“Local” is a buzzword that’s irresistible to consumers—and now to a growing number of food manufacturers. So, when the R&D team at Chicago-based  Eli’s Cheesecake Co. sought a unique flavor for their newest product-line expansion, they turned to a source just across town—the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. The company partners with the school on other projects, so it was a natural to try the raw wildflower honey from the school’s beekeeping program. The fragrant sweetener turned out to be the perfect accent in the filling for the bakery’s gluten-free ricotta cheesecake.

Finding the marquee ingredient was relatively simple, but making the cheesecake completely gluten-free hit an unexpected roadblock. While there was no problem getting a crust to fit the strict parameters that require no wheat, oat or barley (or related grains), eliminating wheat flour from the filling proved to be a challenge.

“The crust was the easy part,” says Diana Moles, vice president of R&D for Eli’s. “There’s already much research available on gluten-free cookies. Yet, even though there’s only a very small percentage of flour in the filling, one would think it would be pretty easy to clone that ingredient that gives you texture, mouthfeel and flavor. Were we wrong! After many generations—more than 20 attempts—on the bench, using different combinations of corn starch, rice flour and potato starch, we finally achieved it with a potato starch and rice flour combination.”

The epic cheesecake, one of more than 300 SKUs in the Eli’s portfolio, went on the market last July and is an example of how a manufacturer brought together two of the hottest trends in desserts today—local sourcing and gluten-free formulation. It also showcases how companies are achieving success through combining the latest in food tech with inspiration from unexpected places.

The economic downturn created pushback on the asceticism of self-denial and made dessert the daily reward for many who have been forced to cut back on larger big-ticket items. But, with an obesity crisis still at the forefront of nutrition news, the drumbeat of health has only become louder, too. This has caused a swing in the industry, as consumers hesitate once more before purchasing that indulgence of extra calories.

Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director at the market research company Datamonitor Group, says the numbers show signs of an American attitude shift toward desserts. After peaking in 2009, frozen dessert sales dropped 2.18% in 2010. In addition, the number of new desserts introduced also dropped last year, Vierhile says. Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics database for desserts of all types, including refrigerated, shelf-stable and frozen, shows 208 new SKUs in 2011, down from 224 in 2010; 243 in 2009; and 287 in 2008.

“Upscale desserts seem to be swimming against the tide somewhat,” says Vierhile. “First, worries about obesity persist. Second, some of the things that are trending now in desserts are bite-size products, as are items like frozen yogurt, which is apparently enjoying a renaissance in the U.S. The proliferation of cupcake shops nationwide could also be a contributing factor, perhaps cutting into sales of packaged dessert products. Greek yogurt and similar products have dessert-like qualities yet are not necessarily considered desserts, so the popularity of products like this could be impacting the dessert trade, as well.”

Nevertheless, ingredient manufacturers, test kitchens and food manufacturers are aggressively creating new offerings that reflect the trends in play today, points out Elisa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing at the American Egg Board. She cites as examples nostalgic desserts, ethically produced chocolate, ethnic desserts, small portions, local and seasonal ingredients, and classics reformulated to remove some of the “negatively perceived” ingredients—such as sugar, fat or gluten.

Meeting Indulgent Challenges

Manufacturers are responding in a variety of ways to the challenge. Eli’s Moles concurs that the consumer approach to upscale desserts is currently undergoing a change and highlights the strategies her company is taking.

“We have a diverse number of venues our products are in,” she explains. “In addition to retail supermarkets and chains, we have various national accounts for companies, airlines, foodservice and others to balance [each other] out. If, for example, retail is down, then foodservice goes up, or the others are up. Our team meets often and engages in frequent reassessment of where our focus is going to be. Marketing determines the direction, and R&D determines the details of how we’ll move in that direction.”

One example of how Eli’s is staying ahead of the trends is its Red Velvet Cheesecake. Marketing targeted the trend, and Moles’ team executed it. “We did a combination of a very moist, red velvet cake layer, and we then made a red velvet cheesecake layer, and then finished it off with a whipped cream mousse frosting,” says Moles.

Keeping consumer interest going in upscale desserts can involve looking backward, as with the retro-chic red velvet cake. A lot of Eli’s focus lately is on revising products, such as lemon mixed-berry cheesecake, which the company introduced more than 20 years ago.

“We gave it a new look, and we also went from three types of berries—blackberries, raspberries and blueberries—to two,” says Moles. “We found that the blackberries really didn’t perform well through the processing—the freeze/thaw and the cutting. There also was the way the blackberries darkened the cake around them. We eliminated the blackberries and kept the raspberries and blueberries. Then, we reformed the batter and added real lemon zest. When the product was first released, there were no lemon zest products that suited our manufacturing needs. But a couple of years ago, we found a frozen lemon zest that was wonderful for this product.”

