high-quality flavors, simpler recipes and a smaller number of ingredients, especially in the upscale sector," she says. "Upscale" suggests elegance and refinement -- both of the dessert itself and of the palates that appreciate it.

"I think people are more into quality these days than quantity," says Farrell. "A little bit of the real thing goes a lot longer than a big, huge slice of something that's rich and gooey. I always feel a little sick after something like that. But a small piece of something that's really good goes a lot longer for me."

The same can be said of presentation. For years, a high-end dessert had to sport an elaborate architecture of sugar spires, toffee towers and nearly inedible flying buttresses that brought the expression "it looks almost too good to eat" a little too close to the plate. Thankfully, the consensus now holds that those paeans to overkill are best consigned to the past. "I think people are going back to a simpler presentation instead of having huge, extravagant garnishes that don't really taste of anything," Farrell says.

Chalk it up to common sense, collective guilt or sheer saturation with desserts that put us into a stupor before we take the first bite. "There's a satiety equation here where either the dessert's so rich or so flavor-intense that you can only eat a small amount of it, or it has so much fat in it that it shuts off cravings," says Angelich. "So there are all these pathways to satiety where one thing or another trips it," and the key is not to trip all at once.

The concept of smaller, but satisfying, portions already exists on restaurant dessert-sampler platters. "When you're finished with dinner, and they come and ask you if you'd like dessert, everybody seems to look around the table and gets a grin on their face -- and then the next word that comes out of their mouths is 'splittable,'" says Cheryl Kroupa, marketing director, National Cherry Growers & Industries Foundation, Yakima, WA. "So, the bottom line is that it seems that restaurants are picking up on that, and instead of coming to the table with one dessert and four forks, they're serving smaller portions of things."

The concept has trickled down to retail, too. "Individual pastries are in," Farrell says. "A lot of our desserts are individual, and now we're developing individual desserts to sell to retail stores, like high-end supermarkets. We sell an unbelievable amount of petit fours, small tartlets, lots of little bars -- things with lots of fruit, lots of chocolate, but in smaller sizes."

While part of the mini appeal stems from the portion control it enforces, as an offshoot of the "small plates" fad mini desserts also satisfy diners' hunger for choice. "We always have the debate in our house," Snarski says. "'Is it going to be cheesecake or chocolate cake or pie?'" With individually sized desserts, she explains, "you can each get what you want. Everybody's allowed to have fun that way. We can still feel good about it, and we're not going to tempt ourselves tomorrow with the rest of the cake or pie staring at us."

Dessert grows up
The seductive lure of leftovers weighs particularly heavily on the minds -- and bellies -- of empty nesters, whose mounting numbers have helped drive the development of mini desserts in particular, and gourmet desserts in general. Now that Junior's flown the coop,   who needs the family pack of pound cake from the big-box store? So, flush with early retirement income and far more culinarily sophisticated than their parents, aging baby boomers represent a prime target for gourmet-dessert manufacturers.

"The market does lean more toward empty nesters -- people with disposable income left over, people at a higher earning bracket," Goldstein says. "Obviously, they're going to have money available to spend on a higher-quality product."

From her vantage point in the Chicago area, Kim agrees: "I definitely see a lot more empty nesters moving back downtown. They're downsizing -- not necessarily to a cheaper home, but to a smaller condo downtown -- and they want to be 'in' with the trends, so they like to try something new. And they can afford it. They've got the money." Let the kiddies have their sticky-sweet Ding Dongs. This crowd craves flavors that are decidedly unconventional, even challenging. To them, "even tiramisu has become 'normal,'" she says.

Farrell is partial toward juxtaposing the palate-stimulating effects of sweet, spicy and savory within a single dessert, especially when made with chocolate. "I put spices and herbs in chocolate all the time," he says.

So does Chicago-based Vosges Chocolates, Inc., which has made brazen flavor combinations something of a trademark. Among the company's gutsy truffles are the Naga, made from milk chocolate, sweet Indian curry and coconut; the Budapest, a dark-chocolate bauble livened with sweet paprika; the blend of ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds and dark chocolate in the Zenlike Black Pearl; and, in homage to the fin de siècle, the Absinthe: a dark-chocolate truffle spiked with fennel, star anise and pastis.