Ingredient manufacturers also are stepping up to the dessert plate to help with reformulations. Ingredients introduced include different performing oils and more subtle stabilizers. One recent addition to the baking arsenal is an aerating emulsifier for cakes that improves volume, crumb texture and shelflife. For bakers seeking to formulate healthier products, such an emulsifier, along with trans fat-free oils, can replace hydrogenated shortenings.

Aerating agents now on the market consist of a blend of selected emulsifiers in powder form. They use carriers, such as glucose syrup, milk or soy protein, and starch, and can be in paste form or spray-dried powders. Non-hydrogenated whipping agents also are available. Created from such combinations as milk protein, vegetable oils and emulsifiers, these ingredient systems are suitable for mousses and other aerated desserts, cake decorating, cream fillings or soft-serve desserts. They allow for added whippability, volume, creaminess, texture and enhanced mouthfeel characteristics.

Another such ingredient promising to make processors’ jobs easier is resistant starch. In most baked formulations, resistant starch (often derived from corn) can replace up to 25% of the traditional flour, not only without affecting flavor and texture, but actually slightly enhancing (by about 2-3%) the volume of rising for some recipes. But, once in the body, resistant starch behaves as if it were fiber. That means one can create a high-fiber cream puff with two of the characteristics consumers are currently seeking: a healthy profile and lower calories.

From Fruits to Nuts

Fruit suppliers have the easiest time explaining the benefit of their products to consumers—but technological advances are key to their appeal for bakers and other formulators. Typically, multiple formats are offered to allow formulators a spectrum of options for application. Sweetened blueberries are enjoying a resurgence in dessert manufacturing with a history of performing as a popular filling for pies, cakes, pastries and tarts.

Fresh and frozen blueberries are seeing use as more than just toppings. New blueberry formats, like osmotically preserved blueberries, allow bakers to use blueberries in a variety of ways. Moist berries are added to mini-pastries and cupcakes; dehydrated blueberries are used in upscale cookies and bagels. High-tech berry powders have allowed broader usage for natural, clean-label flavor and subtle coloring of cakes, glazings and icings.

Another fruit rarely thought of as such, but integral to much of dessert making, is vanilla. Many bakers, in fact, feel they really can’t make a great dessert without vanilla. This fruit of the Vanilla planifolia, V. tahitensis and V. pompon orchids adds unmatched flavor and fragrance to a formulation, either standing on its own—with its rich, complex flavor and aroma profile—or enhancing other flavors, such as cherry, spices and, especially, chocolate.

True vanilla extract contains more than 250 individual compounds, some of which have yet to even be identified. Pure, natural vanilla has enjoyed an increase in consumer connoisseurship for those more acutely aware of indulgent, exotic ingredients.

As with the recent trends in “designer” chocolate, another part of the vanilla experience is its burgeoning association with rainforests in underdeveloped countries, adding marketing incentive to desserts made using fair trade vanilla. A high-end dessert that allows the consumer to feel good socially and ecologically brings strong moral justification to a little bit of hedonism.

Sometimes, the flavor and other properties of the ingredient itself are what lead to innovation. Pistachios, for instance, are notable both for their power to inspire creativity and to offer a flavor profile that appeals to consumers. Jean-Yves Charon, founder and pastry chef of Galaxy Desserts Inc., formulated several popular products for his private label clients, as well as for his own retail line, including a pistachio-lemon spice cake and pistachio macarons. He likes the nut, both for its flavor and the unique green color it imparts to foods. “You can do so many things with it,” Charon said. “It’s a special taste; when you eat it, you know what it is.”

At recent consumer trials, Charon offered macarons flavored with strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and pistachio. The tasters overwhelmingly favored the pistachio, says Charon, who is currently working on a pistachio crème brûlée. The nuts also make a strong nutritional case for themselves.

“For consumers, it’s a nutrient-dense nut, with heart-healthy fat,” says Constance Geiger, Ph.D., research associate professor of nutrition at the University of Utah. “They have protein, fiber, potassium, magnesium and a number of phytochemicals.” Pistachios also have an American success story to tell: The U.S. became the world’s largest producer in 2008, eclipsing Turkey and Iran; this year, growers expect to produce between 550-570 million pounds of the nuts.