Pastis picks up on another flavor angle favored by palates of legal age: boozy notes. "I've been working on petit fours with adult-flavor themes and alcohol-flavored truffles," Kim says. In addition to playing with Champagne, Scotch, island rum and tequila profiles, she's made a peach and amaretto mini cheesecake rounded out with vanilla, "and instead of just a chocolate cupcake, we make a chocolate soufflé cake incorporated with orange liqueur for a Grand Marnier flavor."

Good, old-fashioned gourmet
Chefs and product developers might delight in stretching the bounds of flavor combinations, and the relatively open palates of their foodie patrons grant them that liberty. But even a foodie's capacity for adventure has limits. A tobacco-scented torte with chocolate-chicory sauce will cause a buzz, but it's more likely the buzz of an outrageous novelty than the sound of real staying power. "I don't think there's wide-enough appeal for those profiles yet," Angelich says. "They're still just attention-getters. It's like trying something that's daringly shocking at a restaurant or a confiserie: 'Show me something that's exotic and fun so I can go home and tell people that I had octopus ice cream.'" Call it the edible equivalent of bungee jumping: It may confer bragging rights, but it's not something you want to expose yourself to over and over. "I don't think these things translate very far," says Angelich.

The most-popular desserts, even at high-end establishments, remain vanilla crème brûlée, fresh-berry tarts and dense chocolate cakes. "If you look at all the flavor trends that are out there," says Angelich, "common elements are raspberries, custard with fruit or custard and chocolate, anything with hazelnuts, cashews, macadamia" -- in a word, the universals.

Farrell agrees: "All the hotels go for the classic desserts, like opera cakes, tiramisu and standard flavor combinations with chocolate and raspberry. Chocolate is always there. It'll never go out of fashion."

Pairing something new with the familiar can widen acceptance. "We look for those familiars," Snarski observes. "As much as we like to experiment, we like the familiar a lot more." Embroidering the familiar with a little of what she calls the "weeelll, I don't know," increases the chances of scoring a long-term hit with a wider audience. "My favorite example is mango," she says, "which, for years, nobody would touch. But as soon as you put it with peach, it became, 'Ooh, I'll try this.' And now people are eating mangoes left and right."

Just as a touch of the familiar can domesticate an unfamiliar profile, a well-worn dessert that's begun to show its age can enjoy new life with a strategically chosen stroke of the unexpected. "A lot of products take something that is a normal, typical dessert, but they just add that upscale twist to make it gourmet or specialty or premium," Gorder-Hinchey says. "So I think of a rustic plum-hazelnut tart as gourmet -- this beautiful, handmade dessert that would be just awesome to eat. Or if you took, say, a pound cake and added a hazelnut crème sauce to it or a hazelnut-caramel sauce, now you've got a decadent dessert."

Repositioning a country tart for a gourmet audience isn't just a matter of splashing it with a new coat of paint. The emphasis on exceptional ingredients assumes greater significance when the dessert in question is a humble affair. Without organic Meyer lemons, black-pepper meringue and a toasted-almond shortbread crust, what's the difference between a high-rent lemon-meringue pie and the one Mom used to make?

Forward-thinking chefs have gone to town on the idea, refining retro classics and constructing postmodern tributes to their childhood favorites. Consider Chef Thomas Keller's "coffee and doughnuts," the feather-light cappuccino semifreddo and house-made cinnamon-sugar doughnuts immortalized at his Yountville, CA destination, The French Laundry. Other examples include the tongue-in-cheek "Almond Joy" -- chocolate and almond meringues with coconut milk sherbet -- served at San Francisco's Masa's, as well as the banana-cream pie at the nearby Grand Café, which updates the classic with a macadamia shortbread crust, coconut-caramel sauce, toasted coconut and sugared macadamias.

The local color
One way that manufacturers secure a sense of distinction for their desserts is by using ingredients that have some sort of regional or agricultural pedigree consumers can grab onto. "I was just at a restaurant in Chicago in May, and because it's close enough to Michigan that its customers vacationed in Michigan as kids, every year they put on their dessert menu 'fresh Michigan cherries,'" says Kroupa. "That just rings a bell and people go for it."

The "seasonal and regional" concept often lends itself to the upscale. "We get so many questions from people who have such wonderful memories of cherries from Michigan," says Jane DePriest, marketing director, Cherry Marketing Institute, New Lansing, MI. "It's an all-natural product, it's local and it's fun. It just conjures up all these good, positive memories."

Nowhere has an ingredient's regional origin taken on such powerful cachet as with chocolate. According to Julian Rose, technical advisor for Barry Callebaut's Chocolate Academy, Barry Callebaut Canada, Inc., Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, the excitement amounts to more than just marketing hype. "There's a sharp flavor difference between different chocolate origins," he says. "Typically, with the same cocoa percentage, same dry ingredients, same fat and sugar contents, our chocolates from, for instance, Cuba and from Santo Domingo -- which are basically almost a stone's throw away from each other -- are completely different."

The distinctions emerge in sharper relief among different varietals of cocoa. "So you can have maybe Criollo or Forastero beans from the same country," Rose continues, "and if you go to one plantation that only has Criollo and another that has Forastero, obviously, they'll be different." That's not all: "It's the fermentation, the roasting, the processing," he says. "If you under-roast, over-roast -- this will affect the final product."

Farrell knows his way around estate-grown and denomination-of-origin chocolates, having worked with them in the past. "It gives the chocolate a lot of different flavors," he says. "It's like wine, where you have different grapes with different characteristics -- well, it's the same with chocolate."

Take the "subtle fruitiness with a richly varied assortment of aromas and a remarkably fine hint of vanilla" as Barry Callebaut describes its Tanzanian Chocolat d'Origine, for example, or its blend from Grenada, described as "a variety that is distinguished by its distinct character and delightfully subtle hints of herbs and flower."

No wonder, says Rose, that "on the artisan side, it definitely adds romance. You can build a story around your dessert."

Local color comes at a price, however, and in the case of chocolate, it exacts its toll in inconsistency. While consumers concerned with matters of ingredient traceability might appreciate an estate-grown chocolate's clear-cut origin, "it doesn't give you necessarily a precise standard of how it's going to taste from batch to batch," Rose says. "In our mainstream chocolates, we do blending to have some kind of standard. When you bite into our 58% dark chocolate, you want it to taste the same this year, next year, the year after. So maybe one time it's 48% Ivory Coast, 20% Ghana, 10% Indonesian, and so on. And the next time, it's different."

Whether a manufacturer can shoulder such flavor variability depends ultimately on its customers' tolerance. "Where I work now, we try to keep everything really consistent," Farrell says. "So if we start changing the chocolate -- the maker or the amount of cocoa mass -- it's going to change the product to where it's going to be different when the customer gets it. And they can tell the difference. People these days are a lot more educated in what something should taste like, and if it doesn't taste like they expect it to, they're going to complain."

A similar dilemma plagues formulators eager to capitalize on regional and seasonal produce. "One thing about the cherry season is that it's very short, and it's not like you can get fresh cherries in the wintertime," says DePriest. "A manufacturer trying to formulate a product used at restaurants or in supermarkets is going to want to work with something that they have available all year long." The solution is to choose cherry ingredients that add value without detracting from the fruit's "pure" reputation. As DePriest says, even when processed, cherries are "still ingredients in a pure form: They're sodium-free, IQF has no added sugar, there are no preservatives. They're very simple, minimally processed products that are trying to be as close to fresh as possible while being very useful to manufacturers."

Which are the best cherries to use for gourmet appeal? "In most cases, what is used by a high-end chef is the IQF," Kroupa says. "They can make their own sauces, they can do their own pie filling -- they can do almost anything with those."

Adds DePriest, frozen cherries "are available all year long to make any kind of dessert you want."

Industrial goes gourmet
Manufacturers must recognize formulation and processing limits before entering into premium-dessert production. "A lot of times, hotels and restaurants will make a layer cake or a specialty cake that is extremely moist and tender," says Sieloff. "It's full of flavor. But it would be a cake that a wholesaler -- a large manufacturer -- would have one heck of a time producing because of all the processes it would have to go through in order to get it in the package and on the shelf."