Blueberry Tips

Blueberries in the ingredient statement say “wholesome” and “natural” in a way consumers immediately understand, while adding a healthful dose of “retro chic.” Fillings with substantial amounts of blueberry offer special eye appeal. Dehydrated blueberries, diced or whole, are ideal in mixes and other dried products. Use frozen IQF blueberries straight from the box: There is no need to thaw. Dehydrated blueberries bring out a sweet richness to baked goods, and their blue color is often an added plus these days, when blue foods are all the rage! To prevent blue batters, however, coat blueberries with flour or starch to soak up excess juices. If frozen, fold blueberries into the batter. Avoid over-mixing and bake immediately. Adding while still frozen will result in less breakage. pf

SIDEBAR:  Inside, Outside

While the quality of the baked part in a luxurious dessert is certainly important, the filling or topping—i.e., icing or glaze, etc.—is an integral part of many desserts.

The creative pastry chef calls on some really rich and tasty raw materials to make fillings and toppings. Cream, butter and other fresh dairy products; whole fresh fruit; high-quality chocolate; liquid sweeteners such as honey or syrup; and multiple forms of crystalline sugar are mainstays in the kitchen.

When a complicated dessert recipe needs to be reformulated to accommodate larger production environments, such as for or in QSR or foodservice outlets, it is not always possible to rely on the same set of rich and simple ingredients. The reasons are manifold; such desserts are not served immediately after preparation, making shelflife a primary issue. They often are prepared only in part at the point of service. The preliminary preparation might be done at a separate processing facility or commissary at large volume. This means processing requirements, plus shipping and storage conditions, become critical.

As an example, while butter is a classic gourmet dessert feature, it is not always possible to use butter in dessert preparations that require longer shelflife, frozen storage or long shipment times. Suitable substitutions must be made. There are a variety of shortenings and oils that can be used, and the selection of the correct one is critical to obtaining the desired mouthfeel and texture. There are additives that can be used in combination with shortenings and oils to modify the textural attributes, and to ensure successful incorporation of other ingredients in the formulation. Butter also adds flavor, so suitable flavor additives must be chosen to achieve the desired result in the final product.

Additives such as emulsifiers and hydrocolloids can ensure that the formulation holds together without separation and can withstand the requirements of storage and handling. The choice of sweetener or sweetener combination is another facet that becomes crucial in formulating for increased production. The sweetener allows the product to both achieve the desired organoleptic character and preserve the overall texture of the finished good. In many cases, preservatives are even required to ensure the product makes it safely through a longer distribution cycle.

Buttercream icings are a classic example of a gourmet topping that undergoes fairly dramatic reformulation to achieve the desired result in larger volume applications. Typically, the first—and most fundamental—alteration is that the butter is replaced with shortening. This is necessary to help give the product reliable structure and longer shelflife. The choice of shortening can be critical to proper function. For instance, a shortening with a higher melting point might be chosen to contribute more structural stability at higher temperatures. However, it could give the resulting icing a slightly waxier mouthfeel. A lower-melting shortening would help with mouthfeel, but might not hold shape in decorative borders. Depending on performance expectations, other ingredients, such as hydrocolloids, modified starches or distilled diglycerides, can be added to contribute more structure, so the icing holds shape better.

In preparing a fruit layer for a cake or a cheesecake topping, bakers typically start with fresh, or at least IQF, fruit. Cooking it to an appropriate consistency with gentle stirring will help maintain fruit-piece identity. But, preparing a fruit layer in a 500-gallon kettle is a different matter. It’s possible to start with high-quality IQF fruit with good piece identity, but the process of heating the kettle, cooking the mixture and cooling it to packaging temperature takes longer because of the volumes involved. Moreover, the agitation necessary to uniformly distribute heat and prevent burning is generally less controlled and more damaging to the fruit pieces. Some of these factors can be successfully controlled by using proper production procedures and care in selection of the agitation system in the kettle. Additional ingredients, such as anti-oxidative agents, might be necessary to prevent premature browning in the fruit or even spoilage.

One advantage home or restaurant pastry chefs have is time—the short time between preparation and consumption of their gourmet creations. Food scientists or research chefs must address the need for longer shelflife, due to distribution and storage prior to use. There is also the simple matter of the effects of time on any dessert.

A freshly prepared layer cake with a fruit filling in between the layers can last for a day or two—before simple food science takes over. Water may migrate from the fruit filling into the cake, making it soggy and unpalatable. If a bakery wants to produce a cake with a longer shelflife, then the filling must be modified to prevent migration of water. This can be done by controlling water activity. Matching the water activity of the filling with that of the cake slows or stops water migration.