In some cases, however, because of the rigor of those processes, industrial manufacturers can go gourmet one better. A perfect example, in Rose's opinion, is cheesecake. "You can have an excellent cheesecake in a restaurant, but you can probably get a better cheesecake from the industrial side," he says. "Industry can use cream, eggs and good cream cheese" -- just like a traditionalist -- "but because of their manufacturing capabilities, they can make the production a science." Restaurants, on the other hand, have limited space for baking and, he notes, "their cooling procedure is not proper. So you look at this example of where cheesecake is a high-end dessert that you can easily adapt to industrial fabrication."

Crème brûlées and liquid-center "lava" cakes also make the move successfully, and with only minor ingredient and processing adjustments. According to Rose, industrial production of crèmes and custards has the capacity to "mimic the texture and the final product by taking into consideration the fabrication. So they need to adjust the procedure," oftentimes forsaking the traditional water-bath bake for a combination of modified starches and gums that "give you a similar texture, but allow you to skip steps and create custards to be freeze stable and have a better shelf life."

As for the liquid-center chocolate cake, "we now see those being mass produced and frozen," Rose says. "They simply put a ganache or chocolate filling into, more or less, a brownie mix. This chocolate filling is formulated never to solidify, and so it remains liquid, and that's what gives you an imitation of the true lava cake."

Will some consumers consider these formulation and production tricks -- not to put too fine a point on it -- faux-gourmet cheating? "Definitely," Rose says. "But that's where the industrials are doing such a good job at imitating the look and taste of the real thing, that it's almost detrimental to the dessert industry as a whole, particularly for pastry chefs who might be doing a high-end, scratch crème brûlée." Fact is, consumers -- even picky ones -- often prefer the industry-made versions "because manufacturers adjusted the texture perfectly with gums and starches," he says. "And, unfortunately, pastry chefs often overcook or undercook their crème brûlée. I've rarely tasted a perfect crème brûlée in a restaurant, but the industrials make it a science and get it down every time."

Not every dessert scales up to upscale with equal success; "A good high-end chocolate mousse," Rose says, "because of the labor-intensive steps of making it, probably can't be done in industrial." Aside from the extensive ingredient concessions necessary to stabilize the mousse for longer-term storage, processing incompatibilities also compromise its airy structure -- in particular, pumping and depositing "deflating it and breaking the whole mousse," he says.

Gourmet at what price?
How far are product designers willing to go to ensure a product's gourmet credentials? Even when accounting for processing constraints and the vagaries of the ingredient supply chain, the specter of costs still looms dauntingly. A gourmet product, by definition, is going to cost more to produce than its mainstream counterpart. Passing on a portion of that cost to consumers, inevitably causes some alienation.

But that sacrifice is part of designing for a gourmet market. Premium desserts, Kim says, "definitely cater to different clients." Speaking as a consumer herself, she says: "I definitely don't mind spending more money if I know I'm getting good quality. I'm not necessarily looking for high volume. I'm not value-driven by price. I'm driven, definitely, by the taste and high quality."

Such consumers are the lifeblood of the premium industry. "People are learning more," Goldstein says. "They understand bourbon vanilla. They understand if there's vanilla bean versus natural and artificial flavors. And that makes it easier to give them something that's gourmet. It makes it easier for a customer to swallow that extra $2 or $3, depending on what the product is, because they understand that they're getting something for that extra cost." Call it the "Starbucks phenomenon," and it's spreading to dessert.

"We could've gone with cheaper chocolate," Farrell says. "Sometimes we talk about that, but then we'd have to change all our recipes because it would affect how it sets and what it look likes and how dark it is." And in the end, his retailer customers bear the freight in due course. "We get clients coming into us, and they sometimes think our product is expensive. But we say, 'Well, go out there and try to find product like we do for the same price,' and they always come back. They're willing to pay for quality."

So is he, in a manner of speaking. "We work a lot," Farrell says. "We work really hard. I often stay late, especially if I want to do many centerpieces or any chocolate work. And I really don't mind, because I love it. But that's the way it goes. I'm not in this game for the money. Most people who do this aren't in it for the money. It's a passion, really. You love what you do. I'm always creating new stuff. I get a kick out of it."  

 


Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in Consumer Food Science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at kim@decker.net .

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